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United we make the difference; The Circular Food System Narrative

An inclusive food system based on circular economy principles united by the positive social norm to utilize all resources responsibly.

Photo of Toine Timmermans
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Stichting Samen Tegen Voedselverspilling (Charity Food Waste Free United)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Other

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

SamenTegenVoedselverspilling is a multi-stakeholder entity, with committed participants from industry, government, knowledge institutions and ngo's. All stakeholders in our "ecosystem" collaborate and accelerate to minimize food waste, both across the food chain and by consumers, and to contribute in a transparent manner to this aim. In a joint effort, we aim to make the Netherlands one of the first countries to cut food waste in half. We will make the Netherlands a leader and a global role model in terms of realizing Sustainable Development Goal 12.3. With the long term ambition to lead the way towards a responsible and circular food consumption and production system at a global level. January 2020 seventy organisations are officially registered as stakeholders, and we actively work with hundreds of actors in the diversity of actions.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

the Netherlands

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Netherlands

What country is your selected Place located in?

the Netherlands

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

I was born (in 1965) and raised in the Netherlands, as the son of a "smallholder" farmer family in the Southern region of the country. I have lived most of my life in the Netherlands, studied there (Agriculture Engineering at Wageningen University) and worked for Wageningen University & Research during my whole professional career in a diversity of positions (1990 - 2020). Since 2000 as program manager Sustainable Food Chains, as Theme Director Food Chain Sustainability & Dynamics at the Topinstitute Food & Nutrition (2011-2016) and Coordinator of the EU projects FUSIONS (2012-2016) and REFRESH (2016-2019). A central ambition of the REFRESH project is to develop and implement National ‘Framework for Action’ models to contribute to SDG 12.3, based on strategic agreements across all stages of the supply chain ( Since 2019 I am the managing Director of the charity Food Waste Free United, the National private-public partnership in the Netherlands,

I have been involved in several global collaborations in the domain of sustainable food systems. Currently as principle investigator within the Global Consortium for Innovation in Post-Harvest Loss & Food waste Reduction, and Non-Executive Director in the Board of the Fight Food Waste CRC in Australia.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The culture of the Netherlands is diverse, reflecting regional differences as well as the foreign influences built up by centuries of the Dutch people's mercantile and explorative spirit. The Netherlands and its people have long played an important role as centre of cultural liberalism and tolerance. The Netherlands (also called Holland) is a relative small country, sandwiched between Belgium and Germany in Western Europe. It's packed with world famous icons, like the bulb fields, windmills, cheese markets, wooden shoes, canals of Amsterdam, innovative water-management and millions of bicycles (17 million residents with 23 million bicycles). More than 2,400 kilometers of dikes shield the low, flat land - almost half of which lies below sea level - from the North Sea.

Traditionally, Dutch cuisine is simple and straightforward, with many vegetables and little meat: breakfast and lunch are typically bread with toppings like cheese, while dinner is meat and potatoes, supplemented with seasonal vegetables. Haring or 'Hollandse Nieuwe' (Dutch new herring) is probably the most famous Dutch food. Popular throughout the world, the 'stroopwafel' is our most famous pastry. During the twentieth century, Dutch cuisine and diet changed completely. The Netherlands became a melting pot of a diversity of cultures. The racial and ethnic makeup of the city of Amsterdam now counts around 50% Dutch and 50% of foreign ancestry. And 1 out of 10 students in Holland is an international student.

The Netherlands has a strong agricultural tradition, with its flat land and fertile soil, coupled with a moderate climate makes for good farming conditions, where growing plants, crops and rearing animals, such as poultry and pigs can be done effectively. Also, the Dutch have become rather adept in the field of agri-technology, with the most modern robotized greenhouses. There has been a long term focus on intensive farming, making the production systems of typical products like for tomatoes, potatoes and dairy the most efficient in the world.

Wageningen University is the world's number one institution for agricultural education, and in addition to this, the world's biggest food and drink companies have research and development facilities in the Netherlands. Wageningen University & Research is the nodal point of Food Valley, an expansive cluster of agricultural technology start-ups and experimental farms. Located in central Europe, the Netherlands is perfectly placed geographically for exports. They have an excellent infrastructure, and another sector that is currently enjoying a high is logistics. All of this has helped the Dutch become experts at trading. Yet it’s the globe’s number two exporter of food as measured by value, second only to the United States, which has 270 times its landmass. Exports from Dutch farming were worth a staggering 94 billion Euros in 2019; a new record.

