Circular Agriculture in Low and Middle Income Countries
There is potential for the agrifood sector in low and middle income countries to promote and implement circular agriculture as part of an approach to foster the sustainability of the food system. This would help achieving various sustainable development objectives at the same time. This paper is based on a literature study exploring the concept circular agriculture as well as seven innovative initiatives that take place different levels of scale.
Circular Agriculture is a rather new concept. It has been embraced as a concept to be further promoted and developed by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. While the current focus of the Dutch agrifood sector is on how circular agriculture could be implemented in The Netherlands, this study focusses on the question what the concept particularly could mean for the agrofood sector in low and middle income countries (LMICs). We studied the available literature on the circular economy as applied to the agricultural sector and circular agriculture. Additional information was collected from interviews and consultations via e-mails. In order to identify a diverse set of cases that could help inform the understanding of how circular agriculture could work in practice, we adopted a network approach, collaborating with partners from the network of Food & Business Knowledge Platform, NWO-WOTRO, AgriProFocus, Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation and others involved in the organisation of World Food Day 2019 in the Netherlands.
Waste is raw material
The realisation of the need for change towards circularity is the result of critical reflections about the current global food system. One of the key challenges in the coming decades is to produce enough safe and nutritious food for future generations without exceeding the planetary boundaries even more. Many authors, who write about circular agriculture, are inspired by the concept of circular economy and apply it to the food system, defining principles for its application. The aim of a circular system is to use no more acreage or resources than strictly necessary. This can among others be achieved by closing resource loops. In circular agriculture, waste is seen as a raw material to produce new valuable products, including crops, food, feed and energy. Another characteristic of the concept is the need to reduce resource consumption and discharges into the environment. Each author focusses on a particular professional area or a particular part of the food system. The resulting principles do not so much contradict, but rather complement each other. Most of the principles concentrate on environmental aspects of sustainability, while the social and economic aspects remain implicit. We observed that most concepts have a rather technical approach. In many concepts, ideas on social aspects such as inclusiveness, equity and gender are not very well developed.
Several agricultural production systems can be captured under the heading of circular agriculture, including agroecology. However, some of these agricultural systems – agro-ecology in a strict sense and many traditional agricultural production systems – have much older roots and are based directly on mimicking ecological processes, without the ‘detour’ via circular economy and industrial ecology. The words ‘local’ and ‘locality’ play an important role in these ‘traditional’ systems, as do local or indigenous knowledge, culture and organisation. Some see these systems and their concepts as in sharp opposition to the ones based on industrial ecology. The novelty of circularity is its application to the whole food system, including processing and consumption. In principle this way of thinking offers many options for recycling of nutrients, elements and organic waste.
Innovation at different levels of scale
To illustrate what circular solutions could look like in practice in LMICs, we gathered and examined several case studies around the world, ranging from farm level up to international level. At farm level, we studied a pig breeding enterprise in China and an aquaponics farm in Egypt, both private initiatives. At regional level, we looked into a research project which focusses on using biochar-urine in Bangladesh. Furthermore, we studied a project, called the Ketchup Project, which aims to improve the growth, production and processing of tomatoes in Kenya. Moreover, we studied the approach of Biobuu limited that produces insect-based proteins out of organic waste from the city of Dar Es Salam, Tanzania. Also, we looked into the company Safi Sana which collects urine and facial waste, organic waste from food markets, slaughterhouses and industries to produce organic fertiliser, irrigation water, biogas and electricity in Ashaiman, a town of some 190,000 inhabitants in Ghana. At international level, we studied the company Ferm O Feed. This company purchases animal and vegetable by-products from 20 selected Dutch farms and transforms this into organic fertilizer. This fertilizer is being sold to more than 65 countries.
Based on the case studies, we found that often the companies sold various products, and the income of these products seems to make the business case economically feasible in most cases. Social benefits of circular agriculture include improved living conditions (less smell and pollution) and the creation of new jobs. The environmental benefits include better waste management, a reduced use of natural sources, lower CO2 emissions, less environmental pollution. Moreover, because of the use of organic fertilisers, soil quality and soil biodiversity can improve. Even though the social, economic and environmental effects presented in the cases seem plausible, they lack quantified robust evidence. Furthermore, in most cases circularity is not monitored.
Towards a system transition
How can a move take place towards circularity at larger scale? Based on the case studies, we have gathered more in-depth insight into the driving forces of circular agriculture. Environmental and health concerns play a role to start a circular agriculture innovation. For successful implementation and business growth, import factors are to have a good market strategy, entrepreneurial skills, access to an (international) knowledgeable network and being in the position to receive funds for investment. Upscaling has started too, mainly through the extension of the projects by the companies or organisations involved. A transition to circularity in the whole food system is not (yet) taking place.
Challenges and risks related to starting up a circular agribusiness are identified both at production level and at system level. At production level; lengthy and/or costly registration processes for new products, a lack of knowledge about new products among potential clients, time-consuming processes to get the new circular model right. At the system level; closing a relatively unimportant cycle achieving minimal economic or environmental benefits, while other linear processes, including their waste streams, still continue, amongst others because pricing in the current food system does not incorporate externalities. Another system risk is that the use of organic waste may circulate toxic materials or pathogens in the food system. Besides, if circularity is promoted taking into account only technical and economic aspects like recycling of nutrients and building the business case, there may be negative social consequences for vulnerable groups.
It is recommended for governments in LMIC and their public and private partners to promote circular agriculture as a means to improve different objectives, including better environmental conditions, climate mitigation, public health and income generation at the same time. In the design of circular initiatives, the social, environmental and economic dimensions need to be addressed, with attention to an appropriate monitoring system as well, as in most concepts of circularity, those social aspects, such as inclusiveness, equity, youth and gender are not very well integrated. Moreover, it is recommended to include the private sector in the development of new initiatives. Also it is recommended to support and facilitate the development of circular initiatives as well as to learn from existing initiatives and additional pilots. This is needed to further explore the potential of the promising concept of circularity in agriculture and food in LMICs.
The study concludes that there is potential for governments in LMICs, and their public and private partners, to promote circular agriculture as part of an approach to foster the sustainability of the food system. This would help achieving various objectives at the same time, including less environmental pollution, climate mitigation, improved public health and better incomes for farmers and other entrepreneurs, and those -including youth or women- who find new employment opportunities in this circular agrifood sector.
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