Urbanisation is one of the defining trends of our times and its impacts are profound.

For example, by 2050, 80% of food will be consumed in urban areas. So how cities are organised will significantly influence the way food is grown, distributed, eaten and disposed of.

Our current food system is wasteful and overwhelmingly linear. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, less than 2% of valuable materials in the food chain is recycled or ‘looped’ by cities. This is a huge waste of nutrients, energy and potential resources for bio-based products.

Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation

In order to minimise waste and pollution, cities will need to revert to a regenerative food system based on the principles of a circular economy. Achieving this could result in annual global benefits worth USD 2.7 trillion by 2050.

Europe aims to lead the way

European cities are uniquely positioned to address this complex problem through practical experimentation and innovation.

The European Commission is supporting this through the FOOD 2030 research area, and specific funding has been allocated to cities through topics such as ‘Empowering cities as agents of food system transformation’ and ‘Pilot circular bio-based cities’ in the Horizon 2020 work programme.

‘Circular food cities’ has already been identified as an important theme for Horizon Europe, the EU’s next research and innovation programme, which will start in 2021. And the topic was discussed at a dedicated session of the inaugural EU Research and Innovation Days in Brussels last week.

Panellists Roberta Sonnino (Professor at Cardiff University), Naomi Mackenzie (co-founder of KITRO) and César Aliaga (Head of Sustainability Technological Group at ITENE) discussed current progress around Europe and some of the challenges.

César Aliaga is also coordinator of the EU funded SCALIBUR project, which focuses on improving the collection and recycling of organic waste. “One big barrier for cities to become more circular is the valorisation of food waste. In the SCALIBUR project we are developing more efficient methods for waste collection, and also, importantly, innovative processes to transform organic waste into high-value added products. This way we can help make circular economy profitable for cities.”

Transitioning to a more circular food system will be complex, not least due to the large number of stakeholders involved – producers, brands, retailers, consumers, cities, waste management companies, etc. But closer collaboration is expected to bear fruit in the long run. 

Rewatch the ‘Circular food cities’ session at the EU Research and Innovation Days here.