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Using the Circular Economy to Transform Food Emissions and Build Biodiversity

Claudia Baldwin



With the climate and biodiversity COPs in progress, one part of the economy increasingly finds itself in the spotlight: food. Our current food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss and accounts for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, spurring businesses and policymakers alike to set targets and take action to make changes in the sector.

But incremental improvements to the current system will not be enough to address these issues at scale and speed. A fundamental transformation of the food industry is needed; rather than bending nature to produce food, our food needs to be designed for nature to thrive.

Food designed for nature-positive outcomes

Like most things around us — our clothes, phones, buildings — much of the food we eat has been designed, from breakfast cereals to pasta. Food brands and supermarkets create these food offerings from a handful of ingredients, making decisions about how something tastes, how it looks and how nutritious it is. These decisions not only affect customers, farmers and suppliers, but also the environment.

Today, just four crops — wheat, rice, corn and potatoes — provide almost 60 percent of the calories consumed globally. Only a few varieties of each staple crop are cultivated at scale and, overall, varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are increasingly being lost as the food system becomes more homogenized. As the diversity of foods produced has decreased, so too has the resilience of the food system to threats such as pests, diseases and extreme weather shocks exacerbated by climate change. Producers rely on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to overcome these challenges, but that reliance contributes to the food system’s climate and biodiversity impact.

While decisions made at the food design stage can have negative impacts, there is an enormous opportunity for businesses to design food for nature-positive outcomes and make it mainstream. The top 10 food brands and supermarkets can transform 40 percent of agricultural land in the U.K. and the EU by designing nature-positive food. While many of these players are part of the problem, their size and influence means they can be, and need to be, part of the solution and provide offerings consumers are looking for.

Can your breakfast help the climate? Image courtesy of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

To achieve this, businesses can set product portfolio strategies underpinned by a mindset of designing for nature, selecting ingredients that are diverse, lower impact, upcycled and regeneratively produced. This is the basis of a circular design for food.

How can we redesign breakfast using circular design for food

Take a breakfast table staple such as a bowl of cereal, commonly made of wheat, corn or oats. Just varying the ingredients to use perennial varieties of these crops rather than traditional, annual versions could offer huge benefits. For example, in the U.S. cultivating common wheat requires yearly tilling and reseeding after each crop, degrading the soil structure in the process. Substituting for Kernza, a new perennial variety with deep roots that mimic native prairie grasses, could save mechanical inputs, build soil health and sequester around 10 times more CO2 than conventional wheat varieties. Deeper roots also allow the plants to absorb more nutrients from the soil, producing a healthier grain.

Splashing plant-based milk over the top is another lower impact twist. Over a hundred businesses are producing milk alternatives using more than 30 plant-based ingredients, which have been found to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, land use and biodiversity impacts compared to conventionally produced dairy milk. Unusual and exotic sounding varieties such as amaranth, tiger nuts and duckweed in fact serve to broaden agriculture’s genetic diversity, while upcycling can maximize the value of existing crops. The brand TakeTwo, for example, makes barley milk by upcycling spent grain, a by-product of beer brewing that is usually wasted or used for animal feed.

Dairy produced regeneratively in this way can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% and biodiversity loss by 20%.

Cows’ milk still has a role in a healthy food system, as plant-based alternatives — not always as nutritionally dense as dairy, especially without fortification — may not be appropriate for young children and the elderly, or for consumers in developing countries where diet can be limited. This too can be produced in a way that has regenerative outcomes for nature by using managed intensive grazing (MIG) of livestock. Although this can mean that fewer dairy cows can be reared than conventional methods, regenerative production can be made economically viable for farmers by using methods such as silvopasture, where trees and crops are integrated with grazing animals to provide shelter, fodder and additional cash crops. Diverse grasses and crops can be planted on pasture to optimize forage, and — mimicking migratory herds — livestock grouped on areas of pasture and moved frequently. The livestock benefit from a diverse diet and trample organic matter and nutrients into the ground as they go. Dairy produced regeneratively in this way can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent and biodiversity loss by 20 percent, without affecting milk yields, while boosting profitability for farmers by $240 per hectare per year.

