KNOWLEDGE MAP Back to overview

An overview of insights on the (un)sustainability of the international food system.

Food & Sustainability

What are other related concepts?

Several other concepts more or less contribute to a sustainable food system: circular economy, natural capital, resilience and biobased economy.

Circular Economy

A circular economy is an economy designed as a regenerative system, closing resource cycles, with the aim to retain as much value of products, parts and materials as possible.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015a, p. 2.

If we relate the circular economy to the food system, it amounts to the closing of food chains, in which waste and residuals are resources. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) formulates three criteria for a circular food economy:

  • Optimal resource management (with an efficient and sustainable use of resources and minerals).
  • Optimal use of food (with sustainable food patterns and minimal food waste).
  • Optimal utilization of residuals (with high-grade applications of biomass and waste). 

PBL (2016a), p. 4-9.

For more information, see the chapter ‘Biomassa en Voedsel’ in Rijksoverheid (2016), p. 45-51. (in Dutch)

Natural capital

Natural capital is the “stock of renewable and non-renewable natural resources (e.g., plants, animals, air, water, soils, minerals) that combine to yield a flow of benefits to people.”

Natural Capital Coalition (2016a), p. 123.

Aside from the general protocol for companies, the Natural Capital Coalition (NCC) has published (and is still working on) guides for specific sectors, including the food industry. In order to map the impacts and dependencies on natural capital, companies operating within the food sector can use the Sector Guide Food & Beverages. On a larger scale, the mainstreaming of natural capital is important to secure the resilience of the food system.

Natural Capital Coalition (2016b).

Ministerie van Economische Zaken en Ministerie van Volksgezondheid, Welzijn en Sport (2016), p. 24.

For further reading on the relation between natural capital and the food sector, see: PBL (2016b). (in Dutch)


Resilience is the ‘stamina’ or ‘elasticity’ of a (food) system. It includes (1) the amount of shocks a (food) system can absorb whilst remaining in the same state, (2) the extent to which the (food) system can adapt to changing circumstances and (3) the (food) system’s ability to develop learning capacity.

Pisano, U. (2012), p. 6.

Biobased Economy

A biobased economy (BBE) is an economy that no longer runs on fossil fuels, but rather uses biomass for raw materials and energy. In a BBE biomass (such as food waste) is used for non-food applications. At times, bio-based applications may compete with food production, such as when land is used for growing biofuels instead of food.

Novo, A., Jansen, K., Slingerland, M., & Giller, K. (2010), p. 769-770.

For more information, see the biobased economy website.