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Here's what the future of circular food looks like

The complexity of the food system requires an interdisciplinary perspective defining the characteristics of a regenerative economic paradigm.

Growing vegetables on the rooftop of the building

Growing vegetables on the rooftop of the building

If the agri-food industry wants to contribute to achieving SDGs it must embrace circularity, cut waste and value social and natural capital. It also must favor local scale while paying attention to the global context.

Gourmet Carlo Petrini is founder and chairman of the Slow Food Movement and the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. Franco Fassio s a designer and professor of EcoDesign, systemic design and circular economy for food at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo. Renewable Matter gathered their views on the food system health and the cultural framework that should characterize its development.

Emanuele Bompan: Carlo Petrini, what is the picture of food production and distribution system at this time, unfortunately marked by a serious pandemic?

Carlo Petrini: Our current food production is certainly neither democratic nor sustainable. Increasingly longer, complex and conformed globalized food chains have cut connections between ecological units that made food production the outcome of a healthy relation with nature. Our economy lives by overshooting our planetary boundaries, adopting a predatory and unrestrained approach that is killing our shared home. Enough with naivety and poetry, going back to the soil is a political issue. "The soil is low," says an old farmer’s proverb: It means that to get connected with it, we must bend down to gather and safekeep its heritage.

Today, something is changing, and probably the pandemic we are fighting has accelerated this going back to the soil. Amongst all jobs, farming has often been that to get away from due to the physical exhaustion it entails and uncertain economic return it offers. Nevertheless, COVID-19, together with the fear of having no food and the suffering caused by imposed isolation in houses surrounded by concrete, led to a revaluation of working the land. The current situation is strengthening in us the tight connection that we feel with the land for our livelihood. We must adopt choices and paths that give a new identity to food policies and change trends that are currently steered by the market. Governments must help SMEs become innovative, sustainable and circular. Our food production system must be renewed in this way. Starting from food, developing an economic paradigm shift towards circularity means refocusing on communities, quality of connections and substance of behaviors.

Bompan: Do we need to start preserving our shared home by valuing food once again?

Petrini: Defending our shared home is a political as well as an everyday life’s duty. Pope Francis highlighted it very well in his encyclical Laudato si’ — everything is connected — earth’s cry is connected to that of the poor because there can be no social justice in a degraded environment. This is the way to look at the world through integral ecology’s eyes: a set of connections where the smallest action can influence the rest of the system, where there are no supremacies between humankind and the environment, where we are all co-responsible for the planet’s suffering. Today more than ever, the only solution to guarantee us a future is to create alliances while reminding us that there is only one human family and that we all belong to the same fate community.

To tackle this emergency, our food system must once again give the right importance to relational goods, acting locally but with a global perspective shared by all.

The recommended good practice to embrace the ecological conversion that we all need is clear — simple at face value but exceedingly difficult to put into practice — dialogue. Only through our ability to meet the other, to build bridges, to make contact with what is different to maintain our own identity while contaminating and enriching it with others, will we regenerate our common sense and the awareness that no one can be saved on one’s own and that changing habits is easier when done together. Perhaps, starting with food as a baseline for connecting with other living beings. Bestowing value to food means giving the right importance to the pleasure of eating, through human and environment health, learning to appreciate diversity, recognizing a system quality, respecting seasons’ rhythm, and conviviality. Entrusting the young with this challenge is the most modern thing that we can do.

Bompan: How can we rethink our food system so that it can help this paradigm shift?

Franco Fassio: It is clear that the current geopolitical challenge of our food system is that of revolutionizing its production model starting from a correct management of natural capital connected to the economic and cultural one, respecting planetary boundaries and offering at the same time a fair space to civil society. The complexity of the food system requires an interdisciplinary perspective defining the characteristics of a regenerative economic paradigm. We must embrace wholeheartedly the ambition to reconnect our economy to ecosystem balance sustaining life on our planet which humankind is devouring with incredible voracity. In other words, it means starting from avoiding compromising the relationship with the best provider of raw material known to humankind, moving from a linear economy based on apparent abundance and accessibility to a tailor-made economy fairly distributed, borne out of affective intelligence.

To tackle this emergency, our food system must once again give the right importance to relational goods, acting locally but with a global perspective shared by all. Innovation, such as that in the digital field, can become a useful tool to strengthen the sense of community since only by changing our attitude and our approach can we really bring about change. It is a transformational process heading towards an all-out fighting against waste, researching new and non-impacting energy sources, limiting unnecessary consumption. Empathy, listening, debating, reciprocity, generosity — these are values that the new mindset can get out of the shallows of this destabilizing crisis, both for us and the context in which we live. The agri-food industry can amply contribute to the development of this paradigm and new opportunities can come from involving all the steps and players of the food system, from production to distribution as far as consumption and final disposal. Regardless of the company’s size, it is paramount to adopt a systemic-circular approach to meet new needs. A modus operandi based on interconnection and taking advantage of the potential offered by connecting different situations with the desire to optimize resources and processes, sharing objectives, improving employment, competitiveness, innovation, market positioning, creation of social-economic value. Ahead of us there is a season full of obstacles and variables, but we can win the game with awareness and determination if we embrace this perspective.

