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Transitioning to a circular food economy: the solution for food waste and food loss?

15 Sep 2021
10 min reading time

A circular food system could phase out the concept of food waste as we know it, contributing to a more sustainable world... but what are the key challenges and solutions?

The food system is a complex network made up of vast supply chains and stakeholders, all of which contribute to the growing carbon footprint of food. At a time where leaders and experts are coming together to discuss the future at milestone events such as the UN Food Systems Summit and COP26, the sustainability of the food system has never been more important.

With two billion people facing food insecurity globally (1) and approximately a third of all food going uneaten (2), the current structure of the food system is fragmented. Preventing food loss and food waste at scale would offset huge amounts of environmental damage and biodiversity loss as well as increase the accessibility of food for food insecure populations (3). So how can we ensure not only the sustainability of the food system, but long-term economic and societal resilience, too?

A linear economy vs a circular economy

The answer lies in the structure of the food economy. A linear economy traditionally follows a ‘take, make, use, dispose’ system, where products are created and used once and then disposed of as waste. With this comes a decrease in the value of materials and products, volatile prices due to resource scarcity, and an unstable supply of raw materials due to overconsumption (4). This also generates huge levels of waste and greenhouse gas emissions from consistent resource pooling and production, contributing to environmental degradation and climate change (4).

In a circular food economy however, activities at all levels of the food value chain rebuild overall system health by designing out the concept of waste (5). Providing environmental and economic benefits, circular economies maintain raw material sources and reduce the environmental impacts of production and consumption (4).

They are designed to generate further economic opportunities and products that can be used time and time again as they circulate through systems and society (5). Waste valorisation - the process of reusing and recycling waste materials into useful products - also increases market competitiveness, adding value to materials previously considered as waste. This can create new business and innovation opportunities (4), boosting the European economy as a result.

Food waste and food loss along the value chain: challenges and solutions

Although food businesses and initiatives across the world have made progress in creating circular economies, the challenges of waste increase alongside population growth. A recent report from WWF and Tesco supermarket estimated that 2.5 billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted annually – 1.2 billion tonnes on farms (6) and 931 million tonnes in retail outlets, food services and consumer households (7). This suggests that up to 40% of all food produced could be going uneaten, which is even greater than the 30-33% previously estimated (6).

With this comes up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emission generation (8) – the equivalent to nearly twice the annual emissions produced by all the cars driven in the USA and Europe combined (6).

Supporting the circular economy approach at the production level

Food loss is defined as the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers and producers in the food supply chain (19), such as farmers.

With the WWF and Tesco report stating that the majority of food is lost at the farm level – 15.3% of all food produced (6) – it is clear that farmers and producers require more solutions and support to transition to a circular economy model.

Opportunities for farmers

Challenges with crop storage, inflexible contracts with buyers and agricultural by-products all contribute to food loss at the farm level. Farmers and producers can support the transition to a circular food economy by optimising processes, employing regenerative practices, minimising waste streams and finding new uses for materials traditionally considered as waste. This can open up new business opportunities for farmers, increasing their profit margins, as well as allowing them to be eligible for sustainable remuneration initiatives such as the EU Common Agricultural Policy.

“Policymakers at the European Parliament are already talking about rewarding carbon sequestration on farms… while policy sets the direction and ambition, it falls on all of us to develop and deliver the tools, solutions and practices to help implement those policies.”

Dr. Andy Zynga, CEO of EIT Food

Olive oil production, for example, results in only 20% of the olive fruit being used, with the other 80% - known as olive pomace - considered as a by-product or waste (9). The EIT Food project PHENOLIVA aims to find a solution to this and contribute to the circular economy of olive oil production. Olive pomace has high antioxidant content and can be used as a low-cost, fully circular food additive (9). Antioxidant additives are used to increase the shelf life of foods by preventing deterioration caused by oxidation (10). Therefore, in this case of olive pomace, ‘waste’ can be prevented by using ‘waste’.

A localised, bio-based circular economy

The European Farm to Fork Strategy also underlines the untapped economic and environmental benefits of the circular bio-based economy for farmers (12). By embracing opportunities to use biofertilisers, protein feed, waste streams and renewable energy, for example, the Strategy explains that farmers can create jobs as well as increase revenues (12). The Strategy gives the example of the potential for farmers to install solar panels on barns, which are often perfectly placed to absorb sunlight and produce cost-efficient renewable energy (12).

Regenerative agriculture - which benefits living systems such as soil - and local sourcing can also contribute to transitioning to a circular economy, protecting resources and supporting biodiversity. Local sourcing can allow cities, for example, to reduce food miles and their associated carbon footprint as well as increase the resilience of their food supply by relying on a more diverse range of suppliers (11). It also helps to reconnect consumers with farmers, who may then demand more sustainable and healthy practices as a result (11).

The importance of consumer trust for farmers

Having an open relationship with farmers was also highlighted as an important way for consumers to embrace sustainably produced food. As part of the Citizen Participation Forum, consumers suggsested that farmers should use modern technology and infrastructure to connect with the public, and invite them onto their farms as a way of increasing trust further (13). Over a third of consumers said that buying locally produced food has become more important to them during the COVID-19 pandemic (14), so the value of this approach is becoming more and more evident.

