Why food brands have a golden opportunity to be stewards of the environment

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Leanne Werner
Image: Getty/Leanne Werner

Related tags: Environment, Sustainability, emissions

Emissions from food production are vastly underestimated, claims a new study. But its lead author is ultimately optimistic the industry can address its environmental problems.

The new global analysis​ claims that greenhouse-gas emissions from food systems have ‘long been systematically underestimated’. It concludes that about a third of emissions can be traced to food production: a rise of 8% since 1990.

The report, developed jointly by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, NASA, New York University, and experts at Columbia University, found that food is a significant contributor to climate change due to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated within the farm and on agricultural land. 

The conversion of natural ecosystems to agricultural croplands or pastures remains the largest single source of emissions, the research said. On their own, these account for about one-fifth of all emissions. Taking account of other agriculturally-related factors such as manufacturing, processing, storage, transport, waste disposal, and environmental impacts, that figure can rise to nearly 40%. In developing countries, food production-related emissions can make up as much as half of all emissions.

“Our new comparative mapping of food system categories and activities and improved data have shown that significant emissions are also contributed by non-IPCC agricultural and land sectors, such as on-farm energy use, domestic food transport and food waste disposal,”​ the researchers wrote in the study. “Taken together, the global food system represents a larger GHG mitigation opportunity than previously estimated.”

There was some good news in the report: although total emissions from food systems rose from 1990 to 2018, changing technologies have meant that per capita emissions actually decreased, from the equivalent of 2.9 metric tons to 2.2 metric tons per person. But per capita emissions in developed countries, at 3.6 metric tons per person in 2018, were nearly twice those in developing countries.

What’s more, the report also identified that global emissions from domestic food transportation have risen by nearly 80% since 1990, to 500 million tons in 2018. Those emissions have nearly tripled in developing countries. And emissions generated by food system energy use, largely carbon dioxide from fossil fuels along the supply chain, amounted to over 4 billion tons in 2018, an increase of 50% since 1990.

Opportunities to cut emissions

The better news in the research is that better data can help lead to better policies for cutting emissions and protecting the food system from a changing climate.

For example, “agriculture in developed countries emits large quantities of greenhouse gases, but their share can be obscured by large emissions from other sectors like electricity, transportation and buildings,"​ said Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor in environmental studies at New York University and co-author of the report. "Looking at the entire food system can not only illuminate opportunities to reduce emissions from agriculture, but also improve efficiency across the whole supply chain with technologies such as refrigeration and storage."

The lead author of the analysis, Francesco Tubiello, who heads the environment statistics unit at FAO, told FoodNavigator he's ultimately optimisitc about the potential of food businesses to solve their environmental problems. He said a focus on select ‘big ticket item’ mitigation strategies revolving around minimising the impacts of land use change and carbon sequestration presents the food industry a golden opportunity to be the steward of the environment.

"I'm not one of those people who considers food systems a bad thing. Food systems are the basis of us surviving as a species,”​ he said. “I think there are many things that can be done but some are more effective than others."

He recommends a reduction in the kind of processes that are destroying current ecosystems, and implementations of more efficient practices on farmland to increase carbon sequestration. 

"You don't want to get lost in a myriad of things that don't really work. I would focus on the big stuff right now because we don't have any time left,”​ he warned. “Most models are saying if we don’t start turning around emissions by 10-15 years there's zero chance we're going to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees."

Carbon offsetting -- a tool that enables companies to mitigate carbon debts in their own operations by funding environmental projects on the other side of the globe – can be useful. Though he warned this becomes redundant if sold ‘to someone who emits somewhere else’.

“Anything that helps reduce the fossil fuel source of the food production's high energy consumption is important,” ​he said, adding: “We always used to say farmers were the stewards of the environment. But food companies are now so completely vertically integrated with how land gets used and where, so they have become the stewards.”

GettyImages regen ag Iryna Imago
Scientists believe regenerative agriculture, which incorporates practices like cover cropping, no till methods, crop rotation, mixed farming, and the use of smart technologies to improve efficiency, can help reduce emissions from food production. Image: Getty/Iryana Imago

Plant-based diets ‘not necessarily the answer’

In the report, the researchers argued: “Reduction in meat consumption, especially beef, can deliver health benefits, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production, and augment the potential to sequester carbon on land not used for grazing or for growing livestock feed.”​ Food brands, meanwhile, are busy currently pumping out plant-based products to sell to consumers who say they want to cut their meat and dairy consumption for environmental reasons. Cargil has just predicted that plant-based sales could make up as much as 10% of the global market in three to fours years. 

