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A Greener Food Industry

Greening the food industry means more than picking the low-hanging fruit. Dax Lovegrove points out what really needs to change in the food chain.

What have plastic bags, food miles and rooftop turbines got in common? They’re all issues that have tended to hog the headlines on sustainability in the food industry. Because quick wins grab consumers’ attention, retailers and manufacturers have tended to get distracted by these smaller operational changes, rather than looking at their overall ecological footprint.
In fact, most of the greenhouse gas emissions created by the food system (almost a fifth of the UK’s total) are down to production rather than operations such as the running of stores and offices. For example, last year’s Cooking up a Storm report from the University of Surrey found that most of the impacts from meat and dairy products, which account for about half of the UK food sector’s total greenhouse emissions, come from rearing livestock. It’s clear to us at WWF that food retailers and processors have a crucial role to play here: they are the link between production and consumption.

WWF has launched the One Planet Food Strategy to help progressive businesses get to the heart of these issues. Its premise is that we need to reduce emissions from Britain’s food economy by at least 70% within the next four decades. That’s a big ask - and we know that it will be a tough engagement process.

However, there are signs that mindsets are shifting within the industry: where once reputation management drove change, more material issues are starting to spur action instead. Resource efficiency and climate safety are fast becoming business assets, thanks to penalties on emissions - under the forthcoming Carbon Reduction Commitment - and a growing awareness that changing rainfall patterns could have a devastating impact on vital water supplies.

Water is only now beginning to receive serious attention, but crises in many parts of the world are already threatening business supply chains. Cotton, for example, is one of the thirstiest crops, but is often sourced from countries such as Pakistan where water availability is in rapid decline. Companies that are still not assessing the water volumes, impacts and risks in their supply chains will no doubt be vulnerable in future.

WWF is helping big businesses to focus on these critical issues today. For example, we run farmer field schools in India, Pakistan and other countries on which companies such as Marks & Spencer and Ikea are increasingly reliant for labour and products. We’ve shown farming students how to reduce their use of irrigated water, pesticides and fertilisers by up to a third or more. Retailers not only reduce their overall water footprint this way, but also their emissions - in the form of less nitrous oxide from agrichemicals, for example, and less carbon from the cleaning and transportation of water.

Through the Water Footprint Network, which WWF helped set up, we’re working with major businesses such as SABMiller, Coca-Cola and Cadbury to develop water practices that benefit local communities, wildlife and industry.

Meanwhile, pressure is also mounting on food retailers and processors to source commodities responsibly. There are a whole host of ethical and environmental decisions they must make on foodstuffs like palm oil, soy, fish, sugar, meat and dairy. We’re working with them on how to engage suppliers and local communities in improved farming practices, through forums such as the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil and the Better Sugarcane Initiative. WWF is also engaging with some of the global food processing companies - so that they can leverage their purchasing power to drive best practice in the field.

Early indications from a study carried out for us by Imperial College show that greening farming practices, along with efficiencies and technological advancements in the supply chain, could take us a long way towards the UK’s mid-term carbon reduction target (34% by 2020). But hitting the 2050 target of an 80% reduction in overall carbon emissions will also require a change in diets. Cutting down on meat and dairy will be important in the long term, but encouraging consumers to do so won’t be straightforward.

Here, again, retailers will be key. Supermarkets, the dominant players on the UK food scene, will have to extend their role beyond simply responding to consumer demand, to shaping it.

Food businesses that are to survive in a resource-constrained future, and minimise their vulnerability to the ‘ecological crunch’, are going to need some well thought out sustainability strategies. We want to work with the pioneers to help shape a One Planet Food system.

by Dax Lovegrove (WWF)


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