The food system, as it is structured today, both contributes to and is imperiled by climate change. As discussed in the recently released Special Report: Climate Change and Land from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the food system — from food production through to retail — is responsible for up to a third of the global greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, every step of the global supply chain holds responsibility for reducing both the causes and the associated risks. “The report is a wake-up call for all of us,” said Earth Day Network (EDN) Director of the Food and Environment Program Michelle Pawliger. “Our food systems’ contribution to climate change is on par with the energy and transportation sectors. It has never been more clear that everyone within our food system: producers, processors, manufacturers, and consumers need to do their part to protect our invaluable resources and to ensure there is healthy, low-carbon food for all.”
With a key focus on land use, the IPCC report demonstrates that the intensification of land use over the last 50 years is contributing to climate change, volatile growing seasons, increased cereal prices, and water degradation, all of which will lead to increased food insecurity and hunger. For food processors and manufacturers, this translates to a need to reduce energy use, choose environmentally friendly supply chains and products, and reduce food waste every step of the way.
The insights from Pawliger follow the submission of an op-ed on the report by EDN President Kathleen Rogers and International Food Policy Research Institute Director General Shenggen Fan. Stating that “the food industry is an enormous driver of climate change, and our current global food system is pushing our natural world to the breaking point,” the authors said, “We must rethink how we produce our food — and quickly — to avoid the most devastating impacts of global food production, including massive deforestation, staggering biodiversity loss and accelerating climate change.” One area specifically addressed was that of animal agriculture, stating that:
- If every American reduced their meat consumption by 10% (about six ounces per week), it would save about 7.8 trillion gallons of water and 49 billion pounds of carbon dioxide every year.
- Nearly 1/3 of all food produced globally ends up in landfills; with $1 trillion worth of food thrown away every year.
“If food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest carbon emitter after the U.S. and China,” the authors said.
MAKING CHANGES. A key statement by IPCC in Section B6.2 of the report notes that “Diversification in the food system (e.g., implementation of integrated production systems, broad-based genetic resources, and diets) can reduce risks from climate change.”
What does this mean to food processors? “Just as farmers can hedge against risks of climate change by diversifying their farms, processors can do the same,” said Pamela McElwee, a U.S. co-author of the report and Rutgers associate professor. We need new and innovative ways to process and package foods, particularly fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, dairy, and egg products; and to store and transport new varieties and crops that farmers may experiment with. “There is a great need for new technologies to inactivate pathogenic, spoilage microorganisms and enzymes with little or no effects on the nutritional and sensory quality of foods,” she said. “These will be very much needed as temperatures increase.”
The IPCC also noted that balanced diets, with plant-based food and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable, and low-GHG emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health. Additionally, technical options (such as improved harvesting techniques, on-farm storage, infrastructure, transport, packaging, retail, and education) can reduce food loss and waste across the supply chain. IPCC also makes recommendations for the near-term including “actions to build individual and institutional capacity, accelerate knowledge transfer, enhance technology transfer and deployment, enable financial mechanisms, implement early warning systems, undertake risk management and address gaps in implementation and upscaling.”
As such, Pawliger said, “Food processors and manufacturers have a unique opportunity to be a part of fixing our food systems and combating climate change.” With the report noting that improved food processing and retailing could benefit 500 million people worldwide through improved efficiency and sustainable processing practices, companies must stand out as leaders if the results needed to mitigate climate change are to be seen. “To lead, food processors and manufacturers should adopt emission-accounting tools, use eco-innovation practices, and support efforts to educate consumers through sustainability labeling practices,” she said.
While it focuses accelerated knowledge transfer and enhanced technologies on food production, these actions also relate to food processing and manufacturing, Pawliger said. “Leaders in these fields should be raising industry-wide awareness of sustainable practices, supporting policies that incentivize sustainable products, and help share advances in climate-friendly processing technologies.”
Combined food loss and waste amounts to a third of global food production, McElwee said, and food processors and manufacturers can play a key role in reducing that through research and investment for shelf life, processing, packaging, cold storage, and adoption of harvest and post-harvest technologies that minimize food waste. Additionally, she said, “Engaging with consumers to find ways to better help them avoid food waste should be a high priority for all processors, manufacturers, and retailers.”
The IPCC report acknowledges that co-benefits and trade-offs when designing land and food policies can overcome barriers to implementation. Thus, the panel recommends “strengthened multilevel, hybrid and cross-sectoral governance, as well as policies developed and adopted in an iterative, coherent, adaptive, and flexible manner” to maximize co-benefits and minimize trade-offs. This is particularly essential when it is considered that land management decisions are made from farm level to national scales, and both climate and land policies often range across multiple sectors, departments and agencies.
PLANT-BASED FOODS. A key area of focus for Pawliger, Rogers, and Fan was that of plant-based foods. (See The Impossible Burger, page 16 for a current success story in this area.)
Because food waste and animal agriculture are the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases within the agriculture sector, food processors and manufacturers should work to reduce waste and incorporate more low-carbon, plant-based foods into their products, Pawliger said. Citing the Plant Based Food Association, she said the market value of these foods is $4.5 billion and has grown significantly more than the total U.S. retail food market (11% compared to 2%), which demonstrates the viability of increasing these options into consumer products.
Recommendations along these same lines from Rogers and Fan include:
- The U.S. and other developed countries must encourage food companies to produce more sustainable food, including more plant-based options, and educate consumers and retailers about healthy and sustainable diets.
- Developed countries also should support and incentivize emerging innovative technologies in plant-based foods, and carbon-neutral or low-carbon meat production.
While a number of recommendations were proposed by the IPCC as well as Pawliger, Rogers, and Fan, “there is no one silver-bullet solution,” Pawliger said. Policies are needed that incent more sustainable practices at every level of the supply chain and in consumers’ homes, she said. “The window to act is closing, but as the report shows, if we all take big actions today, we can curb climate change.”
The food industry will face increased risks under future climate scenarios, McElwee said. “They need to be ready for these risks by proactively seeking out new knowledge and technologies rather than waiting until higher temperature thresholds are hit, and explore new risk management options, like insurance and other schemes, to help them prepare.”