Food Waste Minimization and Circularity for Optimizing Urban Food System Resilience


As urbanization increases, meeting the challenges of urban food supply and food security requires coherent and holistic strategies. Attention too often focuses solely on best practices without addressing the required behavior change. This policy brief highlights the importance of minimizing food loss and waste, which accounts for some 30% of current global production, in order to link and achieve SDGs 2, 11 and 12. The strategy comprises four interrelated elements, namely adopting holistic and circular planning perspectives; facilitating urban and peri-urban farming; integrating innovative behavioral interventions; and providing enabling environments. The G20 has the capacity to act rapidly, without the need for major capital investment, thereby also providing leadership to the entire international community.


With global food production unlikely to keep pace with future urban food demand, it is imperative to minimize food wastage. As a co-benefit, this will also alleviate problems for overstretched urban waste services. Both support achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 11 and 12 without the need for major capital investment.

Food loss and waste (FLW) constitute a major threat to food security, accounting for approximately 30% of global food production (FAO, 2015; Kaza et al., 2018). Saving such a massive volume of food waste could provide nutrition for 2.4 billion food–insecure people worldwide (UNDP, 2022), thereby also promoting attainment of SDG 2 and saving the global economy US$940 billion annually (UNEP, 2016). The causes of FLW include overconsumption and inefficient food production, storage, and distribution.

By 2050, about 80% of all food produced will be destined for urban areas, placing significant pressure on rural-urban linkages and resource management (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2019). Particularly, urban food supply in low- and middle-income countries relies on complex formal and informal channels that are sensitive to interruptions from extreme climate events, economic and political stresses or pandemics such as COVID-19.

Existing FLW reduction practices commonly lack a circular economy perspective to create new value from food waste (Ciulli et al., 2020; Murray et al., 2017) and integrate innovative behavioral insights into policy and practice (Kahneman, 2011; Kim et al., 2019). Some successful waste reduction activities involve informal urban and peri-urban farming that absorbs crop nutrients recovered from unavoidable food waste e.g., through organic waste composting or as livestock feed (Jayathilake et al., 2022; Sahakian et al., 2020; Van Zanten et al., 2018).

This policy brief proposes application of circular bioeconomic and behavioral insights to reduce FLW in urban food systems. A circular bioeconomy approach could generate benefits worth US$ 2.7 trillion a year in 2050, including saving 15 million hectares of arable land from degradation, and a significant output of greenhouse gas emissions (Commission on Sustainable Agricultural Intensification, 2022). It is critical to shift food system management and consumption patterns towards more circular, resilient, and sustainable pathways with viable financial models based on public-private partnerships across food systems.

A concerted approach is needed to improve urban food security and resilience since numerous previous international efforts to tackle global food systems transformation, which includes FLW reduction, have not succeeded (Canfield et al., 2021). While many initiatives contribute to reducing FLW, they often fall short in generating and applying behavioral and food circularity insights to improve their effectiveness. Such initiatives also lack practical implementation strategies due to their global scale and generic messages, which make it hard to apply them in specific contexts.

The G20’s experience in tackling global economic crises in 1999 and 2008 positions the organization as a hub for global sustainability governance (Kirton, 2016) with the potential to coordinate and mobilize the required resources, including to improve food security and resilience. The democratic processes of G20 multilateralism provide an avenue for non-state actors to participate in addressing food security (Guttal, 2021). The G20 is therefore well-positioned to drive the integration of circular bioeconomic and behavioral insights into urban food systems.


While there is increasing global commitment to the concept of economic circularity, in the context of food, a circular bioeconomy should be promoted in conjunction with strategies for food waste avoidance and minimization. Instead of emphasizing only technical solutions for greater circularity, priority should be given to advances in planning, institutional capacities and policies to create incentives for waste minimization, which often implies positive or negative incentives for behavioral change. In support of the framework of the food waste [minimization] hierarchy (see Figure 1), this policy brief proposes the integration of both the circularity of food systems and behavioral insights into the food waste dialogue, with special recognition of the waste absorption potential of urban and peri-urban farming systems at a city-regional scale.

Figure 1: The Food Waste Minimization Hierarchy

Chart, funnel chart Description automatically generated

Source: Sanchez et al. (2020, p. 8)

To achieve this, we target the integration of four key intervention areas for G20 support, namely (1) the adoption of holistic and circular planning perspectives across the food and waste sectors; (2) recognition of the positive role of urban and peri-urban farming; (3) the integration of innovative behavioral interventions; and (4) the provision of enabling environments.

