Food manufacturers don’t understand the urgency of sustainability and need to act faster, but also communicate actions better with consumers, says the president of global NGO Food Tank.
Speaking to FoodNavigator in light of World Environment Day (WED), held on June 5 each year, Danielle Nierenberg said the day should be used not only to celebrate natural resources and acknowledge the work of farmers, but also draw focus on the role the global food sector played in the environment.
“I think a lot of advances have been made by major food corporations and smaller companies alike, but I think much, much more needs to be done,” Nierenberg said.
“Some of it is greenwashing and some of it is they don’t understand the urgency of acting on these issues now. We can’t wait 10, 15 or even five years. We need to act now, particularly on climate change.”
WED was established by the United Nations Environment Programme to drive awareness and action on the environment. This year’s climate change theme followed on from a food waste focus last year.
Grab the low-hanging fruit
Nierenberg said that while many food firms had sustainability programmes, very few were “grabbing onto that low-hanging fruit – in terms of food waste and food loss”. A better focus on food waste would improve food security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, she said.
However, Tove Larsson, director of sustainability for industry association FoodDrinkEurope, said manufacturers were extremely focused on driving down food waste and that it was top on the industry's agenda.
The association had published a joint stakeholder declaration on food wastage – Every Crumb Counts – almost a year ago, she said, and also provided a toolkit to educate manufacturers on actions they could take.
In terms of WED 2014’s focus on climate change, Larsson said: “There are a number of discussions in stepping up activities in terms of reducing greenhouse emissions, and industry as such has been acting in trying to push an international agreement – an ambitious international agreement – that we want to ensure is delivered.” The agreement, she explained, was part of UN negotiations on climate change.
Short-term, she said there were a number of initiatives and actions that had already been taken by food and drink companies, particularly around food waste which formed part of the broader climate change focus. “But, surely moving forward, a lot can be done – mainly looking at energy efficiency, solar energy for example, and moving into more use of renewable energies in food companies’ industrial activities,” she added.
Food Tank’s Nierenberg said food companies also needed to develop better strategies with small-scale farmers for sustainable food development, ensuring fair wages and encouraging best practice.
“It’s about livelihoods as much as it is environment. You can’t have a better environment if you’re not thinking about those people so intimately involved in it.”
Learn from the small guys - communicate with consumers
'There’s a lot to be learned from the small and medium businesses...They can be more agile, they can change production practices more easily and are also looking further ahead,' says Food Tank president Danielle Nierenberg
Not only did food majors need to act on sustainability, they also needed to communicate efforts better, Nierenberg said, which was something that could be learned from smaller players.
“There’s a lot to be learned from the small and medium businesses. There’s a tendency to ignore what they’ve done and not give them credit for what they’ve been able to do, but often they can be more agile, they can change production practices more easily and are also looking further ahead. They’re able to think more strategically because they don’t have so many players,” she said.
One of the easiest lessons to be learned, she said, was making environmental efforts more relevant to consumers – telling a story.
“It’s about not just thinking of your consumers, but thinking of producers and suppliers as well and being able to put a face to those folks and make what they’re doing more real for consumers – that’s something corporations haven’t been good at. Smaller businesses are better at telling the story; making it true; making it valid; making it legitimate.”
Nierenberg said that collaboration with governments, NGOs and other corporations would be critical in driving forward the environmental agenda within the food sector.
“Corporations have such an influence, particularly in the developing world and public/private partnerships can help them do their jobs better. No-one is in this alone. We need to think about this holistically,” she said.
Nierenberg said the future should be food companies sharing ideas and strategies, even though that contradicted competition. One example, she said, was technologies to reduce packaging that should be shared, not proprietary.
Green Week in Europe
WED falls in the European Commission’s ‘Green Week’ 2014 conference – an annual conference on European environmental policy held from 3 – 5 June in Brussels. FDE has a stand at the conference showcasing its focus on reducing food waste.