Imagine a world where everyone has access to nutritious, affordable food, where surplus foods are made available to those who need it most, and by-products and waste become inputs for new products... Circular economies can be a game-changer to transition to more sustainable food systems.
No food to waste: what we can learn from circular food initiatives
“Circular food economies are not our traditional area of expertise, yet if we are serious about tackling climate change in our programmes, we have to consider the issue of food waste and loss.”
Circular food economies, that minimise food waste as much as possible, do not only contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They also contribute to increasing food availability and have the potential to drastically improve the efficiency of our food systems, as they diminish the need for land conversion for food production and lead to lower methane emissions from food in landfills.
Some facts and figures about food waste and loss
- Food waste and loss generates 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. That is the same amount of greenhouse gases as an agricultural area the size of China generates.
- Shifting towards sustainable diets AND reducing food waste could reduce emissions by 1.8 GT equivalent per year. That would be enough to contribute to approximately 20% of the global mitigation needed to make sure temperatures do not rise by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2050.
- Food and green waste comprise more than 50% of all municipal waste, but less than 2% of this organic waste is recovered for local agriculture. This is a huge wage of resources!
- Reducing the current rate of food waste and loss by 50% would close the gap between the amount of food needed to feed the planet in 2050 and the amount of food available in 2010 by 20%.
Our new Food Smart Cities programme, which started this year and will run until the end of 2026, has three pillars:
- the sustainable production of healthy, nutritious food for local markets,
- inclusive food markets that cater to smallholder producers and vulnerable urban consumers.
- enabling environments that incentivise sustainable and healthy diets through policies and partnerships.
“It’s under this second pillar that we have integrated a focus on circular economies”, says Charlotte. To help develop inclusive food markets, we professionalise farmer organisations, facilitate their access to finance and business development services, promote inclusive business relations in food chains and facilitate sustainable food entrepreneurship. We also strive for a more efficient and inclusive distribution of locally produced, safe and healthy food, using innovative business models and digital tools. This includes promoting the co-creation of circular business models that foster sustainable food waste management by transforming food surpluses into new products. We aim to increase the amount of food harvested ultimately eaten by people or used as inputs for agricultural systems, identifying viable markets for crops that would not be sold.
“This also translates into our work towards enabling environments, the third pillar”, explains Charlotte: “we work, together with city authorities, civil society, academia, and private enterprises, on multi-stakeholder initiatives that reduce or valorise food loss and waste.”
On 3 March, a virtual learning exchange for our colleagues worldwide took place to explore the topic of circular food economies, by means of three examples from our programmes: food waste solutions from Indonesia, a roadmap for circular food chains in Flanders, and a circular food business from Tanzania.
In 2019, we conducted a food risk assessment in Arusha. The high concerns about food safety because of poor hygiene in urban markets immediately stood out, as well as the generally poor tradition of waste management in markets and residential areas alike. The waste collection system is not well coordinated. Opportunities to improve food waste recycling and reusing were tremendous.
We partnered with the Sanitation department of the city of Arusha, the Arusha Sustainable Food Systems Platform, and two enterprises: Kusanya and Chanzi. Kusanya, a youth led entreprise, employs youth to collect food waste from markets, hotels and restaurants as well as residential areas. Chanzi purchases and recycles food waste into animal feeds and fertiliser.
“Jointly, we wanted to create value to the organic food waste, through circular models. In doing so, we also wanted to contribute to job creation for youth, improved hygiene at Arusha food markets, and contribute to environmental sustainability as the reduction of food waste also leads to greenhouse gasses going down.”
As a first step, Rikolto supported youth to engage in waste collection as a business. We built their soft skills and entrepreneurial skills, and ensured they received training in waste management practices. Youth enterprise Kusanya was founded, and now collects food waste from markets and residential areas.
Chanzi then transforms this food waste into animal feed and organic fertilisers, using black soldier fly larvae. This way, we kill two birds with one stone: employment opportunities for youth and hygiene in public markets. At Rikolto, we’ve supported Chanzi to tap into funding from the Belgian Business Partnership Facility. We’ve also supported the linkage between Chanzi and the City Sanitation Department of Arusha City Council and lobbied with the Arusha City Council to work on a structured way of organising organic waste collection in the city.
“An important lesson we’ve learnt, is that circularity needs behaviour change”, shares Hilda. “It’s important to work directly with communities and include sensitisation programmes that will trigger change among communities. Specifically since we don’t have a big culture of waste separation here in Arusha.”
