Article Request Page ASABE Journal Article

Perspectives on Transforming the Bioeconomy Toward Circular Systems

Kati W. Migliaccio1,*, James W. Jones1, Brahm P.Verma2

Published in Journal of the ASABE 66(3): 765-770 (doi: 10.13031/ja.15100). Copyright 2023 American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

1Agricultural and Biological Engineering, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, USA.

2University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA.

* Correspondence:

Submitted for review on 15 March 2022 as manuscript number NRES 15100; approved for publication as an Introduction Article as part of the Circular Food and Agricultural Systems Collection by Community Editor Dr. Garey Fox of the Natural Resources & Environmental Systems Community of ASABE on 2 April 2022.


Abstract. The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) launched a new initiative in 2020 – Transforming Food and Agriculture to Circular Systems (TFACS) – that calls for system-level solutions. Linear systems focus on creating a profitable yield while considering the financial costs of inputs (e.g., water, nutrients, energy) with little regard to resource use efficiencies and the broader impacts of losses and wastes. Circular systems consider a more holistic view for transforming systems using principles that: (1) design out waste and pollution; (2) keep products and materials in use, (reuse, share, repair, refurbish, remanufacture, recycle); (3) regenerate natural systems; (4) increase the productivity of resource use; and (5) provide economic benefits. This introduction to the Special Collection of articles provides an overview of ASABE’s initiative to accelerate the growth of circular bioeconomy systems and introduces the articles in this ASABE Special Collection. Articles in this collection provide examples showing the benefits of combining circular economy and bioeconomy concepts to develop the cascading use of biomass from biological resources for economic development. The articles also identify the need for additional work to move society toward circular food and agricultural systems. Efforts to rethink and redesign future systems using circular bioeconomy concepts can rapidly create more sustainable, resilient, and equitable food and agricultural systems.

Keywords. Bioeconomy, Circular economy, Circularity, Convergence, Food and agricultural systems, Systems thinking, Systems of systems.

We have reached a moment when we need to reassess how to feed the growing population while sustaining natural resources and reducing adverse effects on ecosystems and the Earth’s climate. The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) launched a new initiative in 2020, Transforming Food and Agriculture to Circular Systems (TFACS), that calls for us to fundamentally rethink existing systems and create system-level solutions at multiple spatial and temporal scales for food and agriculture integrated with natural and social systems. It is imperative that food and agriculture be transformed into a more circular economy. As we learned that the TFACS perspectives impact the overall bioeconomy, we chose to refer to this initiative from here on as the ASABE Circular BioEconomy Systems initiative (CBS). This ASABE Special Collection of articles introduces ongoing work in circular food and agricultural systems and serves as an inspiration for modernizing research, teaching, and outreach activities to address challenges for achieving future food security and the stability of the planet.

In the history of agriculture, from the times when human beings first organized food production and subsistence farms, there have been pivotal moments when changes led to rapid growth that enabled today’s profitable commercial enterprises that provide our biomass for food, feed, fiber, and fuel. During the last century, the introduction of steam power and internal-combustion engines mechanized farm labor and, combined with new crop varieties, fertilizers, and other agrochemicals, resulted in maximum attainable yields. However, focus on near-term productivity and profitability has created systems in which significant resources flow for production through the supply chains, with much of the resources being discarded as waste from production, distribution, and consumption processes that end up in streams and landfills. Simply put, the currently discarded products and wastes are resource-rich materials, and looping (circling) them back for reuse or channeling/transforming them for cascading uses is becoming a necessity for sustainability and should be a central goal of new innovations.

The idea of circularity is not a new concept. Circularity is derived from understanding the biogeochemical (carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur) cycles in natural ecosystems, which produce zero waste. Recently, all sectors of the economy are observing the benefits of circularity and are looking for ways to mimic the circularity of natural systems to transform linear economic systems into circular economy systems. Muscat et al. (2021) proposed that the pathway to a sustainable future is to trace flows of natural resources to regenerate the health of ecosystems, recycle by-products, produce no waste, and use renewable energy. They also identified the need for making changes to policies, behavior, and markets to transform towards a circular economy. de Adelhart Tooropet et al. (2021) have called for using the “True Cost Accounting Perspective” framework that considers human capital, produced capital, natural capital, and social capital to evaluate transforming food systems toward greater circularity. These approaches are aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (UN-SDGs) to create a more sustainable and equitable future. While circularity concepts can be used to improve any system, their application to food and agricultural food chains is natural given their biological and environmental dependencies and links to the sustainability of human life.

