When it comes to embracing Circular Economy principles, what role can technology play?

October 5, 2022

Altruistic leadership, impeccable governance, and significant funding are necessary for the agrifood sector to adopt circular principles, writes Jacqueline Wilson-Smith.


When it comes to embracing Circular Economy principles, what role can technology play?

Altruistic leadership, impeccable governance, and significant funding are necessary for the agrifood sector to adopt circular principles, writes Jacqueline Wilson-Smith.

October 5, 2022

Driven by a quest to address climate change, reduce emissions, eliminate waste, and find more appropriate business models, the ‘circular economy’ is alerting the world to better ways of producing food for the future. The principles of circularity, as a sustainable food system, clearly near utopia - but the path to achieving it is certainly not clear.

The principles of circularly applied to the Agrifood sector are transformative in the way the economic model works, how we produce and consume food. This is based on:

  • Designing waste out
  • Maintaining non-renewable materials already in use for as long as possible
  • Adopting regenerating natural systems.

So, if circularity is so brilliantly obvious, why hasn’t everyone converted from a linear system to a circular one already?

At the Digital Agrifood Summit 2022 I facilitated a discussion on this very topic with an esteemed panel of experts including Barry Irvin, Executive Chairman of Bega Cheese; The Hon. Niall Blair; Associate Professor Carol Richards; Queensland University of Technology, and Ben van Delden, Head of Agrifood Tech at KPMG.  

In a nutshell, circularity needs serious collaborative leadership to gain momentum. Circularity is like a new team sport invention, with a completely different set of rules so that everyone wins, every time. Adopting circularity principles into our food systems is no easy task given it will mean changing processes that have been in place for decades. The panel agreed technology is the main tool that will fast-track circular innovations, support governance, build trust, lower costs, and create new and recurrent revenue streams.  

Ben began with a bold statement; “We cannot get to net zero without being circular…we need to be transformational with how we work with resources,” he said.  “If we extract a non-renewable resource from this planet, then we owe it to future generations to keep it in circulation for as long as possible.”

Niall emphasised that stewardship responsibilities are complex referring to Australia’s water debates “Water is wasted in producing food if the food is then wasted.” Inferring that circularity is a shared responsibility for communities, from farmers to regulators to consumers.

Carol, with her social science background posited; “Complex problems require complex solutions…we need the voice of communities and to find creative ways to get them engaged and part of the solution.”

Barry, with his practical experience from setting up the Bega Circular Valley, reflected on the significant mindset shift that needs to happen when applying circular principles; “Everyone’s issue is on the table and there is a shift from competing for resources to how can we share these resources better?” he said.  “It’s rare that you can find people with divergent beliefs and objectives but in circularity the differences bring us together.”

If circularity is so good in theory, what’s holding us back? The panellists fearlessly tackled the elephant in room. Circularity needs altruistic leadership, impeccable governance, and significant funding to get started. But who leads and who pays?  When the beneficiary is one, that’s easy, one leads and funds. When the beneficiary is everyone, that can be much harder to navigate.  

Barry believes circular communities need to get government on board to support the collective good, but they don’t necessarily need to lead. Niall observed that government policy makers and regulators often struggle with rapid market disruptions, keeping pace with industry can be a battle and that technology, such as reg-tech, can play a role in stewardship. For example, real time measurement of water needs, efficiencies and availability will allow dynamic allocation of water resources so that community, industry, and the environment is sustained.

Carol mused that leaving decisions to the markets solves commercial problems, but it doesn’t always produce public good. She prodded us to reconsider the outcomes of marketing that can trigger rampant consumerism. Should food products be positioning their brands for consumers to buy and eat as much as they can or should brands take on shared responsibility in partnership with consumers?

This certainly touched a sore point for me, as a former food marketer where pushing volume and maximising profit was the holy grail for a successful innovation. Times are rapidly changing, and a new notion of ‘handprint’ is emerging, whereby food brands forge relationships with consumers and together they eliminate food and packaging waste, whilst still meeting consumer needs responsibly.

Ben enthused that technology would underpin our circular transformation through data benchmarking, diagnostic tools and circular transition indicators that measure, monitor, and even visualise material flows in a material matrix. Circularity should be baked into business strategy and when the outcome is better for the bottom line, environment, and community then ask; why not?

Reminding us to consider who is in the circular circle, Carol said the ‘voiceless’, for example the environment and animals, are a critical twist of a thriving industrial and ecology model.  

The panel wrap-up included a discussion about exploring alternative business models of circularity such as subscription sharing platforms, perhaps for machinery, agtech and talent. Niall joked about renting worn-in Akubra hats and dusty boots to politicians could help plug some authenticity holes in mainstream politics.  

I firmly believe we need to draw upon the knowledge of Australia’s First Nations people, who over thousands of years developed regenerative, natural land management systems, with an absence of waste.  Along with embracing collaborative ways of working, noting that leadership for circularity can come from anyone and everyone, it must be whatever works for wherever you are.

About the author:

Jacqueline Wilson-Smith has been driving strategy and innovating in food, drinks and agribusiness since 1995 when she switched from being an accountant with Ernst & Young into a disruptive innovator.

Formerly the Global Innovation Manager at McCormick, today Jacqui is Founder and Director at Sustainable Innovation Company, a design-led innovation advisory service that helps agrifood businesses and organisations transform sustainably. Jacqui is also Co-founder and Chair of FAN (Food & Agribusiness Network), Australia’s fastest growing food cluster group, Board Advisor to Perth-based Traveller’s Choice (Australia’s leading network of independent travel companies) and a member of Queensland’s Manufacturing Ministerial Committee providing government advice on strategic matters relating to manufacturing.  

In 2017, Jacqui was the Queensland recipient of the AgriFuture’s Rural Woman’s Award for her innovative contributions to food and agriculture spanning 25 years. She is also serves as independent board director of Food Agility CRC.

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