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Returning nutrients to the land: Learnings from Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Big Food Workshop

Two tractors harvesting in a field

Naseem Buras/Unsplash

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation brought together city representatives, chefs, food industry executives and other thought leaders to discuss how to redesign our food system in order to make it an active contributor to the economic recovery and the regeneration of the natural world, during the Big Food Workshop, a three-day online workshop June 15-17. This blog sums up the solutions and ideas put forward during the workshop, as well as my reflections and conclusions. Read the recap from days one and two.

After talking about cultivating, processing, cooking and eating food on the first two days of the Big Food Workshop, day three took us back full circle to the source of most of our food — the land. We were joined by seven outstanding speakers who spanned time zones ranging from Beijing to California and who eloquently made the case for the need to return organic nutrients to the soil. 

Speaking about the recent outbreak of COVID-19 in Beijing this week, Shi Yan, executive director of Shared Harvest farm, illustrated just how necessary and urgent it is to make our vulnerable food system more resilient. The wholesale food market to which most of the latest COVID-19 cases in China are connected also supplies 80 percent of the city’s residents with fresh produce. Upon hearing the news of the outbreak, alarmed residents of Beijing rushed to their local grocery stores fearful that they soon wouldn’t be able to find fresh produce, leaving behind empty supermarket shelves. Even before the pandemic, Chinese urbanites had started to seek out locally sourced food, Yan said, sending the demand for produce from Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations, which connect farmers with consumers, soaring. 

The need to reconnect people with local food systems repeatedly was highlighted at the event. During our last session, several speakers noted the tremendous opportunity it represents for closing nutrient loops and shifting to a regenerative, distributed and healthier food system.

The wholesale food market to which most of the latest COVID-19 cases in China are connected also supplies 80 percent of the city’s residents with fresh produce.

To Patrick Holden, Wales-based farmer and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, relocalizing food production will require as much effort as a war effort. It will require farmers engaging in more regenerative practices and finding ways to accurately measure their impact on the environment; consumers adapting their diets to what can grow in their region; and policymakers encouraging the right kind of farming practices while deterring harmful ones.

Technology plays an important role in redesigning our relationship with food. Speakers James Ehrlich, founder of tech-based real estate development company ReGen Villages, and Chicko Sousa of GreenPlat, a software platform that ensures the traceability of resource flows, illustrated ways we can harness digital capabilities to enable circular economy solutions for food. Using machine learning and big data analytics, the two entrepreneurs are working to integrate food, energy and water systems to create self-sufficient communities and to improve our understanding of bio-material flows in cities.

Showcasing the new type of business-to-business collaboration needed for a circular economy, Garry Crawford, VP for international affairs at resource management multinational Veolia, and Gauthier Boels, circular economy director at Yara International, spoke about their collaborative partnership called the Nutrient Upcycling Alliance (NUA), which aims to transform what otherwise would be organic waste streams into fertilizers. Crawford and Boels both serve on the advisory board of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Food initiative and we have been working closely to conceptualize NUA, which soon will be launched as a pilot scheme in the city of London. 

I liked how transparent they both were about the need to scale up such collaborations. "Through this partnership, Yara would be providing the agricultural inputs on the one hand and Veolia would manage the [food and bio] waste on the other. ... Obviously, this is very ambitious and we know that we won’t succeed on our own. That’s why we’ve created this alliance; we want other actors in the food value chain to be involved," Boels said.

Creating a circular economy for food can give us the tools to not only recover from the shocks of COVID-19, but to build an economy that works better for people and the environment.

A creative solution to cycle organic nutrients that I’ve seen deployed more is feeding organic waste to black soldier flies, a tremendous source of protein-packed animal feed. Joining from Nairobi, David Auerbach of Sanergy, a resource management company, talked about its innovative work to turn the Kenyan capital’s organic waste into nutrients for black soldier fly larvae. After harvesting, pasteurizing and drying the flies, Sanergy sells them as an ingredient that can displace other protein sources — such as fish in animal feed, thus obviating the environmental impacts associated with fishing.

Looking back at the last three days, the message is clear: a circular economy for food is not a future aspiration, but very much something happening around the world now. More than ever, we face an urgent need to redesign food systems in ways that allow people, businesses and nature to thrive, while addressing global challenges such as climate change. Creating a circular economy for food can give us the tools to not only recover from the shocks of COVID-19, but also to build an economy that works better for people and the environment. We at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation will continue to work towards making this vision a reality. 

You can find the recordings of all the Big Food Workshop sessions, as well as other resources on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation website. Thank you for following me on this blog. If it has sparked your interest in a circular economy for food, I encourage you to tune into Friday’s episode of the GreenBiz 350 podcast.

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