Transitioning agri-food systems into circular economy trajectories

Luigi Cembalo, Department of Agricultural Sciences, University of Naples Federico II

Massimiliano Borrello, Department of Agricultural Sciences, University of Naples Federico II

Anna Irene De Luca, Department of Agriculture (AGRARIA), University Mediterranea of Reggio Calabria

Giacomo Giannoccaro, Department of Agricultural and Environmental Science (DiSAAT), University of Bari Aldo Moro

Mario D’Amico, Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment (Di3A), University of Catania

The call to transform industrial systems through a circular economy (CE) model has gained prominence. Circular economy narrative proposes a shift toward a com-pletely new way to satisfy societal needs (Borrello et al., 2020b), based on a clear and direct inspirational meaning: “the way we make things is wrong and we must change it” (Borrello et al., 2020a, p. 4069). Accordingly, scholarly literature has grown exponentially during the last years, proposing technical, managerial, and regulative solutions, and approaching crosswise several industrial systems. This paper focuses on the agri-food system, particularly with the goal to generate an analytical frame-work, for practitioners and policy makers to orient future agri-food CE trajectories.

Current industrial agriculture is based on an extractive model with the exploitation of non-renewable resources (e.g. fossil fuels and mineral phosphate) (Clay, 2013), as well as on the production of relevant amounts of wastes. A circular agri-food system would be based on restorative and regenerative practices, as well as on the commitment of several stakeholders, to mitigate the impact of current industrial agriculture. On the one hand, collaborations within and between the agro-ecological (primary production) and agro-industrial (commercial food production) agri-food subsystems might generate intra/inter-company material metabolisms to maximize the use of the inherent value of resources. On the other hand, CE practices would entail stakeholders’ participation, with consumers eventually called to support companies engaged in CE. While nowadays there is plenty of technologies applicable in such type of collaborations, how making these technologies operational within fully functioning intra/inter-sectoral circular economy systems is still unclear (Borrello et al., 2016; Chinnici et al., 2019). Every single loop of a CE system could entail tackling major barriers such as political, legal, economic, social, and technological (Kirchherr et al., 2018) and building a circular agri-food system requires facing several challenges (Borrello et al., 2016). Therefore, once defined different agri-food trajectories (e.g. restorative in-farm practices vs. broader bio-economy utilizations) (Stegmann et al., 2020), facing these challenges is crucial to define which of these trajectories would be the most effective.To this aim, the current paper provides an analytical framework for transitioning into circular agri-food systems, thus contributing to the field of inquiry of sustainable transitions management (Smith et al., 2005). Circular agri-food trajectories require extant supply chains to be adapted to CE principles (transitioning).

Putting this differently, a CE model means to build on existent production-consumption systems to create an economy that “contribute to all the three dimensions of sustainable development”, that limits material and energy throughout flow “to a level that nature tolerates” and “utilises ecosystem cycles in economic cycles by respecting their natural reproduction rates” (Korhonen et al., 2018, p.39). Resting on this assumption, the paper adopts as theoretical foundations a consolidated model of socio-technical transitions, i.e., the multilevel perspective (MLP) by Geels (2002, 2019). According to the MPL, transitioning socio-technical regimes go through a process by which niche innovations replace stabilized systems, mediated also by macrolevel (landscape) requirements and transformations. This process represents the background framework of this research.


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