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Frontier: Beyond Productivity—Recreating the Circles of Life to Deliver Multiple Benefits with Circular Systems  Open Access

Published by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, St. Joseph, Michigan

Citation:  Journal of the ASABE. 65(2): 411-418. (doi: 10.13031/ja.14904) @2022
Authors:   Lois Wright Morton, Ernie Shea
Keywords:   Agriculture, Biodiversity, Circles of life, Circular systems, Complexity, Farmers, Food systems, Innovations, Linear treadmills of production, Mixing species, Multi-benefit production, Technologies.


The challenge to agriculture is to adapt the circularity observed in complex natural systems into practical applications for producers and their value chains.

Diversification and complexity can enable agricultural input and output processes that mimic natural circles of life that make, use, recycle, and reuse resources.

Producers must find their own circular systems that work in a particular time, geography, and set of conditions and establish feedback loops that enable continuous adjustment and adaptation as situations change.

Investments in foundational and applied sciences, technologies, and innovations are needed to expand knowledge of agricultural systems and the tools and strategies that will enable continuous adaptative management over time.

Abstract. Circularity in agriculture and food systems holds promise for recovering lost resources and addressing the unintended consequences of linear production. The challenge to agriculture is to adapt the circularity observed in complex natural ecosystems into practical applications for producers and their value chains, thereby shifting intensive linear systems away from the single goal of optimizing monoculture productivity toward circles of life capable of producing multiple benefits concurrently. Mixed multi-plant and animal agricultural systems that leverage integrated land management and biodiversity have potential to deliver multiple benefits, including increased productivity, pest and disease control, water quality, soil health, and economic profitability. Replacing linear “take, make, and dispose” systems with circular “make, use, recycle, and reuse” systems offers solutions for managing input costs and gaining income and ecosystem benefits from wastes that are otherwise lost and can harm agro-ecosystems. Technologies, innovations, and practices that reinforce and expand whole-system management, build on local conditions and knowledge, and that deliver multiple benefits beyond optimum production will be necessary for circular systems to emerge. This article provides several examples of current farm applications and experimentation with circular systems as practical solutions at different scales relevant to a range of production systems in developed, developing, and underdeveloped countries.

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