Sustainability is a growing concern in the food industry. A study published in the New Scientist showed the food industry lagging in environmental performance compared to all other industries studied. This is partly because the industry plays a significant role in environmental impact. For example, the food supply is responsible for about 20-30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, there remains a significant challenge ahead for the food industry to be more sustainable. To help tackle this challenge, leaders are implementing sustainability initiatives within their companies as well as upstream and downstream of the companies. This life cycle approach is most effective.
The life cycle of food products includes agriculture, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, use and disposal. Agricultural production generally is the largest contributor to the life cycle impact of food, typically greater than 50 percent of the environmental footprint. In general, food processing is the next most significant contributor to impacts in the supply chain. Packaging impacts tend to be very limited compared to other components of the supply chain, but can be up to 20 percent due to energy needed to produce the package or when packaging light-weight products. Consumer transport to purchase food can be a significant impact, and consumer use of the food can also contribute to the life cycle impact.
Agriculture is the largest source of environmental impact from food and beverage products. Agricultural production is estimated to be responsible about one-third of the human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and about half of the food supply’s GHG emissions. It is estimated in the U.S. that 70 percent of river and stream pollution is caused by agriculture from chemicals, silt, and animal waste. Further, agriculture is the largest user of water worldwide, and only 45 percent of the irrigation water is effectively used.
To reduce the impact of agricultural production, focusing on responsible methods is important. When animal-based products are used, it’s best to find sources with less-intensive feeding and raising practices. It is estimated that 70 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are fed to farm animals to artificially promote growth and counteract unhealthy living conditions. As a result, companies should support and procure animal products raised humanely and with less-intensity. For example, Del Monte Meat Co., Inc. provides meat products produced with strict humane standards and raised on sustainable farms and ranches.
Consolidation of farms has led to a concentration of wealth, reductions in rural population, loss of infrastructure in farming communities and reduction of small farms, providing for more nutritionally dense foods and using more environmentally preferable production methods. However, fair prices need to be offered to small-scale producers to prevent further consolidation. To provide fair markets and wages, greater choice, and more environmentally preferable options, diversification of sourcing from growers and suppliers should be practiced. Some companies have chosen to work with programs like Fairtrade to support this effort.
Food processing is typically the second largest source of environmental impact from food and beverage products and is generally the area the food industry has focused its sustainability efforts on to date. Food processing constitutes 25 percent of all water consumption worldwide and 50-80 percent of all water used in industrial countries. Further, it is estimated that 7 percent of the food supply is wasted at the point of processing.
Processing food with minimal inputs including water, raw materials and energy will reduce the total impact of food processing. In addition, processors should aim toward using renewable energy or process wastes to produce energy.
Packaging and Disposal
Packaging helps deliver safe food and has had limited contribution to the total environmental impact of food. However, it has been found that more than 95 percent of the environmental impact of packaging is from the production of the package. The remaining 5 percent is in the package disposal. Thus, efforts for packaging should focus on reducing material use and using recycled content. For example, Kellogg Co. uses recyclable cartons with 100 percent recycled content and at least 35 percent post-consumer material in its cereal boxes, reducing total energy needs to produce the package.
Distribution and Use
The contribution of distribution and use on food’s environmental impact varies widely. Key considerations are distance and mode of transport of the food product and the amount of energy needed to store and prepare the food for consumption. Distribution should be as efficient as possible. Air transit of food is the least efficient distribution option, and alternatives should be found. For example, General Mills sends 80 percent of its shipments to the U.K. by sea, typcally the least energy-intensive distrubution option. Distrubution systems should also leverage new technologies and redesign distrubution channels to find further efficiencies. For example, Nestle utilized dual-temperature vehicles to reduce transportion by 7 percent in its Argentina operations.
Providing safe and nutritious food remains a leading priority of the food industry. These issues overlap with the life cycle considerations outlined above. For example, food safety is linked to agricultural practices, with factory farming and high-speed processing of animal products associated with foodborne pathogens.
Practicing such sustainable practices has proven benefits. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has found businesses that incorporate sustainable practices have had greater financial success with lower production costs, improved product function and quality, increased market share, improved environmental performance, better relationships with stakeholders, and lower risks. Further, a recent study found that companies committed to sustainability financially outperformed industry averages by 15 percent over the six months from May through November 2008—a key point during the recent economic downturn. Finally, consumer interest in sustainability is growing. Consumer interest in sustainable products grew from around 50 percent in 2007 to 70 percent in 2010. As a result, a life cycle approach to sustainability may be the best way to protect a company's value as well as the future generation’s food supply.