Circular Food Systems

Closing resource loops to phase out food waste and drive food security

Linear food systems are failing people and the planet

Current linear food systems are not delivering what is expected to fulfill societal well-being.

Worldwide, almost one-fifth of all food produced is lost or wasted (UNEP 2021), and less than 2 percent of those nutrients are safely revalorized (EMF 2019). Predictions state that by 2050, global food production must increase by 60% to cover the needs of a growing population (UN 2012). Achieving this with linear food systems would take too heavy a toll on our climate and biodiversity.

Heavy reliance on finite resource extraction and the fragmentation of food supply chains are jeopardizing food security and ecosystem health while deepening the climate crisis.

Fossil fuels, finite resources like phosphorus and single-use plastics are prevalent throughout the take-make-waste model, leading to pollution and waste. Food supply chains are increasingly becoming more complex, fragmented and opaque, making the transition to sustainable food systems difficult to govern and monitor. Action is needed across the value chain to guarantee food security and fight climate change.

How circular development can help

Food system actors such as farmers, processing industries, retailers and waste managers have very limited interaction with stakeholders outside of their segment of the food value chain. As a result, impacts down or up the value chain remain unaddressed.

Circular food systems offer a lens to look at food systems from a value chain perspective to minimize resource extraction and waste production in a systemic manner and maximize the value of recovered outputs while fostering local economic development and social equity.

Through its circular food systems work, ICLEI encourages city practitioners to look for interventions as early in the value chain as possible – from the moment resource extraction is planned – and beyond their jurisdictional boundaries to:


  • Non renewable intrants and resource inputs in production
  • The number of intermediaries between producers and consumers
  • Unsustainable transport in distribution
  • Food loss and waste

…and maximize

  • The nutritional value of food consumed
  • The redistribution of unconsumed food
  • Nutrients recovery and reintroduction in production

Benefits of circular food systems

Climate action

Circular food systems tackle the embedded carbon in food waste, protect carbon sinks and create new sources of sustainable energy (e.g. from waste heat, anaerobic digestion of organic waste).


Circular food systems reduce reliance on scarce resources, support resource efficient infrastructure and diversify the sources of key resource flows such as energy and water.

Biodiversity protection

Circular food systems reduce waste production and pollution as well as pressure on natural resources, they favor production processes that are congruent with the natural regeneration rates of ecosystems (e.g. regenerative agriculture).


Circular food systems increase access to products and services through the promotion of waste prevention and resource sharing. They also offer opportunities for the development of social enterprises.


Circular food systems offer opportunities for local innovation and entrepreneurship while bolstering local employment through shorter supply chains.

How ICLEI can support your city’s circular food system

Knowledge creation and stakeholder engagement

ICLEI provides tools for local governments to understand barriers and opportunities in their food systems and engage relevant stakeholders. Leveraging ICLEI’s global network and partnerships with think tanks and academia, we offer capacity building workshops showcasing best practices and facilitating peer-learning. Our holistic approach aims to empower cities to understand and navigate the opportunities linked to circular food systems with the best available knowledge from practitioners and academia.

Policy and multi-level governance

ICLEI offers tailored policy recommendations for circular food systems to guide cities in their strategic planning based on international best practices. Through vertical integration workshops, we facilitate dialogues between local and national authorities, fostering a consistent approach to circular food systems. ICLEI supports collaborative governance to ensure circular food systems deliver benefits to vulnerable groups in priority and that interventions reflect communities’ needs.

Innovation, entrepreneurship and city-business collaboration

ICLEI bridges knowledge gaps to support a mutual understanding of respective contexts and needs between cities and businesses. We work with business incubators to support the integration of circular food principles and good business practices into promising start-ups. We support their access to finance through partnerships with venture firms. We help them get recognized for their contribution to the city’s goals. Our initiatives cultivate an ecosystem of innovation, entrepreneurship and effective collaboration, driving lasting food systems change.

Infrastructure development and access to finance

ICLEI identifies critical circular food system infrastructure needs in collaboration with governments and local stakeholders to support circular food systems. These include among others effective storage solutions, resource efficient distribution systems and community composting facilities. Through our Transformative Actions Program (TAP), we help increase the robustness and maturity of infrastructure projects to support their access to finance.

Advocacy and city exchanges for replication and scaling

ICLEI enables dynamic city exchanges and peer-to-peer learning platforms to accelerate the adoption of circular food practices. By advocating for local governments at multilateral events, we elevate their voices and showcase their achievements globally. These actions drive widespread adoption and scalable expansion of innovative circular food solutions.

Wondering where to start?

ICLEI has developed a range of resources to facilitate the circular transition, such as the ICLEI City Practitioners Handbook series. The Handbooks are designed to equip you with the tools to start supporting circular food systems in your city. It will help you identify and engage relevant stakeholders and design effective policies and interventions along the food value chain based on best practices from 50+ local governments around the world. The Handbook exists in its global version in English and has been adapted to the Latin American context in Portuguese and Spanish (coming soon).

View all Handbooks here



Our funders

ICLEI Circulars collaborates with a diverse group of organizations that are leaders in the circular food economy and offer tools and methodologies for putting circular food systems in practice at the local level.

Contact us

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