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Giving back to the land — one food and drink product at a time

Manufacturers and retailers have the keys to unlocking a food system that regenerates rather than degrades nature, via circular design. The Big Food Redesign Challenge shows them how.

Orange sign that reads "What if food could build biodiversity" at Big Food Redesign Challenge launch event in 2023

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation's Big Food Redesign Challenge kicked off with a launch event in London in May 2023. The design phase began in the fall, and a subset of products will reach the showcase phase in 2025. Source: Chris Cooper/ShotAway via The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

What do chickpea noodles, ancient grain porridge and cactus cookies have in common, apart from the fact that they wouldn’t linger for long in my kitchen cupboard?

These are just three of the enticing food and drink products that have successfully progressed to the production phase of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Big Food Redesign Challenge. Launched a year ago with the help of the Sustainable Food Trust, the contest aims to encourage the food industry to create products that actively help nature thrive. 

The design phase kicked off last autumn with 186 products. After submitting detailed plans to our judging panel, 166 products from companies across every continent have been given the go-ahead to proceed to the production phase. The products that our judges continue to regard as bringing positive gains for nature will reach the final showcase phase in 2025 — the chance to be stocked in retailers including Waitrose in the U.K. and Carrefour Group in Brazil.

The Big Food Redesign Challenge aims to bring a circular economy to the food industry, giving manufacturers the opportunity to design (or redesign) food products so that they have an actively positive impact on the natural world.

The ambition for the challenge is high. The food system currently has a huge negative impact on the natural world, generating one-third of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and half of human-induced pressures on biodiversity. GHGs are generated in the process of farming, harvesting, catching, transporting, processing, packaging, distributing and cooking, as well as the disposal of waste. Meanwhile, clearing land for agriculture causes habitat loss, while many conventional farming practices lead to air and water pollution and the overexploitation of natural resources.

An opportunity for food manufacturers

It is universally recognized (including, for the first time, in the published outcomes of COP28) that a circular economy approach offers a significant role in mitigating climate change. Given the food system’s major contribution to the problem, it is a worthwhile industry to tackle.

The Big Food Redesign Challenge aims to bring a circular economy to the food industry, giving manufacturers the opportunity to design (or redesign) food products so that they have an actively positive impact on the natural world. 

Circular design helps to achieve this. In a nutshell, it means maximizing the use of what we already produce so that people are fed while actively regenerating nature. This means protecting and prioritizing the diversity of individual landscapes — a key aspect of a healthy-functioning ecosystem. 

Food manufacturers have great potential to facilitate the protection and revival of landscapes via their design and purchasing decisions. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Design For Food Framework (which forms our judging criteria for the challenge) gives a guide to how. It’s rooted in regenerative production but also extends to three key ingredient sourcing strategies — upcycling, lower impact and diverse, as well as a circular approach to packaging:

Circular design for food framework (for Big Food Redesign Challenge)

Source: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The foundation is mentoring the progressive food companies embarking on this path. As part of the challenge, we’re offering them expert assistance, helping them get retail listings and championing their innovative spirit in support of scaling design choices that enable nature to thrive. 

The products being created (or further developed) come from a range of product sectors, including pet food, alcoholic beverages and snacks. 

Design choices feed the land

Spoon Cereals’ ancient grain porridge is among the products that has advanced to the production phase of the challenge. The popularity of porridge in the U.K. (the company’s base) means that its design has great potential for positive impact. 

Oats (usually the white variety) are often farmed using high-intensity methods involving chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The Spoon version uses black oats, a diverse variety of the crop that is naturally pest-resistant, as well as okara, a high protein oat-milk byproduct that is generally fed only to animals but can be upcycled into an ingredient. 

The team at Spoon has also found a cunning way to make use of the oat hull — a derivative of oat milling — to form 25 percent of the product’s compostable packaging.

Kenyan company Dunia Bora is also through to the production phase of the challenge. Designed with Kenya’s arid landscape in mind, it plans to turn desert cactus plants — which support soil health and require little water to grow — into flour for cookies and the resulting pulp into juice. What the company calls "deformed" bananas (those that would usually go to waste due to their shape) are also used as an ingredient, reducing potential waste via upcycling. 

Landscape (desert, mountains) near South Horr village, Kenya

Dunia Bora, based in Kenya, plans to turn desert cactus plants into flour for cookies and the resulting pulp into juice. Source: Shutterstock/Matyas Rehak

Shutterstock/Matyas Rehak

Dunia Bora has also prioritized ingredients that it can source locally, helping to bring resilience to ecosystems and communities.

All in for nature

Most companies taking part in the challenge are startups (such as Dunia Bora), able to dive straight into a market with their original ideas and nimble ways of working. The founders of many small- and medium-size enterprises that have advanced to the production phase have already demonstrated their resilience by launching in the wake of the pandemic. We look forward to following their progress over the next 12 months of the challenge as they develop and refine their circular business models.

We are equally pleased to have participation from large brands, such as Nestle-owned Maggi, which created noodles made with chickpea flour. Chickpeas have a relatively low impact on the environment as they require little water to grow. The project also involves the regeneration of previously infertile land via partnership with local farmers in the Anantapur region of India.

The magnitude of multinationals’ operations means that circular design choices can be tested out at scale, enabling others in the industry to eventually benefit from this experimental work and for the benefits to filter into the health of our landscapes.

If you work in or with the food industry and are excited by these green shoots of recovery, please get in touch to find out more. A catalog with full details of the products involved will be made available to retailers in March.

We’ll be updating the participants’ progress on our website, and will bring GreenBiz readers stories from the challenge later this year.

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