Whether it’s emissions from food production, pollution and runoff from industrial agricultural practices or deforestation to make space for agricultural land, the F&B industry is waking up to the reality that unsustainable practices will no longer be tolerated. Alexis Norman, CEO and co-founder of Greenly – a tech company combatting global warming and emissions through its carbon management platform – takes a look at some industry sectors that could benefit from some improvements.
The F&B industry is one of the largest industries in the world, worth around $11 trillion. It’s no surprise then that the industry is also responsible for a huge portion of global carbon emissions – in fact, food systems are responsible for around a third of greenhouse gases emitted globally. This startling number makes it pretty clear why decarbonisation of the sector is so critical.
We take a look at some industry sectors with potential for improvement.
1. Food production
Carbon emissions resulting from food production are only marginally less than that of power generation, so this is an area of focus for many governments and environmental organisations worldwide.
Carbon emissions from food production can be split into: growing crops for human consumption, rearing livestock and land use for both livestock and crops. All three practices take their toll on the environment, whether it’s from water use and wastage, methane emissions from cattle digestion, the use of manure to fertilise soil or the destruction of forests to make way for new agricultural land.
In order to tackle emissions in the industry, more environmental practices will need to be adopted that address harmful farming and food production practices. An example of one such practice is regenerative farming, which aims to adopt practices that improve soil fertility, reduce waste and improve the capture of carbon. This can be achieved through simple switches like planting cover crops or growing crops between main crop harvest cycles to improve soil fertility, biodiversity and carbon sequestration.
Manufacturing is the process of turning produce into sellable products. This may involve processing facilities, packaging and transportation of the finished products. So how can we reduce emissions at this stage of the cycle?
A huge onus is placed on the companies responsible for manufacturing activities. By taking steps to optimise the energy efficiency of their processes, they can significantly cut down on their emissions. They may replace existing machinery with more energy-efficient options, switch off machines and equipment when not in use or source greener energy options such as wind or solar power.
Another step that manufacturers can take to reduce the carbon footprint of their products is to reassess their product sizes and utilise user-friendly packaging so that food wastage can be reduced. For example, oftentimes, a ‘use by’ date is just a rough indication, and products can still be used past this date. If this is clearly communicated, it may prevent produce from being thrown out unnecessarily.
Packaging is everywhere – fruit and vegetables are wrapped in unnecessary cellophane or packaged in cartons or plastic. Coffee is served to us in single-use cups, and we’re even given plastic bags to carry home the plastic-wrapped food we just bought.
What’s even more worrying is that only 9% of plastic is recycled, meaning that the vast majority of it ends up in our landfills.
There’s a clear and urgent need to address the issue of packaging, and manufacturers need to adopt environmentally friendly alternatives. Sustainable raw materials should be favoured and unnecessary packaging cut out altogether. The good news is that the industry is increasingly full of innovative, biodegradable packaging solutions.
Transportation of food and beverage goods will involve shipping, trucking, rail or air travel. In the US, the vast majority (75%) of goods are transported by truck. If the goods are travelling long distances, the resulting carbon emissions can be significant.
It’s, therefore, critical for companies involved in the sale of food or beverages to optimise the logistics of their transportation network. This might mean that goods are transported in bulk, or that companies replace existing vehicles with electric alternatives.
Retail is the last step in the supply chain when it comes to food and drink, and with almost 40,000 supermarkets across the US, this step can count for a significant portion of the carbon footprint of food and beverage products. So what steps can retailers take to reduce their carbon footprint?
As with most businesses, general steps to reduce carbon emissions include things like switching off lights and machines where possible after closing hours, selecting an energy provider that uses renewable energy sources, replacing lights with LED sources, encouraging consumers to forgo the use of bags when selecting produce, etc.
While the bulk of the responsibility is placed on producers and retailers, consumers should not be forgotten. They too must play a part in reducing the carbon footprint of food and drink products – especially since the average person in the US wastes a whopping 400 pounds of food a year.
By buying local seasonal produce and cutting down on the consumption of meat and animal products, the average consumer can have a significant impact. Consumers shape supply and demand, so consumers boycotting unsustainable products can force retailers to shift their approach or change the products available.
Given the huge impact that the food and beverage industry has on global carbon emissions, it’s absolutely imperative that producers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike make efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. If we want to see real improvement, it will require a collective effort.
But changes need to be significant and meaningful; it’s not enough for players in the food and drinks industry just to do the bare minimum. It’s time to take meaningful action to meet the crisis at hand.
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