Circular economy in food production

Circular economy in food production

Reuse instead of throwing away: The circular economy is gaining in importance in many sectors of the economy. In the future, agricultural production will also increasingly have to take place in cycles. This applies in particular to land use, fertilizer production and animal feed production.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

The circular economy is becoming increasingly important in all branches of industry. The realization that reusing, recycling, repairing or remanufacturing serves both the environment and the resource efficiency of companies has gained acceptance. The circular economy differs from the linear production model, in which raw materials are extracted, transformed into products and finally used and thrown away by consumers. Instead of always snatching new raw materials from nature that end up in landfills, the circular economy relies on the longest possible - in the best case indefinite - lifespan of raw materials and products.


Sustainable use and recycling of soil

Thinking in cycles also plays a crucial role in food production. This applies in particular to soil, a finite resource that is indispensable for agricultural production. However, this has suffered badly in the past. In recent decades, climate change and unsuitable cultivation methods have meant that more than a third of the cultivable soil is no longer usable. The reasons for this are diverse: Decades of overgrazing, improper use of chemicals and fertilizers, or growing the same crop over and over again have depleted the soil.

If global agriculture wants to feed almost ten billion people in 2050, it must not regard soil as a "disposable product". It is important to use the soil through good agricultural practice in such a way that it is not degraded and can be kept permanently in the production cycle of agriculture. In addition to knowledge about sustainable soil management, this also requires economic incentives. In many regions of the world it is cheaper to develop new agricultural land than to make old and depleted soil usable again. Syngenta is currently researching a method for "soil recycling". In Brazil, she works with the organization "The Nature Conservancy" with the aim of recultivating one million hectares of degraded pasture land. This can also prevent deforestation.


Phosphorus recycling

In order to keep the impact on the soil and the environment to a minimum, it is advisable to use fertilizers sparingly. At the same time, organic and especially mineral fertilizers are indispensable for the production of enough food. Around 40 percent of food is based on the Haber-Bosch process for the synthetic production of ammonia. Ammonia is the raw material of many synthetic fertilizers. An indispensable component of many fertilizers is also phosphorus. Phosphorus is essential for plants and is absorbed by them in the form of phosphates. But global phosphate reserves are becoming scarce. So far, there is no alternative to the limited phosphate rock. In the future, researchers want to recover phosphate from sewage sludge, which can then be used to fertilize fields. This would close an important cycle.

Food waste back into the cycle

A major efficiency problem in the food chain is food waste. According to a study by ETH Zurich on behalf of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), around 330 kilograms of food waste per person are generated in Switzerland every year across all stages of the food chain. The biggest sources of food waste are agriculture (20 percent), the processing industry (35 percent) and private households (28 percent). The figures show that food is also viewed too much as a “disposable item”. On the one hand, this is ethically and, on the other hand, environmentally questionable. Food waste is a consumption of resources. Land, labor, water and fertilizer were invested in vain.

The black soldier fly eats food scraps. Their larvae could be used as high-protein animal feed (from 22:30). (Video: ZDF Leschs Kosmos)

Leftovers should be avoided as much as possible. But food waste cannot be prevented entirely. But there are alternatives to use the waste sensibly and keep it in the cycle. The ZDF program "Leschs Kosmos" shows how leftover food could be reused for food production. For example with the help of the black soldier fly. It's easy to keep and eats our food scraps. The larvae of the fly could be used as high-protein feed for livestock and thus fed back into the cycle. The larvae could replace the purchase of protein-rich soy from Brazil or the USA. "Yesterday's leftovers would have a future in tomorrow's fried chicken," the program sums up. The complexity is also reflected in the packaging. Plastic packaging in the grocery trade protects fruit and vegetables from spoilage, but also creates considerable amounts of waste. Together with the Empa, Lidl Switzerland has now developed a protective wrap for fruit and vegetables that is based on renewable raw materials.

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