Circularity indicators and their relation with nutrient use efficiency in agriculture and food systems

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Circular resource use in agriculture and food systems could play an important role when aiming for sufficient food output with limited environmental impact and resource depletion. Circularity, however, is not a goal in itself. With respect to nutrient use and emissions, agricultural system sustainability is currently commonly assessed by nutrient output/input ratio (O/I, nutrient use efficiency) or surplus per ha (I–O). OBJECTIVE: Our aim is to assess how these sustainability indicators are related to nutrient cycling. METHODS: Starting from basic circularity concepts, a set of equations (frame) is presented that relates nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) cycling to food product output, or to food use by human consumers. Circularity indicators express how many times a nutrient input cohort completes a full cycle (CyCt), or passes through the system's top trophic compartment (UseCt). Examples of such compartments are the crop (arable systems), the herd (livestock farms), and the human population (regional food systems). UseCt governs export in useful product. The frame allows to predict equilibrium O/I from system properties, and to attribute parts of O/I to direct (linear) and cycled flow. CyCtR quantifies how many cycles could be completed by nutrients in absence of product export. CyCtR allows to assess the efficacy of returning waste from exported products. Above indicators are compared against Finn cycling index and Figge circularity index, more commonly used in ecological and industrial research respectively. All indicators are calculated for systems of increasing complexity: (i) a UK wheat field, (ii) a Dutch dairy farm, and (iii) the Flanders regional food system. Their responses to changes in system properties are analysed for examples ii and iii. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: Nutrient flows in UK arable field and Flanders are almost linear. In UK arable field, O/I equals 0.74 (N) and 0.66 (P), with small contributions from cycled flow (9% for N, 5% for P). In Flanders, cycled flow constitutes only 2% of total N and P flows that reach the human consumer in Flanders. The dairy farm shows largest contributions of cycled flow: 35% (N) and 60% (P) of O/I comes from cycled flow, but O/I itself is only 0.28 (N) and 0.72 (P). SIGNIFICANCE: The presented frame allows to assess the impacts of system changes on productivity, nutrient cycling, resource use and nutrient emissions. This is useful for ex-ante assessment of measures that reduce nutrient losses from the system or increase the retrieval of external waste flows.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103610
Number of pages12
JournalAgricultural Systems
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2023


  • Cycle count
  • Efficiency
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Output/input ratio
  • Recycling
  • Use count


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