The Covid-19 pandemic has unveiled the dysfunctions in the current global agricultural and food systems, exposing many to insecurity and hunger. At the same time, it has also revealed certain communities’ extraordinary resilience, demonstrating that food is different from any other commodity. If, on the one hand, consumers’ demands for change are gaining ground, on the other hand, a more long-term approach is needed to repair the vulnerabilities of the food system: a circular economy for food that increases social and economic resistance to future shocks and prevents possible risks to health and climate. To understand how this kind of approach can be constructed, we spoke to Jocelyn Bleriot, the Executive Lead for Institutions, Governments and Cities at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
For several years now, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been committed to exploring how to build more resilient and circular cities. This work is becoming extremely important, and especially so in the last few months, concerning the issue of food provision in cities. It is precisely in the last few months that images of empty supermarket shelves were broadcast around the world. How can the relationship between cities and food be reimagined?
“When discussing agriculture and food, I think that the detachment between cities – the main centres of consumption – and agricultural production areas is very damaging to the resilience of the entire system. Furthermore, the system is all the more imperfect if we consider that all consumed nutrients end up concentrated in cities (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are required in larger quantities by plants, while calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, boron, and others are required in smaller quantities, but remain essential ed.). These nutrients do not return to the countryside, to production centres. The current system, therefore, is heavily imbalanced, with a one-way flow of nutrients from agricultural to urban areas, where their value is squandered. Fortunately, there are some examples of good practice. I’m thinking of Italy and the efforts of Milan City Council in the last few years. Milan’s Food Policy has demonstrated how much it is possible to do by collecting organic matter and waste, and their by-products. I believe that reintroducing nutrients into the system, and thus closing the circle, has to be the first step.”
In recent months, we have seen how crucial the existence of local food economies can be, given that sometimes those based on global supply chains do not work. What can be the starting point to create food systems that are more resilient than the current ones, thus ensuring food security for our cities?
“I would focus on rural areas in the immediate vicinity of cities. Many European cities still have agricultural land in peri-urban areas, just 30 or 40 kilometres away from the city centre. This land is vital. Fortunately, politics has also started to acknowledge the strategic importance of these territories for the future of cities. I’m thinking of Paris, where the construction of an enormous shopping centre and amusement park, called EuropaCity, has been widely discussed in the last decade. The centre was supposed to be located about 25 kilometres from Paris, in the Île-de-France region, one of the most fertile agricultural areas in northern France. In the last few months, however, the project was shelved, also following Macron’s withdrawal of 3.1 billion euro in funding, with the President describing EuropaCity as ‘obsolete’. Aside from the fact that the project really was terrible, it’s interesting to note how the decisions of consumers and individuals are changing. While it is true that people might not want to spend so much time shopping, it would also be foolish to cover such fertile land in cement, when instead it could become a production and sustenance centre on Paris’s doorstep. We must reach food security by investing in farmers’ markets, in collectives and cooperatives located on the outskirts of cities. It makes no sense that goods from small producers are sent to large, centralised warehouses and then distributed to supermarket chains and mixed with produce from all over the world. For individual citizen-consumers, there aren’t many chances to directly access products from local agriculture, even when these come from a few miles away from our homes. At the moment, the food and nutrient system is a one-way street, but once it is adequately developed there will also be a series of logistical questions to solve so that what is consumed, and its nutrients, can be returned to the land, which will not be too far away. Naturally, what is consumed should, first of all, come from renewable energy sources. But this will take time. The issue is one of mentality, logistics, and also, probably, legislation.”
Speaking of legislation, do you think that the European Commission is doing enough on agricultural policy, or should it be more courageous?
“In a general sense, I can say that politics should be a bit more courageous on every single issue. But, as we know, politics is also a compromise. To be honest, it is difficult to judge something I have not yet examined in great detail. However, I think the signals are very good when it comes to the EU’s Farm2Fork strategy, which requires a 20% reduction in fertiliser use by 2030, and a 50% reduction in chemical pesticide use by 2050. My main worry is not so much its ambition, but rather the ways in which the Common Agricultural Policy debate – which is one of the most difficult in Europe – will go ahead, and how it will be taken on by politicians and lobbyists. There will be very difficult discussions before it can become the guiding strategy for the future. Therefore, at the very least, it is crucial that the Commission is ambitious in these early stages.”
