Sustainability and Circular Economy Lab

University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo


Credits: Evie Shaffer on Pexels


The circular economy is a political-cultural proposal that envisages a new model of production and consumption as an antithesis to the linear system defined as "extract, produce, consume, discard" (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013). It implies sharing, reusing, repairing, reconditioning, durability, renewability, eco-design, etc., and a whole series of precautions that aim to extend the life cycle of products and minimise waste.


The new circular economic model, especially when applied to food, aims first and foremost at preserving and regenerating natural capital, optimising the extraction, production and use of resources and managing material and energy flows so as to renew or extend their value over time. A series of objectives that, for example, lead us to embrace the need to be agents of change, starting with rethinking or implementing daily actions associated with flow management, such as correctly sorting organic waste. Simplifying among the 114 definitions that have been given to the circular economy over time (Kirchher et al., 2017) and which contain 95 different conceptualisations that in turn gave rise to the 9R paradigm (strategies to be implemented to make a system more circular: Refuse, Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Renew, Refabricate, Upgrade, Recycle, Recover), it is fairly easy to understand that the new paradigm draws its inspiration from living systems, in which every surplus is metabolized in the dynamic flow through the 5 kingdoms: monera, prototypes, fungi, plants, animals. Nature does not know the meaning of the word 'waste' and our economic model must try to achieve the same result by managing the resources we have available over time. On the other hand, circularity belongs to humanity and the context in which it lives. Indeed, food is the means by which the circular process of metabolizing matter in the human body and its subsequent transformation into energy for life begins. A consideration that prompted the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach to assert in the second half of the 19th century that "We are what we eat" (Feuerbach, 1871). (Feuerbach, 1871), and as such, the result of a healthy, daily circular economy of food.


At present, however, the picture of the food system represents undemocratic and certainly unsustainable food production. Increasingly long, complex and standardized globalised food chains have long since severed many of the relationships between ecological units that made food production the fruit of a healthy relationship with nature. Our economy lives beyond planetary (Rockström et al., 2009) and social (Raworth, 2017) limits, adopting a predatory and unrestrained attitude that kills our common home. The decades-long erosion of natural capital (Lovins, et al., 1999), the result of a linear economic paradigm, undermines the stability of cultural (Bourdieu, 1980), and economic capital by making even simple comparisons between people difficult. Emphasising the existence of interconnected systems (Capra &Luisi, 2014), of which man should be an integral, non-invasive part, of relationships between ecosystems that should not be interrupted, brings us back concretely to understand that starting from food to develop an economic-social paradigm shift means bringing attention back to communities, to the quality of relationships and the substance of behaviour (Petrini, 2018).


In terms of some data, the need to rethink the economic and social context in which we live is evident from the moment when we know, for example, that more than 2.5 billion tones of waste are produced every year in the European Union. Of this, about 499 kg of urban waste per capita is produced in Italy (European Union, 2021; Eurostat, 2020) and an average of 67 kg represents the amount of food wasted annually (UNEP, 2021). Furthermore, data from the European Compost Network (2016) show that the valorisation of organic waste is an area where there is still much to be done. Considering that 40% of all waste in Europe is organic waste, and that only about 33% of this waste is recycled at the end of its life, this means that we have 66% of possible secondary raw materials yet to be tapped and therefore, clear potential for creating new jobs. Finally, at the same time, we are faced with a growing demand for raw materials and a scarcity of resources, a situation that is creating a dependence between countries, for example for the finding of rare earths and the consequent acceleration of measures of planned obsolescence of products, a strategy typical of the linear economic model (Fassio &Tecco, 2019). 


Therefore, to respond to this emergency need, within the European Green Deal (European Commission, 2020 a), EU member states voted to adopt a "Circular Economy Action Plan" (European Commission, 2020 b), containing important indications to achieve a European market of sustainable, climate neutral and resource efficient products. At the Italian level, as a section of the 'National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR)', the 'National Strategy for the Circular Economy' was then established, focusing on eco-design and eco-efficiency, the strengthening of the market for secondary raw materials through new administrative and fiscal tools, the introduction of extended producer responsibility, the spread of sharing and 'product as a service' practices, support for the achievement of climate neutrality targets, and the definition of indicators to measure circularity from 2020 to 2040 (Ministry of Ecological Transition, 2021).


In the food sector, the Farm to Fork strategy, also part of the European Green Deal, comprehensively addresses the challenges of building sustainable food systems, recognising the inextricable links between healthy people, healthy societies and a healthy planet (One Health). A connection between all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (United Nations, 2015), also demonstrated by Rockström and Sukhdev's "Wedding Cake" model (Rockström and Sukhdev, 2016), where food is described as a basic unit connecting all the SDGs and, consequently, an actor playing a crucial role in the transition towards a sustainable development paradigm (environmental, social, economic).



