Circular economy food & farming in the south-west: research from the University of Exeter Business School

This article first appeared in the Western Morning News.

Prof Mickey Howard & Dan Eatherley

Could adopting the principles of the circular economy help Britain’s food and farming sector face an uncertain future while helping to address its negative environmental impacts from climate change to water pollution? That’s the question we’re asking in a major new research project led by the University of Exeter Business School.

Employing more than three million people and contributing well over a billion pounds every year to the national economy, food and farming is among Britain’s most important industries. It’s never been easy for the sector, which is vulnerable to many external factors from changing climates, land use and seasonality to perturbations in cost and availability of raw materials, energy, water, labour and other inputs. But today’s uncertainty over the post-Brexit policy and economic landscape only adds to the current challenges. At the same time, the food and farming industry is under greater pressure than ever to tackle a range of environmental impacts including: intensive use of land, water, energy, raw materials and other resources; toxic emissions to water and air; as well as vast food waste and packaging issues, including significant losses of product and value across the supply chain.

Now our interdisciplinary team of researchers, funded by the UK Government’s Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, and led by the University of Exeter Business School is investigating whether and how the industry could solve some of these problems by implementing the principles of the circular economy (CE).

CE is all about moving away from the prevailing linear approach of ‘take-make-dispose’ and towards a more regenerative system where ‘waste’—be it excess materials, water or energy—is recognised as something of value to be reused within a business – or exchanged with others. It’s been estimated that adopting CE principles, could not only address environmental and social challenges but generate a net economic benefit of €1.8 trillion across Europe by 2030.[1] Unsurprisingly, the CE idea is gaining traction in many countries and industries as a possible solution to a range of problems.

The University of Exeter’s two-year project—entitled ‘Modelling supply chain optimisation in the food and beverages industry: Helping SMEs in South West England work towards the circular economy’—focuses on South West England’s baking and dairy sectors. Our research team is using the latest business and management techniques such as value stream mapping, as well as sophisticated computer models, to examine opportunities for CE to eliminate waste and generate cleaner growth and resilience amongst a small number of selected small-medium enterprises (SMEs) across Devon and Cornwall.

Among questions we’re asking is: How effectively can CE principles be applied to the food and farming sector? What are the opportunities? What might be the difficulties? And, how can SMEs – which in British food manufacturing account for 96% of businesses, 27% of employment and 19% of turnover – access these opportunities given their limited resources?

Our early findings suggest that simply adopting an efficiency-based, cost-down approach isn’t necessarily the most effective way of surviving and prospering in the longer-term. Instead, we are seeing firms collaborating in their approach to activities ranging from material exchange, water treatment and renewable energy generation. We believe that businesses can best build their CE capability by working together with other firms, customers and suppliers, both within and across supply chains. For example, the new Food and Drink Hub being developed at Bodmin in Cornwall to showcase local produce demonstrates how the collective actions of players from a range of backgrounds will have a far greater impact than firms acting alone. Of course, there will always be a tension in business between collaboration and competition, but initiatives like the Bodmin Food & Drink Hub may suggest a way to harness the benefits of both.

As our project concludes at the University of Exeter Business School, we are developing new models for sustainable business implementation, based on the idea of circular economy and capability maturity, where firms develop their knowledge of ‘circular skills’ and how to apply them with other partners over time. On 12th September 2018 the initial results of our project will be presented and discussed at the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group at Portcullis House in Westminster. This event will bring together members of the project team, local industry representatives from Devon & Cornwall, as well as Members of Parliament to field questions around the project outcomes and future directions for regional food and farming policy.

On Friday 21st September 2018, we’ll be sharing with various local businesses attending the South West Business Council’s next conference ‘From Farm to Fork; the future of food and drink in the South West’. If you’d like to attend, please email [email protected] for more information.

We are always looking out for new firms large and small to work with, so please do get in touch with us at the University of Exeter Business School if you would like to know more.

About the authors:

Mickey Howard is Professor of Sustainable Supply Chain Management at the University of Exeter Business School, in Devon UK. His current research interests include governance mechanisms, inter-organizational relationships and the implementation of circular business models. He can be contacted at [email protected].

Dan Eatherley is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Business School and also works extensively as a consultant and writer on environmental issues. His private, public and charitable clients in the UK and abroad include the European Commission, the UN Environment Programme, Defra, Devon Local Nature Partnership, Greenpeace and Scottish Natural Heritage. He can be contacted at [email protected].

More information on the project can be found at www.circularfood.net

View Western Morning News Article here >

[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability-and-resource-productivity/our-insights/europes-circular-economy-opportunity