understand the issues: Food & Drinks

Sector

Overview

The food and drink sector is enormous and consequently includes a huge number of ethical and sustainable issues in its production, packaging, consumption and waste.

Being informed is the first step to being able to make more ethical and sustainable choices and there are some suppliers and certification bodies in the sector working hard to change things for the better.

issue

WASTE

A third of the food produced for human consumption in the world is wasted and this is a particular issue in developed nations. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) each year consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-saharan Africa. It equates to about 100kg of waste per person per year across Europe and North America. The issue is not just about the environmental impact of producing the food in the first place, but food waste sent to landfill produces methane, a far more noxious greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The UK charity WRAP has estimated that 70% of the UKs food waste happens in the home. Whilst there has been some progress in reducing food waste in the UK (it has dropped approximately 18% between 2007 – 2015) the UN’s sustainable development goal is to halve the amount of food waste per person each year in order to meet global targets on greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

SOLUTION

BETTER SHOPPING AND EATING HABITS

The ease with which we can buy a seemingly never-ending supply of food and drink, along with a poor understanding of how food is produced, means mindless waste has crept into people’s daily lives and habits. As modern lives have become busier convenience is prized above sustainability and health. Being able to see how food is produced and the impact it has on the environment is a good first step. Visit a local farm or watch some documentaries on the issue such as Wasted or Sustainable. Sign up to websites such Love Food Hate Waste or download apps such as No Waste or Olio which help track the food in your home and share food with neighbours.

If you prefer to do it the low-tech way, spend at least an hour each month taking a stocktake of the food already in your house, use-by dates and plan how you will use most of it over the following month. Always ask neighbours and friends if they would like any surplus you might have

FOR EXAMPLE

RUBIES IN THE RUBBLE

Jenny Dawson, the founder of Rubies in the Rubble, had been making preserves long before she witnessed first-hand the alarming amount of perfectly edible fresh food discarded from Covent Garden market. All the jams, preserves and pickles produced by Rubies in the Rubble are now almost entirely made from fruit and vegetables deemed unsellable. Using overripe tomatoes in her ketchup means she has also been able to reduce the amount of water and refined sugar needed as well.

action

For individuals

There are a range of ways to reduce food waste in the home. REAL’s top five are:

  •       Use a food diary to track just how much food is thrown away in your household over a week and a month
  •       Plan meals ahead. Before shopping again make sure you have planned for using up any left-overs. Love Food Hate Waste and BBC good food have a wide range of recipe ideas for common leftovers
  •       Focus on ‘use-by’ dates and ignore ‘best before’ dates
  •       Consider batch-cooking on weekends and freezing it into portion sizes to cut down on time needed on mid-week meals.
  •       Use food as fertiliser. Many councils now have food waste collection options. If you have the space invest in kitchen top or garden composting systems. Learn how to compost properly and try growing the most sustainable food of all – your own!

action

For business

The focus on food waste in the UK has been growing which means there are now a range of resources to help businesses wanting to reduce their food waste. Actions can range from distributing left over meals to those in poverty to understanding supply chains and how to improve efficiency. WRAP, the charity, is just one organisation that works to help businesses unlock the economic benefits of waste reduction and resource efficiency. Other organisations include Food Save, Food Cycle, Fare Share and Company Shop Group.

issue

MEAT

Global livestock accounts for 14.5% of total greenhouse gases according to research by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and, as a global average, each person currently eats 20kg more meat now than was consumed in 1961.This means it is not just the greenhouse gas emissions that are problematic but the ever increasing pressure on land for grazing cattle and sheep that has been linked to greater deforestation in areas such as the Amazon.

Researchers from the University of Oxford found, in 2018, that even ‘low-impact’ livestock farming used twice as much land and created double the emissions of those crops often used as substitutes, such as soy. They concluded vegan diets delivered the greatest environmental benefits. However, animal manure is still a key ingredient used to improve the fertility of soil necessary to grow high yielding plant crops and research shows consumption of some animal products are necessary for healthy cognitive development in children as well as other determinants of health.

solution

REDUCED MEAT CONSUMPTION

Most people eat far more meat than they need to maintain a healthy diet. Governments around the world are now recommending individuals aim for 2-3 meat-free days and to eat red meat sparingly. The increased uptake of vegetarian and vegan diets means restaurants and supermarkets cater for a much wider variety of plant-based food options. On days where meat is consumed it is worth considering recipes that also use the less popular parts of an animal to reduce waste.

