Almost a quarter of global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions is caused by the production of food.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), agriculture, forestry and land use (AFOLU) is an important driver of climate change, accounting for almost a quarter of total GHG emissions (IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Chapter 1 page 20).
Most media attention is focused on energy and water. The core of a sustainable future is the nexus of energy, water AND food.
A recent report by Oxfam states 'The world's 10 biggest food companies emit more greenhouse gases than the whole of Scandinavia but are failing to tackle the risks of climate change adequately'.
Public awareness centers around consumer behaviour
Little wonder the sustainability of food is raising awareness in the public climate change discussion. Most of these discussions are focused around consumer behaviour. For example, vegetarians having a much smaller impact - meat eaters should consume less meat. Or getting consumers to throw away less food, or to buy the imperfectly shaped veggies and fruit as well. Of course, consumers steering demand for more sustainable products is an important driver to reduce the impacts of the industry.
Huge opportunities lay in the food supply chain
Nevertheless, there are also huge improvement potentials up and down the supply chain for the industry. It's basic decisions e.g. which feedstock to feed animals, which oil from oil crops to use, or the question which crops to grow in which region. These improvements not only lead to a more sustainable and efficient use of resources, but often deliver other benefits like saving costs for energy and production. This requires a fair amount of collaboration in the supply chain, and granular insights into where to improve.
Oxfam again: “They (food producers) need to look at the whole picture from how their ingredients are grown to how their goods are produced to cut emissions.” - Sally Copley, director of UK campaigns and policy
Tool for environmental assessment: LCA
The tool that delivers the needed insights, and allows companies to measure, quantify and improve the environmental impacts of a product, is called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). It identifies the hot spots, areas where the highest impacts occur, to enable efficient improvement and optimization.
Although the public discussion focuses on Greenhouse Gas emissions when talking about environmental impacts, it’s important to note that, looking at agriculture derived products, there are many more impacts that are just as relevant: water use, soil erosion, eutrophication, to name a few. For a holistic assessment it’s important to consider all major impacts – conveniently that’s exactly what a LCA delivers.
The Product Environmental Footprint of Food – EU initiative
Increasingly, public bodies and organizations are investing in sustainability, with LCA being the methodological basis for their efforts. The recent Product Environmental Footprinting (PEF) initiative by the European Commission, for example, is running dedicated pilot projects on feed and food, to harmonize existing methodologies and testing product labeling which allows consumers to compare and choose products more easily. Product Environmental Footprinting is based on LCA, and we already see increased demand for LCA software, data and expertise from the food sector.
Other examples are initiatives driven by sector bodies, like the European Food Sustainable Consumption and Production Roundtable and their ENVIFOOD protocol, or the Feed LCA guidelines.
The Product Environmental Footprinting Initiative
The PEF initiative by the European Commission is testing a European label to communicate the environmental impacts of a product. Ultimately, this aims to help consumers to easily compare different products based on their environmental performance, to support their buying decisions.
LCA needs data: high quality Feed & Food data
Underlying all LCA activity is data – so called life cycle inventories (LCI). PE INTERNATIONAL provides a dedicated Feed & Food database with high quality LCI data to allow companies to quickly and efficiently analyse the environmental impacts of their food and feed products, and harvest improvement potentials.
Collaboration is important
At the end of the day, collaboration will make the difference. Consumers, retailers, food producers and suppliers as well as public bodies need to collaborate and work towards the same goals to successfully drive sustainable change in the food sector along the entire supply chain.