Unchain the supply chain

Contributing up to 29% of global emissions, the food industry is one of the most polluting. How can we curb this?

by Marc Buckley

Food 21 October 2019

If humankind wants a chance to dismantle its own climatic atomic bomb, it needs to seriously address the matter of food: meaning what, where, and most of all, how it is produced. To many, it may not be clear why reforming our Food System is so crucial to avert climate change. But there are lots of good reasons to do so since food is a pivotal issue. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the United Nations reinforce this idea, as all of them are inescapably linked to the Agriculture, Food, and Beverage industries. So it is helpful to look at the SDG’s and particularly at their newly integrated framework or systems view called the wedding cake, as devised by Johan Rockström, Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Chairman of the EAT Advisory Board.  

The true cost of food

Today, the world starting to realize that the way to solve the climate crisis is through food. There is, in general, a greater awareness, more debate, and more action, which have been and are growing exponentially since the UN Paris Agreement in 2015. All of this is the consequence of a paradigm shift: we started abandoning the silo mentality, embracing complexity and understanding that when we think about systems, our hypotheses need to include the pivotal role of food.

Systems thinking brings out the real costs and impact of all things. Since the Seventies, we have been led to believe that those responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and climate change were the Automotive, Oil, Coal, and Gas industries. False. They are part of the problem but not the primary cause. To find it, we have to look at the Agriculture, Food, and Beverage industries. They are the greatest strain on natural resources and the health and wellbeing of everyone (and everything) on Earth. The majority of the food we grow first goes to feed cars, then to animals, and last (but by no means least) humanity. Our food is creating a pandemic of obesity, diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease, and other health problems. 

The fossil fuels and refrigerants we use to produce and transport these products are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases – more so than the Oil, Coal, and Gas industries combined – and are keeping these industries in business. The packaging for food is causing biodiversity loss in our oceans and contamination on land. Globally, 30% of all food produced is wasted or thrown away before it is consumed. If we dispose of this waste by burying it in landfills, it comes back to bite us as methane, which is seventy times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Even if this waste is burned or dumped into the water, the long-term results are not much better.

A report from Truecost and KPMG showed that the total environmental costs and impact – as a percentage of EBITDA (a measure of a company’s overall financial performance and is used as an alternative to simple earnings or net income) – is entirely out of balance and not sustainable on a planet of finite resources. The Agriculture, Food, and Beverage industries show a 224% imbalance for total environmental cost impact as a percentage of EBITDA.

Business as usual for 12,000 years

This figure is staggering, but not surprising for those who have more than a vague idea of how these companies operate. The problem is that this market is markedly concentrated, and we still rely on just a few companies to provide our food. We need to empower ourselves with the know-how to resiliently fulfill our basic physiological and safety needs without leaving it up to governments and a few major food producers to feed humanity. The Agriculture, Food, and Beverages sector is the oldest and longest running economy, at 12,000 years old. It is also the most successful, but in such a long time, it has only witnessed four major innovations besides automation and mechanization. 

The entire industry is stuck in the Dark Ages or the Industrial Age, it is the least digitized industry in the world. That is because oligopolistic players dominating the industry and are not so eager to welcome this change. Big Capital has tried to hijack the revolution and spin things for their benefit and in the long term it always comes back to bite them in their A$$ET$, as they are being disrupted and losing billions of dollars in court battles, along with losing face and social respect of their customers: see Volkswagen, Bayer and Monsanto, to name just a few examples. Impossible Foods, Beyond Meats, and Memphis Meats are all examples of meat alternatives disrupting the Meat industry. In the dairy industry, plant-based alternatives to milk, from companies such as Suja, Koia and Malk, are bringing disruption. These are trillion-dollar industries that are experiencing major transformations and where incumbent companies see their hegemony endangered. 

Making money by saving the planet

Yet, by acting wisely, Food industry companies would serve their own interests too, economically speaking. In fact, Global Food Reform projects are also the most lucrative, and guarantee short term and long term returns. Numbers never lie. Humanity needs to eat multiple times every day, and I do not see this changing. The global Agriculture, Food, and Beverage industry is a $13 trillion market with a shadow economy of $3 trillion. In order to achieve the SDG’s by 2030, we need to invest $94 trillion in Sustainable Development, which is more than $6 trillion a year, had we started in 2015. Now, having broken these unfathomable sums down, food and nutrition are at the heart of all the SDG’s and for every one dollar invested, there is a $16 return. Data shows that embracing the Global Goals could generate $12 trillion of New Business Value a year, that is $6 trillion more than we need per year to reach all of the 17 goals. This is equivalent to 10% of the global GDP forecast by 2030. 

