Over the last 30 years, factors such as global population growth, shifting demographics, and continual change in consumer demands have fundamentally transformed the food industry. Sadly, with a degrading impact on natural resources and the climate. As the worlds largest industry, food is currently creating an imbalance by taking up more resources than it’s creating. In order to transform this system into a more sustainable and modern approach, the way how food is grown and produced needs to change. However, this system by itself is incredibly complex and also interlinked with other industries such as health, production, energy, and climate. The required resources to sustain the food industry are vast: 50% of the planet’s habitable land and 70% of freshwater demand is taken up by agriculture.
This is where the principle of circular economy comes into play, where all resources must be used and managed effectively and waste production is kept at a minimum.
A circular economy is relying on industries being restorative and regenerative in structure while carrying out system-wide innovations. Essentially, for the food industry, it should aim to redefine products and services in a way that focuses on reducing waste and minimizes the negative impact on the environment. Radical innovation will play an important role in building entirely different designs, from process to materials, such as artificial protein and 3D food printing. These R&D projects are already taking place across the globe, indicating the food industry is shifting its design to efficiently use, re-use and recycle its resources.
Food production is a cross-sector activity. Businesses need to collaborate and coordinate across all different sectors to reduce waste, greenhouse effects, and fossil fuel use. The current production model that is being used to produce and distribute most of our food is not using current resources effectively and consequently creates a number of problems like waste. The industrialization of food has increased worldwide food production, but this came at a price. The food industry should embrace circular characteristics such as establishing shorter supply chains between the farmers and retailers or even consumers. This to reduce waste associated with transport, and increase local urban resilience in food production.
The global food distribution network is huge, with established long value chains of stakeholders. Food distributors can offer products that could be simply re-used,-cycled, but with a shorter shelf-life. By separating supply chain distributions into two streams, agricultural and urban, the distribution circle can be shortened to maximize efficiency.
By making more conscious food choices, the consumer can help steer towards a circular economy. Through a change in consumer behavior, consumers can have a strong impact on the food industry. Consumers are already starting to impact and create a new supply-demand model that shifts to a more food-conscious one. This can also lead to the acceptance of new food production technologies that are more environmentally friendly.
Food producers are responsible to create a model that enables for optimal re-usability of their products or excess products as a result of the production process. Processes such as packaging can be adjusted to allow for either a limitation is excess waste or material used, or alternatively, the re-usability of the packaging can be considered and optimized.
Recycling is another important driver for the circular design economy. A well-established, cost-efficient recycling process turns all waste material into reusable goods. For example, starch can be produced from wastewater, orange peels can be used for brewers, stale bread for fermentation, and also glass, cardboard and PET recycling are just a few of the possibilities within the immense potential of recycling in the food industry and the impact on the environment.
Waste prevention is valued more highly than using energy from waste. There are a lot of initiatives being done but in essence, none of them contribute to the fight against waste but these seldom just treat the symptoms without actionable results. There is a serious need for mapping the results of food waste and to create actionable plans on how to prevent these from happening, in the long term. Clearer insights in for example quality management and food tracking & tracking can effectively prevent food wastage and help environmentally friendly options.
By 2050, the Dutch government is planning to switch to a fully circular economy. In order to achieve this, several ministries will need to cooperate. With the food industry covering multiple supply chains, the awareness of this new economical method will impact stakeholders at all levels. The situation of the planet’s environment makes an incredibly strong case for change and to realize this vision at a full scale. It is very likely similar initiatives will be set in motion across different national governments, forcing the local food businesses to adapt as well.