A few other typical facts: the Dutch are the tallest people in the where they are on average 1.84m. The Netherlands is the 5th happiest country in the world, according to the United Nations' World Happiness Report 2019, after Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The global challenges facing our agriculture and food system are more or less known. One of the first books “A limit to growth” from 1972, commissioned by the Club of Rome, still holds today. “The earth’s interlocking resources – the global system of nature in which we all live – probably cannot support present rates of economic and population growth much beyond the year 2100”. The report “Agriculture and Food Systems to 2050: A Synthesis: Global Trends, Challenges and Opportunities” gives an introduction to the main global challenges and its interconnectedness.

“On the demand side, the global population is projected to increase from nearly 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050. This growth - accompanied by rising prosperity, changing dietary patterns in emerging economies, and increased demand for a more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resources - will exert pressure on the food system. Parallel demographic changes - such as the migration of youth into urban areas in response to low agricultural productivity - will in turn affect agricultural productivity through labor and wage effects. On the supply side, the availability and productivity of water, energy, and land vary enormously between regions and production systems, and competition for all three resources will intensify.”

For more than half a century, Dutch agricultural policy has focused on efficiently producing as much food as possible for a low price and with a reasonable income for the farmers. Time has come to think about the next steps, the transition towards a truly sustainable agriculture and food system. The hypothesis is that Dutch agri-food sector is uniquely placed to play a leading role in bringing about the necessary changes.

The Netherlands faces serious social and ecological challenges and sense of urgency to act is growing rapidly. We need to prevent depletion of soil, freshwater supplies and raw materials, halt the decline in biodiversity and fulfil our commitments to the Paris climate agreement. Trade-offs between population size, food consumption patterns and land spared for nature should be better acknowledged in policies. With 2 very urgent issues in our country: the Nitrogen Crisis, and Climate Change.

Excess nitrogen in the atmosphere can produce pollutants such as ammonia and ozone, which affect health and alter plant growth. The country’s highest administrative court in May 2019 said government rules for granting construction permits and farming activities that emit large amounts of nitrogen breach EU legislation. Up to 18,000 infrastructure and construction projects have as a result been stalled since. Most of the nitrogen that ends up in the environment comes from farms.

The Netherlands is one of the worst performing countries in Europe on environmental issues, with high CO2 emissions per capita and a lower use of sustainable energy than almost everywhere in the EU. The Netherlands’ Supreme Court upheld the landmark ruling in Urgenda v. the Netherlands, end of 2019 that governments have a human rights duty to protect their citizens from climate change, and orders the Dutch government to cut its GHG emissions by 25% by the end of 2020.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

This Vision, is the outcome of a continuous learning process. By dozens of projects with actors across the food supply chain, with other partners. Hundreds of meetings with scientists, politicians and business leaders, and reading numerous books and publications, gave inspiration and sharpened my view. My key focus area in the previous 20 years has been the systemic reduction of food losses and waste. To imagine a world with minimal food loss and waste, it is important to recognize that it is not the biggest problem. Rather, it is a symptom of our food and agricultural system as a whole. We can take inspiration from the ecosystems from which we evolved and at the same time use the best possible technology to ensure the global food system can feed future generations. Why the focus on food losses and waste? All consumers and actors in the food system would agree that reducing food losses and waste is a no-regret option. There is sufficient evidence this has positive impact for economy, environment and socially. I truly believe that making progress in this area will have positive impacts on other challenges in relation to a responsible consumption and production system.

Preventing food loss and waste requires a combination of high tech and “soft tech” solutions (social, organizational and institutional), which together constitute a system change. Consumer awareness is an example of a soft dimension helped by hi-tech. Descriptive social norms (what others do) generally have a stronger influence on actual behavior than injunctive social norms (what others think you should do). Providing information via sensors on products to inform consumers about best-before dates is a powerful tool. Artificial intelligence and platforms linking streams of food and ingredients are other tools that allow producers and processors to link up and make the best use of their food.

In a natural ecosystem, no waste or loss exists. Everything is useful to some kind of organism or bio-geological process. Fundamentally, the world food system is one huge circular system with a myriad of subsystems or a cascade of streams of nutrients that go in many directions. At every juncture, we have to ask ourselves, “what can be used where and, if it is not used, why is this the case?” For example, most of the food restaurants waste could be used as feed for pigs and poultry, if treated for safety and other measures are taken. This rarely happens due to legislation put in place following earlier animal diseases.

Central element in the Vision is to focus on the creation of the “positive social norm”, by individual consumers and united as groups, and by all actors in the food supply chain. Building the collective “Circular Food Systems” narrative. Where it is the new normal to use all resources and food products in the most effective way, towards a circular resource use effective food system. This also requires positive communications, with words like “total use”.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

The transition towards a circular agrofood system means fundamental change of the Dutch agricultural system. No longer will the system be based on maximisation of yield per cow or per hectare; it is about optimising the system as a whole. It is hard to imagine what technologies will exist in 30 years. Some of these technologies will have huge impact on everyday life of people in the Netherlands: precision fenotyping,  adaptive horticulture systems,  multicropping mechatronics, Internet of Things, precision farming, mild processing, plant based proteins, logistic concepts like drone delivery, personalised nutrition based on DNA-profiles and the data driven supply chain. Very likely less people will have jobs in the food sector, and live in conglomorates of cities.