This global initiative to re-envision food and agriculture systems toward greater circularity is growing (Benton et al., 2021; Grell et al., 2021; Shulte et al., 2021; van Delden et al., 2021) and has become a focus for ASABE (Nokes and Jones, 2021; Jones et al., 2021; Verma and Jones, 2021), given the expertise in the society and the importance of this initiative to the planet’s future. A useful description of circular economy systems and principles for guiding their development is that they are “a systematic approach to economic development that benefits businesses, society, and the environment” (Jones, 2021). The ASABE has identified five circular economy design principles; the first three principles were recommended by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation (2022), and principles four and five are ASABE contributions (Jones, 2021). The five ASABE circular design principles are as follows: (1) design out waste and pollution; (2) keep products and materials in use (reuse, share, repair, refurbish, remanufacture, recycle); (3) regenerate natural systems; (4) increase the productivity of resource use; and (5) provide economic benefits.

The ASABE member activities that focused on transforming food and agriculture into circular systems began in 2020 with a 23-member roundtable that published its work in the March/April 2021 issue of ASABE Resource magazine (Nokes and Jones, 2021). A daylong mini-symposium was held at the 2021 Annual International Meeting (AIM) of ASABE, where keynote speakers, invited panelists, and speakers representing multiple disciplines and stakeholders presented their visions of the future for transforming towards more circular food and agricultural systems. The keynote address, entitled “A Sustainable US Food System: How Do We Meet the Challenge?” presented by Dr. Kathleen Merrigan from the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, focused on sustainable practices to address issues of climate change, water availability, diet-related health costs, and loss of biodiversity. Dr. Merrigan emphasized the importance of social and human capital, policies, and a multidisciplinary approach to creating a sustainable or circular food system. The second keynote by Dr. Martin Scholten from Wageningen University Research (WUR), entitled “Towards a resilient and circular food and agricultural system for meeting global food and environmental challenges,” provided examples of experimental circular systems, particularly on agricultural production where integrated plant and animal systems offer nutrient cycling and energy resource opportunities. He identified the benefit of systems thinking in production systems such as circular soil management, systemic environmental care, and plant breeding. Both keynotes provided the foundational message for the AIM mini-symposium.

An envisioning workshop was also held at the 2021 AIM to build alliances with professional societies and stakeholders for developing knowledge and technology with system-level solutions that increase circularity in food and agricultural systems. The workshop included expertise across multiple disciplines, professions, and perspectives. The diverse team identified the following four objectives: (1) build networks to communicate, collaborate, and connect with multiple societies; (2) develop multi-society R&D goals for a shared path to circularity; (3) engage prominent organizations to serve as catalysts in multi-society R&D; and (4) develop multi-society educational materials, and host outreach and training workshops. Further details of this workshop are documented in the November/December 2021 issue of Resource (Verma et al., 2021).

Similarly, professionals all over the world are pushing forward with concepts based on circular food and agricultural systems. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) have recognized the need for holistic changes in our food system and the connection between food systems and sustainability (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019a; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019b; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2020a). Previous consensus studies that further support the need for greater circularity in our agricultural and good systems include the Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration report (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019a) and their Science Breakthroughs to Advance Food and Agricultural Research by 2030 (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019b). In 2021 September, the National Academy of Engineering hosted a Forum on Complex Unifiable Systems (FOCUS) entitled "A Virtual Forum on Complex Food and Agricultural Systems: Engineering for Sustainability and Resilience.” The forum provided a space for further discussion and exploration of the circularity topic and the need for cross-disciplinary solutions. More recently, ASABE has provided leadership and expertise to national programs to unite people to seek pathways toward circular food and agricultural systems. The Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources (BANR) is planning a consensus study on transitioning food and agriculture to circular economy systems. The need for this NASEM study was introduced to BANR by Jim Jones, Sue Nokes, and Lalit Verma (Nokes and Jones, 2021) on behalf of ASABE. There are also other efforts that are promoting transformations to circular economy systems, such as the Circular Food Systems (CFS) network of the Global Research Alliance and Wageningen University ( The ASABE initiative is connected with BANR, NAE, and Wageningen pursuits for achieving greater circularity in food and agricultural systems and is actively exploring other collaborations (Verma et al., 2021).