5 actions to take nature-positive food mainstream

However, ingredient sourcing is just part of the picture. For the best economic and environmental benefits, a circular design for food must be comprehensively applied. To illustrate, imagine a new cereal brand, Climate Crunch. This concept brand, from a nature-positive future, makes cereal and cereal bars from wheat and peas, grown together with minimum tillage and reduced synthetic inputs. Moving away from homogeneous agriculture by intercropping wheat with leguminous crops such as peas can reduce the need for synthetic inputs by fixing nitrogen into the soil, building soil health and fostering greater biodiversity. Cultivating two crops diversifies and boosts farmers’ income and spreads their exposure to risk.

Major food brands and retailers have the power to drive meaningful change in our food system by seizing the opportunity of a circular economy for food and making nature-positive food the norm. Through careful design and sourcing, businesses can provide choices that are better for customers, better for farmers and better for the environment.

To realize these benefits, businesses can take five actions to make nature-positive food mainstream:

1. Create ambitious and well-resourced action plans to make nature-positive product portfolios a reality.

2. Create a new collaborative dynamic with farmers.

3. Develop iconic products to showcase the potential of circular design for food.

4. Contribute to and use common on-farm metrics and definitions.

5. Advocate for policies that support a nature-positive food system.

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Is Climate Tech the Hottest Corner of the VC Business in the 2020s?

Claudia Baldwin



This is an excerpt from “Climatenomics: Washington, Wall Street, and the Economic Battle to Save Our Planet” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

While government policies and leadership from Washington can help accelerate change, there’s another place that can accelerate change much faster: Silicon Valley.

In 2003, as a national technology reporter for a chain of newspapers, I visited the Mountain View, California campus of Google to meet with cofounder Sergey Brin. At the time, Google was still a private company, though there was widespread speculation that it would launch an initial public offering soon. The moment I pulled into the company parking lot, I got a taste that Google wasn’t a typical company. Covering many of the parking spaces were canopies made from solar panels, something that’s commonplace today but back then was pretty unusual. Even more unusual were the thick power cords hanging down from the panels over nearly every parking space, something that didn’t make sense until Brin and team later explained it to me. At the time, electric vehicles were even more uncommon than solar parking lot canopies (the first Tesla wouldn’t hit the streets for another five years). But Google knew EVs were coming someday soon, and it wanted to be ready. Google also wanted employees and other visitors to think about the possibilities that could come with solar-powered parking lots and cars that you could plug in to refuel.

Two of the forward-thinking people responsible for Google’s early solar deployment were Chris Sacca, who as the company’s corporate counsel and later head of special initiatives was involved in Google’s energy purchase agreements, and Andrew Beebe, who was chief commercial officer at solar company Suntech, which helped Google go solar.

“There really wasn’t any corporate interest until those guys stepped up and said, ‘Please build solar arrays all over our campus,'” Beebe recalled during a GreenBiz VERGE [climate] tech conference in October 2021. “But (Google executives) also said, ‘Set it up so we can have Walmart and Cisco and Microsoft and all of our competitors come over and see what we have done.’ They obviously had a hugely catalytic role in making all this happen.”

Both Beebe and Sacca would go on to become successful venture capitalists, Beebe with Obvious Ventures, the firm that helped launch companies such as Medium, Beyond Meat and electric bus maker Proterra, and Sacca with his firm called Lowercase Capital, which funded companies such as Twitter, Uber and Instagram. For about three years, Sacca also was a “guest shark” on the ABC television show “Shark Tank,” where budding entrepreneurs bid for the favor — and the funding — of millionaire investors. But it didn’t take long before Sacca was feeling unfulfilled by funding kitchen gadget start-ups on “Shark Tank” or electronic-gaming companies back in Silicon Valley. He, like Beebe, turned his attention almost fully toward clean-energy and climate-related investments.

Sacca and Beebe represent one of the hottest corners of the venture capital business in the 2020s: climate tech. Some of the companies that investors like them are backing today will likely become the Googles of tomorrow. Only instead of changing the way we search for stuff on the Internet, climate tech companies will change the way we source and store our energy, grow our food, and move from point A to point B, whether on land, water, or air. In doing so, they’ll not only transform our economy, but help save the planet.