In 2050 the Netherlands won’t be the 2nd largest exporter of food products. It will deliver innovative services and solutions to other countries globally. As the Netherlands feels the responsibility to design the future agrifood system. Also by acting as the piloting ground to explore, validate and scale solutions across the supply chain, including changing the enabling policy environment. These elements will be further developed by the SamenTegenVoedselverspilling ecosystem, and lead to innovative solutions and change of the positive norm:

- Reduction of food losses in the primary sector. The resources that are no longer used to produce food will be used for other purposes (land for biodiversity);

- Feeding farm animals primarily with low-opportunity-cost feeds (byproducts, side flows and grass on marginal lands) will affect the availability of animal-source food. Initial studies show this system can produce up to 23g of protein per person per day, matching the daily need according to the healthy food guidelines;

- Reducing food waste at the retail, out-of-home and consumer end. The first goal is to reduce food waste with 50% in the Netherlands in 2030. The long term goal will be to utilize all resources.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The charity SamenTegenVoedselverspilling (STV) is the National private-public initiative in The Netherlands to deliver target SDG 12.3, with as objectives: In a joint effort, we aim to make the Netherlands one of the first countries to cut food waste in half. STV focusses on achieving impact, with the target of reducing annually 1 million tons of food waste in the Netherlands in 2030. Our approach is build on 4 pillars: (1) transparency, monitoring & impact, (2) business innovation across the food sector, (3) consumer activation and behavior change and (4) changing the rules and removing (legal) barriers. Currently STV works with 70 stakeholders that commit to the ambitions, report about the progress and continuously take next steps to reduce food waste. The STV ecosystem holds the leading organisaties in the “Dutch Diamond”: businesses (start-ups, SME’s and corporates), governments, ngo’s and knowledge institutions.

STV had defined 6 roadmaps as routes for impact, to better utilize food: at consumer level, in retail chains, in the out-of-home channel, by doubling redistribution, as food surplus and reduction of food losses in the primary sector. Since 2013 the levels of food waste in Dutch households are decreasing. In 2019, the rate of food waste per person in the Netherlands was 34.3kg: nearly 7 kilos less than in 2016, and a reduction of 29% since 2013. Factors linked to the decline of household food waste, are the increased attention to the issue of food waste. Dutch people's awareness of the issue has been growing (84% want to contribute), and they are being given tools to take action. Also businesses have introduced positive impact interventions and nudges, like a reduction in portion sizes.

With this, and other actions by the Stakeholders, the Netherlands has reached the tipping point and first signs we are on track to meet the SDG12.3 target. To name a few of the pioneers and businesses that symbolise the movement towards a circular food system:

The company Kipster, with the newest concept in sustainable farming, meeting the highest standard in animal welfare, with closed loop farming just opened its 2nd farm with long-term contact with LIDL and Albron. Protix, black soldier fly producer and processor, up-cycles unavoidable plant based surplus in valuable nutrition and feed, opened the largest operational plant in the world. Over 100 restaurants participated in the horeca food waste challenge, saving 75 tons of food within 6 weeks. The retail sector is the first to publish a whole sector benchmark of food waste levels, based on a self-reporting methodology. The food waste factory produced in 2019 for 50 different clients in total 2.500 tons of products from food surplus. In the challenge for "middle-level applied education" 50 student teams worked on solutions to reduce food waste. An module about food waste is now added to the National education program for primary schools.

But we know more is needed, for the medium period and long term. A key element is the insight that since the 90’s of last century up to now, we produce globally on average between 4700-5000 kcal per person per day (Smil 2001, after Bender 1994), while we only need about 2000 kcal per person per day. With the key “loss” factors being: post-harvest losses, feeding food resources to animals, and food waste.

This also shows, that within our current food system, if we can prevent food losses, stop feeding food to animals and reduce food waste at retailer, out-of-home and consumer end, - as an alternative scenario - we don’t need to produce more food globally to feed 10-11 billion people. Off course the issues around food security, like availability and access to food still need to be resolved. 

The concepts of intensification and efficiency, however powerful they have been, are not enough. They need to be transformed into optimization of the use of all resources, not just at the level of the farm, but also broader at local, regional, national and transnational levels. Optimization of the interlocking systems at different scales is fundamentally different from maximization at the field, stable, greenhouse or farm level. This is indeed a fundamental transition requiring mental and policy adjustments. Moreover, it entails trade-offs because choices need to be made about what the best route to optimization is.

