© Uzhursky | adobestock

When mention is made of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, most people’s first thoughts are of the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation. While these are the top sources of emissions, GHGs from agricultural livestock and crop production are a significant, “top five” contributor as well.

In fact, a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study estimated that total annual emissions from animal agriculture (production plus land-use change) were about 14.5% of all human emissions, of which beef contributed 41%; and these are projected to grow. Building from an FAO projection, the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimated that global demand for beef and other ruminant meats could grow by 88% between 2010 and 2050, causing pastureland to expand by nearly a billion acres. The resulting deforestation could increase emissions enough to put the global goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5-2°C (2.7-3.6°F) out of reach — the point which provides the world with the best chance to avoid setting off an irreversible climate and poverty chain reaction, according to a UN United in Science report.

It is the call for the world to respond to that science that earned the 17-year-old Swedish student and climate-change activist, Greta Thunberg, placement on the cover of Time Magazine as its 2019 Person of the Year. Thunberg first became known when she began skipping school on Fridays to sit at the Swedish Parliament in protest, calling for stricter environmental protection policies. The publicity and her own social media posts started a student movement, #FridaysForFuture, that gained momentum across the globe, and brought invitations for speaking at global conferences and media interviews.

Referring to such publicity in a TED Talk, Thunberg said, “If a few children can get the headlines all over the world just by not going to school for a few weeks, imagine what we could all do together if you wanted to.”

“For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear,” Thunberg said in a UN Climate Change Conference COP 25 speech. Calling on CEOs and government leaders to take real action instead of promoting misleading data, “clever accounting,” and “creative PR,” Thunberg said, “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists. I want you to unite behind the science, then I want you to take real action.”

So what can the food industry do, and what is being done?

REDUCE FOOD WASTE. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), about one-third of all the food produced in the world goes to waste. And that waste is an environmental issue as well as a social concern, as it wastes the energy and water in its production and packaging; and rotting food in landfills produces methane. If this were to stop, WWF said, about 11% of GHGs from the food system could be reduced.

With the world projected to hold nearly 10 billion people by 2050, sustainably feeding this exploding population requires meeting three great needs simultaneously, said Craig Hanson, vice president of food, forests, water, and the ocean for the World Resources Institute (WRI), a global, not-for-profit research organization. “The world will have to close a gap of 56% between the amount of food available today and that required by 2050; it must reduce agriculture’s impact on climate, ecosystems, and water; and it needs to ensure that agriculture supports inclusive economic and social development,” he said.

One of the ways WRI is working with the food industry is the development of 10x20x30 which brings together 10 of the world’s largest food retailers and providers to each engage with 20 of their priority suppliers to aim to halve rates of food loss and waste by 2030.

While the ultimate goal is listed as 2030, Hanson said, the improvements are intended to begin now. “It’s not an either/or situation,” he said. “One needs reductions in the rate of food loss and waste every year, but we also need a long-term goal or target. Targets set ambition, and ambition motivates action. Having a 2030 target is far enough ‘out there’ to give the world time to put in place the measures needed to achieve the reductions needed but it is not too far off that one can ignore doing anything today,” he said. 

The 10 companies are following an approach of “Target, Measure, Act,” Hanson said. That is: Set a food loss and waste reduction target; measure today’s food loss and waste and track over time; and take action. But a lot of food loss occurs upstream, he said, so the idea was to engage suppliers to pursue the same approach. The year 2030 is important because it is the due date for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one of which calls for halving food loss and waste rates.

Begun in September 2019, 10x20x30 is still in its initial stages, the first step of which is for the 10 to engage their respective 20. Then, he said, WRI will provide training to the 20s on measurement to set the base-year data against which to measure progress toward the 50% reduction target; identify the hotspots of food loss and waste; and develop food loss and waste reduction strategies — the action.

To assure “real action,” WRI is tracking what each set of 20 suppliers is doing. It also provides technical assistance and advice on measurement and strategies for action. Through 10x20x30, Hanson said, “We aim to have more than 200 leading companies reducing the rate of food loss and waste within their operations by 50% by 2030. The fact that a number of companies that have been focusing on food loss and waste reduction are achieving double-digit reductions already gives us hope that we will achieve this aim.”

