Circular Solutions for Linear Problems: Principles for Sustainable Food Futures

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Thomas Williams
Products of linear industrialized food production systems are displayed on supermarket shelves around the world.

In Brief

Industrialized food production has failed to meet the longer-term needs of societies and ecosystems. A major limitation of industrialized food production is that it is designed so that products are made, used, and disposed of, with limited attention to the ecological impacts associated with each of these stages of production. This paper proposes redesigning food production in line with three principles of Circular Economy: only use materials that can be reused, make use of renewable energy, and celebrate local diversity by taking inspiration from nature and cultures.

Key Concepts

  • The linear design of industrial food production cannot meet the needs of people and the planet.

  • Redesigning food production processes around circular metabolisms can address many current limitations.

  • Three principles used in Circular Economy can be applied to food production processes.

  • The first principle is “waste is food,” meaning nothing should be wasted and any by-products should be reused in the production process.

  • The second principle is to make use of renewable energy.

  • The third principle is to celebrate local diversity by taking inspiration from nature and cultures.

Think about the food in your fridge. It is very likely that most of it has come in nonbiodegradable packaging and from far distances. It is also likely that at least one-third of this food will be wasted or was lost before production.1 Increasing evidence shows that the industrial food system is having a destructive impact on our well-being, while simultaneously degrading ecosystems, reducing biodiversity, and accelerating climate change.2–4 When we ask the question, “can industrial agriculture feed the world?,” the answer is no: industrialized food production has failed to meet the longer-term needs of societies and ecosystems.3,5 The question is, what comes next?


As a way of designing a system that can meet our long-term needs, we are inspired by the idea of the Circular Economy. The term Circular Economy has been proposed to describe an economy that is designed to be restorative and regenerative; one that aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. When it comes to food production, there is a growing buzz around the Circular Economy concept, and for good reason. At the same time, there is a risk that the term gets hijacked, diluted, and employed as a form of “green washing.” To avoid this, there is a need to develop clear design principles that address the deep-seated problems of how we grow, produce, and consume food.


A key limitation of industrialized food production stems from a tendency towards linear design.6 This means that industrialized food systems are typically organized around the idea of a production line where resources (i.e., materials) are extracted, made into products (e.g., food, feed, or fiber), consumed or discarded, and finally disposed of by way of incineration or landfill.7 Linear designs are supported by a set of technological and institutional assumptions, principles, and practices that result in the standardization of processes. While standardization has traditionally been championed for offering economies of scale, it has also reduced the diversity of our food sources.8,9 Furthermore, because of this linear design, industrial food production systems tend to disconnect places of production from places of consumption, reinforcing a disconnect between where food is produced and where it is consumed. It’s why we get to enjoy daily cups of coffee, but also why many children struggle to identify common fruits and vegetables.10


Awareness is growing of the constraints of linear approaches.9 Environmental degradation and contributions to climate change connected to industrial activities are increasingly being measured through impact assessments, such as life cycle assessments (LCA), carbon footprinting, and eco-efficiency.7,11 These tools are all concerned with using less resources and producing less emissions, and thus being more efficient and environmentally sustainable. But they don’t go far enough. While a move towards eco-efficiency can result in short-term cost reduction as a result of using fewer materials, these tools often fail to incorporate meaningful social–cultural, economic, and environmental benefits that lie at the core of sustainability.7 Most notably, what these impact assessments fail to do is to challenge the very system itself—let alone reimagine their linear design, the disposal of materials, or different models of ownership.12

Royal Tropical Institute, From sorghum to shrimp: a journey through commodity projects, Kit Publishers, Amsterdam, 2011.
Figure 1. Representation of a value chain.

If one key problem of industrial food production is linear design, one solution can be found in designing systems that apply the cyclical metabolism principles of the Circular Economy.13 The concept of metabolism refers to how energy and/or materials are shared and reused in a given system, so that it mimics the flows, loops, and cycles found in nature. As explained in Cradle-to-Cradle design, the two metabolisms are defined as biological and technical.9 Biological metabolisms are flows of biodegradable nutrients, such as wood or cotton, which can return to nature in order to be decomposed and reused by means of biological processes. Technical metabolisms are flows of nonbiodegradable nutrients, such as metals, which can be reused by means of technical processes. This means that all materials and products that are used in a given metabolism can be seen as a temporary depot of materials (or nutrients) that will become the input for new products after their lifecycle.14,15 Therefore, designing a Circular Economy means deliberately designing food production systems that do more than recycle their constitute parts—it goes one step further to design processes that are restorative, building greater resilience and flexibility into the system.7


While there are emerging examples of production systems that have embraced the Circular Economy approach, there are very few examples when it comes to food production. Given the impacts of industrial food production, there is no time to waste. At the same time, implementing a circular design takes time and careful consideration. So how to begin the transition from linear to circular thinking?


