Is the food chain missing a closed-loop link?

The benefits of a circular model are clear when it comes to most waste streams, but how many people consider closing the loop when it comes to food waste? Can food go circular?

There is no disputing that the concept of the circular economy is gathering momentum in the UK and Europe, as business strives to improve its approach to resource efficiency and sustainability. The social, environmental and fiscal benefits of a restorative model are being more widely discussed and acknowledged. What’s more, both industry and wider policy makers are actively talking about the long-term growth that can be achieved as a result of closed-loop thinking.

But which opportunities are still being overlooked? We frequently hear the circular economy being talked about in reference to consumer goods and the resulting waste streams, such as furniture, clothing and plastic bottles. It is also becoming an increasingly debated topic in specialist fields including design, manufacturing and engineering. However, when it comes to food waste, is the thinking similarly rounded? Or, when considering the food chain, do too many people still picture only a linear model?

Yes, food waste is a widely-recognised issue in the UK, and indeed further afield. Last year, for example, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers shockingly revealed that an estimated 30-50% of food produced around the world never reaches a human stomach.

The UK is working hard to try and tackle its food waste problem. But when the production of food waste is unavoidable, it is important that there is a plan B. This explains why the buzz surrounding anaerobic digestion and composting is getting louder – companies are continually investigating ways to prevent traditional, costly and inefficient disposal.

However, under the principles of the waste hierarchy, energy recovery is only marginally better than landfill. So, when the circular economy is such a hot topic in the UK, shouldn’t there be more joined-up thinking, which better acknowledges food as a resource, not a waste, and strives to keep valuable nutrients in the food chain?

The food chain itself is an age-old concept but it seems there may have been a missing link all this time, because technological innovations and progressive resource efficiency thinking can transform this linear sequence into a circular model.

Starch rich foods including bread, biscuits and cakes, for example, can be recovered from food manufacturing and retail organisations, when factors such as production errors or elapsed sell-by dates prevent their sale. Whilst these products may be considered unsuitable for human consumption, they still contain many valuable nutrients.

Using carefully developed and stringently controlled methodologies, they can be reprocessed and converted into nourishing animal feeds. Blended to suit farmers’ specific requirements, such feeds improve the quality of livestock, products that people subsequently eat, hence closing the food chain loop.

In keeping with the circular economy’s principle of minimal raw material usage, this specialist manufacturing process requires only by-products of existing food manufacturing processes, not primary resources.

Perhaps most crucially though, the very nature of this process brings food waste into focus.

If, as an industry, we are to truly commit to the UK’s resource agenda, then waste hierarchy compliance within the food sector is essential and if food can become a part of the circular phenomenon, that offers some very exciting opportunities indeed.

Paul Featherstone is group director of surplus food processor SugaRich

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