But more nuance the marketing of these products is needed, Tubiello suggested. "Consumers right now are sort of blindly doing this... I don't think we're going to save the planet by shifting completely to a plant-based diet because when you do the calculations on how much land would be needed to do that, I'm not sure it completely works.”

He elaborated: “I'm in favour of this shift to a plant-based diet but only if it has ingredients that lesson the impact on the planet and land that's cultivated... it could be counterproductive if you're turning more of land in some parts of the world to cultivation to make more plant-based products."​ 

Case study: Ingredients supplier BENEO has reduced its specific greenhouse gas emissions by more than 55% since 2007 and is aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050

“Reduction of energy consumption is a key element to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050,”​ explained Christoph Boettger, Executive Board Member at BENEO. “We have invested heavily into energy efficiency measures in the past 10 years in all our sites and we will continue to do so, as it is essential to reduce energy consumption while working on decarbonization.“

Changes to its processes to improve its sustainability credentials include:

  • Increasing energy efficiency in its factories by up to 50% via re-investment in technology so that all raw materials used are subsequently processed as efficiently as possible, avoiding waste.  
  • Focussing on the proximity of its factories to the fields help to minimise the environmental impact of transportation. Sugar beet is on average within 40km of the factories and chicory within 80km.
  • Making 2500 fewer truck journeys per year, while still carrying the same volume of ingredients and raw materials, by more use of barge transportation.
  • Reducing water consumption by more than 45% since 2007. Up to half of the total water consumed in BENEO’s production plants is from cyclical water usage.
  • Focussing on recycling thermal energy. To separate water from the dry mass of the products, multiple-effect evaporators have been in use for many years, which are up to 85% more efficient than single-effect evaporators. 

Projects in place to help the company achieve its green goals include plans to turn its Chilean plant into a fully green factory by focusing on reducing energy consumption, highly efficient transformation, and the move to no (or low) greenhouse gas emission primary energy sources.

Its chicory root plant in Oreye in Belgium has achieved a 40% reduction in specific carbon emissions as a result of a 10-year energy saving program, which has seen a recent €11 million investment into increased energy efficiency measures. The site is already running with 75% renewable energy, operating a state-of-the-art biomass boiler, but the aim is to be fully independent from fossil energy here, and across our other sites in future.

BENEO is looking to implement new technology to help achieve these targets.

Its main energy source is natural gas, followed by biomass fuel. BENEO`s factories use cogeneration of steam and electricity, as well as highly efficient multiple effect evaporation stations and other methods to recover energy. Continuous efficiency programs will further improve energy consumption, it says. An example is the gas turbine installed last year in Oreye which boasts a greater energy efficiency compared to standard high-pressure steam turbines.

It also recently announced an investment of half a million Euros into waterway transport to help reduce its reliance on road transport. The project will enable BENEO to move two-thirds of its cargo by barge each year. Road transport emits on average 115g of CO2 per tonne-km, whereas barge transport generates just 50g of CO2 per tonne-km, it says. By doubling the volumes transported over water, BENEO will halve the number of truck movements to and from Wijgmaal each year to reduce carbon emissions associated with the inbound transport of rice from the harbour to the plant by 20% annually.

“Especially in central Europe, there is not one ‘miracle’ solution,”​ added Boettger. “Each option brings only a part of the solution. Achieving carbon neutrality will require a combination of approaches, and we will have to be innovative and consistent to succeed. The ever-growing interest and awareness of sustainable sourcing is encouraging other ingredients providers to look at their sustainability credentials.”

‘More regenerative agricultural practices are required’

Mark Driscoll, founder and director of Tasting the Future, a not for profit sustainable food systems consultancy, agreed better land management and more regenerative agricultural practices are required to reduce the environmental impact of food production.

“There are a lot of exciting developments in regenerative agriculture techniques here in the UK. A lot more scientific research needs to go into soil sequestration and forestry agricultural systems that lock carbon into trees,”​ he told us. “Growing crops or livestock under those kinds of forestry systems has huge potential to play. That will include reducing fertiliser and pesticide use and more precision agriculture.”​ 

He also urged food manufacturers to tackle food waste. “When one-third of all food grown globally is wasted there's a significant opportunity. Within that food waste, there's a lot of embedded greenhouse gas emissions. If you're in the UK, a lot of that is post-consumer but there's also a responsibility for the food industry to influence and change consumer behaviours around food waste involving better storage and preparation.

