by Susan Chomba

The world is reeling from three crises: nature; biodiversity loss; and poverty. Food systems contribute greatly to all.

On the climate crisis, about 30 percent, or a third, of total greenhouse gases (GHG’s) comes from food systems. A recent study by FAO shows emissions from pre- and post-production processes around food, such as manufacturing of fertilizers, food processing, packaging, transport, retail, household consumption and food waste disposal, doubled between 1990 and 2019 and are on course to overtake emissions caused by land use change. For example, decay of solid food waste in landfills and open dumpsites is a significant emitter of methane, a GHG whose global warming potential is 28-34 times that of CO2. Businesses are largely in charge of the pre- and post-production processes and as such have a significant role in cutting GHGs in this part of the food system.

On the biodiversity side, food production has driven biodiversity loss through habitat loss — clearing of forests, wetlands and grasslands. A recent study by the University of Maryland and WRI shows 252 million acres of land — an area the size of Egypt — have been converted to crops since the start of the 21st century. About half of that, 131 million acres, occurred in Africa. Food systems contribute to pollution of soils, water bodies through chemicals used in farming. The latter even kills biodiversity that is beneficial to agriculture, such as pollinators, threatening the sustainability of food systems.

For people, food and nutritional insecurity continue to rise in poor countries despite sufficient global food production. According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report of 2022, hunger affected an average of 765 million people globally in 2021. Out of this, 278 million were in Africa (20.2 percent of the population). The world produces 1.5 times enough food to feed everyone on the planet, but poverty and inequality hinders a majority of the world’s poor form accessing food. Global policies of trade exacerbate poverty and inequality by allocating food and agriculture inputs to already well-off segments of the society. This fuels the poverty-environment nexus — where communities in poor countries clear natural habitats to feed themselves, with negative impacts on the environment. These negative cycles can be halted if governments and businesses, embraced policies of zero waste to food.

On the major solutions to these problems is a circular food system. This construct consists of three principles: producing food in ways that protects and regenerates nature; addressing the challenge of food loss and food waste; and converting materials that would have otherwise gone to waste into useful products.

How businesses can help catalyze circular food systems

1. Pay the premium

First, companies need to source products from — and pay premium — for food produced in ways that protects and regenerates nature.

Smallholder farmers have been trained by numerous development organizations on sustainable land management practices that can increase food production while cutting down environmentally disruptive inputs. However, the uptake of these technologies remains poor in Africa and other parts of the developing world. These technologies are usually labor and knowledge intensive, yet the farmers who adopt them do not necessarily get economic rewards from the market. Besides, businesses that have invested in chemical inputs in agriculture aggressively lobby for policy and price incentives to make their products more accessible to farmers.

2. Invest in innovations to address food loss

Businesses interested in reducing food loss and waste can do so through a three-step approach: measure; target; and act. And we need innovations in all three areas. Measuring enables targeting actions where they are most needed along the food chain.

3. Invest in circularity in food waste

Currently, less than 2 percent of valuable nutrients in food byproducts and waste are recycled, and most of them end up in landfills where they are left to rot and produce greenhouse gases, SMEs such as Bureau des Initatives de Developpement Communautaire (BIDEC) convert food waste into compost manure, while also producing organic insecticides and pesticides. By converting organic waste into compost, they are recycling nutrients back into the soil, improving agriculture productivity sustainably, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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