These activities highlight the need for multidisciplinary approaches, the collaboration of the public and private sectors, and the integration of policy makers for transforming food and agriculture into circular systems (e.g., Verma et al., 2021). To understand the degree of ongoing work and to identify individuals engaged with the advancing circular economy, a targeted call for manuscripts on circular food and agricultural systems that include components of the entire supply chain was announced. This led to the articles published in this Special Collection issue of the Journal of the ASABE.

Special Collection Highlights

The Special Collection was initiated to capture efforts across the food chain and across perspectives. A broad array of articles is included that showcase the systems approach and multidisciplinary needs required for designing change in our food and agricultural systems. Overall, these articles address circularity concepts for different types of food and agricultural systems as well as the need for developing new or modified processes for components that could increase circularity. Wastes and the loss of valuable resources that not only reduce efficiency but also contaminate the environment (GHG emissions, water pollution, etc.) are the themes of several articles. Contributors to the collection provide examples of ways to reduce losses and wastes from systems, recycle them, or transform them into products. The collection also includes articles that evaluate and compare the circularity of different types of systems. The collection overall demonstrates the value of using circular economy principles to analyze the sustainability of the systems and propose ways to transition them into more productive, efficient, and sustainable systems. The collection is not a comprehensive body of work but rather a group of articles that show the opportunity and are intended to inspire future innovations to improve our food and agricultural systems.

Wastes are created in different stages of food and agricultural value chains, offering different opportunities for recapturing, recycling, and reusing them, thus reducing the environmental contamination. Examples presented include the conversion of biowastes to biogas on farms (Fathel et al., 2022), the conversion of agricultural waste to animal feed using flies (Erbland et al., 2021), conversion of biomass to biofuel (Vin-Nnajiofor et al., 2022), and other value-added products (Adedeji, 2022). Waste from food and agricultural systems may also be from unused inputs such as nutrients from fertilizers transported off-site by surface or subsurface water movement. Opportunities to recover and upcycle such nutrient wastes can create not only usable by-products but also provide significant environmental benefits (Pandara Valappil et al., 2022).

Another theme of several articles is on incorporating sustainability objectives into crop production systems. Concepts such as agroecology, breeding for desired traits (Messina et al., 2022), soil health, precision agriculture, and regenerative agriculture (Lower et al., 2022) offer different approaches that could be integrated with other improved technologies to achieve greater circularity. Many of these concepts have been around for years; however, they have not been widely implemented in the context of a circular economy. The wealth of knowledge available on these topics provides an opportunity to help dismantle the barriers that have limited their implementation and contribute to improved production practices for greater circularity of the overall system (Morton and Shea, 2022).

The previously mentioned themes indicate different approaches to increasing circularity in a system. The degree to which a particular approach would benefit a particular system is not uniform. Also, integrating practices are needed to achieve the benefits of combined practices to support decision-making that truly does increase circularity for a particular food/agricultural system. A common assessment approach for comparing the value of different practices is using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methods (Prado et al., 2021). Other evaluation approaches that can assist with creating greater circularity are benchmarking tools and certification programs. Benchmarks and certification programs provide a mechanism for research-verified approaches that increase circularity to be identified and implemented on-farm (Azzaretti and Schimelpfenig, 2022). Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and digital technologies also offer a means to evaluate and improve our systems to identify options that provide for greater circularity (Boz and Martin-Ryals, 2022).

Another important charge for these goals is to educate and provide the next generation with the tools and motivation to contribute to developing solutions for greater circularity (Yortsos, 2022). A key component of this is ensuring that the next generation of workers is competent in their discipline and adopts systems thinking in developing their solution components. Systems thinking refers to a more complete approach to problem formulation that is in the context of an entire system, where indirect interactions or responses outside of the component system are considered in problem solving and evaluation. While systems thinking is critical for exploring circularity concepts, multiple areas of expertise would also be required to balance environmental, production, societal, and economic benefits.

Next Steps

Transforming the current bioeconomy toward Circular BioEconomy Systems (CBS) is one of the highest priority initiatives approved by the ASABE Board of Trustees (BOT). On 13 September 2021, ASABE President Paul Heinemann created a Task Force led by Dr. James (Jim) Jones to advance the ASABE-wide implementation of the initiative and advise ASABE leadership on long-term actions and an organizational plan. The Task Force is also charged with recommending ways to connect with sister professional societies and creating alliances to advance CBES goals. Specifically, the Task Force is charged with (1) building connections and programs across ASABE for internal growth and attracting new members and proposing an organizational structure within ASABE for the long-term stability of the initiative, and (2) recommending mechanisms to build alliances with sister societies and stakeholders to address complex issues associated with CBES.