How has the perception of the circular economy, and in particular the circular economy for food, changed in light of the Covid-19 crisis?
“The crisis came at the time when all debate was focused on the European Green Deal, so the idea of changing the system was already out there. The crisis could have overshadowed and shelved the Green Deal debate, but I don’t think any steps back have been taken. Instead, I see many encouraging signals among producers and retailers. I see people tapping into local networks, and local networks self-organising. There is also the increased demand for organic products, as well as the increased attention people are paying to food, and their health, after having spent more time cooking. Many have started asking themselves questions about pesticides, about the toxicity of certain foods, about how these are produced. And then, naturally, to start questioning the issue of packaging and plastics.”
It’s true, the issues of food, food security, and hygiene are inextricably linked with the question of packaging and plastics. How can we curb rampant overpackaging and the overuse of single-use products, which has once again become prominent?
“Plastic is a very useful material. But I don’t think it’s the material itself that is being condemned. It’s the way we use it. We have to move the debate on to reuse practices and packaging design. These are issues that can be very interesting for manufacturers, even from an economic perspective. Worries about people’s health are valid, but there have also been studies that have shown that, if properly treated, this packaging does not present a health risk. In fact, by focusing on adequate reuse strategies, there would be the further advantage of keeping these materials in circulation. Thus, the need to source virgin materials would diminish, leading to lower costs and less pollution. The problem of plastic disposal is a ticking time bomb. However, as we have seen in recent months with single-use gloves and masks – which caused a spike in pollution – it did not take long to react and move on to reusable masks. As is to be expected from any crisis, there were undoubtedly some excesses and a little irrationality. However, for hygiene and security reasons, it looks like masks and many types of packaging are here to stay. So, we need to understand how to lessen their impact as much as possible.”
Where do you see the best opportunities for investment at this time?
“As a Foundation, in recent months, we have been asking ourselves which sector will generate the next wave of jobs in the wake of the global crisis. Construction will undoubtedly be a key sector that requires better management of materials. There will also be opportunities in the food industry. We have identified two sectors in particular as the most promising within the food and agriculture industry: the creation of tools that allow farmers to transition to regenerative agricultural practices, and the collection, distribution, and enhancement infrastructure for food products and by-products. Using technology and artificial intelligence, enormous economic opportunities can be created in these sectors. However, to seize these opportunities we have to be able to show companies the tremendous benefits and savings that are in store. We have to crunch the numbers and show them the results. At the same time, I think it is necessary to move on to a phase where the circular economy becomes a broader proposal: it has to be made appealing as a social prospect, as an economy that can allow us to prosper, creating a clean and competitive Europe. It is necessary to highlight this narrative. The fact that, currently, low-middle income population groups do not have access to high-quality products is a systemic dysfunction that must be eliminated.”
What challenges do you see on the horizon for the circular economy?
“Covid-19 has represented a crucial moment for the global economy and the idea of a circular economy. China, for example, has included the circular economy in its policies for a long time, and just a few weeks ago published a new stance on plastics. Many places in Latin America – such as Chile and the Caribbean – have started speaking about eco-design, about EPR schemes and overpackaging. Many regions and countries in Southeast Asia are trying to develop their own strategies. The challenge of the future will be to capitalise on these various efforts, creating a common language and agreeing on specific objectives. When looking into the circular economy and legislation, many countries do not know where to begin. And thus comes the risk that, without agreement on the same concepts, there could be potentially contradictory policies at the global level. Instead, the existing level of globalisation must be accounted for, because material flows and supply chains are globalised. It is a well-known fact that product standards play a very important role. Individual initiatives are important, but they have to be inserted in a common framework and we all must come to an agreement about what we mean by circular economy.”
Photo credit: Giada Connestari