One guiding principle of Circular Economy design—“waste equals food”—means that a product has to be designed eco-effectively; that is, in such a way that the use of hazardous and toxic materials is eliminated. As such, any product used must contribute to a synergistic relationship between ecological and social systems and economic growth.14–16 A circular design can stimulate restorative solutions so that the value of each material used in the process is maintained.7 In an ideal situation, a circular design treats materials as nutrients for the metabolisms, keeping their properties pure, and adding value(s) derived from the knowledge and labor applied for their usage. For example, a tendency in linear food production systems is the use of key elements, such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and water, in an unsustainable way. While in principle these resources are all renewable, the poor design at the base of industrialized and large-scale food production systems imposes an intensity of usage such that these elements need to be extracted or mined from the earth in their fossil form, thus as nonrenewable resources. Organic agriculture, agro-ecology, and permaculture are all examples of agronomic approaches that consider the natural cycles of these elements and aim to avoid using them in any kind of fossil forms. For instance, nitrogen and phosphorus are added to the soil by using manure and carefully rotating crops.8

Zhiying Lim
Figure 2. Biological and Technical Nutrients in the Cradle to Cradle Design Framework.

Inspired by industrial ecology, the principle of “waste equals food” is also related to designing products such that their biological and technical components are not mixed.13 In practice, this means food products will be designed to use biodegradable/compostable packaging or any packaging that can be upcycled as a technical nutrient in a given metabolism (i.e., paper, glass, biodegradable cellulose bags).17 Thus, to uphold the principle is to never mix biological and non-biological materials to avoid forming what has been defined as “monstrous hybrids.”9 Avoiding the mix of biological and technical (nonbiological) materials means designing food products, and managing materials during the process, in ways that allows for easy separation and reuse. This is important to preserve the functionalities and values of each material, and to ensure the potentials of their use as “virgin materials” to foster restorative and eco-effective processes. Also incorporated in a circular design of the product is a plan for how residual components will be used by other actors or processes in the metabolism. In this way, within circular metabolisms more than products are being designed, “materials streams” are also being designed.


Managing streams in the food system is emerging as a new trend, with examples to be found in new business models and companies. Particularly in the domains of food waste management, biodegradable packaging, and alternative source of proteins, several new ventures have been launched with the explicit intention of using circular design principles, as for example the case of Protix NV in the Netherlands.18 This company developed a business model based on the idea of reusing food waste from food processors and retailers by transforming it into feed for a wide variety of insects. Insects are perfectly suited to transform all these materials into proteins and micronutrients in a very short time period. Insects are then used as feed by fisheries and poultries, which eventually are used as food for humans.


Although existing examples differ in terms of scope, these novel ventures all share similar features when we look at how they can provide solutions to support the transition towards more sustainable food systems:


  • They foster socio-technical innovation, promoting a different approach to use and reuse of materials and energy associated to food production and distribution.
  • They introduce social and environmental goals through the introduction of new business models and practices.
  • They challenge those operating in a linear way to re-think their strategies in a more circular way.
  • They stimulate creativity and new forms of engagement between and among actors in the food system, for example, through the creation of innovation networks.
Chaf Haddad
Biodegradable cups made from plants that decompose into soil within 12 weeks.

The second tenet of the Circular Economy is to use renewable energy. This principle is meant to inspire a rethink of the type of energy used in the food production process.9 Agriculture and food production, distribution, and consumption processes are energy-intensive.8 Societal-level shifts towards the consumption of more processed food products as well as the increase of globally traded agricultural commodities and products are examples of trends leading to more energy-intense food systems.


This idea of using more sustainable energy is not particularly new. For example, several agri-food companies are participating in agro-industrial parks created around the idea of sharing materials (i.e., waste industrial streams) and energy. 22,23 Mimicking the concept of symbiosis, these companies advance a so-called ‘upcycling’ approach. As opposed to recycling, an upcycling approach tends to preserve the value (technical and economical) of any material and focus on using the materials in the best possible way. This results in a set of companies co-designing products with components utilized along the process, with a particular focus on innovative materials and management practices, as well as increasingly coproducing and using energy from renewable resources. Agro-parks like Bergerdenor Biopark Terneuzen in the Netherlands are examples of industrial symbiosis applied to feed and food production, highlighting how biological and technological metabolisms can be co-designed to reshape food systems and reconnect food, fiber, and energy productions with regional economies.19,24, 25