In 2021, investments in climate tech companies hit more $31 billion, according to deal tracking firm PitchBook. That was 30 percent more than in 2020 and more than 2.5 times what it was in 2019. Those big numbers will likely only get bigger as federal, state and international clean climate and clean-energy policies are implemented. Quite simply, government policies and funding help reassure venture capitalists and other private investors to put more of their money at risk.

In 2021, investments in climate tech companies hit more $31 billion, according to deal tracking firm PitchBook.

Climate-tech and clean-tech investing is no longer just about solar or wind or even batteries anymore. Those businesses now attract plenty of mainstream investors. They’re almost like investing in restaurants or real estate — they’re too passe for venture capitalists who are more interested in finding more disruptive technologies that can scale quickly and create big returns.

“What we look at every day are energy innovations that are just insane, some of which are doing things that Einstein declared literally would not be possible,” Sacca said at the VERGE conference. “We see stuff happening in synthetic biology, for instance, that’s just nuts.”

Amid the hellish fires in the West, back-to-back hurricanes in the East and scientists everywhere warning that things were only going to get worse, Sacca in August 2021 stepped away from Lowercase Capital, quit “Shark Tank,” and with wife Crystal turned his attention specifically toward figuring out how to fund and support companies trying to do more to address climate change. The couple launched a new investment fund called Lowercarbon Capital. In a matter of days, they raised more than $800 million that Lowercarbon Capital could deploy to try to “un— the planet,” in Sacca’s terms. The fund was so popular, Sacca wrote on Lowercarbon Capital’s blog, that it had to turn investors away. “It turns out that raising for a climate fund in the context of an unprecedented heatwave and from behind the thick clouds of fire smoke probably didn’t hurt,” he wrote.

Since then, Lowercarbon has invested in companies that capture carbon dioxide and turn it into consumer products, reduce carbon emissions from livestock and fertilizers on the farm, and mine materials that are key to batteries and storage in ways that don’t destroy the environment. One such company is Twelve, a Bay Area start-up that “upcycles” carbon dioxide captured from industrial emissions and turns it into everything from jet fuel to sunglasses lenses, replacing fossil fuels and plastic. Another company Sacca was particularly excited about in 2021 was Lilac Solutions, which has raised $150 million to commercialize its lithium-mining technology. Lilac claims it can produce the essential element for batteries 10,000 times faster than conventional methods, using 90 percent less land and water. Lowercarbon Capital has also made numerous major investments in companies at the intersection of agriculture and climate, including start-up Formo, which is following the Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger model to make fine European cheeses that don’t require dairy or cows; Entocycle, which has figured out how to speed up the gestation period for black soldier fly larvae which happen to be some of the world’s fastest converters of food waste to protein; and Nitricity, which uses solar-powered modules placed around farms to literally make fertilizer out of thin air by converting and processing nitrates found in the atmosphere.

If garbage-eating fly larvae and fine cheeses bioengineered in a sterile laboratory don’t sound like appealing business models, think again. According to research group Climate Tech VC, food-and-water-related climate tech was the biggest sector for climate venture funding in 2021, followed by mobility, consumer goods, and clean energy. Tech investors’ take on food and agriculture is yielding new high-tech twists in one of the world’s oldest and most established economic sectors. Seattle-based clean-agriculture start-up Nori, for instance, got its start in 2017 when its cofounders entered a hackathon contest for coders to figure out new ways to use blockchain technology for social good. Far from the nearest farm, what they came up with was a way to use blockchain technology to monitor and track low-carbon agriculture practices and then monetize that by selling farm-based carbon-removal offsets.

In doing so, Nori is incentivizing farmers to use more climate-friendly agriculture practices that don’t just reduce carbon emissions but actually increase the ability of soil and crops to store carbon, while also creating a new marketplace for carbon removal and trading. In 2020, Nori raised more than $5 million in seed funding to launch its platform. “We call it climate-smart agriculture — thinking of carbon removal like a crop,” Christophe Jospe, a Nori cofounder, told E2.

This excerpt has been updated since publication.

