How the food industry is advancing its net zero goals

12 May 2021, 07:21 AM
  • From manufacturers to farmers to retailers, the food and beverage sector is making moves on sustainability, and SMEs have a big role to play
How the food industry is advancing its net zero goals

In recent months, sustainability plans across the food and drink industry have come into sharp focus. Newly launched ambitions and initiatives are aiming to tackle carbon emissions from farm to fork. Speciality Food looks into the latest progress retailers, manufacturers and farmers are making with their plans to combat climate change.

Tackling supply chain emissions

Emissions from the food and drink supply chain account for the majority of products’ carbon footprint, according to the Food and Drink Federation (FDF). The group is now aiming to tackle this with fresh plans targeting net zero emissions by 2040.

To help support food and drink businesses, the FDF also plans to launch a Roadmap to Net Zero project at the COP26 climate change summit being held in Glasgow in November. This will look at areas including ingredients, packaging, manufacturing, distribution and storage and the role of customers in reducing the carbon footprint of food.

Yet despite these ambitions, more than a third of food and drink companies have not set targets for tackling climate change, according to an FDF member survey, meaning more progress is needed.

This is an area where SMEs can make a big difference. Tim Etherington-Judge, co-founder of planet-positive Calvados brand Avallen, told Speciality Food that all businesses must play their part, no matter how big or small. “Imagine a mouse and an elephant together in the jungle. The mouse is small, nimble and makes little impact on the huge jungle but is able to change direction quickly and act with great speed. The elephant is massive, slow and lumbering but has a much bigger impact on his surroundings. The mouse (small brands) can react to the climate crisis with speed, and if it can lead the elephant (big corporate groups) in the right direction, then big, positive impacts will follow,” Tim explained.

Progress in farming

While manufacturers look to make changes, the NFU’s latest confidence survey revealed that more farmers than ever are planning to invest in net zero measures.

But while NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts said it was fantastic to see so many farmers making plans to implement net zero measures, overall farm business confidence has remained negative for three years running, and he warns this will have a “significant” impact on businesses and their ability to invest in sustainable food production.

“As a nation, we really stand up tall when it comes to climate and environmentally friendly food production, and we can’t take this for granted,” Stuart said. The survey showed that 69% of farmers plan to improve soil health or carbon content and 51% plan to plant trees. Another 38% plan to extend hedgerows, 35% will invest in more renewable energy generation, and 35% will invest in low carbon agri-technology.

“As an industry we have huge potential when it comes to contributing to the government’s green growth ambition,” Stuart said. “But this potential will never be maximised if a lack of confidence, certainty and opportunity holds British farming back.”

Across Europe, an ambitious new coalition is also seeking to decarbonise the food system. The Carbon+ Farming Journey project will take a farmer-centric approach to regenerative agriculture, agritech innovations, circular economy solutions and more.

Retail makes moves towards net zero

In November, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) set out plans to reach net zero by 2040. The group recently said that leading retailers had “smashed” 2020 carbon reduction targets, with emissions having fallen 49% since 2005, exceeding the target of a 25% absolute reduction. Carbon emissions in stores and store deliveries fell 46% and 84% respectively when controlled for growth.

But while larger retailers are behind these industry-wide initiatives, SMEs have a significant role in reducing emissions. “Successfully combating climate change will require a collaborative effort of large and small businesses, all levels of government, and the wider public,” said Roger Pollen, head of FSB Northern Ireland, ahead of a recent event to empower SMEs with the knowledge to take their first steps towards net zero.

“While climate change is a substantial threat,” he said, “there are great opportunities for innovation and positive change in our response to it. The most successful businesses are those that can successfully respond to constant change.” One retailer making big steps in sustainability is Co-op, which recently announced a plan for its own-brand products to be carbon neutral within five years.

Avallen’s Tim said other small businesses can make changes that help speed up shifts towards sustainability. “It all has to start with a commitment to leaving old, destructive business models in the past and embracing a new, futuristic business model that puts both the planet and people on an equal pedestal with profit,” he explained.

From looking at the raw materials businesses work with to packaging or even partnering with environmental charities, there are many routes to take, Tim says. “There’s no end destination here. It’s a journey, and like with any journey, no matter how big or small, it always starts with the first step.”

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