Food production increases constantly
The circular economy model is the most interesting manufacturing process challenge we face.
Can we apply this concept to our food supply chains and change the way we feed the world?
In this article, we will discuss circular food production and present some examples of applications.
Our food production capacity is growing yearly consuming and degrading the health of the world’s soils. While our community’s demand for crops like corn cereals we have no other choice but to increase the production rates as you can see on this infographic. To achieve the latest we try to develop technologies to increase harvest or to clear more soil for agricultural use. But, can’t we have any other choice to make sure we have enough food?
The fact is that 30-40% of the world’s generated food is being wasted as the US department of agriculture reports. . So along with the production over the years, we also increased the amount of food waste. Although there are a few mindfully consumption initiatives we are still not seeing improvement in the condition.
Some of the interesting approaches focus on shifting our food supply chains to a circular economy model so that all of the waste is the essential raw material for the production of the next product food source or energy source in the system.
Essentially the circular economy is an approach that changes the perspective from we have a consumption demand let’s create a supply to a more multi-dimensional perspective. With this approach, although demand is not changing we look into how we supply the demand. The production process has the same purpose to serve only with the understanding we have two forms of extra resources made. Waste is what is left offered after the consumer uses the product. Which is one problem we can approach in many ways like recycling reusing or redistributing.
The other is bi-products. Those resources which created during the production of products. Doesn’t matter if the product is recycled or made of virgin materials most production processes create bi-products. It can appear in the form of energy or materials and for those problems, there are a lot of unique solutions suitable for every production process. When we manage to produce or retrieve all of the resources needed for a process, plus its energetical demand we have a truly net zero process.
Those additional resources can be used for many applications from energy production to recycled plastic products or fully biodegradable packaging.
Can produce food using the circular economy principles
The answer is simply yes, the how is the more complicated part of this topic. Not only that, we have plenty of processes to approach and adapt inside every step from the chain of supply to production practices. Let’s discuss a few of those possibilities.
Growing the raw materials in a circular way
A major part of the food industry is raw organic products such, as vegetables to grains oils sugar. We consume those products both in unprocessed and proceed forms like sauces concentrations and spices. To adjust the food sector’s chain of supply to comply with our sustainable goals a good step forward will be greening the cornerstone of the food pyramid. Many issues in this step should be addressed. Some urgent ones are the use of pesticides and herbicides, treating the hydrological balance of the area and the industrialized intervention of the ecosystem as well as biological diversity and incentivizing multi-culture. When we manage to convert those processes to a circular economy we find answers to a few of those issues.
The return of the composted organic materials to the farms for example minimizes the need for pesticides. Treating the hydrological water conditions, slowing evaporation, and strengthening the small water cycle will in turn increase the yield of the farms. The adoption of multi-culture fields is preventing the use of much industrialized food machinery, which is a great thing because we understand the lands and the ecosystem producing our food a lot better now than we did during the industrial revolution. We have to opportunity to rethink the way we grow the raw ingredients for the food sector so that we can sustain a growing world population while adopting and maintaining a constant decrease in the environmental footprint needed to do so.
Locally sourced and produced products
When looking for quick fixes to the food industry preferring locally grown or sourced materials is a great act. Besides having some financial and social advantages in the forms of jobs and regional commercial activity this ideology minimizes some of the biggest environmental pains caused by the industry – transferring logistics and the emissions it generates.
The way we source and produce food comes with a heavy environmental air pollution price tag. A lot of those emissions are dissipated inside densely populated areas which also have an indirect cost on the health (and the needed health services) of the residents. By locally sourcing, you can also think about locally producing the energy needed for the production process. It’s achievable either by utilizing renewable energy or turning the leftover biomass into energy in the form of biofuel. For example, the production of biogases like methane or ethanol from recycled organic byproducts can power up plants relying on natural gas with minimal to no adaptation.
Another advantage to local production is that we can foresee which recycled materials are available at a cheap cost. This fact allows designing the packing of products to use as many of those as possible. By doing so we benefit both by improving the financial sense behind recycling in the region. And also ensure greater resilience to the local food production process. On top of that, we shrink once more the pollution caused by the production and shipment of such raw materials.
Better treatment of the lands
When we locally grow as much as we can and in turn retrieve the composted organic materials back to the fields we build an ecological system that reinforces itself. Not only in terms of nutrition but also in terms of more controlled dissipation of the organic compounds produced in this process. This cycle will increase the fertility of the soils and can reduce the use of pesticides. Besides saving on chemical costs we protect ourselves from the harmful effect of chemical runoff and seepage. The last two will ensure a healthier hydrological local environment that will keep on supporting the production of food.
In addition, circular food production will prevent a lot of trash from arriving at landfills. Landfills worldwide are a big emitter of greenhouse gases. Preventing that will not only save a lot of land but will also slow down the warming and give us a better chance to fix it on time. Even the production of biogasses like methane from waste to power the industry is better than just allowing this methane to be released in nature.
Repurposing unsold products
Finding new uses for expired food with minimum use of additional raw materials is the goal. A few initiatives are operating around this concept. The progressive one is the decision of France to fight food waste and forbid supermarkets to destroy food. Further reducing the health regulation about donating this food so that people in need could afterward have it. This social and environmental act helps to save on food waste while improving the well-being of citizens. Another great idea in the field is the use of old bread to produce beer.
A different approach suggests feeding livestock with food waste. The last date to use is set far before most products are unconsumable. What we like about the idea is how it reduces transportation emissions. The logistics behind having our products on the supermarket shelf are of a different scale. The drawback of this linear approach is how all of those trucks return to the farm empty. We can reduce some waste by sending back compost to the fields and waste food for the cattle we create a healthier relationship between the cities and the environment by feeding them.
Alternatively, we can let the food scraps degrade naturally and regain energy from the process by producing methane. This energy in turn could power factories that produce food, and create a less polluting cycle. When food leftovers are thrown away to landfills it goes through the same process naturally, then why not control the process and gain this valuable resource?
Are considering how will we collect, reuse and treat food waste
One of the foundations of circular economy is understanding our responsibility over a product for its entire environmental lifetime. A major aspect that was historically overlooked is the packaging. When most sold products are consumed the waste produced is inevitable byproducts. Luckily when we approach adapting a new project to the system already know about materials that have a high turnover percentage. This fact allows us to prioritize the use of such materials over others.
We keep in mind that the goal is to design our byproducts (both of production and lifetime) to be fully recovered. The same priority level is using recycled materials as discussed previously. The next step to do less harm is choosing only the materials we already have local recycling capacity. Ideally even to use them for the production of another local product. An example of that is glycerin from biodiesel and organic locally made soap.
If unfortunately, we can’t achieve the previous two situations it’s not the end of the story. Prioritizing materials that we can reuse regionally or domestically. Although it includes additional shipping emissions it is still far better than the alternative. The worst thing we do is design byproducts that will reach landfills or will force us to ship our waste to poor countries. The last is a bad habit of the food industry that we have to reform to live on this planet sustainably.
Circular economy food production has a lot of benefits for our health, economical and environmental systems. we are embracing its potential to unite us as a community and to serve us on the frontier to stop global warming. Although there isn’t yet any one fix to solve them all it’s encouraging the see the rise of innovation in the sector. As we conduct more projects, we will learn how to optimize production and increase efficiency. We believe in the potential of this ideology and hope to see further actions as consumers can also speed the adoption of the discussed practices by voting with our grocery shopping list. We have the chance to support the ones who prioritize our well-being over short-term profits.