6 of the biggest sustainability problems for the food sector

27 October 2021, 08:45 AM
  • What are the most important environmental challenges that the food sector is facing today, and how can businesses begin to tackle them? Food industry experts weigh in
6 of the biggest sustainability problems for the food sector

COP26 is just days away, and all eyes are on the UK’s response to climate change. The food sector has an important role to play in taking action on issues like 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 six of the biggest threats that the industry must grapple with.

1. Traceability

Untraceable foods from long and complex supply chains pose a significant challenge to sustainability, according to Adele Jones, deputy CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust. “When we can no longer trace an item to its source, we cannot know how sustainably or ethically it was produced.” For example, she said, consider a product as simple as a chicken. “Where was the chicken reared? What sort of conditions did it live in? What was the chicken fed? Who provided the chicken feed and where did it come from? What are their sustainability credentials? Where was the chicken slaughtered and how far did it have to travel to the abattoir? 

“If these questions can’t be answered, we don’t truly know what we’re consuming,” Adele said.

“No company can achieve sustainability without traceability,” agreed Shameek Ghosh, CEO and co-founder of traceability platform TrusTrace. “Companies need traceability to ensure compliance, improve transparency to consumers and improve the percentage of sustainable products in their portfolio,” he told Speciality Food. According to Adele, the solution lies in smaller supply chains and local food systems. “The food sector must tackle these traceability concerns through re-localised food systems,” she said. Read more about the importance of traceability here.

2. Packaging

For Subramaniam Eassuwaren, co-founder of carbon negative tea brand Greenypeeps, the biggest challenge facing fine food businesses is packaging. “We struggle with this as well,” he admitted. “To be completely plastic-free means that you have to end up sacrificing some of the barrier properties that you have on your packs,” he said. Biodegradable materials have come leaps and bounds in recent years, but they are still not a match for plastic. Businesses like Greenypeeps that are looking for more sustainable packaging alternatives must juggle “trying to find the right alternatives and making sure that we don’t sacrifice too much of the product quality,” he said.

But retailers and producers perusing a more sustainable packaging agenda will find support from the public. According to research from Kantar, plastic waste is the most pressing concern for British consumers, with 48% of shoppers saying it is in their top five environmental priorities. “Continuing to address these issues will be vital for businesses to engage shoppers in future,” the group said. Discover more about sustainable packaging here.

3. Greenwashing

Greenwashing has become a big issue in the food and drink world, with claims around everything from the true recyclability of packaging to ingredient sourcing now under the microscope. “The problem with transparency claims is that companies do not have a good system to collect and verify supply chain and material integrity information,” warns TrusTrace’s Shameek. His business aims to make it easier for companies to boost their transparency. “Sustainability claims related to each component of the supply chain can be verified, helping to both continue good practices and identify specific areas for improvement.”

New guidance from the Competition and Markets Authority is cracking down on greenwashing, so now is the time for businesses to ensure that they meet these high standards. Read more about greenwashing here.

4. Devaluing food and drink

As fine food retailers are well aware, the price tag of most supermarket food products has for a long time been out of sync with the realities of the costs involved with making quality food. “The food sector is facing issues associated with cheap foods,” Adele confirmed. 

“Our 2018 report found that for every £1 spent on food, an additional cost of 97p is incurred. This additional cost is not paid by the food business nor included in the retail price of food. Instead, this cost is passed on to society in a range of hidden ways. Namely, natural capital degradation, biodiversity loss, production-related ill-health, diet-related disease and imported foods,” she said.

Intensive modern agriculture has led to biodiversity loss and degradation of soil health, which in turn leads companies to use more chemical fertilisers and pesticides on crops. “This negative feedback loop has become a big sustainability issue of the food sector. It offers little security to the primary producers, retailers and consumers alike. For these reasons, we call for true cost farming to increase transparency along the supply chain,” Adele said. “With a little luck, this will encourage more food producers to farm in harmony with nature.” Read more about businesses challenging the narrative around cheap food here.

5. Food waste

The food waste issue has gained more attention as it offers consumers a way to tackle sustainability in their own homes, and businesses like Too Good To Go have offered innovative ways to repurpose food and drink that would typically go to waste. 

With consumers well aware of the impacts of food waste today, OLIO, an app that redistributes food between consumers, says joining the food waste fight is a good way to boost your business’s eco credentials. “It doesn’t matter how big or small the amount of food is, people hate, hate, hate food waste,” said Tessa Clarke, co-founder of OLIO. “So for any business that wants to protect – and build – its reputation, it’s critical to achieve zero food waste locations, especially when so many in local communities are struggling to get by.” Read more about food waste here.

6. Supply chain issues

In the wider food industry, long and complex supply chains pose a challenge to the sustainability mission. “90% of global ESG impact happens in the supply chain, and while most companies are aware that they need to gain a full and verified understanding of their supply chain, few companies know their suppliers beyond tier 1 and 2,” says TrusTrace’s Shameek.

Greenypeeps’ Subramaniam also highlighted the problems with global supply chains that products like tea demand. This has involved travelling to partners’ farms and seeking to understand the processes they have in place to protect the land and cut pollution. However, he said, “Within the global food industry that’s a lot of grey there. It’s quite difficult to understand where exactly all your ingredients are coming from.” Fine food businesses typically rely on smaller supply chains, making the tracking and tracing of ingredients and suppliers much easier. Read more about the benefits of working with local producers here.

By tackling these sustainability issues, fine food businesses can boost their eco credentials and offer better products for their customers and the planet.

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