Due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19, the pandemic also saw initiatives and solutions aiming to reduce waste and reconnect consumers with farmers, such as Robin Food. As a soup made from surplus vegetables that farmers found difficult to sell during the pandemic for vulnerable families, the Robin Food soup project represented how finding new uses for ‘waste’ can not only benefit the sustainability of the food system, but can support society and help to combat other challenges such as food insecurity, too.

Supporting the circular economy approach at the consumption level

Food services and retail

Food services and retail outlets also have a huge role to play. According to the recent UNEP Food Waste Index, food services and retail outlets waste 5% and 2% of the total food available at the consumption stage of the supply chain, respectively (7).

Food waste refers to food not eaten due to the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers (19). Examples include the disposal of food due to ‘best-before’ labels or abnormal aesthetic features such as size, shape, or colour.

To tackle this ongoing challenge for food services and retail outlets, innovative solutions which contribute to the circular economy are being developed, and are attracting investment. EIT Food RisingFoodStar Mimica, for example, has created a solution to prevent waste caused by overcautious food expiration dates. The product, Mimica Touch, is a label or cap that turns bumpy when the food inside spoils, providing an accurate, real-time indication of when food is safe to eat and when cannot be consumed.

Adding just two days of shelf-life to perishable products in this way could result in 50% less retail waste and 63% less household waste (15), as well as reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of that food and increase profits for the retailer.

“I really believe we can inspire positive behaviour change. We don’t need to be wasting the amount that we’re wasting today. We just need to put some collaborative thought into how to make it better.”

- Solveiga Pakštaitė, Director and Founder of Mimica

Supermarkets and businesses are also more frequently embracing ‘ugly’ vegetables so that edible food does not go uneaten simply due to appearance. UK supermarket Morrisons, for example, launched a ‘wonky veg’ range to offer consumers cheaper vegetables whilst saving food that would have otherwise been discarded. Companies such as Oddbox are also working directly with farmers to deliver ‘odd-looking' fruit and vegetables to consumers.

EIT Food RisingFoodStar Orbisk is also on a mission to reduce food waste in the food service industry. Using AI technology, Orbisk connects smart cameras, weighing scales and waste bins to register food being thrown away up to the ingredient level. This aims to assist food service businesses to make more informed decisions about how much food to purchase, and when, thus reducing their waste and optimising their profit margins.

“Everybody who works in food has an opportunity but also a responsibility. We need to take care of our Earth and there’s only one thing to do, and that’s to take action,” says Richard Beks, CCO of Orbisk.


Households discard 11% of the total food available at the consumption stage of the supply chain (7). On a global per capita level, 121kg of consumer level food is wasted each year, with 74kg of this happening in households (7). Whether this be due to purchasing too much food or simply throwing food away because of confusing expiration dates, should challenges of food waste in households rely on solutions that encourage behaviour change?

People often want convenience and may be reluctant to change; it is sometimes easier to just throw something away, so why should people change the way they do things? The food sector could support a shift in the way ‘normal’ and ‘easy’ are perceived – and education is imperative to changing this.

Initiatives such as EIT Food’s FutureLearn course ‘From waste to value: How to tackle food waste’ enable consumers to discover the causes and impact of food waste and how to tackle it on personal, community and national levels. With tips about how to repurpose waste, rethink traditional ways of preparing meals, as well as the wide range of initiatives that are making it easier to share food locally, courses such as this mean users can reflect on a personal as well as wider level as to how they can support the circular economy.

Food manufacturer Unilever also set out to educate people about food waste through its ‘Bring your own food restaurants’ initiative launched in 2019 in São Paulo and Prague. Chefs turned ‘leftover’ ingredients from people’s fridges into high quality meals, and diners received the recipes instead of the bill. The concept set out to show consumers that what they would normally consider as waste could in fact be used as exciting, tasty and sustainable ingredients (16).

A circular food future

Transitioning from linear to circular systems and processes is crucial. With two thirds of the global population predicted to be living in cities by 2050 (17) and consuming 80% of all food (18), urban areas will become mass producers of waste. Stakeholders and entrepreneurs must play a central role in facilitating education about waste as well as developing solutions to both rural and urban waste.

As we draw closer to the EU’s target of climate neutrality by 2050, the EU Circular Economy Action Plan also highlights the importance of policy and regulation. It introduces legislative and non-legislative measures targeting areas where action at the EU level brings real added value to the future of the circular economy. EIT Food is involved in the EIT Circular Economy Initiative, a cross-KIC initiative which is helping to connect different sectors and strengthen collaboration between them. Being part of this initiative is enabling us better to understand the overlaps and gaps which exist across the EIT community, whilst also ensuring we are making the most of the knowledge and resources available to us.

Despite their importance, food loss and food waste are only one part of a much larger waste challenge. Collaboration across industries and sectors such as food, packaging, hospitality, education and policy is key to creating a truly circular economy.

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