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Sustainable Living Q1 2023

Redesigning our food system can allow nature to thrive

iStock / Getty Images Plus / a-lesa

Reniera O’Donnell

Lead, Food Initiative, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

A circular economy for food could safeguard production without degrading our natural resources. 

Within the hills of South Devon countryside, volunteers at Riverford’s Wash Farm have been planting 600 metres of new hedges. Once fully grown, these lines of native hawthorn, blackthorn and dog rose will act as a windbreak to protect new walnut trees and the soil.  

Hedgerows help to mitigate the changing climate by capturing and storing carbon — and provide a habitat for bats, birds and insects. 

Within the hedges, Riverford has been rethinking the way fruit and vegetables are grown. Herbicides and pesticides have disappeared in favour of boosting habitats for the small predators that will eat the insects that would eat the crops.  

It’s one example of a growing hunger to redesign our food system to boost yields while allowing nature to thrive. 

Lower impact, diverse, upcycled, regeneratively produced 

Plentiful diversity of animals and plants sustains our human species. Yet, our global industrial food system generates one-third of greenhouse gases and is the principal driver of biodiversity loss.   

However, there is a better way. The top ten food manufacturers and retailers alone influence the use of 40% of all agricultural land in the EU and UK. They can adopt a circular economy approach to the design of food.  

This is an actionable framework, making use of four design principles: use lower impact, diverse, and upcycled ingredients and crops, all produced in a way that regenerates the environment. 

By 2030, this system could reduce farm-level greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70% and increase biodiversity on farms by around 50%. 

The top ten food manufacturers and retailers alone influence the use of 40% of all agricultural land in the EU and UK.

Carefully selecting and upcycling ingredients 

Ingredient selection choices made by product development teams (and buying decisions by retailers) can actively enable farmers to regenerate nature. 

They can redesign and sell food products that include more diverse ingredients — choosing those that help build soil health, such as peas and beans that can fix nitrogen in the earth — and make exciting new ingredients from by-products that are often wasted. At the same time, they can ensure these ingredients have been grown in ways that support biodiversity and keep our air and waterways clean.  

One-third of food produced globally ends up being wasted. Manufacturers can help by opting for upcycled ingredients often consigned to the bin. For example, Rubies in the Rubble uses ingredients to make condiments that have been rejected by other manufacturers as oddly-shaped or coloured.  

Food producers can make food that can help nature thrive. Action at the manufacturer level means farmers can adopt an approach to managing natural systems that keep the aims of food production and the protection of nature in harmony. 

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