Food for the circular economy

28-03-2017 | News item

PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency has investigated the integrated approach that would be needed to making the food chain more circular. The policy brief Food for the circular economy distinguishes three challenges, in this respect: sustainably managing resources, limiting food waste and optimising residual streams.   

With a growing population and increasing affluence the need for a more circular food chain increases. PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency has investigated the integrated approach that would be needed to making the food chain more circular. In a circular food chain, raw materials are used in a way that adds the most value to the economy and causes the least harm to the environment. A circular food system makes heavy demands on agriculture, the environment, trade, green growth, industry and innovation. An integrated approach is needed. This policy brief provides new input for the implementation of the Dutch Government-wide programme for a circular economy (see link above).

Optimising resource management

One of the main challenges in increasing circularity in the food chain is that of implementing a resource management system that safeguards our future need for food, energy and materials. The current system is inadequate, as it leads to degradation, pollution and depletion of resources. This may threaten, for example, soil fertility. In order to maintain production levels of, for instance, food, medicines and biofuels, resources and the limited land area in the Netherlands need to be utilised more efficiently. Effective soil and water management is in keeping with meeting this requirement.

Avoiding food waste

One third of the food that is currently produced, on a global level, is wasted at various stages along the chain; during storage, handling, processing, in retail and in households. This also happens in the Netherlands, where large amounts of food are also being wasted, by both companies and households. Dutch consumers tend to eat increasingly more processed foods, such as processed snack foods and ready-to-eat meals. This causes an increase in edible food waste streams during production and retail. Reducing wastage is possible, it is important that consumers are nudged towards more ‘food conscious’ behaviour, and companies should be more transparent about their waste flows. In order to achieve this, obstructive policies should be adjusted. In addition, collaboration between companies should be stimulated, so they can reuse each other’s residual streams.

Stimulating high-end use of waste streams

Many residual streams are currently used as feed, or they are fermented for energy purposes. These are steps towards a circular economy, but there is more potential. Fermentation of residual streams, for example, is subsidised by the government as part of the Dutch energy policy. However, these streams could be utilised at earlier stages along the production chains, and recycled into food, feed or resources for bio-refining. For example, packaging material could be made from tomato stalks. The highest achievable grade of reuse should be stimulated.