Fundamentally, the primary output of food production is organic matter; fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, dairy—it’s all carbon-based organic material. Most major waste streams within the food system are also comprised of organic matter; on the farm this takes the form of unharvested produce and animal waste; off the farm, it’s food waste and human waste.
Traditionally, organic material was captured and reused in agricultural production, returning valuable nutrients and bolstering soil health. Today, our food system is much leakier. While on-farm composting of unharvested crops is still common, the industrialization of animal agriculture has caused livestock manure to become so highly concentrated that it can no longer be effectively utilized as a fertilizer; instead, it’s become a serious pollutant. Off the farm, organics losses have also become more pronounced; the rate of food waste has increased dramatically, the vast majority of which ends up in landfills, squandering nutrients and exacerbating climate change by generating methane. While technology exists to safely and effectively recycle human waste for use in agriculture, implementation has been limited and is complicated by industrial and pharmaceutical contaminants in municipal waste streams.
A truly circular food system would close the organics loops—and leaders across the food system are now attempting to do so through food waste reduction, community and municipal composting programs, waste recycling, and pasture-based livestock production.