In search of food security

Sensemaking / In search of food security

Faced with mounting resource crises, can the global food industry hope to meet the appetite of a growing population? Andrew Purvis investigates.

06 Jun 2012

Faced with mounting resource crises, can the global food industry hope to meet the appetite of a growing population? Andrew Purvis investigates.

Speaking, not for the first time, to Tim Lang, scrutineer, sceptic and scourge of Big Food, I notice a distinct change of tone. “PepsiCo in the UK is on a mission to reduce its footprint by 50% over five years,” the Professor of Food Policy at City University almost enthuses. “This is astonishing. Unilever, the fourth biggest food company in the world, has made a commitment of dramatic significance, to hardwire all kinds of targets around sustainability into its core business. Five years ago, this would have been unthinkable. ”

The reason for the seachange, Lang believes, is that food and drink companies have woken up to the significance of their role. “If we want a sustainable planet by 2050, which we must have or it’s Armageddon, we have to deal with food.”

No pressure, then. And no doubting the scale of the challenge. By 2050, the population will have grown by 2.5bn (an extra India and China). Many of these will be part of the world’s emerging middle class, with appetites that impose even more burdens on scarce resources. This rapid growth means that by 2030 – less than 18 years away – we will need 50% more food and energy and 30% more water, according to the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington.

But as some consume more to the point of obesity, others are, increasingly, going without. “Hunger is on the rise again,” says Harriet Lamb, Director of the Fairtrade Foundation, pinpointing climate change as a key driver. “We did some research, and found that 80% of smallholder farmers are hit by changing weather patterns; one cooperative, in Uganda, says productivity is down 40%. Yield growth for crops has fallen to about 1% a year, well below the growth in demand as population increases. ”

It’s a concern reiterated by Professor Tim Benton, an expert on food security at Leeds University. “Soils are increasingly degraded, we’re seeing a range of climate change impacts such as rainfall variability, and we have pretty much plumbed the depths of what is genetically available through conventional plant breeding”, he says. “We’re running out of building blocks for increasing yield.”

Given this ‘perfect storm’, what can food and drink companies do to feed the world without depleting resources further? How can they address these complex challenges while remaining profitable and satisfying shareholders?

“The priority is food security,” says Andrew Kuyk, Director of Sustainability at the Food and Drink Federation, which represents the UK manufacturing industry. “If people are faced with empty shelves, there will be a real risk of civil disorder. If society is to function smoothly, food security is an absolute prerequisite for sustainable growth and sustainable development.”

In this respect, the UK will have an important role to play globally. “One area that is going to be least impacted by climate change is northern Europe”, Professor Benton says. “We are blessed in having a good climate, good soils, fairly abundant water; we can produce large amounts of food, and if the rest of the world is squeezed, there is a business opportunity. We can increase agriculture in Europe without huge cost, compared to, say, sub-Saharan Africa.” What’s needed, Kuyk says, is “a profitable, innovative, resource-efficient food industry”.

But how do your create that? The FDF has begun close to home. Its Five-fold Environmental Ambition plan, launched in 2007 [see box], sets targets for carbon, water, transport miles, packaging and waste across the UK operations of its members. It’s shown that progress – dramatic progress, even – is possible. One aim was a 20% cut in CO2 emissions by 2010. This was achieved a year early, and has now been revised to 35% by 2020.

“We’re ahead of the government’s own carbon budget,” says Kuyk, “on a trajectory that will take us to 80% by 2050.” Significantly, these reductions were achieved while increasing output. And the same trend applies to water, too. In 2010, FDF members reduced their water use by 5.3% compared to 2007 – the equivalent of 520 Olympic-size swimming pools – despite increasing production by 7.5%.

“Decoupling growth from environmental impact is the holy grail,” says Kuyk, “Filtering water for re-use in cooling systems enables you to produce more with less. That saves you money. Carbon is a very good proxy for energy consumption. If you control your carbon, you are probably using less electricity and that is a cost saving, too. ”

Processing apples in a factoryIt’s an argument that makes sense to Mike Barry, Head of Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer, and the man behind Plan A, a programme to build sustainability into every product. “Last year,” he says, “Plan A brought a £70m net benefit to M&S; we invested tens of millions in better factories, better farms, more ethical products, but we more than recouped that thanks to substantial savings and new revenue streams. This financial year the benefit’s even greater: £105m – a 50% increase. [It shows] you can deliver value to the business in the short term and prepare for a different future. It’s about logistics, efficiency, traceability and a better understanding of your value chain. ”

That is where the FDF will focus its efforts next. “By the end of 2012, we hope to deliver a generic sustainable sourcing guide for commodities”, says Andrew Kuyk. “Is the water used rain-fed? Is it irrigation? If it is, where has it come from and who are the potential [other] users of that water?” FDF members will look “up and down the supply chain”, Kuyk says, considering such issues as biodiversity, judicious and timely use of fertilisers and ‘sustainable intensification’. The idea is to optimise outputs for a given level of input at all scales of production from big to small, making food production “better-yielding, more efficient and less wasteful”.

