What does a sustainable future look like? Some might argue in favor of financial growth and others of climate-friendly commitments. The truth is that change towards these goals needs to start on far more basic yet crucial levels, the ones that affect our lives daily. The food that ends up on our plate (and very often in our bin) has gone through distribution, process, and production. Every step of this chain is a candidate for environmental profound change as long as governments and individuals keep an open mind to the suggestions and efforts made by experts and organizations. Associations are there to promote these suggestions, offer innovative solutions and raise awareness among the public.
The fate of agriculture and, consequently, food systems, cannot be left to chance; planning cannot be short-sighted. The pandemic and certain supply chain disruptions exposed the flaws of the current system; responsible for one third of global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, consumption of large amounts of natural resources such as land and water, biodiversity loss and negative health impacts (due to nutrition problems), unfair economic allocations and livelihoods for all actors, in particular for farmers. The very industry that feeds the planet seems to be largely responsible for its slow demise.
In order for the system to be resilient to crises such as the one we have recently experienced – and not only, it needs to become more sustainable. The ‘Building Back Better’ concept is trying to transform what is now a problem into a solution. A sustainable food system implies redesigning the system model from a linear to a circular one. Transitioning to a circular economy means moving towards a food system that strengthens natural reserves and allows nature to breathe.
“For the food chain to be sustainable it must ensure the land it uses remains productive to meet the demands of future generations, farmer livelihoods are protected, soil is healthy, biodiversity and our natural ecosystems are able to thrive, the climate emergency is averted, food businesses are profitable and consumers are able to access and afford a healthy diet,” says Will Surman, spokesperson for FoodDrinkEurope.
“The fate of agriculture and, consequently, food systems, cannot be left to chance; planning cannot be short-sighted.”
Not an easy task if undertaken individually or even nationally. Industries and countries are strongly interconnected over food; it penetrates and affects policy makers, businesses, and homes, so international collaboration and co-decision are crucial. The work starts locally, where local and regional authorities, NGOs and associations identify the needs of the area and can monitor better the necessary changes. Collaboration and follow up with their international counterparts will lead to a more methodical global advancement.
FoodDrinkEurope coordinates the work of more than 700 manufacturing experts all across the food chain “that enable the food and drink industry to make products that are not only safe and delicious, but also contribute to a greener planet, healthier living and a thriving economy”. Surman continues: “We have an important strategic role given we sit at the center of the wider food chain. We buy 70% of all European farm produce and sell our products to consumers all around the world. We therefore work with farmers to ensure sustainable production and consumers to ensure sustainable consumption – while we also make sure our manufacturing process is sustainable.”
Universal Actions in Play
Governments got the message loud and clear and there are noteworthy attempts of dealing with this. The Build Back Better Agriculture Act, proposed by Biden in the United States, aims to stimulate the food chain with investment and support for every link of the chain, from production to consumption. The European Union, with its ambitious Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy, aims to make food systems fair, healthy, and environmentally friendly through regulatory and non-regulatory initiatives.
The United Nations is ever-present to put pressure on these and other powerful governments using the power of meetings: the Climate Change Conference (COP26) organized in the UK last year introduced the Policy Action Agenda, which describes ways and actions that countries can take to make food and agriculture more sustainable through a smooth rural transition. Putting the squeeze on governments on an international scale as well, organizations and associations could not fall behind. The World Food Forum is a project that promotes a global permanent platform made of national and international policy makers and the science, research, business, and finance communities in order to share experiences and promote research and innovation in the domains of food and nutrition, food safety, sustainability and life sciences.
THE SUSTAINABLE FOOD CHAIN THROUGH THE ASSOCIATIONS & MEETINGS LENS
The journey starts with agriculture and the production of the primary farming goods. A first natural response to the problem is international collaboration of all stakeholders to identify common challenges and seek knowledge exchange and potential solutions. SAI Platform is a non-profit network of over 150 members worldwide with a mission to advance sustainable agricultural practices through pre-competitive collaboration. Global and local projects organized by the members help bring sustainable ideas from the biggest to the smallest farms globally.
