Circular food 'revolution' could unlock $2.7trn per year, Ellen MacArthur study finds

Embedding circular economy principles within the global agri-food sector could contribute $2.7trn (£2.1trn) to the global economy through decreased healthcare and environmental restoration costs, a new Ellen MacArthur Foundation report has concluded.

One-third of the food produced for human consumption globally is currently wasted

One-third of the food produced for human consumption globally is currently wasted

Published today (24 January) at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the NGO’s ‘cities and a circular economy for food’ report lays bare the extent of current environmental, social and ethical shortcomings in the world’s existing linear food system, including air pollution, water contamination and excessive pesticide use.

The 66-page document states that, for every dollar that is spent on food, Governments and charities spend two dollars compensating for the negative effects these products have on health, the environment and the economy. At present, this global reimbursement stands at $11.4trn per year, with half of these costs “directly” resulting from the cradle-to-grave food system, the report claims.

If this business model is not shifted towards a “truly circular” system, around five million people will die each year due to food-related conditions, the report warns. This accounts for those affected by environmental degradation caused by food production, as well as those suffering from malnutrition and those who are obese.

“The way we produce food today is not only extremely wasteful and damaging to the environment, but it is also causing serious health problems,” Foundation founder Dame Ellen MacArthur said.

“It cannot continue in the long term. We urgently need to redesign the system. People around the world need food that is nutritious, and that is grown, produced and delivered in a way that benefits their health, the environment and the economy.”

A trillion-dollar opportunity

While framing several findings on the state of the global food system, the report also highlights the scale of the benefits that could be reaped by fixing them.

In total, the global economy would be up to $2.7trn better off if all the world’s food systems were made circular, with all products and by-products either eaten, composted or “otherwise valorised”, it claims. Around one-third of these resources are currently believed to be wasted. 

Around $550bn worth of savings via reduced healthcare costs could be realised by minimising pesticide and antibiotic use, the report states, with this move serving to reduce air pollution, water contamination, food-borne diseases and antimicrobial resistance.

But the largest proportion of the savings detailed in the report can be realised via actions taken in cities, where 80% of the world’s population is predicted to live by 2050. Supported by circular economy initiatives at farm level, cities and the businesses within them must cut their food waste outputs and use closed-loop materials to produce new food products, the report warns.

Ensuring true circularity within urban food systems will require “unprecedented collaboration” between food brands, producers, retailers, city governments and waste managers, it argues.

Food for thought

The global food industry is estimated to account for a quarter of global carbon emissions and is commonly cited as a key contributor to issues such as large-scale deforestation, fires and human rights abuses in developing nations. Indeed, WWF recently released research concluding that 30% of the world’s environmental sustainability challenges could be solved by changes in the agri-food sector.

But while sustainability practices within coffee, rice and cocoa supply chains have faced scrutiny in recent times, meat, dairy and aquaculture are the sectors most often accused of driving these problems. These three areas currently account for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) worldwide, but research has suggested this figure could rise to 80% by 2050, when the world population is forecast to surpass 10 billion people.

Aside from carbon emissions, these industries also use water-intense practices which require large amounts of land. The IME claims that producing 1kg of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water, compared to around 500-4,000 litres of water for 1kg of wheat. Livestock, despite providing just 18% of the calories consumed by humans, accounts for 83% of existing agricultural land use.

In response to the issue, several big-name food and drinks companies have moved to offer more plant-based products, with many releasing new lines to coincide with Veganuary – a campaign challenging participants to eat only vegan foods for 31 days, with a view that they will change their dietary habits in the long-term.

One such brand is Marks and Spencer (M&S), which recently added 60 chilled and frozen dishes suitable for vegetarians and vegans to its offering. The retailer’s director of sustainable business Mike Barry recently told edie that he hopes these moves from retailers – compounded by new scientific research into ‘planetary boundary-friendly’ diets – will place land use under the spotlight this year.

Sarah George


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