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Virtuous circles for sustainable food, energy and water

In Virtuous Circles: Values, Systems and Sustainability, a new book from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), authors Andy Jones, Michel Pimbert and Janice Jiggins call for a circular economy approach to the production and supply of food, energy and water.

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Arguing that the linear systems of global food production are inherently unsustainable – assuming and requiring a limitless supply of resources and capacity to absorb waste – the authors of Virtuous Circles: Values, Systems and Sustainability propose the adoption of circular systems that mimic sustainable natural cycles.

Virtuous Cirlces

The book is an output of Designing Resilience, part of a collaborative research and communication programme co-ordinated by IIED. Through a process of co-inquiry, the programme aimes to strengthen the capacity, knowledge and innovations of local organisations of farmers, indigenous peoples, pastoralists, food workers and other citizens to bring about positive change in meeting human needs.

Linear versus circular systems

Assessing the “perfect storm” of food price crises, water shortages, climate change, financial turmoil, deforestation and biodiversity loss in recent years, the authors identify a polarised debate on the nature of sustainable products, systems and supply chains. This debate is exemplified in competing visions for the future or farming and food supply: a continuation of current trends of industrialised, centralised and globalised production systems against the adoption of more localised food systems based on agroecological principles.

The first vision represents a linear approach that assumes an unlimited supply of energy and resources as inputs, and produces continual outputs of carbon emissions, air pollution, waste water and solids.


The Linear Approach to FoodLinear food systemfrom Jones, A, Pimbert, M and Jiggins, J (2011) Virtuous Circles: Values, Systems and Sustainability. IIED, London


The authors argue that these linear systems result in vicious cycles of negative environmental and social impacts.

In the second vision, a circular approach – founded on the values of autonomy, resilience, knowledge-sharing and fairness and ecological, social and economic sustainability – seeks to minimise external inputs, reuse and recycle materials and nutrients, and maximise local production.

From vicious cycles to virtuous circles

The circular approach reflects natural systems, which are based on closed loops or cycles (eg of nitrogen or carbon) and have little or no waste – the “waste” of one organism is instead used as food for another or converted into a useful form by natural processes.


Linear and Circular MetabolismsLinear and circular metabolismsfrom Jones, A, Pimbert, M and Jiggins, J (2011) Virtuous Circles: Values, Systems and Sustainability. IIED, London; adapted from Girardet, H (1996) The Gaia Atlas of Cities: New Directions for Sustainable Urban Living. Gaia Books Ltd, London.


The book seeks to demonstrate how the circular approach can create systems that provide food, energy and water without consuming large quantities of fossil fuels and other finite resources, thereby minimising greenhouse gas emissions and environmental pollution. Furthermore, the authors argue that this approach has the potential to enhance human wellbeing, food and livelihood security, and democratic control.

Circular systems in action

The book describes example circular systems, such as integrated circular water, energy, sanitation and food systems, and a composting and biogas system for household or farm energy and fertiliser needs for production of food and construction materials. Four case studies are presented of circular systems in practice, in the Andes, across Asia, in Cuba and Ecuador. Analysis of a typical liner system – the manufacture of tomato ketchup in Sweden – reveals over 100 separate process stages and over 50 transport stpes across several continents, an insight into complicated linear production and supply chains, and their dependency on fossil fuels and other resources. An alternative circular systems approach to ketchup production is sketched out, greatly reducing the waste, pollution and use of resources.

Michel Pimbert, one of the book’s authors sums up the potential benefits of re-localised and circular food systems:

“A transformation towards re-localised food systems will significantly help to address climate change and other challenges. 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.”

Further reading


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