A Food System Reform, could address health inequalities as well, since more than 820 million people still lack sufficient food, and many more consume either low-quality diets or too much food. Unhealthy diets now pose a greater risk to morbidity and mortality than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug, and tobacco use combined. There is substantial scientific evidence that links diet with human health and environmental sustainability. Yet, the lack of globally-agreed scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production has hindered large-scale and coordinated efforts to transform the global food system. The joint Lancet-EAT Commission is working on it: it convened 37 leading scientists from 16 countries in various disciplines including human health, agriculture, political sciences, and environmental sustainability to develop global scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production. It is the first attempt to set universal scientific targets for the food system that apply to all people and the planet. The Commission focuses on two “end-points” of the global food system: final consumption (healthy diets) and production (sustainable food production). Scientists acknowledged that food systems have environmental impacts along the entire supply chain, from production to processing and retail, and furthermore reach beyond human and environmental health by also affecting society, culture, economy, and animal health and welfare.

Bring food home

A global food reform implies a cultural reform, too. For centuries, living and working were built around food but now the latter has moved outside cities and towns into industrial parks, massive greenhouses, and farmlands. This decoupling of agriculture, food, and beverage production began occurring at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Given this, we have to reconsider not only the way we produce food, but also bring the production back to where we live and work. Keeping it far away from where we are is an inefficient model: it has to be brought back into our communities, schools, businesses, homes, and apartments where we spend our time living. Today, this can be done in many ways, such as with home gardens, vertical farm home fridges, sprouting, dehydration, preserving, juicing, blending, jerking, baking, ambient water harvesting, and flash freezing. We need to use land and space more efficiently, going vertical, and using closed-loop and circular economy systems.

But, as said, the way we produce is also important – today’s methods are highly inefficient, and we are using more resources than we have: those required to sustain one human life throughout a normal life expectancy in 2019 is 1.7 global hectares, meaning the ecological footprint and biocapacity. Currently, we are using 2.87 global hectares per person, which represents a deficit of 1.17 global hectares per person. If we continue with business as usual, human demand on the Earth’s ecosystems is projected to exceed what nature can regenerate by approximately 75% by 2020. This is the big problem, not the increase in the world’s population. We already have all the technology we need to nourish every human being. We just have to use it. 

The rise of Cleantech

It is time to get up to date with technology and processing by changing the way we produce, doing it without greenhouse gas emissions, food waste, packaging waste, and finite resource waste by using exponential and innovative technologies. Clean technology (Cleantech) has brought us some hope in this sense. Clean technology is any process, product, or service that reduces negative environmental impacts through significant energy efficiency improvements, the sustainable use of resources, or environmental protection activities. It includes a broad range of recycling technologies, renewable energy (wind energy, solar energy, hydropower, etc.), green transportation, electric motors, green chemistry, and DLT (distributed ledger technology) for food traceability. Then there are the technologies which enable higher efficiency in producing, cooking and preserving food, like Ultraviolet Light for processing, Greywater Recycling, Pulsed Electrical Field food preservation, Food Waste Prevention technologies, and biodegradable or fully recyclable packaging. 

The Food System’s revolution has already begun, with the Stockholm’s EAT Forum, the World’s leading science-based platform dedicated to transforming our global food system through sound science, impatient disruption, and novel partnerships. But where are the governments? They have to play a role in innovation, (as they always do) and that role has to be recognized, as some economists such as Mariana Mazzucato have pointed out (I suggest reading her book The Value of Everything). She emphasizes how important it is to build symbiotic partnerships that can create a form of growth that is more innovation-led, inclusive, and sustainable. That means reforming Capitalism as well.

We are two minutes before midnight: that’s what the Atomic Society’s Doomsday clock tells us. This can sound pretty cold when we hear it, but in fact, humanity’s time on Earth has been one of exponential growth. If you look at our planet’s creation until now and place it in a 24-hour time model, human beings have been here for two seconds. However, our impact has grown so fast, which has awakened the Anthropocene. We can use this negative exponential growth for good, and apply the innovations and technologies we have, inventing new ones along the way. We still have some time left, but need to act now.