Bompan: I know that at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo you have been working on the definition of the cultural framework in which to develop the circular economy for food. Could you describe to us its main characteristics?

Fassio: After the publication of the book "Circular Economy for Food" in 2018, in Pollenzo we opened the Circular Economy for Food Hub and a Laboratory for Sustainability and the Circular Economy, of which I am the executive director, to monitor the trend of the circular economy for food, support the cultural shift process and the dissemination of expertise amongst new generations, spread good practices, help businesses and communities move towards an increasingly necessary transition. By analyzing multiple case studies, we realized that the new economic paradigm runs the risk of becoming a model favoring a manipulative approach to waste, a paradox that could accelerate planned obsolescence. This is a deviation that we cannot afford, so we need a different cultural framework in which this paradigm can be nurtured. A shared inclusive path, with a simple narrative but with a complex articulation, to follow each with one’s own means. This is how the 3 C's of the Circular Economy for Food came about. We think they perfectly embody the priorities of the circular economy paradigm applied to the food system: capital; cyclicity; co-evolution.

In short, the new economic paradigm must start from preserving natural capital at local level, the entire stock of natural assets — living organisms, air, water, soil and geological resources — contributing to the provision of valuable goods and services for humankind and necessary for the survival of the very environment generating them. Natural capital is connected with cultural capital — that is, the set of knowledge, values and attitudes towards natural and social ecosystems — that must be preserved and handed down as a precious heritage so that it can become, from one generation to the next, an integrated vision with the future, able to provide a distributed and fair source of income while feeding the economic capital.

To operate within this framework, businesses will have to be equipped with across-the-board expertise capable of understanding the needs of civil society, production system and environmental context.

Our second C (cyclicity) invites us to think in a regenerative way and it includes three crucial concepts: extension; metabolization; and renewability. First, the extension of producer responsibility that from the origin of raw materials must take on the responsibility of the entire lifecycle of a product, including its disposal and must allow consumers to cut waste and be able to use separate waste collection correctly. Second, metabolization, that is the final upcycling of everything marketed, with the goal of not generating waste but always just resources for the same or another system (biological and technical metabolization cycle). To this end, it is essential to adopt strategies favoring its implementation such as those suggested by eco-design for production (of materials and energy adopted both in the production and use of a product and its final disposal), for purity (reduction of materials harmful for ecosystems and non-metabolizable), for disassembling (because a product must be repairable over time and at the end of life it must be disassembled so as to recover the most energy and matter possible), for durability (to extend the lifecycle and move business from selling products to selling services). The last is renewability; that is the longest use of energy and matter derived from renewable sources.

Lastly, the third C (co-evolution), inspired by the mutualistic symbiosis present in nature, a dynamic exchange in which one or more subjects take advantage of the relation they build, offering a beneficial solution for all those involved in the system. Co-evolution is developed thanks to a collaborative paradigm, which, by applying a win-win logic, offers a beneficial solution for all, including the environment. Solidarity (amongst people and populations to reduce social inequality and offer access to quality food), debate (between natural and artificial ecosystems to eliminate the asynchronicity between human economic models and natural cycles), cooperation (between communities sharing values and goals), sharing (matter, energy and information to speed up the transition and facilitate evolution), health (of people and businesses, with widespread availability so as to generate a resilient system offering guarantees to communities) are the priorities that we must work on to give it resilience.

Bompan: Are the 3 C's a framework both for businesses and end consumers?

Fassio: Our consumer society is based on permanent dissatisfaction, on promises that must be constantly broken to generate new ones: without the ongoing frustration of desires, consumer demand could run dry and markets could lose momentum. It is against this scenario that we must create a new meeting point between cultures, which through action and information can share the responsibility for sustainable development. A round table in which both businesses and consumers must take part, with the goal to create benchmarks and solutions based on science that can really support this necessary economic paradigm transition. The objective is to identify common interests starting from an increasingly complex understanding of players, so as to generate proposals going beyond our well-established habits, that is the worst hindrance to experimenting new development models.

The 3 Cs synthesize without trivializing them the hot topics on which this dialogue must be based. They are an interpretation that, by using the leverage offered by ood, has an impact on all the 17 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), national strategy for sustainable development and from which we get the concept of "system quality." The latter is defined not only by the flow of data between consumer and production system of matter/energy in the opposite direction, but it is also extended to the relations characterizing the actions of all players involved in the lifecycle of a product/service available on the market. Relations that, if traceable and transparent, will be the real narrative infrastructure for a dialogue between producer and consumer. In other words, to operate within this framework, businesses will have to be equipped with across-the-board expertise capable of understanding the needs of civil society, production system and environmental context. On the other hand, consumers will need to learn how to recognize, and thus choose consciously, businesses working for the safeguard of all parties involved, contributing to common good and the development of value relations. Highlighting the presence of systems connecting with each other, creating something that goes beyond the simple sum of single elements, in which humans should be an integral part and not an invader, takes us back to the regenerative and systemic paradigm underlying the bioeconomy and the circular economy. Because in a single interconnected system, relations determine what we are.

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