Together, these interventions would create substantial system-level reductions in urban FLW, along with increased supply of locally produced food.

1. Adoption of holistic planning perspective across the food and waste sectors

Cities constitute major consumption hubs generating large volumes of both organic and inorganic waste. In line with the waste hierarchy, this should be minimized as far as possible, while unavoidable waste should undergo resource recovery in line with economic circularity (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2019).

This policy brief targets (a) the need to minimize food waste (which constitutes the largest share of urban organic waste) and (b) to implement more robust resource recovery and reuse programs. These are interlinked within urban and peri-urban food systems, which can be a major user of food no longer suitable for human consumption and of recovered crop nutrients for use as fertilizer. Indeed, urban waste reuse, including wastewater, has long been identified as a key advantage of urban farming (Smit et al., 1996). While the benefit of this nutrient supply for farmers is obvious, the benefit for waste management and society depends on the scale and absorptive capacity of agriculture. Moreover, most waste requires treatment to avoid environmental or human health risks, which can be time-consuming and expensive.

A detailed analysis of urban nutrient flows for Kumasi city (Ghana) showed that, due to poor waste management, less than 5% find their way into treatment plants for potential recovery (Drechsel et al., 2007). Most of the nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients which enter the city in food end up in ground- and surface water, soils, and landfills. This constitutes an annual loss of US$8 million in fertilizer units (Drechsel et al., 2007). The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2019) estimated that globally less than 2% of the nutrients in food entering urban areas are recovered from solid waste or sanitation systems (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Urban nutrient recovery reality

Chart, diagram, funnel chart Description automatically generated

Source: Adapted from Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2019, p.18).

In Kumasi, in a ‘realistic’ scenario which considered only the waste already collected, the entire nitrogen and phosphorus demand of urban farming could be met, as well as 18% of the nitrogen and 25% of the phosphorus needs of peri-urban agriculture within a 40 km radius of the city (Drechsel et al., 2007).

With some exceptions (e.g., BBC, 2022), even simple technologies like organic waste composting often fail in practice or cannot be implemented at larger scales. This is due to limited recognition of urban and peri-urban farming and over-reliance on public subsidies, resulting in inadequate planning and partnerships across the urban food, farming and waste management sectors. Transporting compost far out of town to support rural farming systems usually results in poor operational cost recovery from composting or co-composting (Fernando et al., 2014; Rao et al., 2020).

To address this challenge, the focus of research has now moved from technical solutions to business modeling that links the sanitation, solid waste, and agricultural sectors (Otoo & Drechsel, 2018; Rao et al., 2020).  Adoption of a more holistic planning perspective which recognizes the role of urban and peri-urban farming systems and supports the interdependence between food supply and food waste management beyond administrative or sector-based silos, is therefore recommended (Simon, 2021).

2. Recognizing the role of urban and peri-urban farming

We now know that urban and peri-urban agriculture can have important economic, social and environmental benefits, providing livelihoods contributing a significant share of specific commodities like salads to the urban food system, thereby also minimizing food miles (Commission on Sustainable Agricultural Intensification, 2022). In terms of broader urban food security, however, a city-regional food system perspective is recommended, rather than focusing on urban and/or peri-urban farming systems (Blay-Palmer et al., 2018; Simon, 2021).

2.1 The reuse of food waste as animal feed

This is a widespread traditional agricultural practice. In and around Colombo, Sri Lanka, food waste accounts for an average of 82% of total feed used in larger piggeries. About 40% of the farms collect the organic leftovers daily without charge from hotels, restaurants and institutional canteens. These venues value the reliable service, the farmers appreciate the low-cost feed, and the municipality benefit from the reduced waste volumes to be collected and managed. However, this triple-win situation encounters challenges such as (tourist-related) seasonal low food waste supply, which was exacerbated during the COVID-19 lockdown of food services, and concerns related to biosafety. Given the potential benefits, policy support is needed to explore how informal partnerships e.g., between the hotel sector and piggeries can be scaled while introducing biosafety monitoring. Regulatory environments remain highly fragmented and do not support material transitions across sector boundaries towards a circular bioeconomy (Jayathilake et al., 2022).