Indonesia is the world’s second largest food waster: 13 million tonnes of food are wasted every year, which would be enough to feed 28 million people. While a vast set of policies related to food waste management exist, they are not well integrated across government agencies. The topic of food waste is high on the agenda for many cities.
“When the cities of Solo and Bandung decided to sign the Milan Pact, one of their commitments was to reduce food waste in their cities. We work with the local authorities of Solo and Bandung to reduce food waste, by facilitating the development of circular and inclusive business models between sustainable producers and urban buyers.”
In Bandung, this work took off right as Covid-19 changed the way we went about our daily lives: we supported Badami to build an application to share and donate excess food. The app connects food suppliers and consumers through their platform, and functions both as a marketplace for micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and a donation hub for sharing food surpluses with those who need it most.
“Rikolto also started to train the enterprises who were using the application, so that they would take into account food hygiene, healthy food processing and food waste management practices”, explains Nonie. In addition, youth groups were set up to conduct trainings related to the use of the app for MSMEs and the digital marketing aspects. After 6 months of its existence, Badami had 100 registered MSMEs, and over 1000 users. 779 kilograms of food that would otherwise go to landfills were saved.
In addition to developing a food sharing platform, Rikolto also worked with communities in Bandung to grow their own food in urban gardens and reduce organic waste. The urban farming activities include composting workshops, gardening activities and assistance, waste management, and lessons on how to use organic waste. More than 3.3 tonnes of food waste were composted and processed into organic fertiliser.
“These initiatives are helping us to build evidence about how much waste can be reduced when building the capacity of entrepreneurs and businesses on how to implement circular business practices,” says Nonie. “We already learned that the collaboration with the right local governments is crucial to accelerate visibility and impact of the initiatives. A challenge we currently still have is that, while we have reduced food waste, the circular food app has also led to an increase of food packaging waste.”
In Flanders, Belgium, a participatory trajectory is underway to develop a roadmap for circular food chains. Vlaanderen Circulair, a government organisation promoting circular economy in Flanders, set up an initiative focused on 6 aspects of circular economies, one of which is food. The Flemish Department for Agriculture and Fishery (Departement Landbouw & Visserij), Fevia (the federation of the Belgian Food Industry), consulting firm Möbius and OVAM played a role in leading this trajectory. Rikolto is involved as a stakeholder, along with knowledge institutions, government institutions, sector federations, companies and civil society organisations.
“The process started with a mapping of all action plans and projects that are already in place, and the systemic bottlenecks that existed,” explains Danielle Dewickere from Möbius. “Stakeholders were also asked how they saw circular food chains in Flanders. Then, in a participatory way, short- and long-term ambitions were set. By 2030, the ambition is to, through the circular food chain roadmap, reduce the material footprint of the agro-food chain and the associated environmental pressure, while at the same time preserving the economic importance of the system in Flanders.”
The short-term ambitions are related to the optimal use of bio-resources, for instance increasing the circularity in existing production, processing and distribution systems; the optimal use of food, striving for a wide acceptance of a diet with a low raw material impact; and the optimal use of residual flows, using residual flows for food and feed.
"Something we’ve learned developing this road map, is the importance of mobilising stakeholders via a participatory process. Many actions are already underway, the roadmap has to be complementary. And it’s crucial to strive for specific commitments and include a first set of actions so that the roadmap becomes action-oriented and it’s clear what will be done to reach these ambitions."
During a series of workshops with all stakeholders, working paths, actions and projects to realise these ambitions were set. To further prioritise the actions, stakeholders were asked to which specific engagements they could see themselves taking. On 25 April, the roadmap will be officially launched (event in Dutch).
Rikolto participated in the development of the working agenda and will focus on cooperation with retailers and schools in Belgium to promote healthy and sustainable food. Circularity is a key aspect in that work. We also work on urban food hubs where circularity is a central issue, as is, for example, access for socially vulnerable groups.
In our programmes, we collect evidence to demonstrate the business case underpinning businesses in the circular economy, and inspire others, particularly city authorities and private enterprises, to work on multi-stakeholder processes for the adoption of policies and practices that encourage more circular food initiatives.
As the topic of circular food economies is still relatively new within Rikolto, we also want to build on the lessons from these cases to develop a roadmap or framework, making it easier for colleagues in other regions to integrate circular initiatives in their work.
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