The third principle of the Circular Economy is to celebrate diversitywhich means understanding the effect that the metabolism of materials has on local diversity and how we can integrate community thinking and cultural diversity into the design process. Using an agro-ecological approach to design agrifood systems and practices is an example of celebrating diversity. It implies using larger varieties of species to balance ecological dynamics connected to the agricultural production. Also, usage of local varieties, adapted to the microclimatic conditions, is celebrating diversity. In more socio-economic terms, celebrating diversity is connected to fair practices along the food supply chain, a careful assessment of competition between use of land for food or nonfood crops, and in general a conscious assessment of any competing issue related to use of natural resources that may hamper food security. For example, using water for agricultural purposes in a semi-arid environment could be considered as not complying with the principle. Celebrating diversity with a view towards designing circular metabolisms can inspire solutions that target key challenges related to natural resource scarcity and depletion, and unfair access to natural resources. However, celebrating diversity as a circular metabolism design principle must also address questions such as ownership of natural resources. Within circular design, there needs to be the possibility for management of natural resources through the commons and public goods, as well as opportunities for people and local communities to lead and monitor these processes.9

Figure 3. Circular Economy principles for designing sustainable food systems.

This principle is also concerned with the rethinking of boundaries of creativity, thus inviting humans to be inspired by nature, for example, by mimicking natural ecosystems. Celebrating diversity can be translated into locally defined practices of social fairness as guiding principles. Celebrating diversity, as a key principle in the Circular Economy, also supports a more comprehensive way of approaching societal issues associated with food production and consumption, and problematizes the way values are associated to food and the resources used in food production and distribution.


Celebrating diversity demands that we rethink the way we manage not just natural resources but also access to these resources, as well as rethinking how we approach food production distribution and consumption. It is not just about a more integrated way of dealing with waste or materials management, nor is it a new way to frame (corporate) social responsibility. It is proposing structural-level changes to business as usual. It advances principles of locality on the basis of nutrient and resource flows, thereby supporting the localization of production while avoiding the so-called “local food trap;” that is, the tendency of food activists and researchers to assume something inherent about the local scale.26  Further, it invites actors involved in the food system to think about power imbalances, as well as collaborative design rules and decision making mechanisms to organize the food system.


However, even with successful examples, there are still questions that need to be addressed, like how to further democratize food production systems and how to foster collaborative interactions within metabolisms. From this perspective, initiatives promoted by alternative food networks, in which food producers and consumers engage directly and at local levels, are indirectly supporting transitions towards circularly designed food systems.19


The application of these principles for a Circular Economy is, for the time being, limited, especially when it comes to food production. Furthermore, the examples that do exist are scattered and often isolated initiatives. For example, the application of principles of Circular Economy to food production systems is mainly found in agro-park or urban metabolism pilots, projects related to corporate social responsibility strategies, and initiatives dealing with organic agriculture and agro-ecology such as community supported agriculture.


Furthermore, the concept itself still has some wrinkles that need to be ironed out. One issue is that an application of these principles invites us to redesign food production systems in ways that can increase interdependencies amongst actors. While this can lead to positive relationships, it could also lead to conflict and inequitable relations of power. As we have learned from linear food systems, it is essential to guard against solving one problem only to create others.27 The inherent logic of circular design limits this as it should always bring you back to the start.

Lance Cheung / USDA
Freshly picked organic radishes from Worden Farm ready for sale at a market in St. Petersburg, Florida. Worden Farm is a family-owned farm that provides certified organic produce to locals through CSA programs.

It is also presently unclear how to reconcile the idea of celebrating local diversity while also connecting places of consumption and production when they are geographically (or culturally) distant. A pending question would be whether to reconceptualize/reshape global trade as a circular metabolism, and if so, how? Another question revolves around the controversial debate about the redefinition of property rights of natural resources and living organisms. For instance, it remains contested whether technologies based on genetically modified organisms could be seen as promoting and celebrating diversity too.28 Recently, an intellectual debate on extending fundamental rights to animals and all living organisms, including all materials, has been introduced in the Circular Economy community, with no consensus on the horizon. 29


Linearity in our food system has led to some critical challenges. Redesigning food systems in line with circular principles presents a possible solution. What is also clear is that Circular Economy is a term that is gaining in popularity. As a concept, its strength lies in the way it demands structural changes; however, to maintain this strength, we require deep social and scientific engagement and societal-level discussions about these principles and others. It is also important to review, assess, and engage with different applications of the principles, and to evaluate and monitor them to ensure that Circular Economy does not become a meaningless buzzword, but instead is applied in a way that helps to redesign our food systems so that they meet the needs of the future.



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