2.2 The reuse of recovered resources for urban and peri-urban farming

The potential to reuse recovered resources from urban waste streams in urban and peri-urban farming systems depends significantly on the competitiveness of the recovered product, market size and demand, the regulatory environment, and the business model used (Otoo et al., 2016). The most promising results for cost recovery relate to energy recovery from organic waste, followed by nutrient recovery via composting. As water is often highly subsidized and irrigation water cheap or even free, charging farmers for reclaimed wastewater in such contexts represents a significant challenge. Thus, many planned wastewater reuse models are mainly social models, which are economically strong but fall short because of financial unsustainability unless the societal benefits are internalized (Hanjra et al., 2015).

However, some urban and peri-urban farming systems, like the production of fish or fish feed, can cover operational water treatment and reuse or even infrastructure costs, taking advantage of the nutrient load of wastewater (Amoah et al., 2021). Globally, informal wastewater use occurs on an area 30 times greater than that under planned wastewater reuse, which might be around 1 million ha (Drechsel et al., 2022). The challenge is the limited adoption of safety practices as recommended by WHO for farmers, traders and kitchen staff (WHO, 2006). A significant gap relates to research on how to support the required behavior where formal educational levels and risk awareness are low with no tangible benefits (Drechsel et al., 2022). The G20 can reduce this gap relatively inexpensively with a better understanding of how to facilitate behavior change by actors from farm to fork through building awareness, context-specific incentives, and/or enforcing regulations.

3. Integrating systematic behavioral interventions and managing waste infrastructure

Most interventions to minimize food waste have centered around investment in communication campaigns to provide knowledge and motivation and create awareness about food loss by both producers and consumers (Young et al., 2018). However, evidence shows that communication and knowledge campaigns do not necessarily change behavior (Snyder, 2007), partly due to a mismatch between intention and actual behavior (Geiger et al., 2019; Varotto & Spagnolli, 2017). Innovative approaches which also mainstream circular bioeconomy are deemed more effective in inducing behavioral change (Abreu & Ceglia, 2018; Nisa et al., 2019). Accordingly, we propose the following actions:

3.1 Coordinated behavioral interventions

Although large scale information-based interventions have limited effectiveness (Dai et al., 2016; IPCC, 2014), the coordinated integration of information campaigns e.g., “Think. Eat. Save. Reduce Your Foodprint,” could effectively influence behavioral adoption (Jackson & Surrey, 2005; Reynolds et al., 2019). The campaign provided integrated tools and resources to influence behavioral change for different stakeholders along the food value chain (UNEP, 2013). Such interventions could better influence behavioral change by considering consumer insights and social marketing strategies with specific targets, such as the university campuses and urban communities (Ai & Zheng, 2019; Kim et al., 2019). Such tailored interventions increase the success rates because different age cohort, lifestyle, and cultural groups respond differently to particular rewards and nudges (Barker et al., 2021; Lambe et al., 2020; Rohm et al., 2017).

Driving behavior towards more normatively beneficial outcomes require going beyond strategies that primarily target awareness and knowledge to focus on facilitating the adoption of more intrinsically sustainable behavior according to the underlying contexts (Mertens et al., 2022; Principato, 2018). Campaigns then follow a sequence that moves the target audience from awareness of an issue towards a behavior adoption by releasing the campaign materials or intervening at each stage (Lambe et al., 2020). The G20 can encourage the effective process of continuous assessment, evaluation, and readjustment of public interventions to achieve substantial FLW reduction. Many private sector actors are ready to support such processes, also based on corporate social responsibility (Senanayake et al., 2021).

3.2 Better partnerships to manage food waste, related infrastructure and logistics effectively

Partnerships are crucial to reduce food waste and realize a circular economy. There are two important entry points which need regulatory support: (i) private-private partnerships in waste reduction (improved storage and packaging, etc.) and redistribution for the benefit of human or livestock via collaboration between producers of unused or excess food (restaurants or supermarkets, for example) and farmers or social enterprises collecting and distribution or using it; and (ii) public-private partnerships where municipalities incentivize and manage waste separation and collection, and private enterprises process the waste and market e.g. waste-derived compost. Other options for waste reduction include supply chain optimization and engaging third-party logistics (renting of space for recycling) to facilitate win-win storage, processing and transportation solutions (Dias & Braga Junior, 2016; Beheshti et al., 2022). There are often unused opportunities for industrial symbiosis despite geographic proximity (Chertow, 2000).

