Those inside and outside of the food industry know that change is needed – and fast. From inefficient production to wasteful supply chains and plastic packaging, unsustainable practices remain widespread today and a radical shift will be required within the next decade if the world is to mitigate the worst effects of dietary habits on human and planetary health.
Global efforts to drive sustainability in food production and consumption will prove crucial to achieving the goals set out under the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, and responsible consumption and production. Reaching those targets would save an estimated 9 million people from starvation every year, contribute towards reversing climate change, and help keep our planet healthy.
Climate change and food security are inextricably linked, and the more unsustainable food production practices continue, then the more at-risk billions of people will be from not having their most basic dietary needs met. Food companies that wish to thrive and combat these challenges will need to lead from the front in promoting sustainable switches.
In a shifting consumer environment in which demand for transparency and viable production practices will only continue to rise, this means adopting ‘360-degree green’ practices that cover food companies’ production from source to sale. That will only be possible by achieving the following three goals.
1) Adopt Ethical Products
The value of a sustainable supply chain is limited unless it is delivering sustainable goods. That means adopting plant-based alternatives to animal-derived products, using raw materials available in the region, and minimal processing methods as much as possible. Animal agriculture is proven to contribute to higher levels of pollution and environmental damage than other foods which are made exclusively from plants. It also means eliminating animal, chemical, and highly processed additives that make food longer-lasting or more cost-effective, but which are often not good for the health of humans nor the planet.
Today, a major rise in veganism and vegetarianism, as well as growing willingness among meat-eaters to limit their animal consumption, has made the meat alternative market incredibly lucrative. Both veganism and so-called ‘flexitarianism’ – whereby consumers avoid meat for a certain proportion of their meals – are trends that will only grow as people increasingly prioritize sustainability. In fact, according to a recent Euromonitor report, 42% of global consumers identify as flexitarians.
Food Tech startups are already taking advantage of these trends and forging lucrative partnerships with major retailers. In 2019, Burger King teamed up with California-based Impossible Foods to release the Impossible Whopper to much fanfare. While, in December 2020, Unilever announced a partnership in Latin America and China between its Vegetarian Butcher brand and Burger King. That came just two years after Unilever purchased the Vegetarian Butcher – which began life as a Food Tech startup in the Netherlands.
In February 2021, Beyond Meat – another California-based Food Tech outfit – announced a three-year partnership with the likes of PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and KFC, highlighting the growing popularity of such products as well as the scalability that they now enjoy. That has seen increasing interest from investors, with California-based Eat Just recently announcing that it had raised $200 million in a new round of investment.
2) Implement Production and Distribution Sustainability
For a food company to be able to claim truly green credentials, it must guarantee that its supply chain is sustainable. According to the Sustainable Supply Chain Foundation, that means “integrating environmentally and financially viable practices into the complete supply chain lifecycle,” including product design and development, material selection, manufacturing, packaging, transportation, warehousing, distribution, consumption, return, and disposal.
This challenge is something already being taken seriously by some of the major players in global food production, with Swiss conglomerate Nestlé producing transparency reports on more than a dozen of its key raw materials, as part of a general commitment to guarantee sustainability in its supply chains. Meanwhile, Unilever has emerged as a leader in terms of sustainability. By 2020, the company had achieved 62% sustainability for its agricultural raw materials – a figure way short of its target of 100%, but which still places it at the vanguard of the sustainability movement.
With a growing number of food companies taking the lead on sustainability, those who neglect it entirely risk getting left behind. What’s more, the dividends for implementing sustainable supply chains go beyond simply boosting the company’s brand, because it can actually reduce its costs. While implementing energy efficiency and sourcing local materials may demand additional initial investment and legwork, in the long-term, it can bring major savings and greater stability to supply chains.
3) Ditch Chemical-Based Packaging
While the food itself is often seen as the most important aspect to upgrade and improve, packaging must not be overlooked. Plastics remain widespread, with this type of packaging making up one-quarter of waste sent to landfills in the United States. This presents two problems, with the plastic difficult to break down and the inks and dyes from such packaging seeping into soil and groundwater.
In recent years, growing awareness of the need to move beyond plastic has been witnessed, with consumer demand increasing for sustainable alternatives and many companies taking on the challenge of radically reducing their plastic usage. However, public pressure for limiting plastic usage may not be enough, and concrete government action and legislative changes are needed.
This is starting to happen, with efforts to ditch plastics and other chemical-based packaging being made all the easier by a growing field of sustainable packaging options, including biodegradable plastic alternatives. This includes packaging made from the likes of corn starch, olive pits, sunflower seeds, organic fish waste and algae, and mushrooms, in turn offering business the opportunity to eliminate petroleum- and other chemical-based products from their goods.
Get Ahead Of The Green Curve
The confluence of pressing needs, changing consumer demand, and rapidly developing technology means that it is becoming increasingly untenable for food companies to continue along unsustainable pathways. From the raw materials used, to the way that goods are transported and presented for sale, opportunities abound to choose greener alternatives.
With the pandemic laying bare the necessity for global climate action as Covid-19 lockdowns proved to have little impact on reducing emissions, consumers are waking up to the crisis that lays ahead if drastic changes aren’t made. Food companies stand to play a major role in helping the world hit sustainability targets, but to be serious about it, they must embrace a 360° green philosophy, which incorporates product, production, and packaging.
While this doesn’t mean doing everything in a perfectly sustainable way from the get-go, it does mean taking solid steps towards making the whole production process, from product sourcing to packaging, better for the planet. Amidst growing consumer demand for sustainability, those that fail to do so risk being left behind.
Lead image courtesy of Live Green Co.