Hungry for change

26th November 2021

Mohammed Mohamoud examines the impacts of food and drink systems on the environment

The private sector will have a significant part to play if the UK is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Investment and business model transformations are key and, promisingly, we are beginning to see this across industries such as energy and transport.

Conversations around the food and drinks sector have been comparatively muted, but it isn’t hard to see why. It’s relatively easy to wrap our heads around the damage that fossil fuels inflict on the climate, or the air pollution emitted by cars. The issues around food and drink are more sophisticated and nuanced.

Food and drink systems are some of the UK’s most carbon-intensive activities, often involving extensive global supply chains with multiple moving cogs. Waste charity WRAP’s recent report UK Food System GHG Emissions estimates that greenhouse gas emissions linked to the UK’s food and drink production and consumption are around 158Mt CO2e – equivalent to 35% of UK territorial emissions. That is a significant proportion, and one that starts to bring home the magnitude of the problems around our current food systems.

The problems in food systems

One of the main areas of concern within food and drinks systems is the negative environmental impact of agriculture. Standard agricultural practices have had devastating impacts, contributing to soil erosion, deforestation and climate change; mass monoculture productions reduce biodiversity and soil quality, while chemical fertilisers and tilling can lead to serious soil degradation. The depletion of natural resources through intensive agriculture has causes arable soils to lose 40%–60% of their organic matter, and left more than 2m hectares of soil at risk of erosion. This comes with sizeable economic costs: a report by the Sustainable Food Trust estimates that the loss of soil carbon across the UK costs us £3.21bn each year.

How business can help

It isn’t all doom and gloom. Andrew Griffiths, head of value chain sustainability for Nestlé UK and Ireland, recognises the complexity of value chains and where emissions can be reduced. Nestlé is the world’s largest food and drinks company and Andrew has more than 20 years at the company in both operational and engineering roles.

“We have seen a significant upturn in terms of action and understanding,” he says. “I think there’s a recognition not only that the agri-food sector has a significant impact on the environment, both from a climate and from a nature perspective, but also that food systems are critically dependent on nature and climate. So, if we don’t take action, it creates real challenges in terms of the resiliency of our food systems.”

Nestlé’s Generation Regeneration initiative came in the lead-up to the UN Food Systems Summit, held in New York in September 2021. The initiative aims to protect and restore the environment, improve farmer livelihoods and enhance farming communities’ wellbeing.

Nestlé has recognised that agricultural supply is a major area of concern. “You look at the vast majority of food companies and somewhere between 70%–95% of their carbon footprint will sit in their agricultural supply, typically,” says Griffiths. In response, the company has proposed a solution to advance farming practices via regenerative agriculture. This is a holistic approach that conserves and restores farmland and ecosystems to deliver sustainable agriculture. Its techniques range from irrigation technology that preserves precious freshwater, to minimum tillage to promote soil’s quality and capacity to store carbon.

What about the future?

Griffiths highlights four key actions that will help address sustainability in the food system:

  1. Incentivising and supporting the transition towards regenerative agricultural practices
  2. Addressing food loss and waste
  3. Rebalancing our diets so they include less meat and dairy
  4. Genuine collaborative action.

He says we need to “start looking at farmers as genuine stewards of our landscapes – enabling a real transformation of nature and producing not only food but also enhanced water quality, increased water availability, increased habitat and biodiversity, a whole raft of different outcomes. That’s the transition I want to see”.

Mohammed Mohamoud, GradIEMA is an IEMA Futures member and a sustainability consultant at CGI.

Image credit | iStock


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