UK-China Critical Zone Observatory Programme along with the Global Food and Environment Institute at the University of Leeds hosted a UN food Systems Summit dialogue in May 2021. The title of the dialogue: Is a Circular Economy approach a ‘risk free’ means of meeting future global food demand in a sustainable manner? The aim of the dialogue was to: Share knowledge on the feasibility and risks of using organic fertiliser in agricultural production through adoption of a Circular Economy approach.
A recording of the plenary sessions can be found here on the GFEI YouTube channel.
A copy of the report submitted after the event can be found:
Participants could see the benefit and value of adopting a circular economy in agricultural systems as it offered a means of ensuring that current and future food demands are met. This then lead to a discussion considering the risk-benefit of a circular economy. This revealed we need more data to comprehensively understand the risks as well as the benefits. So far research demonstrates that these practices can introduce contaminants into our agricultural systems. This presents a risk to human and ecosystem health. Of particular concern were emerging contaminants. As their name suggests these contaminants are ‘emerging’ and our understanding is only in its infancy in terms of knowledge surrounding the associated fate and risks in agro-environments. We need to continue our work characterising these chemicals in the environment by developing analytical capabilities to ensure we can detect these chemicals at low, environmentally relevant concentrations.
Ultimately, in order to overcome potential risks we need to integrate research and industry application and have integrated planning to move forwards. This is a complex topic and understanding the risks and benefits of adopting a circular economy cannot be achieved by working solely on our areas of interest and in isolation. Collaborative thinking will require funding mechanisms to be put in place support future interdisciplinary research initiatives. While we could focus on developing sustainable, low cost technology to remove contaminants from the waste stream; perhaps more critically, we should stop focusing on adding new processes and more innovation to selectively capture an ever-increasing list of contaminants. Instead, focus should be on upstream causes of this contamination, ask why they are present in the waste stream and how we can rectify this.
A key theme emerged that we need to work with a solutions focus moving forward. We have a growing body of knowledge surrounding the risks of using sustainable agricultural systems and in particular the use of organic fertiliser but the benefits of adopting these practices are significant in terms of meeting global food demands. We therefore need to work on developing mitigation options to ensure that these practices are done in a safe and sustainable manner.
The focus should be placed on the risks of NOT making change (business as usual), rather than focusing solely on the risks of doing something (‘least worst’). This allows a more balanced decision going forward.
The team are now working on a policy paper to be released later in the year.