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3 ways to accelerate a circular food system, even in the middle of a pandemic

At Circularity 20, experts, founders, and practitioners described how to embed circular economy principles in our food system.

An empty shelf at a grocery store amid the coronavirus pandemic.

An empty shelf at a grocery store amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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The world produces more than enough food to feed the people living on it. But about 690 million people worldwide still went hungry in the last year. And an estimated 1.3 billion metric tons of food — about one-third of all the food produced for human consumption — is lost or wasted globally each year, according to the United Nations.

In economic terms, there’s massive demand. There’s abundant supply. But our current food system is unable to connect the two.

"The system has to change," Dame Ellen MacArthur, internationally renowned sailor and sustainability expert, said on the virtual stage at GreenBiz Group’s circular economy conference, Circularity 20, in late August.

A circular food economy could be the answer. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular food economy produces organic, healthy food using natural, regenerative, soil-supporting growing practices. Any byproducts or waste can create additional new food, fabrics or bioenergy inputs. The resources of local ecosystems can be used to feed their communities.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown just how necessary a better food system is. The pandemic and subsequent economic shutdowns have upended global food supply chains. But at Circularity 20, companies showed that they were already pushing for progress on the circular economy. MacArthur noted that she’s already seen how businesses are pushing for progress on a circular economy, now more than ever.

"This is something that’s moved phenomenally quickly in the last five years, and I think that’s because it has to," she said. "The brands know it has to."

Here are three ways companies are helping accelerate circularity in our food system at this moment.

1. Prevent food waste at the farm level by working with growers

Amid the pandemic, millions of children aren’t able to receive the free lunches at school they may need, employees are working from home and don’t get meals in corporate cafeterias, and restaurants cannot serve as many people because they’re operating at smaller capacities.

That has meant a dearth in buyers for farmers — who are still growing and harvesting their crops. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents small farms and ranches, released a report in late March that projected these small growers could face a decline in sales of as much as $688.7 million. 

That’s because their perishable surpluses are cheaper to discard than to figure out how to store, ship and sell. Unfortunately, this isn’t a unique situation during the pandemic — it happens frequently during every growing season. 

But food waste organizations are intervening to prevent this food from being wasted before it ends up in the landfill. FarmLink Project, for example, has been able to save 10 million pounds of produce from being wasted on farms and diverting them instead to food banks and communities.

"Farmers don’t want to be burying their food," said Aidan Reilly, founder of the FarmLink Project, during a Circularity 20 session about fighting food waste during the pandemic. "They especially don’t want to be paying to bury their food. Many times, they can get insurance, but they still have to pay landfill fees or taxes or regulations."

Food intended for composting

An external organization such as FarmLink reaches out to both farm owners who have lost out on contracts amid the pandemic, and to food banks nearby that are facing increasing demand for their services. Then, the organization uses donations to cover the costs of the harvest, pays the farm workers to pack up the extra food, and arranges for drivers to deliver the loads from the fields to the food banks.

"It’s an issue of convenience and timing for the farmer," he said. "That’s where we can come in.

"The impact COVID has had on this space is that it has really just highlighted this issue, and brought it back to the forefront. At the same time, it has created an incentive and an openness and willingness to try to fix the problem."

2. Work with governments to create resilient local food systems

The pandemic has shown that local communities are more important than ever. In the absence of national leadership to fight the spread of the disease, much of the work has fallen to local governments.

Local governments have had to encourage residents to stay home to stop the spread of the disease, while still ensuring that they aren’t going hungry if they need to stay home and not go to work. 

Zeb McLaurin, director of sustainability at Atlanta-based food recovery startup Goodr, spoke at Circularity 20 about how his organization has used government partnerships during the pandemic to collaborate and create a more resilient circular food system on a community scale.

Having local growers provide food for their communities means less transportation time, which helps keep produce fresher for longer, extending its value for consumers.

McLaurin said the pandemic offered Goodr the opportunity to receive contracts with city and county governments to help feed people. "We have always wanted to help as a government aid," he explained. "Preparation met opportunity when COVID struck." 

He added that his organization also has been approached by local governments asking for help creating composting systems — such as building anaerobic digesters — a key part of managing the waste of a circular food economy.

3. Leverage emerging technology

Scaling circular practices in food systems isn’t an easy task. But new technologies on display at the circular economy conference have the potential to help companies and communities.

Technologies such as blockchain can be used for supply chain transparency, so that decision-makers and consumers know more about where food comes from and the regenerative practices that were used to grow it.

Other technologies such as smart-design labelling can show exactly when food spoils to prevent edible food from being thrown out. One startup presented this technology during Circularity 20’s startup pitch competition, Accelerate. The company, Mimica, created a label called Mimica Touch. Consumers run their fingers over it, and if the label is smooth, the food is fresh. If it has bumps, it has spoiled.

Mimica Lab label

The Mimica label shows consumers exactly when food spoils. If there are bumps, the food has spoiled.

Mimica Lab


"Expiration dates are set at the worst-case scenario, but the reality is that we keep our food much better than that. Dates are shortened to protect consumers in the rare case of problems in the supply chain or in our homes," said Mimica founder and director Solveiga Pakštaitė.

During a pandemic where many people around the world are unable to make it to the store as frequently as before, but still need healthy, fresh produce, this new technology can extend food’s shelf-life and help retailers’ bottom lines.

"Add back just two days, and we can see food waste being cut in half in our stores, more than that in our homes, and sales go up when shelf life is extended," Pakštaitė added. "With products like juice and beef, the shelf life doubles."

Overall, a more circular food system is something that can help both companies and consumers. 

"Businesses are already paying millions of dollars a year to throw away perfectly good food," said Jasmine Crowe, CEO of Goodr, who spoke on the virtual stage at Circularity 20. "Waste is not a new spend on anybody’s line item. This is something that every business is paying for — so how can we get businesses to think about what is going into landfills differently?"

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