There is a very strong link between the protein puzzle, the role of livestock and the reduction of food losses and waste. In a circular agriculture system, arable farming, livestock farming and horticulture primarily use raw materials from each other’s supply chains and waste flows from the food supply chains. WUR-colleague Hannah van Zanten focuses on “The role of farm animals in a circular food system”. If we use farm animals for what they are good at - converting by-products from the food system and grass resources into valuable food and manure - they can contribute significantly to human food supply, while at the same time reducing the environmental impact of the entire food system. The paper also states: "Nobody knows exactly how to move towards a circular economy, we most likely need a mix of socio-economic and institutional measures, such as true pricing, subsidising sustainable initiatives, increasing taxes on use of finite resources while lowering taxes on labour, labelling, legislation enabling safe recycling of food waste as animal feed, and clear emission ceilings. These measures must go hand in hand with education and transparent information to increase awareness of the unsustainability of our present food system and to change social norms and values in favour of more sustainable practices. We might even want to rethink our definition of economic growth. Should GDP remain the basic measure of our economy?".

This Vision focusses on how to move towards a circular economy in the Netherlands. Carola Schouten, Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, sees circular agriculture as the logical and conclusive answer to the challenges. Presented in her 2019 vision “Agriculture, nature and food: valuable and connected; The Netherlands as a leader in circular agriculture”. This means closing cycles of minerals and other resources as far as possible, strengthening our focus on biodiversity and respecting the Earth’s natural limits, preventing waste and ensuring farmers are paid a fair price for their hard work. The Minister hopes that the Netherland’s vision on circular agriculture will become a source of inspiration at European level. SamenTegenVoedselverspilling has the ambition to play a key role in this challenge, and lead to innovative solutions and change of the positive norm:

  • Reduction of food losses in the primary sector. The resources that are no longer used to produce food will be used for other purposes (land for biodiversity and nature);
  • Feeding farm animals primarily with low-opportunity-cost feeds (byproducts, side flows and grass on marginal lands) can produce up to 23g of protein per person per day, matching the daily need according to the healthy food guidelines.
  • Reducing food waste at the retail, out-of-home and consumer end. The first goal is to reduce food waste with 50% in the Netherlands in 2030. The long term goal will be to utilize all resources.

There is growing evidence and belief that solutions are out there, and will have positive impact on society. If we united can work towards the common goals, we can create this new norm to utilize all resources effectively. A number of inspirational messages:

  • Drawdown (2017) argues that despite the depth of the climate crisis humans have manufactured, it’s not too late for us to turn back the clock. Drawdown compiles countless proven ways that radically reduce human carbon emissions. Systemic reduction of food losses and waste is listed as 3rd most impactful intervention (out of 80 potential interventions) to reduce GHG-emissions, with potentially 70.5 GTonnes. The main impact will be achieved by the reduction of land and resources needed to produce sufficient food for the growing world population, if FLW-levels are reduced with 50% across the supply chain.
  • The recent Australian documentary ‘2040’,  by Damon Gameau gives a story of hope that looks at the very real possibility that humanity could reverse global warming and improve the lives of every living thing in the process. It is a positive vision of what ‘could be’, instead of the dystopian future we are so often presented.
  • WUR scientists designed a future map of the Netherlands in 2120. In this ‘new narrative’ for the Netherlands, there is plenty of room for nature. The area covered by forest is doubled, agricultural land is halved and livestock production is cut by two thirds. What is more, (nature-inclusive) agriculture is concentrated in places with suitable soil in Zeeland, Groningen and the Flevo polder. Some food production (seafood, seaweed) will shift to floating islands at sea.

A partnership of 24 organisations, lead by WUR, early 2020 designed a EU-wide approach to meet SDG12.3 targets, with support of hundreds of organisations. Central ambition of this proposed SCALE 12.3 project is to further develop and demonstrate the Framework of Action model developed and implemented within REFRESH, based on National Negotiated Agreements across all stages of the supply chain (from farm to consumers). SCALE 12.3 will be the EU-wide incubator and accelerator for promising technological and social innovations.

Essential will be to create the positive social norm, based on our theoretical framework. In 2019 a positive social norm campaign has started, working with 50 influencers and the National mascot Becky, with the aim to further bring down food waste levels at consumer level. Becky gives people smart tips to help them stop wasting food, also by asking “How #foodwastefree are you?”.

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Photo of Andrea Vaz-König

Hi Toine! Welcome to the Food System Vision Prize & good luck for your proposal! We are looking to deep diving into it!

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