The "wedding cake" model

Credits: Azote Images for Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2016


Indeed, it is scientifically proven that as the population grows, the demand for resources will increase, environmental problems and socio-economic differences will emerge, especially in urban settings. It is estimated that by 2050, 68% of the population will live in urban areas (United Nations, 2018), that cities alone will consume 75% of the planet's natural resources, and that residents will be allocated about 80% of the food produced on a global scale (Ellen MacArthur, 2019). Consequently, as humanity reaches that milestone, urban centres will bear the responsibility for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions, water and soil consumption, habitat destruction, malnutrition and all the other unsustainabilities that already characterise the food system conditioned by a linear economic model. Moreover, if circularity does not become a common factor and a consolidated habit, at least as much food will be wasted in our cities as at present, i.e. 20% of food products (European Commission, 2020 c; FAO, 2021).


Therefore, the urban and peri-urban context is the preferred place to start a planned and measured circular revolution, adopting a systemic vision (Meadows, 2009), which helps us to sharpen our ability to understand the parts, to see the interconnections, to be creative and courageous about redesigning the system. It is no coincidence that the world's greatest problems are the result of the difference between the way nature works (system) and the way people think (linear) (Bateson & Longo, 1988). With this objective, food must increasingly become an urban infrastructure (Calori&Magarini, 2015) that must be designed aiming, as the Circular Economy for Food suggests to us, to ensure that urban metabolism does not produce waste, but economic and social values in balance with natural ecosystems and multipliers of a territory's potential (Fassio &Minotti, 2019).


Studies conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation show that this option, which humanity should not shy away from, would bring benefits in terms of climate change mitigation, morè inclusive societies and morè resilient ecosystems, an economic benefit of $2.7 billion from better management of food resources, valorisation of secondary raw materials, and adoption of regenerative agricultural practices. Positive impacts would also be seen on people's health, with a decrease in diseases caused by exposure to high levels of pesticides, lower antimicrobial resistance, more efficient water management, less polluted air (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2019).



Circular economy strategies for the food system

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2019). Cities and Circular Economy For Food


For these and many other reasons, the circular economy applied to the food system (Circular Economy for Food) mainly concerns the issue of foreseeing measures to reduce the production of waste, at the end of life or during production (by products), valorising surplus food by following the Food Waste Hierarchy (European Commission, 2021), eliminating disposable packaging, correctly managing water resources and soil nutrients (fertilisers). In addition to these issues, however, there are further objectives set out in the "Farm to Fork" strategy (European Commission, 2020 c), which obviously interact with the Circular Economy for Food and which are: the objective of reducing the use and risk of chemical pesticides by 50%, reducing the use of fertilisers by at least 20%, reducing sales of antimicrobials for farm animals and aquaculture by 50%, and finally the objective of allocating at least 25% of agricultural land to organic farming. We should also not forget the contents of the EU strategy on "Biodiversity" (European Commission, 2020 d), which aims to strengthen the resilience of our societies against future threats such as the effects of climate change, forest fires, food insecurity, epidemics, and more generally the launch of an EU plan for the restoration of nature.



Food Waste Hierarchy

Image source: Commissione Europea (2021). Food waste measurement WRAP. (2018). Food waste measurement principles and resources guide.


Thus, in order to guarantee a future for the 10 billion people who will populate the Earth in 2050 (Population Reference Bureau, 2020), we need to take action and build a new narrative that focuses on food as a strategic lever for ecological transition.


The areas of action proposed by numerous organisations (Jurghilevic et al., 2016; Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2021) show that achieving a circular economy in food, like the goal of pursuing sustainable development, has a strong cross-sectoral character and implies the synergistic action of actors of different natures. The complexity of the food system calls for a transdisciplinary perspective that defines the characteristics of an economic paradigm based on value relationships and that starts from preserving the ecological fabric that sustains life on our planet, which man is devouring with incredible voracity. Generating a new conceptual framework that grasps the needs of civil society, the production system, the environmental context, circularity and sustainable development, is a fundamental objective to be pursued with the aim of supporting an ecological transition that on a scientific basis aspires to real application. This is the purpose behind the 3Cs of the Circular Economy for Food (Fassio, 2021), which represent Capital, Cyclicality and Co-evolution (see in-depth study "The 3Cs of the Circular Economy for Food by UNISG"), in which there is a trajectory that aspires to be inclusive, simple in its narrative, complex in its articulation, to be followed by each person using their own means but sharing the goal.


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