Four of the biggest sustainability problems for the food sector in 2023

01 February 2023, 08:18 AM
  • What are the most important environmental challenges that the food sector is facing today, and how can businesses begin to tackle them?
Four of the biggest sustainability problems for the food sector in 2023

The food sector has an important role to play in taking action on issues like plastic pollution, growing emissions and biodiversity loss

Tackling these challenges aligns with shifting consumer demands. According to Kantar, 29% of British consumers, who are responsible for £37bn of grocery sales annually, now consider themselves to be environmentally conscious. With sustainability not only an environmental consideration but also a strong business move, there’s no better time to act. 

Here are four of the biggest threats that the industry must grapple with:

1. Food waste
New data has revealed that on average each UK household throws away 28.1kg of food waste each month, 70% of which is still fully edible. 

According to the research, the most wasted foods are fresh foods as they’re not as commonly frozen, drastically reducing shelf-life. In fact, a quarter (25%) of food waste is from vegetables and a further 22% is from fruit. Similarly, 17% is categorised as leafy greens and 23% from oven-baked goods such as cakes, bread, and leftovers. 

In fact, as Christina O’Sullivan, communications manager at Feedback Global, told Speciality Food, “The global food system is responsible for up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions – wasted food represents a tragic waste of natural resources such as land and water and is also an environmental disaster. 

Independents are in a prime position to help. As Peter McTurk, owner of Calcott Hall and council member at the Farm Retail Association (FRA), explained, “At farm shops and independents you get the interactions with experts from butchers to delis to cheese counters. 

“This means you can speak to the experts directly; you can bring in your own containers which saves on plastics and is more sustainable and allows you to choose how much or how little food you want to put in it. You’re reducing waste and buying what you need.”

2. The cost-of-living crisis
With purse strings tightened, research has showed that shoppers are dropping sustainability in favour of cheaper products. 

According to a recent survey conducted by Meatless Farm, one in two (55%) people admitting price is now significantly more important than health, sustainability and quality when it comes to the weekly food shop. 

In fact, two fifths (41%) plan to buy more frozen and non-organic (40%) meat whilst almost a third a third of shoppers (28%) are switching to cheaper processed meat. Two in five (39%) also say organic and fairtrade foods are now bottom of their shopping lists despite previously being ‘must have’ items.

Being in the customer-facing roles they are, independent retailers have the opportunity to explain to customers why they should continue to value sustainability in their shopping choices. 

“For consumers, we believe the most important element is justifying their spend – be it through quality, health credentials or sustainability. Retailers can encourage purchases through clearly communicating the benefits to the consumer through marketing efforts and in-store merchandising, as well as offering a premium in-store experience which is attractive to the consumer”, according to Maddie Grinham, brand manager at Mr Organic

3. Plastic pollution
Leading environmental compliance data specialist Ecoveritas has issued an urgent call to action on circularity as research shows more virgin materials have been consumed in the past six years than during the entire 20th century. 

The eagerly anticipated Circularity Gap Report 2023 has found that we live in the ‘overshoot era’, where the rising material extraction of over 100 billion tons/year has shrunk global circularity from 9.1% in 2018 to 7.2% in 2023.

In order to tackle single-use plastic, from October 2023, single-use plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks, and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers will be banned at retailers, takeaways, food vendors and the hospitality industry.

The phasing out of these products will prove a challenge for independent retailers and hospitality venues as they are already battling high energy costs and Covid-19 recovery.

4. Sustainable farming reform
The farming industry has been eagerly awaiting clarity on post-Brexit reforms that will enable them to farm more sustainably, but recent announcements regarding ELMs haven’t given the sector the confidence it needs to protect the environment during a tumultuous time.

According to Gareth Morgan, head of farming policy at the Soil Association, “The government is failing to make clear how they will give farmers confidence to invest in the radical changes needed for a resilient and sustainable agroecological farming sector. 

“We are facing a climate emergency and ecological collapse – there are welcome elements in today’s announcement but we must stop tinkering around the edges. 

“Government must provide a long-term vision to help farmers do more than make small changes. They need a package of guidance and incentives that spark a shift to nature-friendly farming across their entire farms.”

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