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Interview with Dr. Susanne Kadner, Head of the Circular Economy Initiative, acatech

The next acatech Horizons event will focus on sustainable agriculture. One possibility is a closed cycle economy. However, this requires cooperation between different disciplines with scientific and entrepreneurial collaboration. Will this complexity prevent consumers from accepting the closed-loop economy?

The model of circular agriculture aims to keep production losses as low as possible. These new networks must develop primarily between producers and disposers - not necessarily with consumers. 

For the consumer and responsible consumption, it is more important to know whether the food has been produced sustainably - which is the aim of the circular-flow economy. Sustainable consumption is not always beeing lived yet, but problems are being discussed publicly and many consumers are already sensitized. These include the fact that current agriculture and food production are associated with a substantial environmental impact. In addition to the greenhouse gas production, this also includes biodiversity loss and nitrate-polluted groundwater due to widespread fertilizer use.

The circular-flow economy can help here. It would provide the missing link between agriculture, horticulture, and livestock breeding, supplemented by the use of residual flows from the food chain.  For example, using liquid manure and crop residues as fertilizers or processing Insects bred on food scraps into animal feed. The production of food could thus be more sustainable.

The responsibility of consumers in a circular agriculture does not go far beyond what is already known. The focus is on consuming the highest quality of food while avoiding food waste as far as possible. Currently, private households generate 52 percent of all food waste. Reducing this waste is a huge lever. 

What role will AI play in urban agriculture in the future?

Precision farming technologies are already helping to only use crop protection and fertilizers where necessary and as little as possible in traditional agriculture. KI allows the comprehensive evaluation of local soil, growth and harvest conditions and shows, where how much of what should be used. Even in a controlled system such as vertical farming in urban agriculture, growth conditions or pest infestation can vary. Here too, AI can be used to pinpoint adverse developments at an early stage and to reduce the risk of crop failures. AI can also help to make information about valuable waste streams in the broader urban environment available and bundle it.

The Global Food Summit 2020 in Munich deals with the topic of closed food cycles in cities. From which session of the conference do you expect the most significant gain of knowledge for your work?

For acatech, as the National Academy of Engineering Sciences, the role of AI in building a circular food system is highly exciting and relevant. This perspective on digital technologies as enablers for a circular economy runs through all our work. This also applies to the recently launched Circular Economy Initiative Germany, which is coordinated by an acatech office. The Sustainable Development Goals also include the declared goal of reducing global food waste by 50 percent by 2030. I am very excited to hear from the Session I discussions on how AI can contribute to achieving this goal.