Why food should lead the way in Britain’s net zero strategy

12 November 2021, 08:00 AM
  • The food and drink sector has an opportunity to be at the forefront of the UK’s transition to net zero carbon emissions – and it should grab the opportunity with both hands
Why food should lead the way in Britain’s net zero strategy

In October, the Government set out its Net Zero Strategy, the pathway to deliver on its commitments to reach net zero emissions by 2050. It came ahead of the COP26 gathering in Glasgow, where all eyes were on the UK as it was thrust into the centre of global sustainability conversation.

While much of the focus from the Government was on producing clean energy and technology like electric vehicles, the food and farming sectors have an important role to play in driving sustainability forwards. Accounting for a third of global emissions, the food industry is a large contributor to climate change, but as Speciality Food revealed throughout Sustainable Food Month in October, many players in the fine food sector are challenging the status quo by developing practices that put protecting the environment at the heart of their businesses.

“Everybody eats food, so the impacts of the food industry are far-reaching,” said Megan Adams of zero waste shop Re:Store, speaking to Speciality Food during an exclusive webinar for Sustainable Food Month. “If we were to get to a point where it was considered sustainable, what a massive impact that would have on the planet.” Food and drink is at the centre of the damage that is being done to the natural world, added Tim Etherington-Judge, co-founder of sustainable spirits brand Avallen. “Because food and drink products are closely tied to that, it’s really where everything starts,” he said.

A collaborative approach

Over the course of Sustainable Food Month, Speciality Food revealed many ways in which fine food businesses – whether producers, retailers or wholesalers – can become part of the sustainable solution. From boosting biodiversity to offsetting carbon emissions to championing organic products, there are numerous ways that even the smallest business can make a difference.

For significant change to be made, however, Ruth Edge of the NFU told Speciality Food that a collaborative approach is needed. Speaking during a Sustainable Food Month webinar, Ruth said, “This doesn’t need to be a competitive issue. In many cases, change can only be made by a collaborative approach. We need to invest in the research and technologies as industries to make those gains and gain that knowledge that we don’t currently have, and the only way to do that is to make it a non-competitive issue.”

Patrick Holden, founder and CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust, added that there is hardly a farmer or food business in Britain today that doesn’t want to be part of “this great transition for the food and farming world”. However, he said the Government must do more to incentivise sustainable business. “We’re being held back by the lack of the business case. It doesn’t necessarily pay as well to do the right thing. So what we need to do is create an economic environment through policy change, and other factors whereby if you transition to more regenerative or sustainable farming system, it pays better. And I believe that’s achievable, but it requires interventions from Government, and it will require a great mobilisation of the farming community, including small food businesses and retailers that support farmers on the ground through selling their products.”

NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts has also said Government support will be crucial to backing British farming to reach net zero by 2040. “It’s great to see initiatives such as the Farming Investment Fund and Farming Innovation Programme which support investment in equipment and infrastructure. These will ultimately help boost sustainable food production and reduce agricultural emissions,” he said. “Net zero support can and must go hand in hand with food production.”

Changing the retail landscape

Retailers can also make conscious moves towards a more sustainable food system, from supporting and stocking eco-friendly brands to implementing zero-waste standards to promoting local producers. With experts declaring that the era of cheap food is over in the UK, the fine food industry’s long-time focus on artisan food producers stands it in good stead to meet consumers’ expectations for better quality food that is less damaging to the environment.

Megan stressed the importance of taking a holistic approach to sustainable retailing, telling Speciality Food, “There are quite a few retailers now jumping on what you might call the zero-waste bandwagon, but if you’re putting products that are not ethically sourced in gravity dispensers, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an ethical or sustainable retailer. It’s making sure that the whole picture is looked at: the product is ethically sourced, it’s sustainably delivered, and it’s sustainably packaged or offered packaging-free.”

While there is always more that can be done to benefit the environment, there are plenty of ways that retailers can start small and be part of a wider effort to change the industry for the better. “I do feel optimistic that we can do this,” Patrick said. “Let’s be honest, the transition that’s required of our farming and food systems is right at the limits – politically, technically and economically – but it has a decisive advantage: there is no alternative. We’ve got to do this, so let’s do it. And let’s collaborate in a way we’ve never collaborated before.”

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