FOR EXAMPLE

OOWEE DINER

Oowee Diner is a small burger restaurant chain based in Bristol that opened In 2018. Chicken, beef and cheese are on the menu, but it’s seitan chicken patties, plant-based beef and vegan cheese. The chain has been enormously successful and it expanding its vegan-only takeaway option into London.

FOR EXAMPLE

THE BULL INN, TOTNES

In a new venture, Geetie Singh-Watson is attempting to change the way pubs do things by showing how a radically ethical approach can still be at the heart of a successful business. This includes sensible portions to reduce waste, 100% organic and seasonal, meat and vegetables from local and sustainable producers and a menu that continually changes as they work their way through the entire animal.

action

For individuals

Eat less meat. You could do this by limiting meat to certain days of the week or use campaigns such as Meat free Mondays, Veganuary and Moo free May to kick-start changes in habits and experiment with recipes and ideas. Write down all your staple recipes and how many contain or are based on meat – work to find an equal number of vegan or vegetarian based recipes that you know off by heart and are guaranteed taste winners.

action

For business

Businesses providing catering for staff or those in the food and drink retail sectors should consider all animal-based foods as ‘luxury’ products in line with the environmental impact of producing it. Choose supplies based on their commitment to sustainability, organic produce and animal welfare standards. The environmental impact of organic, pasture-fed cattle, for example, is far less than that of cattle kept in large, intensive feedlots designed to fatten animals in the shortest amount of time. Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, is a good source of information about sustainable suppliers in the UK. 

issue

FARMING PRACTICES

Even plant-based diets can still have an enormous environmental impact. As the world’s population has grown farming practices have adapted to be able to produce food on an immense scale, usually with the help of chemical pesticides. These can have a catastrophic impact on soil health and waterways. Clearing the ground for agriculture results in deforestation, erosion and a severe lack biodiversity and pollinating agents. Other issues in the sector include the existence of modern slavery in some supply chains around the world and the impact of climate change and extreme weather which is putting food supplies at risk in some of the poorest nations on earth.

solution

INCENTIVES TO ADOPT BEST PRACTICE

In the UK there is not enough land for everyone to grow their own food which would be the most sustainable method of producing food. Supporting UK farmers to become carbon-neutral and adopt the best sustainable practices is therefore essential and to help reduce the amount of carbon emissions associated with imported foods. Organic and biodynamic farming are established methods of farming without using chemicals. Most farms will need to completely redesign farming practices, processes and infrastructure to ensure they are rewarded for practices such as planting hedgerows, reforestation and encouraging biodiversity.

FOR EXAMPLE

FRANCE

France is the only EU country to have based its agricultural policy around an explicit concept of transitioning farming systems to be more environmentally sustainable. It includes funding a network of scientific studies around the benefits of planting trees with crops, the reduction of pesticides and antibiotics, sustainable bee-keeping and farms run on renewable energy. Farmers are incentivised to join pilots of these methods through grant funding, reduced tax and certification systems. Systems have only been in place since 2014 so results are difficult to determine but by 2016 92% of French farmers were either engaged in or were planning to engage in one or more of the promoted practices.

action

For individuals

Organic veg boxes are a good way of eating in tune with seasonal harvests. However, do your research on your supplier. Some veg boxes will still be importing food and not assuring farm standards. Riverford is a supplier that avoids air-freighting food and is also employee owned. Using farmers markets is another useful way to shop locally and reduce the transport and packaging costs of food and drink. Ethical Consumer magazine also published a guide to the ethical and environmental record of 22 supermarkets, which is worth a look if you want an insight into the ethical practices of a range of supermarkets. Finally, research if there are community farms in your area and consider volunteering to gain a better understanding of how to produce food and which will also help these vital community enterprises continue to flourish.

action

For business

Businesses in the retail food and drink sector should look to develop far closer relationships with local suppliers including face-to-face visits to understand their operations and processes. Look for solutions that provide a dual benefit and this will help make conversations easier around the need for changing practices and processes. Where food is imported, ask questions of distributors about supply chains and delist those products or suppliers who are not making changes or engaged in unethical practices.

ISSUE

PACKAGING

Plastic packaging is a major problem in the food sector. Because of food safety concerns, and the need for it to resist high temperatures in cooking, much of the plastic packaging used in the food sector has a low percentage of recycled content. Many producers use conventional flexible packaging – such as chocolate bar wrappers and coffee bean bags – which is generally not recyclable. Plastic packaging does reduce food waste by preserving the shelf-life of food but companies will need to source alternatives to the non-recyclable, single-use plastic which is often used at the moment.

