In recent decades, soils have been depleted and polluted, and the trend continues. Clean drinking and irrigation water is now scarcer than ever. As a result, biodiversity is declining at a rapid rate. In response, circular agriculture is being strongly promoted by policy organizations such as the UN as one of the methods to contribute to more sustainable food production.
What’s behind the idea of circular agriculture? What policies are in place to support circular agriculture? How is the concept of circular agriculture being applied at the farm level? Learn more about circular agriculture and what it includes.
Today’s agricultural production, which uses uncontrolled inputs and chemicals (chemical fertilizers and pesticides) in crop and livestock production, does not address major sources of the global food crisis and causes soil degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
In conventional agriculture, the purchase of expensive seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs often represents a significant capital outlay. The cost of these products can be reduced or even eliminated by implementing circular agriculture practices. This is not to say that there are no costs associated with implementing circular agriculture practices.
Given its negative response to a full world population and growing global population, a shift to a more holistic food system is needed. Otherwise, food production will become more difficult for future generations, impacting their lives and land use.
Circular agriculture aims to optimize or close nutrient cycles, use fewer or minimal external inputs from agribusiness and regenerate soils. These approaches prevent nutrients from leaching or leaving the farm.
At its core, circular agriculture is about creating a virtuous cycle of resource use that restores and replenishes the earth while supporting thriving local economies. It’s about finding innovative ways to enrich the soil, minimize waste, and reduce our dependence on harmful chemicals and fossil fuels.
Optimally applied, the farm becomes less dependent on external resources, reduces overall costs, and benefits from soil and farm regeneration. This contributes to the long-term sustainability of food production, farm economics, and the health of the land and its environment.
It’s a forward-looking approach that aims to create a more sustainable and resilient agriculture sector and food system for the future. And contrary to what some might think, it’s not about imposing strict rules and regulations on small farmers or stifling their creativity.
Circular agriculture is not a call to return the world of food to the past. It’s not about romanticizing an idyllic world of the agricultural era that never really existed.
So, let’s dispel the myths and misconceptions about circular agriculture. It’s neither a throwback to the past nor a straitjacket designed to tie farmers’ hands. It’s a bold vision for a more sustainable and equitable future in the face of limited resources.
To understand circular agriculture, it is essential to understand sustainable agriculture and organic crop production and systems. Because the three share similar characteristics. Sustainable agriculture means preserving and improving soil, water, and natural materials through sustainable techniques. This ensures safe food production and a safe environment.
On the other hand, there is organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is a major component of circular agriculture that focuses on removing reliance upon chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics. Organic agriculture tends to be less labor intensive, which provides rural jobs and development possibilities.
But let’s head back to circular agriculture and see what it offers regarding social, ecologic, and economic aspects.
Circular agriculture encompasses several core goals that influence the methods, depending on holistic approaches that not only consider one farm area but combine such activities with other closely related farm activities into one circle. Following core goals of circular agriculture:
Circular agriculture is critical to reducing the impact of climate change. This includes the circular economy, which affects everyone in the agricultural sector and beyond, and helps promote sustainability. For example, reducing nitrogen inputs can prevent nitrogen loss to the air and water. Other practices, such as no-till farming, can reduce CO2 emissions from the soil.
Circular agriculture aims to prevent nutrient losses from livestock and reduce greenhouse gases generated by agricultural activities, including nitrogen production.
By adopting circular farming practices, food systems remain resilient to external influences. For example, phosphorus will be an increasingly scarce resource for pasture and cropland in the future, along with water. Reduced availability of phosphorus can have serious implications for food security. Using on-farm manure can prevent the loss of nutrients such as phosphorus. More on this later.
By reusing natural resources such as water, soil, and sunlight, we can reduce the use of chemicals that harm the environment and human health. Organic matter and biodiversity on and around the farm directly affect the quality and quantity of production.
By applying organic waste management practices, we can minimize the impact of farm waste on the environment, reduce nutrient loss, minimize inputs, and ensure that it is properly utilized. The goal is sustainable food production that supports ecological processes, maintains soil quality, and reduces water and nitrogen pollution. Healthy soils and reduced inputs are critical to creating an agricultural system and world that thrives on healthy food, healthy people, and healthy ecosystems.
In circular agriculture, every phase of the food production system, from harvest to packing, processing to transportation to market consumption, and disposed food, is designed to reduce nutrient loss, and encourage sustainable development. Integrated agricultural practices, sustainable and regenerative agriculture are essential methods of circular agricultural models that seek to decrease CO2 emissions, utilize resources more effectively, and significantly reduce inputs consumption. But what does that mean in practice?
Circular agriculture aims to reduce emissions from livestock by improving productivity in beef and dairy production, improving manure management, and implementing new technologies for anaerobic digestion of manure.
For example: When manure is digested in a biogas plant, it can not only be a source of energy, but the remaining mass can be applied to land as fertilizer. This adds additional nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to the pasture, which in turn becomes animal feed. The cycle remains closed.
Farmers can reduce soil erosion from rain and wind by planting permanent cover crops. A no-till and extensive farming strategy improves soil fertility, which helps increase water retention. Healthy soils hold more nutrients, reducing the amount of fertilizer needed for cropland or pasture.
Investing in land management strategies that focus on restoring soil health, increasing biodiversity, and promoting carbon sequestration will pay dividends now and for future generations. Land management techniques include:
Read more on circularity in precision farming here.
As part of circular management, streamline the food supply chain and minimize food waste by improving harvest methods, reducing inputs, ensuring proper storage and transport, and utilizing safe and efficient food processing technologies.
By improving inventory management, encouraging the development of secondary markets for imperfect and expired products, and implementing existing policies for better supply chain management, food waste can be reduced or even eliminated.
A move to circular farming should not be considered merely resuming old practices, but rather as enabling farmers to cultivate with nature while utilizing technological innovation and scientific advances in the fields also using future innovations in agricultural production.
Sustainable use of natural resources may be the most efficient tool in the agriculture industry. The need is for example to develop new technologies for removing water and moving toward water recycling at net-zero energy costs. Technologies include precision farming, rainwater harvesting for drip-irrigation, and methods to evaluate farm sustainability.
A circular economy is being adopted by governments worldwide to reduce environmental impacts. On a global level, the United Nations strongly promote circular agriculture. Read more about it here.
In the U.S., you can find several programs that support sustainable agricultural practices in the frame of the newly adopted Inflation Reduction Act. Read more about it here.
Circular agriculture appears to be a viable solution for maintaining healthy food systems that also serve tomorrow’s society and environment. The transition to a more holistic and sustainable agricultural sector will require efforts from policy makers, industry, farmers, and consumers.
Circular agriculture may only be viable if combined with other changes that influence demand in urban or national food systems, such as reducing waste and changing diets. If it is to have an impact, it will be a shared effort across all sectors.
Date:Apr 23, 2023