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Walmart Begins Search for Sustainable Packaging

Claudia Baldwin



“We don’t have time to waste.” With this imperative tagline, American retail giant Walmart launched its Circular Connector this spring.

The goal: to accelerate innovation in the field of sustainable and circular packaging, creating a bridge between companies looking for packaging that has less impact on the environment and those with new solutions to offer.

Searching for sustainable packaging

That the world’s largest retail multinational is launching an online platform to encourage the circular economy of packaging — even while accounting for some form of greenwashing — is undoubtedly great news.

After all, it’s a fact that consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the problem of plastic pollution and in general to any aspect related to the sustainability of products. And Walmart, the retail chain of over 10,000 stores around the world, is held accountable by consumers on a daily basis.

Hence the ambitious commitment that the multinational has set for itself by 2025: to achieve that 100 percent of packaging on its shelves would be either recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable. And hence the rush to find solutions to reach the goals.

It’s a fact that consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the problem of plastic pollution… And Walmart is held accountable by consumers on a daily basis.

The Circular Connector was therefore created as an online tool to connect packaging designers and manufacturers with companies in various sectors, from food to cosmetics, from fashion to toys. “Basically,” explains a statement on Walmart’s website, “it’s a platform to accelerate packaging innovation and implementation. We want to make it easier for suppliers and brands to find sustainable packaging solutions, thus enabling all of us to move faster toward waste reduction.”

How does the Circular Connector work?

The Circular Connector is accessed from the multinational company’s sustainability policy site, the Walmart Sustainability Hub. To participate, sustainable packaging manufacturers or designers must fill out a special questionnaire with a series of questions about the functions, materials and recyclability of the candidate packaging. Each proposal will then be reviewed according to Walmart’s packaging sustainability goals and, if compatible, will be posted on the site and made available to brands for possible supply contracts.

Reiterating, pragmatically, that they “don’t have time to waste,” the project leaders also made available the company’s Recycling Playbook, based on the two principles of recyclability established by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Namely: 1. Is there, in practice, a system for large-scale recycling of this category of packaging that guarantees at least a 30 percent recycling rate for over 400 million people? 2. Do the packaging components fit into that system?

Walmart’s handbook also contains valuable guidance on materials, such as those that are difficult to recycle and therefore tend to be excluded from sorting: metallic films, multi-layer materials, PVC or PVDC, PETG in rigid plastic packaging, oxo-degradable plastics and colored PET.

“We need to work together to promote innovative solutions on a large scale,” states Walmart. “Companies with reusable, refillable, recyclable and other sustainable packaging solutions should therefore come forward. There are hundreds of brands striving to achieve their own packaging sustainability goals, just like Walmart, and the Circular Connector is one tool available to them in this journey.”

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Episode 317: Conversations About Circularity

Claudia Baldwin



This week’s run time is 1:03:05.


Featuring a recap of interviews and stories from Circularity 22, held this week in Atlanta.

INTERVIEW: Jon Smieja, vice president of circularity and senior analyst for GreenBiz, reflects on hot topics and themes
STORY/AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: Planet vs. plastic: Three steps to solving the global plastics crisis (Featuring Keiran Smith, co-founder and CEO of Mr. Green Africa, on how to encourage decisions made at the local level.)
STORY/AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: John Warner: How to do the materials economy right (Featuring John Warner, senior vice president and research fellow of Zymergen, on how green chemistry could enable the leap to a regenerative, circular economy … if we educated chemists.)
CHITCHAT: Textile recycling tech startup triumphs in Circularity 22’s Accelerate competition
AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: Suzanne Shelton, founder and CEO, Shelton Group (On the importance of shifting context; and what that disturbing baby wrapped in cellophane image teaches us about marketing circularity.)

More sustainable consumer goods (47:30)

Interview with new CEO Christy Slay of The Sustainability Consortium, about priorities, circularity and engaging nimble innovators.

*Music in this episode: Lee Rosevere: “Not My Problem” and “Let That Sink In”; ItsWatR: “Awakening Instrumental”


To make sure you don’t miss the newest episode of GreenBiz 350, subscribe on iTunes or Spotify. Have a question or suggestion for a future segment? E-mail us at [email protected].

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