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A circular challenge for food brands

A circular challenge for food brands

Our food system is a stark example of the damage that comes from the linear model of ‘take-make-waste’. And the waste is really breathtaking when you know what to look for.

Almost a third of food is physically wasted.[1] Food production results in a third of global emissions, along with excess nutrients, pesticide cocktails and copious amounts of plastic packaging, while industrial agriculture destroys habitats and degrades soils. Land and resources are also wasted to feed over-abundant industrial livestock, and foods that lack nutritional or ecological diversity - only four plant species now provide 60% of the world’s calories.[2]

Here at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we are looking at how we can make the all-important shift to a circular model.  

In a circular economy, how we build, make and use everything - from a sandwich to a car or a building development - is designed differently. Materials and minerals are circulated; products are designed to last, to be repaired and eventually to be recycled. Waste and pollution are not dealt with later; instead, they are eliminated by being designed out to begin with. By working with nature and mimicking how it functions, products are designed to regenerate natural systems.

How do these circular principles apply to food? The ‘Circular Design for Food’ framework sets out four key opportunities:

  1. Source from production systems that have regenerative outcomes for nature.

  2. To promote these systems at scale, we shift to more diverse and lower-impact foods, and use everything that is produced, including by upcycling surplus foods or edible by-products, such as fruit pulp, into new ingredients.

  3. Packaging is either eliminated, reusable or edible, or compostable and recyclable at scale - in that order of priority.

Essentially, it means we create foods that are designed around what nature needs to thrive. Our 2021 report, The Big Food Redesign, set out this framework and imagined products of the future that could fit this — such as a cereal made out of intercropped peas and wheat, and a cheese made from the walnuts and cow’s milk off a silvopasture farm. 

The Circular Design for Food Framework

The Circular Design for Food Framework

How does organic fit into a circular economy for food?

Organic farming principles align well with the circular economy principles of circulate, eliminate and regenerate. For example the emphasis on nutrient cycling, building healthy soils and the aim of designing a whole-farm system that reduces the very need for polluting inputs in the first place. Studies show that on average, organic farms, especially in Europe, have healthier soils and more abundant, diverse wildlife when compared with farms with conventional production systems.[3]

Organic farms and businesses are also already producing and using more diverse and low-impact ingredients. This is again thanks to the emphasis on working with nature and – something that I have frequently noticed – a more holistic, circular way of thinking more broadly. This overall approach is vital as we shift towards a system that puts nature at the core, and that creates collaborative dynamics between producers and ongoing supply chains.

We are encouraging businesses to ask “what can I do to help nature thrive?”. Shifting to organic, means you’re already embracing this mindset.

What's next?

At the end of May we launched The Big Food Redesign Challenge. It aims to inspire and enable food brands, big and small, to apply the Circular Design for Food framework in reality. By taking part, food brands have access to a network of support and collaboration, learning opportunities and some fantastic showcasing and retail opportunities. Waitrose is the first retailer to guarantee dedicated shelf space to a selection of Challenge products from the end of 2024.

Enter the Challenge now!

The Challenge invites food brands that already have a great product or want to explore an idea to sign up, and they can do so here. If you’re a farmer, grower or supplier of ingredients you can showcase what you have to offer to participating food brands by entering your details here.

Organic businesses, of course, are ideally placed to take part, but what does this look like in practice? A great example is Hodmedods, who, I am delighted to say, have already signed up to be involved. They bring to market products made from British legumes, sourced from organic systems (whenever possible), to get more people to eat local plant-based protein sources from great farms.

I know from experience that there are many other food brands out there — and I can’t wait to see who else gets involved.


[1] UN Food Loss and Waste Reduction (2023)

[2] FAO, What is agrobiodiversity? (2004); Crop Trust, Crop Trust Magazine (2019)

[3]  A good summary of this evidence has been undertaken by IFOAM and can be found here