A circular approach to agriculture is key to sustainable development, say experts

Professionals from research, philanthropy and business agreed that ‘circular’ systems for agriculture and food production – where materials are looped back into the process with minimal waste generation – should become the norm to sustainably improve food security and preserve biodiversity. Incentivizing farmers and food processors, creating enabling policies and boosting investments in this direction, are some of the ways of achieving this.

Linear food systems are shown to cause environmental degradation, increased wastage and reduced profitability. On the other hand, circular practices ‘close the loop’ of materials used, reducing consumption as well as emissions in production and distribution of food.

At a virtual panel discussion, ‘Agriculture and food: The Road ahead is Circular’, Dr Jacqueline Hughes, Director General, ICRISAT, and other experts discussed ways to attain circularity in agriculture and food. Dr Shirish Sinha, Director-Climate, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, was the panel coordinator.

Efforts towards circularity

“At ICRISAT, our work has always been circular in nature,” said Dr Hughes. “Beginning with the science (increasing genetic gains) for higher productivity of our crops, and moving towards better nutrition (dietary quality and diversity), and further towards preventing land degradation (through climate resilient crops and practices that put nutrition back in the soil), we are constantly aiming towards a closed loop of resources and energies.”

Ms Betty Kibaara, Director, Rockefeller Foundation, described the efforts of her organization in Kenya to generate the interest of investors and innovators in novel food concepts, e.g. black soldier fly as an affordable and accessible protein source. She said that technical assistance was needed to develop and scale up the production of this food.

Mr Rajneesh Kumar, SVP and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Flipkart Group, shared insights from the e-commerce perspective on reducing wastage, adopting ‘greener’ operations and creating more opportunities for small and medium businesses on the Flipkart platform. He admitted that e-commerce in India was still at a nascent stage and was yet to develop a full-fledged plan for circularity in its design.

Discussing the share of responsibility of ensuring circularity, Dr Hughes suggested that in agriculture, those with greater capacities to take risk and bear the opportunity costs should take up a bigger responsibility towards circularity, so as to minimize risk for those who can least afford them.

Minding the gaps

“We need market demand at all points within the circularity,” said Dr Hughes, highlighting the importance of a market-driven approach. “If we could add value to a product by way of branding or certification as a proof of circularity, that would encourage the producer to move towards a more circular production, because it would increase the selling price.”

Ms Kibaara listed two opportunities or gaps that could be harnessed to bring more circularity in her region of work: technological advances and enabling policies. “Can we create a ‘smart’ market for affordable, renewable energy? How do we scale up technology and develop business models in these areas… solar energy for processing, rainwater harvesting etc.? We urgently need enabling government policies to facilitate these,” she said.

“Information is key,” said Dr Hughes. “Right from the farmers in the field, to scientists in the laboratory, we all have information, but we need to share it freely so as to maximize impact. Information sharing can empower women farmers to make the best decisions; information from farmers about their environments can help researchers develop more resilient/productive crop varieties; market demand information can help marginal farmers make the most of their produce.”

Role of development platforms

When asked about the contribution of development platforms such as Transform Rural India in boosting circularity in agriculture, Dr Hughes said that they could play a very strong coordinating role among various stakeholders.

“Such platforms can ensure that partners, stakeholders, etc. are on the same level playing field. This can facilitate partnership and knowledge exchange,” she said. “A platform like that can also provide quantifiable goals that partners and stakeholders can contribute, to substantiate that that circularity actually works.”

In general, the participants of the discussion expressed satisfaction over the fact that the idea of circularity was given visibility and that the discussion had yielded some tangible points to put into practice by the agencies involved and their partners.

The webinar, held on 5 November 2020, was part of the Sankalp Forum 12th Global Summit, an initiative by Intellecap.

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