Even if you are someone who tries to eat healthy–buys only organic produce, and consumes only ethically raised meats–our food system is probably still jeopardizing your well-being.
The way we eat now is so dependent on chemicals, carbon emissions, and waste buildup that its effects are becoming impossible to ignore. In a new report, Cities and Circular Economy for Food, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K.-based nonprofit dedicated to advancing more equitable and sustainable economies, calculates the damage of our current food system–and how we might build a better one.
Let’s start with the troubling. Right now, every dollar spent globally on buying food ends up costing society double that in health, environmental, and economic fallouts totaling over $11 trillion each year. These costs “are a direct result of the ‘linear’ nature of modern food production, which extracts finite resources, is wasteful and polluting, and harms natural systems,” the authors note in the report, which was co-produced with Systemiq, an accelerator focused on environmental solutions.
“With ‘linear’ we mean that the system is designed with a mindset of take-make-waste, rather than thinking of it as a circular system as you would find it in nature, where waste becomes input to a new process,” says Martin Stuchtey, founder and managing partner of Systemiq.
The emissions associated with our food system alone are cause for significant concern. Around a quarter of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can be traced back to the agriculture and food productions industries. Industrial-scale agricultural practices, in particular, are to blame. By 2050, nearly 5 million people could die from causes related to food productions systems–air or water pollution, exposure to pesticides, or antibiotic overuse could all be factors. This death toll would be double the number of people who currently lose their lives due to obesity-related complications.
Food waste is also a massive issue: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation report notes that the equivalent of six garbage trucks of food are wasted globally every second. In cities, less than 2% of that waste is reused as compost.
In the report, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Systemiq call for a total overhaul of the system. Rather than the current linear structure, in which food flows from large-scale industrial farms into cities, and the waste from that food then flows into landfill, the authors envision a circular system revolving around cities themselves.
By 2050, 80% of food is expected to be consumed in cities, so it stands to reason that cities should begin to participate more in local food production. That, however, is a long way from the way things are right now. In order to a shift to a more local food system, cities need to focus on “reconnecting urban consumers with food production, in effect redesigning food value chains around urban consumption centers,” Stuchtey says.
Part of that will involve doubling down on urban agriculture. Methods like indoor, hydroponic farming are already taking off in industrial buildings in cities like Newark, New Jersey, where the company AeroFarms is based, and that practice should be scaling up.
But that alone will not be enough to feed everyone living in cities. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation report recommends that cities ramp up sourcing from their peri-urban areas (defined as land within 20 kilometers of an urban core). Around 40% of the world’s cropland is already housed in these areas, so logistically, it shouldn’t be difficult to do. But city leaders and policymakers would have to work closely with nearby farmers, Stuchtey says, to ensure that they’re practicing growing techniques that help the environment. Ramping up crop variety, rotating crops seasonally, and reducing use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are all methods that help regenerate soil and the surrounding environment. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recommends that cities set up strict sourcing criteria for the food they bring in, and that both proximity and farming methods should be included.
Cities can also become sites where food waste is repurposed and used in a range of new products, from organic fertilizers to medicine and bioenergy. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation notes that if cities can establish food waste reuse systems, they can unlock a whole new economy and source of revenue.
Of course, for all of this to happen, cities must also sell these ideas to people. Doing so, Stuchtey says, will take collaboration from food brands, producers, retailers, city governments, and waste management systems. Storytelling around how food waste can be repurposed, or how local farming is repairing the lands around the city, will be necessary to get people engaged in supporting this systems change. “It will entail an orchestration of multiple efforts to build mutually reinforcing momentum, including connecting local flagship demonstration projects in key cities around the world with global scaling mechanisms that use the reach of multinational businesses and collaborative platforms,” the authors write in the report.
Achieving the recommendations in the report will require significant transformation. We’d have to reduce dependency on global food conglomerates in favor of smaller, more localized production. Waste disposal would have to be completely reimagined. This is no small undertaking, Stuchtey says, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report is not trying to make it out to be. But it is clear on what the benefits would be if we pulled it off: Greenhouse gas emissions would drop by around 4.3 billion tons of CO2, roughly equal to taking 1 billion cars off the road. Around 450 trillion liters of fresh water would be preserved, and 15 million hectares of land would be saved from degradation. And for the economic argument, this circular system could generate up to $2.7 trillion for cities around the world.