Cultivating Regenerative Food System in the Cities

As part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy project, “A New Dynamic 2: Effective Systems In a Circular Economy” report looks at regenerative solutions for our food systems in the cities. The authors declare: “That is why it is time to move away from what has become a “linear food system”: a take, make, dispose system in which, too often, synthetic inputs go into the land; the land gets overused, and a huge proportion of the food produced is wasted and ends up in landfill. In addition, many nutrients never make it back to the field, stacking up in contaminated sludge. The goal should be to move toward a regenerative model in which land is restored as it is used and in which nutrient and material loops provide much-needed inputs, resulting in a healthier food supply.”

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Promote peri-urban and urban food production

The demand for local, fresh and relatively unprocessed food is growing. American greenhouse operator Bright Farms has signed a contract with supermarket chain Giant Foods to supply 450 tons of produce annually to 30 Washington, D.C.-area stores from a 100,000-plus square foot greenhouse located in the metro area. This is expected to be the largest urban greenhouse operation anywhere in the world.

In Europe, Barcelona has announced a goal of producing half its food in the metropolitan region. Establishing shorter supply chains between farms and retailers or consumers reduces the waste associated with transport. Doing so can also help to create local jobs and strengthen rural-urban links.

On a smaller scale, urban farming is also emerging, in the form of vertical, hydroponic and aquaponic farms. Vertical farms grow produce inside or on top of buildings. Typically, these farms use 70 to 90 percent less water and fertilizer than conventional ones because they keep unabsorbed water and nutrients in the system.

It needs hardly be said that cities are not going to supplant traditional farms. But given that more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas (a percentage that is growing), the idea that cities have a role to play in food production makes sense.
Create digital supply chains to reduce food waste

20 percent of food gets wasted on its way from the farm to the store in developed economies. Big data and IT can help to improve inventory management and thus shrink that figure.

SAP, the German software giant, offers retailers a dynamic consumer-pricing system that changes item prices in real time, based on availability and expiration date of the product. COOP, a European food retailer, has automated its fresh-food replenishment system to manage one of the largest sources of waste. Digital solutions, such as smart refrigerators, on-demand e-commerce delivery and wearable monitors can help consumers to buy the right quantity and quality of food at the right times. This will help to cut down the amount of food that people throw away.
The $346 billion opportunity

A circular food system would combine all these approaches, while also incorporating the best of traditional agriculture, to improve both the quality of the food produced and the health of the land that produces it.

In terms of production, a circular system would use significantly less synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, energy, land, and water, while emitting fewer GHGs.

The circular scenario might also produce more jobs than otherwise because organic farming and waste management are relatively labor-intensive activities. All told, we estimate that if Europe implemented the four approaches described above, the direct and indirect economic benefits could reach $346 billion (compared to the current development path).

Nowhere else is the link between long-term economic viability of our model use and the health of the underlying assets as evident as in agriculture and soil. And nowhere have we departed so visibly from the concept of regeneration, replenishment, and circularity. Building a new food system that puts the long-term productivity of our biological systems at the center won’t be easy and it will require new policies and priorities, but the time is right to start.

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