Circular agriculture: efficiency or sufficiency?

Published on
February 2, 2021

Being part of the circular economy can mean running your tractor on e-diesel, feeding your cows with your own grass or recycling more. But there are also more far-reaching ways to achieve a circular economy; a circular ‘economy of enough’.

Senior WEcR researchers Hans Dagevos and Carolien de Lauwere published an article entitled “Circular business models and circular agriculture: Perceptions and practices of Dutch farmers” in the journal Sustainability as part of the 2021 edition of the Week of the Circular Economy. 

In this study, they explore the recent literature on circular business models and examine these in relation to the circular economy and circular agriculture. Farmers were given the opportunity to explain their vision of circularity in practice in interviews. “The adaptive approach still prevails in the Netherlands, but a surprising number of the farmers interviewed for this article proved to be supporters of the alternative perspective,” says Hans Dagevos.

Adaptive approach

What are the differences between the adaptive and the alternative approaches? The former aims at achieving the circular economy based on the existing frameworks and traditional goals of farming. In the adaptive model, farmers continue to do the same things they have always done but contribute to achieving a circular agriculture system through the smart use of technology. For example, farmers may recycle more, produce renewable energy or reduce their emissions. This model relies heavily on technological innovations to bring about sustainability gains and these determine the pace and character of the transition, i.e. slow and cautious change.

Alternative approach

The alternative approach is completely different. In this model, changes in agriculture go beyond the dominant, traditional ideas and methods of agricultural economics and management. This concerns a fundamental change, whereby the drive for efficiency is replaced by a goal of sufficiency (the ‘economy of enough’). The accepted goals of economic growth and producing as much as possible at the lowest possible cost are called into question, and an alternative is offered that seeks ‘qualitative’ growth and to slow down and reduce the production and consumption cycles. In practice, this theory amounts to producing and consuming less.

Keeping hope

The circular economy in general and circular agriculture in particular are still dominated by the adaptive approach. The 2021 Integral Circular Economy report which was recently published by PBL, confirms this picture. Nevertheless, in their interviews with the selected farmers, researchers Dagevos and De Lauwere saw clear signs of support for the alternative approach. For example, farmers are aware that achieving the circular economy is clearly not ‘business as usual’. They also think that phasing out the existing agricultural system and converting to circular agriculture will entail a lot more than the vision set out by the Ministry of Agriculture. “Farmers like these give us hope that we can leave this cautious preliminary phase in the transition to the circular economy and circular agriculture behind us,” says Hans Dagevos.