In our times, sustainability immediately implies use of advanced innovative technology. Major technology innovations in the space have focused around areas such as indoor vertical farming, automation and robotics, livestock technology, modern greenhouse practices, precision agriculture and artificial intelligence, and blockchain. Vertical farms use up to 70% less water than traditional farms, drones and seeding robots are put to work, precision agriculture controls every variable of crop farming – these are just some examples of what innovation can do. Croplife Europe represents 22 company members and 32 national associations in the area of digital and precision farming, plant biotech innovation and biopesticides, who champion the use of innovation and technology.
But persuading farmers to adopt such practices is often a challenge in itself. The International Food Policy Research Institute argues on their site that “the incentives-adoption-outcome chain” is a solution for this. The right incentives for farmers can lead to adoption of innovative practices which then create impactful change. Incentives that promote economic benefits are a good start with short-term results; the actual sustainable outcome is motivation enough to farmers for long-term adoption of more modern practices.
However, not everything can be sacrificed in the altar of technology. Farmers need to be aware of how they apply cleanliness procedures and handle new pesticides or animal nutrition, for example, and keep in mind that the ultimate goal is food safety. Nanotechnological innovations in the food and agriculture include encapsulated ingredients that provide protection of sensitive bioactives (e.g., omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins) and increased nutrient delivery. Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE) is an independent organization working to ensure that consumers’ health and concerns stay at the core of EU food legislation, dealing with safety issues already from the production stage. The organization follows several food-related areas, among which the activities of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the legislation on Additives, Pesticides andNatural flavoring.
In the next step of the chain, food produce is processed, packaged, and distributed. This part is where the environmental alarm strikes red. The energy it takes to heat, cool, and light a large food warehouse or distribution center is enormous – even more for cold and frozen storage than dry goods. Not to mention the great distances some products travel before they reach their destination, adding even more to the carbon footprint of the industry.
The solutions already exist for processing, storage, and transportation. Solar-powered freezers, LED lighting and pulsed electric field (PEF) used for sterilization purposes are some of the emerging ways to safely store products. High Pressure Processing (HPP) is another advanced technology that utilizes pressure, instead of heat or chemicals, to extend the shelf life of food products by two to four times while retaining its nutritional quality. When transporting the goods, the changes needed are more evident. Use of existing transportation networks and lowering the weight of the freight transported or moving away from the road network and towards water streams or railways are new ways of handling the problem.
The Sustainable Food Processing group at ETH university in Zurich, Switzerland, has a lot to teach both the young students and the associations involved in the matter. Through research the group is looking into “innovative raw materials from algae and insects are utilized within urban farming and processing concepts to enable new ways of sustainable food supply”, as mentioned on their webpage. The Food Processing Suppliers Association (FPSA) also focuses on sustainability and the highest degree of food safety; with trade shows for its members, it promotes education and industry growth in the right direction.
Food Consumption & Waste
The final link to the chain is perhaps the most challenging one as it requires change in mentality from the entire population. Sustainable consumption comes as a result of conscious purchases of eco-friendly goods which contribute to the local economy and apply social responsibility. Best way to achieve this is the adoption of healthy and sustainable diets, being mindful of how our food was produced and where it comes from. Plant-based local products have an important role in this as well as considering a wider range of ingredients for human nutrition.
Increasing transparency and traceability along the food chain is a way to allow customers to identify sustainably produced food. A difficulty still lies in informing the public of the need for this change, especially the older generations where habits are harder to change. Associations can actively help spread the message; Food Wave is international community of young people who are active across 17 countries worldwide aiming to create awareness of sustainable consumption and have an influential voice in institutional decisions.
A tricky final step after consumption is food waste. Tackling this, the World Biogas Association (WBA), in partnership with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group Food, Water and Waste Programme, has published a landmark report on urban food waste, its environmental impact, and the benefits of separately collecting it, treating it and recycling it through anaerobic digestion. The report also features a how-to section to assist municipalities wishing to improve their food waste management.
More and more, it becomes evident that citizens are increasingly part of the transition process of food systems to more sustainable patterns, and there is an escalating trend to include citizens’ representatives in food systems’ governance structures. Association conferences help raise awareness among the public and form educated opinions so that these progressive sustainability-conscious voices are heard.
This article is graciously sponsored by Business Events Scotland, whose values align with the Building Back Better concept.