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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2021

Towards a circular nutrient economy. A novel way to analyze the circularity of nutrient flows in food systems

Harder, Robin; Giampietro, Maria; Smukler, Sean


Recent years have seen a steep rise in the interest in nutrient circularity. In the context of food systems and waste management, nutrient circularity seems to generally encompass the reduction of nutrient losses and increased recovery of nutrients from various organic residual streams for reuse in agricultural production. Many studies that aim to contribute to improving nutrient circularity in food systems have limited the analysis to a given geographical area. But nutrient circularity likely looks different when the analysis includes what happens outside the borders of the considered area. This paper presents and discusses an analytical framework that allows for the analysis of nutrient circularity not only inside a given geographical area being considered, but also in those parts of the global food system with which the local food system interacts in terms of feed and food trade. This framework explicitly characterizes the impact of system openness associated with feed and food trade. This enables: (i) a separate discussion of four possible interpretations of nutrient circularity – internal and external input and output circularity; and (ii) an analysis of how these four circularity indicators relate to one another depending on system openness. The proposed analysis can thus reveal the extent to which a high level of nutrient circularity in the considered area comes at the cost of a decreased level of nutrient circularity in the places with which feed and food are traded, or vice versa.


Bioeconomy; Agriculture; Nutrient flows; Circularity; Feed and food trade; System openness

Published in

Resources, Conservation and Recycling
2021, volume: 172, article number: 105693

Authors' information

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Energy and Technology
University of British Columbia
Giampietro, Maria
Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB)
Smukler, Sean
University of British Columbia

Sustainable Development Goals

SDG2 Zero hunger
SDG12 Responsible consumption and production

UKÄ Subject classification

Food Science
Environmental Sciences
Human Geography

Publication Identifiers


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