Our food system is a miraculous thing, but it’s not without its flaws.
Across the global food system, the linear take, make, waste approach has pushed our planet and environment to the brink of collapse. It drives deforestation, ocean pollution, biodiversity loss, and freshwater extraction. It also helps propagate inequalities and food insecurity. We lose or waste approximately one-third of the food produced, yet the UN estimates that 800 million people are going hungry.
Beyond the environmental and societal impacts, our current structure is bad for business. COVID-19 laid bare supply chain vulnerabilities to many people for the first time. Crops were left rotting in fields while lines stretched for miles at food shelves.
A Circular Economy for Food
There is a better path forward. We can transition to a circular economy for food.
Changing how we make and use food products can help address a significant share of global greenhouse gas emissions—making a critical contribution to easing the climate crisis. Further, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development estimates that adopting circular business models represents a $7.7 trillion economic opportunity.
In our new Webinar Series, we launched the Circular Economy Action Agenda for Food. Developed by the Platform to Accelerate the Circular Economy (PACE), Resonance, and a global network of business, government, and civil society leaders, the Action Agenda for Food lays out a three-part vision with clear Calls to Action that governments, NGOs, and the private sector can take to transform our food system.
The webinar, moderated David B. McGinty, Global Director of PACE, focused on how to deploy cross-sector collaboration to accelerate the transition to a circular economy for food. We spoke with three experts in collaboration and food system transformation:
- Steve Schmida, co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Resonance
- Petra Hans, Head of Portfolio for Agricultural Livelihoods at the IKEA Foundation
- Flemming Besenbacher, Chairman of ONE\THIRD, the Danish think tank on food loss and food waste; the Carlsberg Group; and Aarhus Water A/S; and the non-profit UNLEASH.org.
Below, we share three key takeaways on how diverse actors can accelerate the transition to a circular economy for food.
3 Ways to Accelerate the Transformation to a Circular Food System
1. Engage in more collaboration with peers and across sectors.
“The food system is so complicated and fragmented that no one actor can drive progress on their own,” explained Steve Schmida of Resonance. “We need multiple actors from NGOs to governments to the private sector and industry and communities working together.”
At the IKEA Foundation, Petra Hans explained how they are collaborating across sectors and with diverse partners. Some of the goals for the IKEA Foundation include transforming the food system to be more inclusive, beneficial, and valuable to smallholder farmers; scaling productive and regenerative agricultural practices so that farming becomes more sustainable while increasing yields; and improving farmer livelihoods in East Africa and India.
To achieve these and other priorities, Hans and her team form a complementary suite of partnerships, engaging local and international ecosystems. Partnerships include:
- Collaboration with banks, to encourage them to take biodiversity into account in their investments;
- Partnerships with farmers, to aid them in adopting more sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices;
- Engagement to support and empower women farmers; and
- Collaborative research programs to invest in prototypes and insights that help Ikea Foundation identify key pathways for accelerating circular solutions.
“Only by working together can we have the strongest impact,” said Hans.
2. Impactful food system transformation must be local—and farmers should be at the center.
If we want to reimagine the food system, farmers and producers should be engaged early and often. “We can’t talk about transforming the food system, if we don’t include the people who actually produce the food,” shared Schmida. “It’s critical that when we’re designing cross-sector partnerships and dealing with governance, that we also bring in the smallholder voice.”
By engaging, collaborating with, and seeking to understand farmers—their perspectives and the barriers they face—we have a stronger chance of getting buy-in for regenerative agricultural practices or other sustainability improvements.
But more than that, the shift is in recognizing that smallholder farmers have a part to play in actually co-creating solutions to these large-scale challenges—from climate change to food insecurity.
Panelists were quick to note that every geography is different, so what works in East Africa versus India will look different too. “For us, it’s not telling farmers how to do regenerative ag—we hear about how many of these farmers don’t have the resources, and they are already very circular in how they use resources,” said Hans. “It’s helping them and partners to think through how to make alternative approaches to productivity and food systems more mainstream, and/or how to not follow the trend of immediate productivity and profit that can lead to short-term gains but long-term harm and degradation,” shared Hans.
3. Individuals and their consumption patterns have an important role to play.
Individual consumers have more power than we realize, and consumer demand and behavior change have a role to play in transforming our food system. As Flemming Besenbacher explained, “We’re going through an era that lacks valuing food. We forget the impact from throwing out this food; the amount of land, energy, and water that’s being used.”
Besenbacher highlighted the individual’s role in tackling food waste—and argued that everyone from retailers to individual households can use the method “Target, Measure, Act.”
“Set your target. Next measure your food loss and waste in the value chain…. And then, once you have your measurement, you have to act,” explained Besenbacher. “You can compare your numbers from year to year to see if your trend is going in the right direction.”
“The trend has been too much toward instant gratification and commodification of things, so it’s become easy for us to access what we want here and now immediately,” shared Hans. “We have to start philosophizing how we value, again, what nature and the land give us, and thinking within the planetary boundaries.”
A Sustainable Food System
The transformation of our food system is underway. Through cross-sector partnerships, collaborative engagement with farmers, and enhanced consumer accountability and action, we can take meaningful strides toward creating a food system that restores—rather than depletes—our planet.