The maturity level of the agri-food sector in the circular economy domain

In recent decades, the increase in demand for food has led the agri-food sector to change its production model towards productivity. Unfortunately, this has generated considerable environmental, social, and economic problems. Today, the sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss. A change towards a sustainable path is therefore necessary, and the circular economy model can be a valuable ally. The circular economy is a relatively new concept, but its principles are already part of the agri-food sector. This leads to a reflection on the maturity of the sector in terms of circularity. On this topic, Federica Scandurra, Roberta Salomone, Sandra Caeiro and Teresa Maria Gulotta, conducted a study which aims at assessing the level of innovativeness of circular practices in the agri-food sector in the most recent literature.


Although some limitations are present due to the research criteria, the study allows for deep diving into the characteristics of circularity in the sector. It also contributes to the definition of a database of circular best practices capable of driving practitioners towards its application and capturing challenges and potential ways of improvement.


Introduction

Nowadays, worldwide food production is driven by the paradigm of “take-make-use-waste”, which enabled the agri-food sector to be more resource-intensive but less sustainable. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the agrifood sector is a system that “covers the journey of food from farm to table including when it is grown, harvested, processed, packaged, transported, distributed, traded, bought, prepared, eaten and disposed of. It also encompasses non-food products that also constitute livelihoods and all of the people as well as the activities, investments and choices that play a part in getting us these food and agricultural products”.


In a context of increasing food waste and demographic growth, Circular economy can be a possible solution to preserve resources. It can also help reducing the negative externalities caused by the production systems, including the agri-food sector. Circular economy principles are not new in the agrifood system. One clear example is the “Farming bricolage” in peasant society, where all edible residues are reinvented in the next meal to eliminate waste.


The present research proposes a systematic literature review focused on the meso and micro level of circularity practices, considering their earlier stressed context, in the agrifood system by addressing the research question: What can we learn from inter- and intra-organization practices and experiences of Circular economy in the agrifood sector to assess the circular maturity of the sector? In particular, the research examines the practice’s characteristics, analyzing their goals and innovative or traditional nature.


Methods

To understand how circularity principles are embedded in the sector, case studies reported in scientific literature reporting examples of circularity at inter and intra-organizational level were collected and analyzed. To explore the state of the art, practices were analyzed according to the underlying processes and goals. Furthermore, to define the maturity of such practices, an assessment of their degree of innovativeness allowed a reflection on the actual maturity of the sector within the circularity context, completed by evaluating the level or circularity of the practices to compare the various food valorization options.


Regarding the level of innovativeness, practices were classified as i) conventional, incrementally innovative and iv) radically innovative. The first describes practices or processes already widely described in literature, e.g., compost or crop rotation. The second, practices based on existing knowledge and focused on an efficient use of resources. Finally, the third are practices based on new knowledge and aiming at redesigning the food system. Innovative practices are additionally classified as technological or socio-organizational innovation, where the second aims at modifying behaviour and norms.


The level of circularity was explored through a combination of the Food waste hierarchy and the R framework. The former introduces a pyramidal scheme to identify the most preferable options in terms of material conservation; the latter, connects the principles of circularity to a set of strategies all starting with the letter R, here 4 Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle and recover).


Results

The analysis collected 43 articles on the topic, showing increasing attention from the scientific community. Such an increase relates to the numerous international measures implemented to foster circularity, such as the European Green Deal. Interestingly, circular economy in the agri-food sector has gained the attention of journals with wide areas of research interest, indicating the progressive multidisciplinary nature of the circular economy. 


Moreover, the interest in the topic has spread geographically. The leading role of Europe confirms the relevance of the European Action Plan in boosting attention on this topic, but also Asian and South American countries are exploring the topic.


The study identified 162 circular practices, where more than half have a conventional nature. They are mainly directed at food waste recovery or optimizing resource use. However, these practices are related to lower levels of circularity since associated with recovery options (R 4), e.g., energy recovery, where there is no residual value reinserted in the supply chain. Nevertheless, reduction strategies are present in the sample, e.g., in the form of food donations.


Incrementally innovative practices have a relevant role too within context analysis. They are still largely focused on recovery strategies but describe more reduce and recycle options, which are characterized by a higher level of circularity. Interesting examples are sharing practices, meant as sharing of resources and tools but also of risks and financial resources of a given initiative. Finally, only a limited fraction is related to radically innovative practices, in line with the literature, given that circularity is usually based on existing knowledge and processes. In the sample, technological innovation is the most common, while socio-organization one limited.


In conclusion, the large number of conventional practices seems connected to the maturity of circular economy in the agri-food sector. Thus, conventional knowledge and skills may reorient the food system towards sustainable development. However, conventional practices mostly focus on waste recovery strategies which level of circularity is limited. Therefore, strategies aimed at maintaining the value of resources as long as possible, such as those of reduction, reuse or recycling should be prioritized. Incrementally innovative practices show a higher level of circularity and thus if combined with conventional knowledge, may foster circularity in the sector. Moreover, more socio-organization measures are crucial to make circularity a reality for the community.


Conclusions

The agri-food sector is crucial for the transition to sustainability.  Our daily choices, as producers and consumers, can significantly contribute to the resilience of the ecosystem.


Classifying processes and practices of the sector is crucial to understanding which strategies could promote the reuse or transformation of food in a sustainable sense.


The sector’s maturity has been assessed due to the large presence of conventional practices but with a low level of circularity. On the contrary, incrementally innovative practices show higher levels of circularity. Therefore, it is crucial to couple conventional knowledge with innovative techniques both in technological and socio-organizational terms.


This research enables to capture the characteristics of circular economy in the agrifood system and to report examples of best practices.


Do you want to find out more information on circular economy and its themes? Visit Tondo’s blog! And if you want to read the whole study, you can do it at this link.

Federica Scandurra

Federica Scandurra graduated with honors from the University of Catania in 2020, and then went on to do a PhD research at the University of Messina in Economics, Management and Statistics, in the profile ‘Circular economy in the Agri-food system – Evaluation of strategies of corporate interest related to the evaluation and application of circular economy and sustainability concepts in the a... Read more

Federica Scandurra graduated with honors from the University of Catania in 2020, and then went on to do a PhD research at the University of Messina in Economics, Management and Statistics, in the profile ‘Circular economy in the Agri-food system – Evaluation of strategies of corporate interest related to the evaluation and application of circular economy and sustainability concepts in the agri-food sector’.