A regenerative and circular food system will feed both people and planet

Global food production is the biggest driver of environmental degradation. Through circular food systems, we can meet growing urban population food needs while looking after the planet.

Published: 1 Oct 2020
Author: Ikea Foundation
Type: Insight

By 2050, the UN predicts two out of every three people will live in cities, particularly in Africa and Asia. Our current food system is not delivering resilient livelihood opportunities for the producers of food, nor is it providing a healthy diet to consumers resulting in an ever growing burden of undernourishment and obesity. What’s more, the current global-food production system constitutes a big environmental burden.

According to the EAT-Lancet Commission, global food production threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience, and represents the single largest driver of environmental degradation. Feeding urban populations while staying within planetary boundaries clearly presents challenges, but at the IKEA Foundation we believe that it also presents opportunities.

We believe that cities and rural communities can together shape a future where people have access to nutritious food and a decent livelihood while also contributing to a liveable planet. To feed our cities and help rural communities prosper, now and in the future, the food system must be transformed. But how?

A new use for waste

As we expect that 80% of all food produced will be consumed in cities by 2050, cities are clearly important drivers of the way we cultivate, market and consume food and deal with its waste. In fact, how we deal with “waste” is one of the key components of creating a healthier, more prosperous food system not just for people but also for the planet.

Right now, an estimated one-third of all food produced never gets eaten, and half of all fruit and vegetables grown are wasted. And at the same time,most of this food waste ends up in landfills as cities compost or reuse less than 2% of the valuable nutrients in food by-products and organic waste (excluding manure).

What if, rather than cities and rural communities having to compete for resources, resources were reused and waste became a valuable input?

This is exactly what can happen when we apply circular-economy principles to food-system transformation. Wastewater can be treated to extract important finite minerals like phosphates. Food loss and waste can be composted so valuable nutrients return to the soil instead of being thrown away. And organic farm waste can be used for bioenergy to power homes and agri-businesses. New, nature-based technologies—like black soldier fly composting of waste—can generate important compost, fertilizer and animal feed.

In this way, soils are restored to health and harvests improve. Reducing the use of chemical fertilisers means less pollution and better nutritional value. Cities would have a nutritious food supply and a healthier environment, and livelihood opportunities are created by transforming waste into new products, ranging from organic fertilizers and biomaterials to medicine and bioenergy.

But transforming our treatment of waste streams is not enough. We also need to move to regenerative agricultural production and a circular economy for food systems.

Commitment to sustainable food systems

A sustainable and resilient food system ensures that rural and urban communities have enough to eat, with food grown locally wherever possible. It creates jobs and income opportunities for small-and medium scale producers, and agri-entrepreneurs in services and processing. It ensures the ecological impact of the food system is minimized from farm to fork, and it builds resilience by following nature’s example and combining different plants and animals to regenerate soils, fertilise crops and control pests.

Producers and consumers alone cannot make the transition to a more sustainable production and consumption model. Governments have an important role to play as well. They must help producers and consumers with the right incentives to move to regenerative and circular practices; while disincentivising harmful practices and products.

Regional and global traders must also take responsibility for ensuring their value chains are fair to producers and regenerate the natural ecosystems on which they depend. This is not just about showing the world that they are good companies, because ultimately they will be held accountable for their contribution (or lack thereof) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Investors can take responsibility by integrating the principles of regenerative and circular practices into their investment criteria and support the transition to a truly sustainable way of producing and doing business.

Partnerships for change

While most eyes are on the cities, we should not forget that the countryside is also part of our future. Right in the heart of metropolitan Manhattan, the exhibition ‘Countryside, the Future’ by architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas is doing just that: it challenges a mostly urban audience to reflect on their relationship with the countryside. And that is what we want everybody to do.

At the IKEA Foundation, we think that the countryside provides great opportunities and believe that regenerative and circular approaches to food systems create thriving rural communities that allow cities to grow and prosper while staying within the boundaries of our planet.

We want to help this transition by removing barriers, changing mindsets, trying, failing and learning fast. As we learn, we share our stories with others, showing what works and what doesn’t. In this, we follow the advice of Jesper Brodin, the CEO of IKEA: ‘stay action-focused, work together at all levels and be massively optimistic’. Only then can we achieve true change.

That is why we’re collaborating with other organizations that are part of this people-planet positive movement. They develop models and business cases in which people and planet can thrive together. To name a few of these partnerships, we learn, for instance, from the Green Future Farming consortium working in three landscapes in East Africa to develop agri-business models that provide a better livelihood while protecting the environment. We are developing a program with IDH that helps coffee farmers market a more diversified crop system that enriches their soils. We work with partners like Root Capital to address access to finance for planet-positive farmers and agribusinesses. IIED helps us to get a better insight into the state of regenerative agriculture and circular agribusiness initiatives in East Africa, Wageningen University explores the pathways to achieve inclusive, regenerative and circular systems and Biovision generates evidence about agroecological innovations to facilitate policy changes and promote more funding into agroecology research. And we get great inspiration from the 4Returns model of Commonland, which restores degraded landscapes to bring back social, natural and financial capital but, more than that, a sense of hope and purpose to people.

We cannot do any of this alone, so in the spirit of togetherness we have joined several alliances and collaborative initiatives. We engage with the Global Alliance for the Future of Food for their work on and principles for food-system transformation; we are part of the pooled donor Agroecology fund; we work with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the Food Initiative in collaboration with African cities; we fund the World Benchmarking Alliance to develop and roll out the Food and Agriculture Benchmark; and support the creation of Aceli Africa, a platform that bridges the gap between supply and demand for capital for agricultural SMEs.

In view of the challenges, we believe that sitting back and watching how things evolve is not an option. We want to contribute to a regenerative and circular future of agriculture in Africa. For us, collaboration is key—that is what we do with our partners, allies and others, and that’s why we are joining the AGRF. Waiting till we know all the answers is too slow. We have to work towards the future with intuition and aspirations and take that leap of faith. Maybe we do not know all the answers yet, but we do know that business as usual is definitely not the answer.

Together we can work towards a food system that not only feeds but also celebrates life – one that brings love for the people and planet that produce the food, and that adds color and flavor to our plates and palates. Together, we can generate the energy and creativity to build that ideal food system.

This article was originally published by the Ikea Foundation.

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