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Agriculture: Treading a circular path

It is high time we take a different way, a radical shift from conventional approaches and models

Post by on Saturday, June 18, 2022

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The diverse food systems across the globe have led to a phenomenal increase in the food gains production all over. Unfortunately all this has not come without an enormous negative environmental impact. The role of agriculture in feeding a growing world population of 9–10 billion people by 2050 and achieving SDGs by 2030 is under serious threat. These food systems are further responsible for deforestation, biodiversity loss, pollution of water bodies besides taking up 40% of the world’s ice and desert-free land. Our soils are being depleted, biodiversity is declining at a rapid rate, clean drinking water is growing scarce, and more than 820 million people don’t have enough to eat. Another issue with food systems across the globe is the food loss and wastage. Roughly a third of the food produced worldwide is wasted, totaling 1.3 billion tons per year. For foods that are ultimately not eaten, the environmental impact has been for nothing. The humans have put so much of strain on the planet that it is not wrong to say that if things continue like this it will become unlivable. The way we produce food by compromising with our precious resources has put a question mark on the sustainability of such systems and practices used.

The present models of development have not proved to be sustainable and all inclusive and on the other hand we are fast heading towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs have to be achieved by 2020. Achieving them within the time period set will require use to change the way we do, the way we produce and the way we think. The future of food production is an urgent issue. What we need to do is develop a sustainable form of food production on this planet.                The continued and increasing demand for products still produced in a ‘linear way’ puts direct pressure on resources. The linear model works on the theory of ‘take-produce-consume-discard’. It involves a lot of losses and wastages. The current agri-food systems are also based on supply chains, consisting of actors who each aim to gain the greatest economic benefit. Each party uses the raw materials at its disposal and processes these at the minimum costs with the aim to get maximum returns. However, individual parties still insufficiently consider the system as a whole. Most of the agriculture value chain is still not regulated. It is still mostly focused on parts of the system. This is a serious flaw and the agriculture production systems, more so in the less developed and low income countries still suffer from leakages, wastages, inefficiencies and other undesirable effects.

From a linear path, we need to move towards and adopt a circular path. It simply means that residues of agricultural biomass and food processing are kept within the food system as a source of renewable energy. J. V. Bruchem from Wageningen University and Research (WUR) is credited for doing the basic work related to circular agriculture. Van Berkum and his associates envisioned it as a model for sustainable development in contrast to this linear model of agriculture; they said that the circularity stands against the linear economic model of ‘take-produce-consume-discard’ and entails three economic activities, to be referred to as the 3Rs: reuse, recycle and reduce existing (used) materials and products. What was earlier considered as waste or surplus becomes a resource that is (re-valorized). Some agricultural production systems (especially agro-ecology in a strict sense and many traditional agricultural production systems) can be wholly or partially described as circular agriculture. According to Berkum and his associates, Circular agriculture is an ecological concept that is based on the principle of optimizing the use of all biomass. Circular agriculture is aimed at closing the loop of materials and substances, and reducing both resource use and discharges into the environment. Moving towards a circular food system implies searching for practices and technology that minimize the input of finite resources, encourage the use of regenerative ones, prevent the leakage of natural resources (e.g. carbon (C), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), 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 the food system.

Circular agriculture underlines a very symbiotic relationship between its different components. It looks on the one hand at all the activities relating to the production, processing, distribution and utilization of food, and on the other hand at the outcomes of these activities in terms of food security (including nutrition), socio-economic (income, employment) and the environment (biodiversity, climate). It is based on the optimization of the use of all biomass in the food system. Circular agriculture intends to close the loop of materials and substances, and reduce resource use and discharges into the environment. It stresses on optimum management of resources and the use of food thereby reducing food waste. It focuses on Optimization and not maximization of natural resource yields by circulating products, components and materials. Natural resources must be effectively and efficiently used and managed. Such resources include soil, water and biodiversity, but also minerals. Increased demand for biomass requires space.

A central principle of circular agriculture is that no more acreage or resources are used than are strictly necessary. Fields will primarily be used for the production of food crops. In order to use them optimally, successive crops will be sown, so that food will be growing in the field almost year-round. Whenever possible, mixed crops will be added to the rotation. An important role has been established for plants that serve dual purposes, primarily as food stocks, while the remains (leaves and stems) will be used as feedstock for livestock or bio fertilizers to improve the soil. Circular agriculture fosters effectiveness by identifying and then phasing out wasteful and detrimental practices. It preserves and enhances natural capital by balancing renewable resource flows, recovers value from organic nutrients. It believes that plant biomass is the basic building block of food and should be used by humans first. Animals should be used for converting feedstock that humans cannot digest. Establish new forms of collaboration between people and organizations

Central to the concept of Circular agriculture is also the concept of Moerman’s ladder. Food that is threatened to be wasted can be processed in various ways. Sometimes, prevention of food losses and re-use as human food (e.g. food banks) avoids food losses altogether. Moerman’s Ladder indicates how much value can still be extracted from food that is lost, with the rule of thumb ‘the higher up the ladder, the better’: At the top of Moerman’s ladder is the food fit for human use which he calls as reworking of food. The second step is occupied by the food used in animal feed and third is raw materials for industry (bio based economy). Next step is processing Several other concepts more or less contribute to a sustainable food system: circular economy, natural capital, resilience and biobased economy. Circular Economy A circular economy is an economy designed as a regenerative system, closing resource cycles, with the aim to retain as much value of products, parts and materials as possible. , p. 2. If […]

into fertilizer by fermentation (and renewable energy), processing into fertilizer by composting and the lowermost step is application for sustainable energy (with the purpose of energy production). Moerman considered burning as waste (aim is destruction, with possible energy production).

One of the foremost characteristic of a circular agricultural system is to consider plant biomass as the basic building block of food that should be used by humans first. It does not focus on a single crop but to all crops and other vegetation including their by-products like straw, leaves or stalks. The focus is not on the homogeneous, single crop but on the entire heterogeneous system. Different organisims in a food chain should be used for what they are good at.  The biomass unsuited for direct human consumption can be recycled into the food system through the animals. These animals can then play a crucial role in feeding humanity by converting biomass unsuitable for human consumption into high-quality, nutritious food, and recycling nutrients back into the food system that would otherwise be lost to food production. Animals convert so-called ‘low-opportunity-cost feeds’ (e.g. crop residues, co-products from the food industry, inevitable food losses & waste, and grass resources) into valuable food, manure and other products. Circular agricultural systems are also characterized by promotion of local and regional food systems in which resource loops can be closed (particularly in the context of urban and peri-urban areas. A shift in the human diet (from animal-derived towards more vegetable-based proteins) also fit into a circular food production system, because this requires fewer natural resources.

It is high time we take a different way, a radical shift from conventional approaches and models. A ‘circular agriculture model’ proposes a viable alternate for the current linear model based on ‘take-make-waste’ approach. It minimizes the amount of external inputs for agricultural production, closing nutrient loops and reducing negative impacts to the environment by eliminating discharges (i.e. wastewater) and surface runoff.  Under the lens of this circular model, agriculture can offer a multitude of opportunities from primary  production  using precision  agriculture  techniques,  to  the  recycling  and  utilization  of  agricultural wastes  and materials. International Center for Research in Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has also endorsed circular approach as key to sustainable development.


(Dr. Kumar is a Scientist at SKUAST-K; can be reached at pkumar6674@gmail.com 

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