The Task Force has formed the following three working groups, each composed of ASABE members and leaders of other professional disciplines:

Working Group 1 is charged with creating messaging materials and documents (including PowerPoint presentations) with succinct information on the goals and importance of CBES, which can be effectively used to educate, engage, and recruit ASABE members and students, and to connect with and recruit leaders of sister societies and the public-private sectors to join ASABE in this effort.

Working Group 2 is charged with developing engaging activities and recommending mechanisms within ASABE that engage all communities to advance the ASABE initiative on transforming the bioeconomy toward circular systems.

Working Group 3 is charged with creating a plan, considering inputs from stakeholders, for bringing together professional societies into an alliance that includes collaborative mechanisms and activities, programs, projects, and services to develop convergent science and engineering knowledge to transform systems that underpin a new circular bioeconomy.

The ASABE Task Force has been actively engaged to continually develop this initiative. The ASABE initiative began using the descriptor “transforming food and agricultural systems to circularity.” However, the term “bioeconomy” describes food and agricultural systems more holistically and has received growing international interest. Broadly, the term bioeconomy refers to the portion of an economy that is based on products, services, and processes derived from biological resources. The U.S. food and agricultural systems are the backbone of our bioeconomy, providing safe and affordable food and other products that meet our demand while exporting more food than any other country. However, the future bioeconomy will likely include additional demands for biomass-based products, adding to the more traditional demands for food, feed, fiber, and bioenergy (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2020b).

The development of our current bioeconomy was driven by research and innovation in life sciences and biotechnology and enabled by technological advances in engineering and in computing and information sciences (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2020b).

Articles in this Special Collection provide examples showing the potential benefits of combining circular economy and bioeconomy concepts to develop the cascading use of biomass from biological resources for economic development. The articles also remind us that much more work must be done to create a bioeconomy that is more productive, uses resources more efficiently, eliminates waste, and sustains the environment, natural resources, and ecological systems. Additional topics not covered by the Special Collections articles that merit consideration include:

Note that this is not a comprehensive list, but one that demonstrates the need for collaboration across disciplines and for continued investment in research and innovation that partners with decision-makers and industry. Our hope is that efforts to rethink and redesign future systems using circular bioeconomy concepts will be amplified to create more sustainable, resilient, and equitable food and agricultural systems. The ASABE and its collaborators are exploring ways that multiple disciplines can work together to advance the development of a more circular bioeconomy.

Whereas complete circularity is not likely a viable option for many systems, transitioning them into more circular systems using circular bioeconomy concepts is certainly possible. Examples of such shifts are provided in the articles of this ASABE Special Collection. Each modification made to an existing agricultural/food system that creates greater circularity provides direct and indirect impacts that ripple through the connected component systems. Thus, the impacts of transitioning toward circularity can be much greater than just that observed in the component of the system where the change/shift occurs. This collection of articles serves as an incentive for scientists and engineers to critically review the scope of a circular bioeconomy and engage in basic and translational research and design to innovate sustainable systems that would lead to greater circularity in our food and agricultural systems.


Darrin Drollinger for his leadership and support, Paul Heinemann for his leadership and support, Kathleen Merrigan for her participation as a keynote at AIM 2021, Sue Nokes for her leadership and support, Martin Scholten for his participation as a keynote at AIM 2021, and Lalit Verma for his leadership and support.


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Benton, T. G., Beddington, J., Thomas, S. M., Flynn, D. J., Fan, S., & Webb, P. (2021). A 'net zero' equivalent target is needed to transform food systems. Nature Food, 2, 905-906. doi:

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Lower, L., Cunniffe, J., Cheng, J., & Sagues, W. (2022). Coupling circularity with carbon negativity in food and agriculture systems. J. ASABE, Not accepted. doi:

Messina, C., van Eeuwijk, F., Tang, T., Truong, S., McCormick, R., Technow, F., . . . Cooper, M. (2022). Crop imporvement for ciruclar bio-economy systems. J. ASABE, In press. doi:

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