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Technological innovation and the circular food economy

Globally, one-third of all the food produced is either wasted or lost, without being physically consumed. Most of the food waste ends up in landfills without any proper disposal mechanism. In the global context, specifically in developing countries, the juxtaposition of food insecurity and food wastage exists and it is both ironic and concerning. There is a need for reinforcing a circular food economy, to address both of the above problems. A circular food economy is mainly built on three precedents, that transcend across various other socio-economic problems that are troubling these nations.

The first pillar of this circular economy is conscious consumption amongst individual agents and corporate entities. In this context, we shall examine the case study of South Korea, which was one of the top waste generators globally at the beginning of the 2000s. Over the past 15 years, South Korea transformed its food habits by implementing a tax policy that inculcates conscious waste production. This problem emerged from the type of their cuisine which consisted of a large platter of small side dishes, as opposed to most nations' single main course. Since there is a higher likelihood of wasting small parts of all dishes than large portions of one item, the problem of irresponsible diet patterns emerged. The new policy introduced a system of weighing food waste and tracking it to individual consumers using smart radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. So, each consumer was given an electronic tag that was to be used while disposing of food waste. The same proposal was universalized and implemented in hotel and restaurant chains, whereby food waste also began to be charged, and not just food. This payment goes into establishing and maintaining the RFID technology.

Most countries do have a waste disposal system in place, but its efficacy remains questionable given the magnitude of waste generated and the growing trend of consumerism. A universal, efficient waste disposal and management system are needed to resolve this increasing burden. Improper disposal of waste could end up in landfills that eventually contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The age-old method of composting, an easy and efficient one, enables the conversion of waste into fuel. But this requires a primary task of careful sorting of waste components into recyclables and others. New emerging technologies have been implemented in Australia to resolve the waste sorting concern faced by people. They have incorporated smartphone apps like RecycleMate to help identify the waste category and guide the consumer to dump waste in the correct, color-coded bins. This puts the onus of waste management on a household-cum-residential level effort. Drawing inspiration from Singapore's successful waste management infrastructure, the nation that was crippled by land scarcity coupled with immense waste generation, a consolidated effort of the entire community is considered beneficial.

The sorted and collected waste is incinerated, which reduces the volume of waste by at least 90%; an efficient course of action given the land scarcity issue in Singapore. The pollutant upon incineration is treated before being released into the atmosphere and any steam produced is converted into water, which is later heated at extreme pressure to produce energy to run the facility and the national grid. The incinerated ash is converted into non-structural concrete and while, the rest is dumped in a far-off island lagoon. When the lagoon overfills, the treated water is opened into the ocean. This landfill dumping remains to be a short-term plan for a pestering problem.

To address the issue holistically, we need a loop system - recycling, reusing, composting, and gasification- in place. Thus, the next pillar is FWFC -Food, Waste, Fuel, Crop- cycle, where we focus on the interplay between responsible consumption and responsible production. The Waste and Fuel part of the FWFC cycle links consumption and production, where the prime focus is on environmental responsibility. The waste conversion into energy and gas has been tried and tested but remains confined to household levels. The gasification of waste and an associated nationwide grid formation can solve both the waste problem and energy crisis in various nations. The Food and Crop part of the cycle allows the address of SDG 2- Zero Hunger- target, more effectively. Energy generation can fuel the smart future of agriculture, which collates the use of robotics and plant science to minimize water usage and maximize yield. Various farming technologies in place require energy to maintain irrigation innovations like IoT-based drip irrigation, which automates the release of water and thereby reduces human error.

These pillars of the circular food economy present a plausible solution to the extant dichotomy of food insecurity and food wastage. Increasing awareness has encouraged consumers to take certain steps like reduction in flood irrigations and replacing staple diets with drought-resistant crops like millets and hydroponic cultivation. It is important to note that the universalization of lifestyle changes accompanied by sourcing finance for R&D and global policy partnerships are the keys to a sustainable future.


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