‘Virtuous Circles’ Can Help Secure Food Supplies and Address Climate Change



Dear friends and colleagues,

Re: ‘Virtuous circles’ can help secure food supplies and address climate change

The world’s current way of providing food and other basic needs involves industrialised systems that are linear, centralised and globalised. These systems assume a limitless supply of resources and a limitless capacity for the environment to absorb waste and pollution.

The global food system’s dependence on fossil fuels that contribute to local pollution and global warming is just one example of an unsustainable system. The inevitable result is resource shortages on the one hand and solid waste, climate change, biodiversity loss, and air pollution problems on the other.

A recently published book by the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) calls for the development of alternative circular systems that mimic natural cycles to produce food, energy, materials and clean water.

Such systems are underpinned by two principles, both reflecting the natural world. The first is that natural systems are based on cycles, for example water, nitrogen and carbon. Secondly, there is very little waste in natural systems, as the ‘waste’ from one species is food for another, or is converted into a useful form by natural processes and cycles.

The book shows how these principles can be used to create systems and settlements that provide food, energy and water without consuming large quantities of fossil fuels and other finite resources. In the process, greenhouse gas emissions and environmental pollution are minimized whilst human well being, food and livelihood security, and democratic control are enhanced.


With best wishes,

Lim Li Ching

Third World Network

131 Jalan Macalister,

10400 Penang,


Email: twnet@po.jaring.my

Websites: www.twnside.org.sg, www.biosafety-info.net


IIED press release, 22 November 2011

‘Virtuous circles’ can help secure food supplies and address climate change

A book published today by IIED paints a vivid picture of an alternative future in which food, energy and water supplies are sustainable and in the control of local communities.

The book show how the linear systems that shape our world are flawed as they assume a limitless supply of resources and a limitless capacity for the environment to absorb waste and pollution.

The global food system’s dependence on fossil fuels that contribute to local pollution and global warming is just one example of an unsustainable system.

The authors call instead for circular systems that mimic natural cycles to produce food, energy, materials and clean water.

“Circular economy models that reintegrate food and energy production with water and waste management can also generate jobs and income in rural and urban areas,” says co-author Dr Michel Pimbert, a principal researcher at IIED. “This ensures that wealth created stays within the local and regional economy.”

One example is a system that recycles food waste and chicken manure to feed a worm farm. The worms in turn feed the chickens and farmed fish whose bones are used as fertiliser in a market garden. Human waste via a compost toilet also enriches the garden, whose crops — together with the farmed fish and meat and eggs from the chickens — feed the people.

The system is a closed circle with loops within it. All the nutrients stay in the system and just move about through the circle, rather than being pumped as sewage into the sea and leaving the soil forever poorer.

“A transformation towards re-localised food systems will significantly help to address climate change and other challenges,” says Pimbert. “Circular systems also provide the basis for economic and political sovereignty – the ability of citizens to democratically manage their own affairs and engage with other communities on their own terms.”

Dr Caroline Lucas, a member of parliament from the Green Party of England & Wales, has written the book’s foreword.

“I warmly welcome this book’s contribution to the debate on how food systems can be redesigned and re-localised to sustain diverse local ecologies, economies and human well being,” she writes.

“The authors rightly emphasise the need for a systemic and fundamental transformation of industrial food and farming in the face of peak oil, climate change, biodiversity loss, the water crisis, food poisonings, and the impoverishment of farmers and rural communities.”

“The challenge is to design resilient food systems with, by and for citizens – to reduce ecological footprints and foster local democratic control over the means of life. But rather than look at food and agriculture in isolation, we need to consider ways of re-integrating food and energy production with water and waste management in a diversity of local contexts in rural and urban areas, – and at different scales. “

To mark the launch of the book – Virtuous Circles: Values, systems and sustainability — IIED invites bloggers to join a virtual circle to share their blog posts about the book. Once you have posted a blog on your own site please send us the link (to Suzanne.Fisher@iied.org). IIED will then profile the best posts on its own blog and via Twitter with the hashtag #vcircles (see: http://www.iied.org/blogs/calling-all-bloggers-join-virtuous-circle )

The book can be downloaded for free from: http://pubs.iied.org/G03177.html

Virtuous Circles: Values, Systems and Sustainability

By Andy Jones, Michel Pimbert and Janice Jiggins

[extract only]


The current crisis can and should be seen as an opportunity to discuss, design and develop truly sustainable systems to meet the need for food, water and energy. However, this will require a paradigm shift and an acceptance that values, objectives, policies and economies in the North and the South will have to change dramatically and soon. Reversals in policies, legislation and market rules are needed to make the following shifts to sustainability:

• From mining the soil to managing nutrient cycles.

• From managing water use to managing hydrological cycles.

• From proprietary technologies and patents on biodiversity to legal frameworks that recognise farmers’ rights and guarantee equitable access to diverse seeds and livestock breeds.

• From investment policies that favour land grabs and displacement of local communities to policies that support equitable access, use and local control over land and territories in both urban and rural contexts.

• From investments in research and development that favour energy and resource intensive systems to support for decentralised and integrated food, energy, water and waste management systems based on principles of agroecology, ecoliteracy, ecodesign, biomimicry, socio-ecological resilience, equity and democratic control.

• From global, uniform standards for food and safety to a diversity of locally evolved food standards that meet food and safety requirements (from seed to plate).

• From support for centralised and capital-intensive energy systems to policies and legislations that promote innovations and internal markets for decentralised, distributed micro- generation of renewable energies (solar, wind, biogas….).

As part of this paradigm shift we suggest the following practical recommendations for individuals, communities, non- governmental organisations (NGOs) and policy makers at the local, national and international level:

• Adopt as a key policy objective the identification and rapid development of sustainable food, energy and water systems based on circular economy models. This process should be based on clear targets including minimising GHG emissions and fossil fuel use and increasing food and energy security and sovereignty at the local level.

• Reformulate agricultural, energy, trade and development policies specifically to promote sustainable food, energy and water systems. This will include designing institutional frameworks and regulatory processes that support and sustain circular systems capable of self-renewal and high production.

• Introduce stricter measures to internalise the external environmental and social costs of food, energy and transport systems, and use the resulting revenues to support sustainable initiatives. Large corporations involved in the food, agriculture, energy, water and waste management sectors should be the main—but not exclusive—targets of these measures. This policy would act as a driver of change in terms of a shift to sustainability and the transition to a low carbon economy.

• Introduce fiscal measures such as tax incentives to encourage the shift to sustainable systems. Relatively small taxes on financial exchange market speculations (e.g. Tobin tax and similar proposals) —and on other global money transactions— should be introduced through a multilateral agreement. This decision alone will generate immediate and substantial funding for the design and spread of circular systems that regenerate local ecologies and economies for the public good.

• Design and implement a major eco-literacy programme to raise awareness of the hidden environmental and social problems caused by our current linear systems, and the alternative options for supplying food, energy and water that minimise risks and negative impacts.

• Introduce local research, demonstration and training centres which focus on sustainable food, energy and water systems. These centres will provide advice and training and demonstrate best practice in order to develop a new skills and knowledge base. They should be designed so as to strengthen local knowledge systems, organisations and institutions, thereby enhancing capacities for local innovation and their horizontal spread to more people and places.

• Build on farmers and other citizens’ proposals for transformation (such as the food sovereignty movement) as part of a larger paradigm shift towards food and energy sovereignty.

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