Mike Meek, Procurement Director from allmanhall, the family run independently owned food procurement expert, looks at how the food supply chain can become more sustainable at a time when the planet is at a tipping point.
The 2020s have been termed the ‘critical decade’ for sustainable development implementation. While the topic can be overwhelming and riddled with confusing information, what is clear is that we need to collectively improve our understanding of sustainable food systems and identify actions that we can all put in place to make a difference.
Food and agricultural systems contribute significantly towards environmental damage, with much of this damage threatening to destabilise future global food and agriculture systems. Every step of the food supply chain accounts for the release of greenhouse gas emissions, accelerating climate change. Meanwhile, the conversion of land for agriculture tends to mean a further reduction of biodiversity. As we move towards planetary tipping points, the human race is presenting substantial and mounting challenges on food systems. Global warming is disrupting agricultural productivity, whilst a decline in both pollinators and increases in pests and disease are reducing crop yields. Water supplies for irrigation are also becoming more scarce, and soil fertility is deteriorating.
Climate change presents significant threats to global food security. Despite alarming possibilities, there is still time to act, with the UN warning we have ten years left to avert catastrophe and prevent irreversible planetary damage. The 2020s have been termed the ‘critical decade’ for sustainable development implementation.
What is a sustainable food system?
“A sustainable food system is a system which delivers food security and nutrition in a way that the environmental, social and economic bases of delivering food security will not be compromised in future. Food must thus be profitable throughout, provide broad benefits for society, and have a neutral or positive impact on the environment.”
- Nguyen, 2018
Currently most food policy aimed around mitigating climate change focuses on reducing CO2 emissions within transport and energy, and eating locally. Whilst policy changes in these areas is essential, it can be short-sighted often overlooking other vital emissions within the food sector, such as deforestation, fertilisers and storage. To gain better insight, we must first fully understand where and to what degree greenhouse gas emissions are released within each level of the supply chain. There are three key areas where emissions should be considered to ensure a full understanding: agricultural emissions; supply chain emissions; consumption and waste.
At the very beginning of the food supply chain is agriculture. Different foods require different quantities of land, with animal products being a key driver of land-use change over the past 50 years. Increasing populations and protein diets places strain on land-use demands. Global meat consumption has quadrupled since 1965. Livestock presents a convergence of sustainability issues. However, livestock still has a place within sustainable food systems, bringing a range of nutritional benefits and potentially aiding carbon sequestration (where grazing is managed effectively). The production of meat can also make efficient utilisation of pastures otherwise unsuitable for crop growth. However, we should remember that livestock are still increasingly being fed unsustainably on dedicated feed crops. Certain meats are also environmentally ‘worse’, than others. Globally, beef accounts for almost 60% of the planet’s agricultural land use, despite only accounting for 24% of global meat consumption and 2% of overall global calorie consumption. Beef has the most considerable land requirements and highest emissions.
Global estimates of emissions by species
- This includes emissions attributed to edible products and to other goods and services, such as draught power and wool. Beef cattle produce meat and non-edible outputs. Dairy cattle produce milk and meat as well as non-edible outputs.
While a sustainable food supply won’t be achieved by a reduction in meat consumption alone, it is certainly a good place to start and something that can be turned into a very tangible goal by consumers and those working in the foodservice sector, alike.