Developing a circular food economy

Farmers are the original recyclers. Now a circular food economy project in Guelph is helping farmers and businesses collaborate to find even more ways to reduce waste.

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The goal of Our Food Future is to build a circular economy within the regional food supply chain, says Justine Dainard, project manager for the County of Wellington. The $10 million federally funded effort, which launched in 2020, is a partnership between the city of Guelph and the surrounding county of Wellington.

The way Dainard sees it, the current food system is primarily based on a linear model that flows in one direction: production, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal. This linear “take-make-dispose” approach fails to recover the nutrients in food by products and waste, which has financial, social and environmental costs.

Circular food systems establish collaborative networks to keep nutrients cycling through the system, thus reducing the amount of waste that goes to landfill.

Creating a healthy, resilient community by making nutritious food accessible and affordable to all is also a critical part of the Our Food Future vision.

This involves rethinking everything from how we produce food to how we distribute, sell, and consume it, says Dainard. “A system shift is required.”

The Our Food Future project identified three key goals at the start of the project:

  • A 50 per cent increase in access to affordable, nutritious food.
  • 50 new circular food businesses, collaborations and social enterprises.
  • A 50 per cent increase in economic benefit by unlocking the value of waste.

Smart data, technology and innovation are integral components of Our Food Future.

The project is complex with dozens of partnerships, and Dainard says the second goal has already been exceeded with more than 100 businesses getting involved.

Dainard shared some examples of Our Food Future initiatives so far.

An online ReSource Exchange Marketplace connects businesses that have waste with others who have ideas for using it. The marketplace can be used to help folks locate goods but also services such as extra cold storage, says Dainard. Many of the participating businesses are in the Guelph, Waterloo, Toronto and Ottawa areas.

Canada’s first pay-what-you-choose online grocery store, Groceries from the SEED, offers sliding scale prices and home delivery to make healthy, nutritious food accessible to all. The products come from many sources including suppliers and local farmers. Some of the items are frozen meals made with surplus food that has been upcycled into delicious, nutrient-rich products and meals instead of being wasted. “Equity is built right into the model,” says Dainard.

This year the FEWD (Food Equity with Dignity) Truck will hit the streets. Surplus foods will be used to make meals by chefs-in-training that will be sold on a sliding scale. In addition to turning pre-consumer food waste—high-quality food items destined for landfill for a variety of reasons such as aesthetics or lack of space to properly store and process them—into a resource. the FEWD Truck will provide employment and training for a team of both experienced chefs and those new to the food industry.

A farmer-focused soil health project called Experimental Acres is also being piloted this year because Dainard says they realized what’s been missing is the “on-ramp.”

The supports include a small honorarium for each farmer and grants to cover expenses like equipment rental, so farmers can put their ideas to the test.

James Craig raises grass-fed Speckle Park beef with his family near Arthur in the northern reaches of Wellington County using regenerative agriculture. They sell beef direct to consumer under the Blue Sky Beef label and also sell breeding stock.

For Craig, regenerative agriculture means aiming to farm with a net positive effect on the environment. “It’s about balancing what’s good for the animal, the environment, ourselves and the business,” he says. “It’s about making an intentional decision to improve every year, not just for one season or one crop.”

While many of the farming practices have been used by their family for generations, Craig says they have only used the regenerative agriculture label since 2019.

Craig, who was approved for a grant for a test plot this year, thinks the flexibility of the Experimental Acres will spur more creative innovations than traditional government funding programs which tend to be more proscriptive. “This is what’s needed,” he says. “Farmers can try new things and if they work, they can scale upwards.”

Dainard says Wellington County is working in partnership with neighboring Dufferin County, hoping the program will be easy to replicate for other counties wanting to incentivize soil health.

While the Guelph-Wellington Our Food Future project is at the forefront of the circular food economy movement, Dainard says the momentum is growing globally with projects all over the world now.

As an example, the business consultants at Anthesis Provision facilitated a partnership between Guelph-area farms and businesses in 2020 to create a circular meal using repurposed byproducts and unavoidable waste.

It started at a Guelph brewery with spent grain, a byproduct of fermenting locally grown grain to make beer. Some of the spent grain went to a bakery to make sour dough bread and some to an insect farm to feed black soldier fly larvae used as feed at a trout aquaculture operation, with the fish waste used as fertilizer by a potato grower. The resulting fish, potatoes, bread and beer were then served in Guelph restaurants.

Resources

The ReSource Exchange Marketplace is an online business-to-business platform operating in southern Ontario for connecting producers and businesses who want to collaborate to prevent the waste of by-products.

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