SOLUTION

PHASE OUT OF SINGLE-USE PLASTIC

Single use plastics and non-recyclable plastics should be phased out in favour of more sustainable options. This could include more options for consumers to reuse their own containers and buying bulk options. Retailers and suppliers need to changes production processes and accelerate research and development into both non-plastic alternatives and recycling technology.

FOR EXAMPLE

ZERO WASTE SHOPS

Natural Weigh is a zero waste food shop in Crickhowell, mid-Wales. Customers fill containers with as much of a product as they want and then pay for it by weight. Innovative smaller shops like this give an example as to how larger producers could adapt to cut down on waste.

FOR EXAMPLE

TEAPIGS

Teapigs was one of the first UK tea companies to be certified as plastic free. Their teabags are made from corn starch and paper, the inner bag looks like plastic but is made from wood pulp and can be home composted while the packaging is FSC certified cardboard printed with vegetable inks.

action

For individuals

Food citizens should avoid buying products with surplus packaging and try to buy products with cardboard packaging as far as possible. For example, instead of buying wrapped fruit and veg, consider taking your own bags and buying loose products. After use, try to reuse or recycle whatever you can to avoid contributing to landfill waste. Find out if you have a zero waste shop near you are or if your favourite products have refillable options that contain less packaging. Some food citizens discard the plastic packaging of food in the supermarket itself to try and encourage supermarkets to change more quickly.

action

For business

Using minimal packaging is a great way to cut down on packaging. This means avoiding practices like wrapping individual tea bags or selling cocoa in separate sachets. Where plastic packaging cannot be replaced by cardboard, alternatives can be found. Technologies like CreaSolv – which recycles polymers from used tea sachets – mean that plastic can be sourced that doesn’t come from crude oil. Supporting tech companies that are actively researching better alternatives is another way of accelerating progress on such a widespread issue.

issue

PALM OIL

Much has been written about the unsustainability of palm oil which has laid waste to thousands of acres of forest and destroyed habitats for some of the world’s most endangered species. Between 2001 and 2017, Indonesia – the world’s largest palm oil producer – lost an area of forest cover the same size of the UK alongside accusations of corruption and violence against indigenous communities over land.

Palm oil is reportedly in 50% of all supermarket products. If all the palm oil in these products was replaced with coconut oil or other substitutes, however, even more forest would need to be destroyed to keep up with demand as palm oil has the highest yields of all the oil producing palms.

Solution

STRONGER SUSTAINABILITY CERTIFICATION

This is perhaps one of the most difficult and complex issues in the world of sustainability at the moment. Going palm oil free is possible but alternatives are often less sustainable and could lead to even worse consequences for the planet. It is possible to produce palm oil sustainably but not in the quantities currently required by the global market.

Responsibly Sourced Palm Oil (RSPO) certification has numerous questions over its validity as it is run by some of the largest palm oil producers in the world and there have been accusations they have been implicated in breaches.  However, certified plantations, if properly inspected, are not able to clear primary forests or fragile ecosystems; they must minimise erosion and protect water sources; they must pay a minimum wage and get free, prior and informed consent from communities. 

For Example

DAABON GROUP

Daabon Group is one of only two palm oil growers to have achieved the more demanding RSPO NEXT certification since it was introduced in 2015. RSPO NEXT certification requires zero deforestation (including secondary forest), no planting on peat, strict targets on greenhouse gas emissions, supporting smallholders with sustainability and business skills, and ensuring all suppliers are also acting responsibly. 

action

For individuals

Whilst far from ideal, looking for RSPO certified sustainable palm oil and Rainforest Alliance certification is the first step in making better choices. An awareness of how many products in your store cupboard include palm oil is also a good step and researching alternatives. Apps such as Giki can help in doing an audit of products as they will recognise names that are not automatically connected with palm oil, for instance Palm Kernel or Palmitic Acid. For a complete list of names check here.

action

For business

The most sustainable products are those that can be made from products available in the local area. However, where palm oil cannot be substituted, businesses using palm oil in products should look to reduce the amount where possible and develop strong monitoring systems to verify how sustainably the palm oil has been produced. This should include working with suppliers and ensuring supply chains help smallholders with training, technical support and financial incentives to act ethically.

Further reading

This article was written in partnership with Ethical Consumer magazine. Revolutionise the way you shop, save and live with Ethical Consumer’s unique shopping guides >