Circular or Closed-loop agriculture?

Circular economy has become popular in terms of a new sustainable approach, based on Cradle2Cradle principles, recycling fossil energy and natural resources, in order to save the planet and stay within planetary boundaries. But can agriculture also be circular?

Recently, Kate Raworth introduced us to Dougnut economy. Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century. Agriculture should also adhere to using the complex nartural systems as a guide for agricultural practices.

Consumption happens only in biological cycles, where food and biologically-based materials (such as cotton or wood) are designed to feed back into the system through processes like composting and anaerobic digestion. These cycles regenerate living systems, such as soil, which provide renewable resources for the economy. Technical cycles recover and restore products, components, and materials through strategies like reuse, repair, remanufacture or (in the last resort) recycling.

The idea of circularity, feedback, of cycles in real-world systems, has echoes in various schools of philosophy.  The advent of computer-based studies of non-linear systems unambiguously revealed the complex, interrelated, and therefore unpredictable nature of the world we live in – more akin to a metabolism than a machine. Note, according to the Spiral Dynamics concept we transition from the industrial/ hierachical meme, which regards the world as a machine, to the Yellow meme , where we regard the world as a complex system, more like a metabolism.  

The circular economy model synthesises several major schools of thought. They include the functional service economy (performance economy) of Walter Stahel; the Cradle to Cradle design philosophy of William McDonough and Michael Braungart; biomimicry as articulated by Janine Benyus; the industrial ecology of Reid Lifset and Thomas Graedel; natural capitalism by Amory and Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken; and the blue economy systems approach described by Gunter Pauli. We should add the 21st century Doughnut Economy appraoch by Kate Raworth, changing the focus of economy from making profit to producing in between the boundaries of the ecological ceiling and the social foundation. The economy of the common good changes the focus of economy from a goal in itself to a means to make society prosper while respecting and conserving bodiversty. Their approach includes  From I to WE. 

So to apply such circular approaches to agriculture, it means that we need to manage farming systems as complex natural systems again, preserving and enhancing biodoversity.  We need to find and restore feed back mechanisms, to  allow the system to restore itself, to become resilient. That means we need to study again how nature, all along, manages this in a variety of ecosystems, based on biodiversity. 

In agriculture, we see roughly four developments in making it circular, or preferably like a metabolism again, includingits own feed back mechanisms:

1. We, as people, learning from natural ecosystems and copy the principles: next to the long time existing organic agriculture  biodynamic agriculture and ayurvedic agriculture, ther is permaculture, agro-forestry, agro-ecology, natural grazing. In such approaches the farmer or organisation needs to be open to learn from nature (and from others) and to trust the interactive process, adapting on the way. All the examples in my book follow this rule. And this is not restricted to one farmer. This can be applied to a whole landscape. we talk about mixed farming on a regional scale,  aboutfood sovereignty,  local and traditional seed production and markets, integrated landscape development. 

Such  developemnts are already widespread and thake a great flight. It is only that we don't know about it.  Look at the Yellow Pages for agroecology to get and idea. 

2. More technical, we see (1) a development in smart / precision agriculture; with help of satellites waste is reduced by very effective application of seed, fertilizer, water. Another technical approach is (2) measuring inputs and outputs of a system, recycling the waste and re-using waste as input again. Calculate losses and replenish them. That is relatively easy for measurable nutrients like phosphor, nitrogen. More difficult for organic carbon, and even more dufficult when it comes to plants and soils sequestering carbon from the air.  Obviously, this approach is more appreciated by managers and policymakers who are used to technical solutions. The questions that arise are on which scale the loops need to be closed, local, regional or even international (e.g. recycle the waste -in varous countries - from Brazilian grown soy, and return that as manure to Brasil?). The non-renewable nutrient phospor, used in chemical fertilizer, and found as waste in urine, can be retrieved if we would redesign our toilets to separate urine from faeces. We should also return to another type of stables where the urine and faeces (manure) of cows is seprately collected. 

3. A return to well known, culturally divers, experientially developed closed loop systems of agriculture. Like the 3000 year old Chinese farming system where chicken are kept above a pond with fish. Or the Swiss and other mountain area system where sheep and cows are kept in summer meadows. Their dung warms the soil with only 1 or 2 degrees, which makes the soil suitable to grow winter grain.