The big food redesign: Technical appendix
Published in September 2021
Most food, from breakfast cereals to pasta, has been designed. Intentional decisions have been made that determine the food’s flavour, texture, nutritional content, and appearance. Food design includes shaping a product’s concept, ingredient selection, sourcing, and packaging.
To design for positive consumer, farmer, economic, and environmental outcomes, the principles of the circular economy can be applied to the way we design food.
These principles are: eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials, and regenerate nature – and by taking a systemic approach in the creation of products and services, they can be applied across industries.
In order to maximise benefits in the food system, circular economyA systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution. It is based on three principles, driven by design: eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerate nature. principles should be applied across all dimensions of food design, from product concept, through ingredient selection and sourcing, to packaging.
There are four key opportunities for circular design for food: using ingredients that are lower impact, diverse, upcycled and regeneratively produced. Each opportunity brings its own benefits for people and nature, but benefits are maximised when the opportunities are combined.
Food designers can use a greater diversity of animal and plant varieties and species as ingredients. This helps to promote biodiversity, build resilience and provide access to a wider range of food flavours and expand the nutritional profile of diets.
Example: Today, just a small selection of potato varieties are commonly used, yet over 4,500 diverse varieties exist globally, many of which have interesting flavours or are resilient to pests, disease and climate variability. Designing food products to use more of these varieties could result in more varied and delicious foods that make the food system more resilient overall.
There are some ‘quick win’ ingredient swaps that have fewer negative impacts. These are ingredients that are conventionally produced but that have lower environmental impacts, such as on climate and biodiversity.
Example: Redesigning a wheat-based product such as pasta to make it with peas instead could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and negative impacts on biodiversity. Leguminous crops, like peas, can reduce the need for synthetic inputs by fixing nitrogen into the soil at much higher rates than many cereal crops, at the same time as building soil health.
Transforming inedible food byproducts into new ingredients allows us to make the most of existing agricultural land and the inputs used there while creating new revenue streams for farmers and businesses.
Example: Sweetness is currently provided mostly by three crops – sugar beet, sugar cane, and corn – but could be made from food by-products, such as fruit juice pulp, cacao fruit, coffee cherry and crop residues.
Regeneratively produced ingredients are those produced in ways that have positive outcomes for nature, like healthy soils and greater biodiversity. Farmers use practices that make sense for their local context, drawing inspiration from schools of thought like permaculture or agroecology.
Example: Producing cow’s milk using practices such as managed intensive grazing and silvopasture, where cows graze amongst trees, helps to achieve regenerative outcomes by building soil health and sequestering carbon in the soil. By mimicking migratory herds, livestock are grouped on areas of the pasture where they benefit from a diverse diet, trample in plant matter and nutrients from their dung and urine, and are moved on frequently, enabling the pasture to regenerate.
The full potential of the four design opportunities is realised when they are combined. These opportunities can be combined both within a single product and across entire product portfolios.
Exactly how they are combined is determined by the needs of the ecosystems from which ingredients are sourced. In The big food redesign you will find analysis that shows significantly better economic and environmental outcomes when applying circular design for food.
To illustrate the potential of combining opportunities, Silvo, a concept product from a nature-positive future, is a line of cheeses made from the food outputs of a walnut silvopasture system. On Silvo walnut orchards, dairy cattle graze between the trees in a managed intensive grazing system. By producing both lower impact ingredients and regeneratively produced ingredients within the same farming system, and using walnut and dairy milk in a cheese product line, greater benefits can be achieved. Regeneratively produced walnut and cow’s milk that could be made by a company like Silvo to produce cheese has the potential to be carbon neutral.
To quote the study, please use the following reference: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The big food redesign: Regenerating nature with the circular economy (2021).
Rather than bending nature to produce food, food can be designed for nature to thrive
FMCGs and retailers can take action in five key areas to make nature-positive food mainstream
This topic area shows how moving to a circular economy for food will help people and nature thrive.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. We develop and promote the idea of a circular economy, and work with business, academia, policymakers, and institutions to mobilise systems solutions at scale, globally.
Charity Registration No.: 1130306
OSCR Registration No.: SC043120
Company No.: 6897785
Ellen MacArthur Foundation ANBI RSIN nummer: 8257 45 925
The work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is supported by our Strategic Partners and Partners.