Given their global outreach, many larger companies have started forming international alliances with defined food waste targets, which need to be extended to their supply and retail chains in the Global South (Senanayake et al., 2021). Given the G20’s important role in fostering international cooperation and partnerships (SDG 17), its member countries should seek linkages to such corporate initiatives to jointly achieve SDG 12.3. The target is to encourage effective collaboration between and within the public and private sectors.

4. Enabling environment

We propose two spheres of institutional and regulatory enabling environment, at the national and international levels respectively, to facilitate a circular bioeconomy and behavioral insights mainstreaming into FLW reduction policies.

4.1 National laws and regulations on economic circularity and urban-regional planning

There is a strong need to integrate food waste interventions as part of national and sub-national policies in G20 countries as only half of them have yet done so (The Economist Intelligence Unit and Barilla Foundation, 2021). Food and organic waste comprise around 32–50% of waste globally, one-third of which can be managed by recycling and composting (Kaza et al., 2018). However, cities face challenges in managing their food waste, including government’s siloed working approach, lack of incentives, poor administrative measures, and ineffective budget allocations (Zafra, 2022; Fattibene et al., 2020; Thi et al., 2015).

The EUROCITIES Working Group on Food exemplifies cross-sectoral governance on how local authorities can play leading roles to facilitate agreements through various food-related policies such as on food donation and biogas as a recovery product (Fattibene et al., 2020; Magarini et al., 2018). In China and South Korea, government policies promote food waste to biogas policies by building treatment facilities e.g., biowaste plants, and eliminating tariffs on biogas (De Clercq et al., 2017).

These examples demonstrate the importance of designing strategic policies and incentives to prevent and recover waste before it ends up in landfill. This provides an opportunity for G20 countries to lead by example and encourage policymakers  to acknowledge the multifunctionality of food, design interventions, and provide a conducive regulatory environment with incentives that specifically target FLW prevention.

4.2 Resource mobilization through multilateralism

Internationally, FLW reduction initiatives are often geographically and institutionally limited. This leads to unsynchronized efforts and inefficient resource mobilization. As a global multilateral platform, the G20 has the ability to work on multiple issues and engage with numerous institutions to support FLW reduction efforts without being too constrained by the regional coverage (Hampson & Heinbecker, 2011; Naylor, 2022). Interventions may include mobilizing financial and technical assistance within member states and beyond. The G20 can build on the existing initiatives promoting food circularity with particular emphasis on urban and peri-urban farming and behavioral interventions. For instance, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN, 2016) Food Safety Policy implementation might need support due to its non-binding nature (Ramcharan, 2000; Yukawa, 2018).

The G20 could mobilize resources for technical and/or financial assistance to support policy-oriented measures to improve essential infrastructures and the capacity of national and municipal governments as well as non-governmental initiatives to support adoption of the food circularity approach. The G20 can also integrate a circular bioeconomy approach into the Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists of the G20 Countries (MACS-G20) that has been providing a sharing platform on FLW reduction initiatives since 2015. Streamlining resources to support such initiatives may trigger more tangible results through enhanced uptake by the targeted stakeholders.


Adequate urban food supply and security constitute key sustainable development and resilience challenges. Promoting a circular bioeconomy at the city-regional scale and minimizing food waste are crucial interventions to link SDGs 2, 11and 12, as well as reducing urban poverty (SDG1). If implemented conscientiously by the G20 through effective multilevel governance, as explained above, and involving the respective actors identified in Table 1, four interlinked interventions constitute a holistic approach with the potential for major gains towards achieving adequate urban food supply and security rapidly. 

These interventions are (1) the adoption of holistic and circular planning perspectives across the food and waste sectors; (2) the recognition of the role of urban and peri-urban farming; (3) the integration of innovative behavioral interventions; and (4) the provision of enabling environments. G20 member countries have the resources and multilateral governance capacity to undertake these interventions. Moreover, by so doing, they will set an example that – with appropriate publicity and assistance – will encourage other low- and middle-income countries to follow suit.

Table 1: Key actors identified for each policy recommendation

Policy recommendationsG20National Govt.Municipal Govt.PrivateFarming
Adoption of holistic planning perspective


Reuse of food waste as animal feeds
Reuse of recovered resources for urban and peri-urban farming
Catalyzed and coordinated behavioral intervention


Partnerships for food waste infrastructure investment
Integration of circular economy in laws and regulations
Resource mobilization through multilateralism

Source: Authors; CSR: Corporate Social Responsibility programs


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