In Harriet Lamb’s view, smallholders are the key. “There’s no doubt they can increase the productivity of their land,” she says. “With the right technological support, finance and access to markets, they can be part of the solution.”

Unilever agrees. In its Sustainable Living Plan, the company pledges that “by 2020, we will link more than 500,000 smallholder farmers and small-scale distributors into our supply chain”. Other targets include halving the impact of its greenhouse gases, waste and water, sourcing 100% of raw materials sustainably and bringing safe drinking water to 500,000 people, all in the next eight years.

“Unilever is one of the thought leaders on this,” says Mark Driscoll, Head of the One Planet Food Programme at WWF. “They take a much more holistic approach.” As yet, there is no way of measuring sustainability in the round, hence the use of simple metrics such as food miles. Professor Benton questions the wisdom of this approach, arguing that transport in particular is a red herring. Instead, companies should be focusing more on influencing dietary habits. “If the average North American family ate white meat instead of red one day a week”, he says, “it would be the equivalent of saving all the food miles in the entire system.”

Another key area to tackle is food waste, where there is huge potential for imaginative solutions. In its sandwiches, Marks & Spencer uses loaves that are 4ft long to minimise the ratio of crusts to usable slices, so less bread is thrown away. In May 2012, Agriculture Minister Jim Paice brokered a £50m deal to export British pork to China, the majority of it offal, trotters, ears and other parts of the ‘fifth quarter’ which British diners do not eat but the Chinese do.

So should Government be doing more? “Governments do bring resources to this, [even in austere times]”, says Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “We are shifting models of assistance to developing countries, towards multiple outcomes and relatively simple interventions that are much smarter. A small amount of resources can reduce post-harvest losses, for example, or provide smallholder farmers with water storage facilities.”

With the right leadership from government and industry, Andrew Kuyk is confident that the food and drink sector can be genuinely sustainable. “Today, you won’t find a label on food saying, ‘this is botulism-free’,” he says. “People just expect that. In a few years’ time, you shouldn’t have to be told that this produce has used water sustainably or that one is dolphin-friendly, because it shouldn’t be on the shelves unless it is. It’s a long journey, but that’s where we have to get to. ” Andrew Purvis has written widely about food and sustainability for The Observer, The Guardian and Green Futures

Coalition of the willing

Leading food companies are signing up to stringent sustainability targets. Sarah Lewis-Hammond reports.

When it comes to cutting, reducing and saving, voluntary targets tend to be seen as something of a cop-out. Swift and effective action on environmental concerns, runs the argument, is hardly best served by just letting people get on with it in their own time, with no comeback if they don’t make the grade.

The Food and Drink Federation, however, views things a bit differently. In 2007, they launched their Five-fold Environmental Ambition [FEA], a response to the Government’s Food Industry Sustainability Strategy, which examined where the greatest environmental gains could be made. Since then, many federation members, such as Premier Foods, Kraft and Nestlé, have enthusiastically taken part in the opt-in programme and reported year-on-year improvements.

The FEA includes five specific commitments: CO2 reduction, diverting food and packaging waste from landfill, using less packaging, lowering water usage, and minimising HGV transport miles. Members are free to sign up to all, some, or none as they see fit, and the number signed up to each changes over time. The one exception is carbon dioxide reduction, which boasts a 100% sign up rate thanks to a discount on the climate change levy for participating companies. Unsurprisingly, it’s the Ambition’s greatest success, comfortably exceeding the target well before the deadline.

Despite its voluntary status, the companies involved represent such a large proportion of food production that the FDF is confident in saying the targets met are representative of the industry overall. Andrew Kuyk, FDF’s sustainability director, says that voluntary participation is a crucial strength, as it encourages companies to take part who might be nervous of making a public commitment on their own. With targets announced by the FDF for the entire industry, and measurements taken across a number of organisations, there is no risk of being singled out as a failure. “It also acts as a means of sharing best practice on a non-competitive basis, helping to drive the performance of the sector as a whole,” Kuyk adds.

Savings on packaging waste, water use and HGV miles, haven’t been quite as dramatic as those for carbon, but they are all pointing in the right direction. This, as Kuyk points out, is no mean feat during a period of increased productivity and demand – further evidence that the much sought after goal of ‘decoupling’ is no mirage. Sarah Lewis-Hammond is a journalist specialising in environmental issues

This article is an advance extract from the up-coming Green Futures Special Edition: 'The Future of Food', which will be published later this month.

Photo credits: iStockPhoto/thinkstock: Comstock/thinkstock

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