Food, Circularity & Koepala

July 5, 2019

'Hot town summer in the city' sang the Lovin' Spoonful, and although not as sweltering as New York, the Finnish capital Helsinki was blessed by glorious sunshine at the start of July. Is how I planned to start this blog post, however despite best laid plans of mice & men...the heavens have opened. Which is nice metaphor for the unpredictability of the world at the moment. We just do not know what is around the corner.

Despite the uncertainty around the weather, one thing that is pretty much certain is that we all need to eat. And we will all continue to need to eat in the future, when this is considered along with the growing population and diminishing natural resources, immense challenges are presented to the whole food ecosystem. Everything from agricultural practices to waste handling via packaging, production and even the integration of new handling techniques needs to be sustainable.

We need to do away with the Take-Make-Waste selfish attitude that has plagued humanity for decades. In an ideal world we would take what we need, make what we will use and replenish. However, it is naive to suggest that this utopia exists and the human world is driven by Dollars and Euros, Pounds and Yen. Therefore, then, industry and the business environment needs to adapt to become sustainable, while still maintaining profitability for those involved.

One business model which is gaining traction is the Circular Economy. Now I know I am writing this in 2019 and the formalised idea of the Circular Economy has been around for nearly 2 decades, but sometimes it is good to go over these again. The business landscape is ever changing and sometimes it is good to have a look at how the Circular Economy can be utilised in a specific industry.

What is the Circular Economy?

The idea of a circular economy is not a new concept, if you think about it, people have been using, re-using and repairing for millennia. It is only in recent times that the current arrangement with resources Take-Make-Waste has been the model of choice for most industries.

What the Circular Economy introduces is that there is a fiscal element which can be applied. Things can be repaired, stripped for parts or shared with another user. Putting it better than I ever could, The Ellen MacArthur foundation, arguably the leading organisation for the Circular Economy defines the principle as:

Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital. It is based on three principles:

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use
  • Regenerate natural systems

With this definition in mind it is easy to see why it is imperative for the food industry to become circular. But it is also clear that one day all industries that are related to food must too become circular. If you take a look at the circular economy diagram

Food and Circularity?

As we move deeper into the 21st century there is more of a need than ever for a healthy food system. One which designs out pollution, over-use of resource and waste. One which focuses on keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems, while maintaining an interest on our pallet. It is possible for food production and the related industries to actually improve the environment, society and the general well-being of the planet. This may be a grand ambition but there are many companies that are well on the way to implementing circular values to the food ecosystem. As food is a natural product it is most After all, food comes from natural systems in which organisms have thrived for billions of years and, when they reach the end of their life, become food for new cycles to begin.

The Challenge

The biggest challenge facing the food industry is convince all people there is a problem as what construed to some as an issue, appears to others as a blessing. For example industrial poultry rearing for example allows lower income families to feed themselves with affordable protein, but presents clear issues around animal welfare. The wide choice of tropical fruit in European supermarkets during winter is a fantastic option for customers, provides the supermarket with a profit, but has a large carbon footprint and may increase water stress in the country of origin.

These subjectivities notwithstanding there are 3 identifiable systematic problems within the Food industry at the moment

  1. The industrial food system contributes to environmental degradation: each year 7.5 million hectares of forests are cut down and 75 billion tonnes of topsoil are lost.
  2. The system is wasteful: on average 30% of all food produced does not make it to the plate, in China 500 million people could be fed by the food that is grown but discarded.
  3. The system is not resilient and does not produce healthy outcomes: the starkest indicator for this is that almost 1 billion people are hungry or undernourished; while at the same time 2.1 billion people are obese or overweight.

All of these issues are evidently characteristics of the linear economy. What is needed is shake up, if we are to make a meaningful change.

What is being done?

The Food industry can lead the way in circularity and ensuring that we are not using the world's precious and finite resources. There are many companies and organise that operate within circularity principles; companies which prevent supermarket waste; that reinvent old ingredients in new ways; companies who use aquaponics, vertical farming, aeroponics and many more ingenious methods to grow new foods. Not to mention the technology companies, event organisations and ecosystems which collaborate and bring together likeminded initiatives, investors and large corporates. If you are reading this and have got this far I would suggest checking out the following as amazing examples of what is possible in the Food/Circularity space.

WhyWaste: Sweden; Food Waste prevention system

AeroFarms: USA; Aeroponics

YFood: UK/Malaysia; FoodTech Ecosystem

What are Koepala doing?

My own company Koepala is trying to define the meal delivery system to be more circular and by taking a holistic approach to the takeaway value chain. We believe that the environmental challenges facing the planet and the fundamental challenges facing the food industry are design problems. We are making it our mission to redesign the industry and help the players in the field design the most sustainable packaging in the world.

That is our ambition at least. We will offer sustainable convenience for all.

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