Circular food systems as a system approach

As explained in the previous article a circular economy seeks to close the loop of resources through the establishment of restorative and regenerative systems. Circular economy business models can be established in different and cross sectors. Agriculture is the backbone of the African economy, therefore it is interesting to gain a better understanding of the essence of circular economy in the food systems (circular food systems).

What are circular food systems?

First of all, it is important to understand that a circular economy in the agricultural sector is part of a wider concept. One of the most recent studies about circular agriculture is from Wageningen University (WUR), which describes ‘circular agriculture’ as an integral part of ‘circular food systems’ (1). WUR explains a circular food system concept as “keep residuals of agricultural biomass and food processing within the food system as renewable resources”. In other words, a circular economy approach encompasses the full value chain of producing food for human consumption including “agricultural activities and other means, through handling, transportation, storage, processing, distribution and consumption to organic (including human) waste management and disposal” (2). This acknowledges that a circular economy approach cannot only consider agriculture, but it requires an overall circular food system approach. A circular food system approach includes issues as economics and governance of food production, its sustainability, the effects of food production on the natural environment, the degree of food waste and the impact of food on the health at individual and population level (3).

The literature specifies the concept further as a system that “implies searching for practices and technology that minimize the input of finite resources (like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, water) from the food system, and stimulate the reuse and recycling of inevitable resource losses in a way that adds the highest possible value to food system” (4). This includes a more efficient use of scarce resources, reduction of wasted biomass and imports, such as inorganic fertilizers (1). Some researchers underline that a circular food system considers plant biomass as the foundation of the circular food production system. This means biomass should primarily be utilized to produce human food. By-products from food production, processing and consumption are either recycled or reused into the food system (4). For instance, food waste of restaurants can be collected and transformed into compost or insect-based animal feed or cow manure can be utilized to produce biogas for cooking. Following the example of biogas, the scholars Boer and Van Ittersum describe that an optimal circular food system utilizes animals to unlock inedible biomass for humans into useful food, ecosystem services and manure (4). In other words circular food systems can be considered as an ecosystem, whereby crops and animals (livestock) live together in a closed system. Other examples of circular economy showcases in Africa and examples of closed circular ecosystems will be published in the next coming articles.

Circular food systems as a system approach 

After defining circular food systems, it can be concluded that circular agriculture can only be accomplished by a system approach. Some authors even stress that circular agriculture is an integral part of a circular food system within a “biobased” society (5). Consequently, a system approach requires the inclusion of different scales including scope and time. For instance, it is essential to close circular agriculture at local scale. However, for national or global food production system different local cycles need to be closed and connected (5). Furthermore, a system approach is not only focused one value chain, but also on cross value chains, industries and other aspects of the food system. Especially since by-products can be used in different ways or are coming from processers, such as food waste or lost from bakeries or restaurants. It can be concluded that the collaborations between different stakeholders, such as private and public sector, are essential to establish circular food systems (2). For instance, a startup that transform organic waste into organic briquettes for energy, it is crucial to have access to high quantities of organic waste. In the Africa context, this would require collaborations with industries/markets/restaurants etc. to receive high quantities and qualities of organic waste.

Circular food systems in Africa

Circular food systems have a great potential in African economies and countries, especially since African cities has large quantities of organic waste compared to developed countries. Collaborations within food systems to establish a circular economy through a proper waste collection infrastructure can unlock large potentials for start-ups and reduce costs for existing agricultural companies. Furthermore, it has the potential increase in productivity and income of farmers by transforming organic waste into inexpensive organic fertilizers, animal feed and other value additions. On top of that, most of the African countries are emerging economies that have the potential to choose for a green and circular economy without implementing a strong linear industrialization. The potentials of circular food systems in Africa and implemented business models will be further discussed in the next following articles

Author: Elke Nijman

References of this article

(1)  Wageningen University & Research. (n.d.). Circular agriculture: a new perspective for Dutch agriculture. Retrieved from

(2) Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2019). Cities and circular economy for food. Retrieved from

(3) University of Oxford. (n.d.). What is the food system? Retrieved from

(4) De Boer, I. J. M., & Van Ittersum, M. K. (2018). Circularity in agricultural production. Retrieved from

(5)  Scholten, M. C. T., Bianchi, F. J. J. A., Boer de, I. J. M., Conijn, J. G., Dijkstra, J., Doorn van, A. M., … Woltjer de, G. B. (2018). Technische Briefing Kringlooplandbouw. Retrieved from

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