REDUCE EMISSIONS. A segment of the population has a growing concern about animals, said Oklahoma State University Food Process Engineer Danielle Bellmer. Some are focused on animal health, some on their own health, and some on the planet’s health. But there also is a whole society that has grown up on meat production, and it is the livelihood of many. Because of this, true meat eaters are unlikely to be affected by the trend toward plant-based foods, but the health-focused segment wants an alternative protein source, often for its sustainability and environmentalism.

As explained in WRI’s Playbook, producing animal-based foods, especially meat from ruminant livestock, uses more land and emits significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than producing plant-based foods. For example, per gram of protein, beef production requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more GHG than producing plant-based proteins like beans, peas, and lentils. By 2050, 56% more crop calories will be needed to meet demand. It cannot be met by changes in food production efficiency or food loss and waste reductions alone; it will require a reduction in the demand for ruminant meat; for large numbers of people to adopt resource-efficient diets.

Thus, Bellmer said, while meat eaters won’t stop eating meat, there is an opportunity for reduction. According to a WRI article, if the ruminant meat consumption in high-consuming countries declined to 1.5 burgers per person per week (about 50% of current U.S. and 25% of European levels), it would nearly eliminate the need for additional agricultural expansion and associated deforestation — even in a world with 10 billion people.

As a result, WRI has introduced initiatives to help increase plant-based foods in consumers’ diets, such as its Cool Food Pledge, in which signatories pledge to “provide delicious food that is better for the planet” while reducing GHG emissions, and its just published “Playbook” for guiding consumers toward plant-rich foods.

To encourage this shift, all areas of the food industry need to be involved to influence consumer food choices through the fundamental drivers of food selection — taste, price, and convenience. Thus, although the Playbook was written for foodservice establishments, many of the initiatives are just as applicable to food processors by the simple replacement of the word “product” for “dishes.” Following are WRI’s “5P” action items, reapplied to food manufacturing and processing, for increasing consumer selection of plant-rich foods:

  • Product. Introduce new products; improve their appearance, flavor, and texture; increase the variety of products and the relative number compared to meat-based; introduce plant-rich alternatives to popular meat-based products; reduce the amount of meat while increasing the amount of plants; blend plants into ground or minced meat-based products.
  • Presentation. Use language on labels to emphasize the positive attributes of plant-rich products; add carbon footprint information to labels or shelf displays; add natural images on labels to prompt consumers to choose plant-rich products.
  • Placement and Promotion. Provide plant-rich food displays (e.g., for retail and/or foodservice use); offer retail samples or taste-testing events for these products; offer coupons, multibuy, buy-one-get-one-free, or cross-product promotions; publicize their taste and flavor, environmental and health benefits, and growing popularity; sell plant-rich products at a lower price than meat products; tie in product promotions with relevant national campaigns; use attractive role-models to publicize the products (including celebrities).
  • People. Encourage staff to try plant-rich products themselves; Reward staff for recipes using your plant-rich products.

Bellmer also had some recommendations for communicating corporate sustainability initiatives. This can be a challenge, because the primary interaction of the consumer with a food is its packaging at retail, which has little space to tell your story. “It’s hard to package, ‘We’re using a more renewable energy.’ So what can I claim that I can put on a package that the consumer will see in the grocery store?” Bellmer asked.

While recommending terminology such as “locally sourced ingredients,” she noted that the package itself can communicate a company’s commitment to sustainability. In fact, she said, there are huge areas of potential growth in packaging where companies can take action for change, such as its biodegradability, recyclability, use of less packaging and/or less plastic, etc.

REAL ACTION. As evidenced by the rise of a student protestor to the status of a global force, consumers do want to know that the companies from which they are buying are implementing sustainable practices and sourcing procedures. And the expectation is that the 2020s will place even greater demand on the food industry.

For example, Bellmer said, with today’s heightened focus on social responsibility, many consumers have sustainability top of mind when shopping. While the perception of organic foods as being more sustainable has been one of the reasons for the growth of this segment, the higher price of organics puts some off. “People want to feel like they’re doing something good for the environment, but they don’t want to pay for it,” she said. This can be a challenge for the food industry because margins are generally so small that any initiative needs to be cost neutral. “So industry has to find sustainable ways that don’t cost more,” Bellmer said. But, regardless of cost, the industry has to find sustainable ways.

“If the emissions have to stop, then we have to stop the emissions,” Thunberg said in the TED Talk. “Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t. We have to change…. The climate crisis has already been solved; we have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.

“The next decade will define our future,” she said. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you.”

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.