“If you're sourcing from overseas, particularly the developing world, a lot of that food waste is in the production end.”

He urged businesses to invest in sustainable cold food chains, for example, to prevent the waste and loss of fresh fruit and vegetables, 40% of which is wasted globally because it can’t get access to market quickly enough.

Focussing on new product and ingredient innovation, he said: "We don't need to eradicate meat totally. It's about less but better meat.” ​He called for “more natural plant-based ingredients using nutrient-rich ingredients that are more resilient to climate change that can create added value to farmers” ​and “more diversity of crops within the context of livestock systems that use regenerative and agro-ecological farming systems”.​ 

A greener path needs government intervention 

But can these types of greener production systems produce enough food to meet the demand of a growing global population? And will consumers have to be prepared to pay a premium for products made in a more environmentally sustainable way?

"All of this is in the context of governments' providing a level playing field for farmers and the food industry,”​ he responded. “That requires reorientating subsidy systems to support farmers to produce more food through regenerative practices using no-till agriculture, mulching, and protective and integrated cropping...Government must provide a level playing field in order for that transition to occur… it shouldn't need to cost consumers more than they're paying today if the right incentives are in place."

GettyImages plant burger vaaseenaa
Plant-based ingredients are 'not necessarliy' the answer if they mean more land being cultivated to produce them. Image: Getty/vaaseenaa

Eco and carbon labels: Gimmick or triumph of choice?

Another area of interest to the industry is eco-labels. AI data researcher Spoonshot predicts that carbon labelling is a trend that’s here to stay.

“We’re seeing brands, retailers and restaurants starting to focus on on-pack carbon labelling as a way to promote transparency and spread awareness of our impact on the plant and appeal to environmental-conscious consumers,”​ it noted in a report. “Different ways of showcasing this environmental impact have emerged, but with references to emissions data or production processes.”

There are nearly 460 eco labels in use globally, with over 120 different types in use on food and drink products. Spoonshot noted the recent unveiling in the US of protein bar maker Epic’s Beef Barbacoa-Inspired Bar -- said to be the first bar to carry the Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV) Seal from the Savory Institute which measures regenerative farming practices.

Spoonshot now expects to see an increased demand for transparency from consumers “not only in terms of generic callouts, like sustainability, but for more specific information on how exactly a product is sustainable”.

Preaching to the converted?

Some in the industry regard eco-labelling as nothing more than a marketing gimmick that will only appeal to those consumers who are already climate conscious. But others believe the recent launch of Eco-Score​, for example, in parts of Europe could trigger food producers to rethink their product portfolios.

Marjolein Hanssen, Consumer Foods Analyst at Rabobank, told FoodNavigator the Eco-Score FOP label is off to a ‘flying start’ and already being piloted by Lidl and Colruyt. “We can expect more supermarkets to adopt it as consumer demand for information on the environmental impact of their purchases intensifies,” ​she said. “The trend means food producers will soon be competing more directly on sustainability, and should act now to get ahead of the curve.

GettyImages food label Getty Courtney Hale
With so many eco labels schemes jostling for attention, is it something consumers actually want? Image: Getty/Courtney Hale

“Food producers will adjust or reformulate their offerings to achieve a higher, more competitive Eco-Score. They might even be directly asked by food retailers to improve their rating, especially in the case of private label products.”

But, perhaps most significantly, the rising popularity of FOP environmental labels could mean producers soon have a much broader set of competitors, including producers in their own category, but also those in other categories, she added.

“For example, a consumer might decide to replace their regular cashew nuts with a more sustainable version, or a completely different snack with a higher environmental score. Alternatively, a shopper might be surprised by the high environmental footprint of an avocado and opt for hummus on their toast instead. This could trigger some food producers to rethink their product portfolio or consider reformulating their products with more sustainable ingredients.”

Whether Eco-Score will become the dominant environmental label remains to be seen, but according to Hanssen, producers can still view it as a bellwether of what’s to come and use how it's calculated to focus their environmental efforts in the right direction now.

“The Eco-Score calculation gives an ‘average’ emission for a particular food, such as bread. In order to boost their score, a producer is incentivised to get some bonus points. To obtain these bonus points, they must not only implement more sustainable practices, they must also prove it. Hence increased transparency by the food producer will pay off. The more information on origin, sustainable packaging or production method, the more likely the score will be upgraded.”

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