A circular economy for food

The power of cities to lead the shift to a more regenerative and healthier global food system 

How can city food actors play a role in transforming the global food system? With cities soon expected to consume 80% of food globally, a new report Cities and Circular Economy for Food  lays out a vision of how to harness the power of a city to influence how food is grown and prepared to benefit the economy, human health, and the environment. 

The current system is not working 

Setting out the case for a circular economy for food in cities, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s research team draws attention to the many negative impacts of the current food system. Wasteful, polluting, and unhealthy, our food system has the tell-tale signs of an ineffective ‘linear system’. 

The way we consume food results in a range of health complications from obesity and malnutrition to type-2 diabetes and other diet related diseases. Food production systems result in pesticide exposure, air and water contamination, and antimicrobial resistance. The estimated societal cost of this damage is USD 12 trillion each year.

CEF societal costs

Circular economy principles could contribute to a better system 

To tackle these pressing food issues, the reportrecommends redesigning the urban food system to incorporate circular economy principles: design out waste and pollution; keep products and materials in use; and regenerate natural systems. But what does a circular economy for food in cities look like? 

The research team reached out to businesses from across the food value chain, city governments, waste managers, as well as food system experts such as the SDG2 Advocacy Hub to reach a consensus from the broadest set of stakeholders. By the end, over a hundred organisations helped to develop three interconnected ambitions for a more resilient food system:

  1. Source food grown regeneratively, and locally where appropriate: food entering cities should be produced in ways that improve natural ecosystems, i.e. builds soil health. Local sourcing is key in supporting this. 
  2. Make the most of food: surplus edible food should be redistributed where possible; unavoidable food waste should be transformed into new revenue streams, i.e. organic fertilisers, as well as new food products, textiles, structural materials and energy. 
  3. Design and market healthy products: food designers, processors, and marketing departments, can create and promote innovative food products that enable citizens to make healthy food choices for people and the environment. 

Achieving these three ambitions at a global scale, cities could generate health, environmental, and economic benefits totalling USD 2.7 trillion a year in 2050. 

Environmental benefits include reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as avoiding the degradation of arable land. Health benefits include the reduction in medical costs associated with pesticide use and the growing risk of antimicrobial resistance. Economically speaking, there is a potential opportunity to save about USD 700 billion a year by reducing edible food waste and using organic materials to produce new products. 

A circular economy model for food could also directly improve the lives of urban populations with cleaner air and water as well as healthier food options. 

While these benefits are substantial, the report notes that such a circular economy model for food in cities is one of many solutions that need to work together for a better food system, alongside improved education, dietary changes, and more effective food storage and distribution. 

Mobilising the vision 

Any effort to realise the ambitions set out in the report will require collaboration across the food system with businesses, city governments, policymakers, innovators, and experts building momentum for system-level change globally. Setting up scalable demonstrator projects in cities across the world can illustrate the three ambitions in different socio-economic, agricultural, climatic, and cultural contexts.