It’s all about food

11 June 2021

As the world’s biggest economies meet at this weekend’s G7 Summit, there is strong pressure for ambitious action to tackle the climate emergency and reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Here, WRAP’s CEO, Dr Marcus Gover, argues this will not be possible without radical transformation of the world’s food supply chain

Fix the world’s failing food system and we can reconcile the paradox of securing the future wellbeing of both people and planet – the biggest challenge of our generation. Ensure a well-nourished population set to rise to 10 billion by 2050? Food. Bring runaway carbon emissions under control to rein in destructive climate change and biodiversity loss? Food. Resolve health inequalities, rising obesity, poverty reduction? Again food.

And yet all the current trends are heading in the opposite direction. The food system is stuck in a deadly cycle. Unremitting food production and consumption is fueling climate change and biodiversity loss, which in turn is threatening food security. The positive benefits of breaking this cycle for the good of people and planet is undeniable. And yet the world’s population is growing, becoming more prosperous, and so the pressure on land, freshwater use, forests and emissions, increase with it. It’s a terrible kind of reverse symbiosis.

Transforming the food system has been a relatively low priority for policymakers; and the sector itself is lamentably lacking in coherent technological innovation and serious commercial investment. The political landscape is shifting though as the Net Zero agenda gains momentum. In the UK, the first part of the National Food Strategy called for a ‘Green Revolution’ of the food system. Most recently, G7 Climate & Environment ministers restated their commitment to Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 to halve food waste, recognising the critical role reducing household food waste plays within this. This was an important signal, but food waste is only one piece in the jigsaw. The G7 Summit meets this week amidst huge expectation for ambitious climate action. It is seen as a rehearsal for the big event - COP26 later this year.

A major rethink in the way we produce and consume food is needed. Without it we won’t have a chance of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 or limit the planet’s temperature to the 1.5 degrees necessary to halt irreversible damage. The challenge is how. At WRAP, we have shown how policy which drives systemic change across business, and aligned with citizen action, can be a powerful force for change. Here’s my wish list for how this can be harnessed into action. 

A whole supply chain approach

In our visionary Food Futures report from 2015 we warned of the fragility of global supply chains and the vulnerability to external shocks, such as water scarcity and weather events. The pandemic was a stark illustration of this prophecy. We also highlighted problems within the structure of the system itself and the inherent risks of its interconnected, specialized and consolidated nature. We urged for supply chains to be recalibrated to be FIT for the future: the Flexibility to encourage agility and resilience, the Intelligence from partnership working, data gathering and skills and training to better understand and manage risks, and the Transparency needed to shed light on hidden risks and to incentivize the right changes in supply chains. This holds true today.

At WRAP, we have shown that it can be done. Take our recent work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the food supply chain through our Courtauld agreement. GHG emissions occur everywhere along the food chain. The trouble is that because emissions outside a business’s own operations are notoriously difficult to measure, most businesses do not. So even though many businesses have laudably set net zero or GHG reduction targets in their own business, they are not always looking at what is happening along the line. Operating in isolation has also led to a myriad of different accounting methods, lack of confidence in data, and, inevitably, inertia. We have brought businesses from across the supply chain together to develop a new GHG target for UK Food and Drink within the Courtauld Commitment 2025 which will be announced soon. The collaboration and commitment to this important piece of work has been encouraging and illustrative of what can be unblocked when a problem is identified, and shared solutions sought.

Tackle food waste

Together with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), we recently published the most comprehensive picture of global food waste to date. The headline-grabbing figure was that a staggering 931 million tonnes, or one sixth of all food available to eat, is thrown away every year from households and the retail and food service sectors around the world. The problem is bigger and more pervasive than previously estimated, despite good progress in recent years.

This has a triple whammy effect. It represents valuable food that is being squandered which could feed hungry mouths; it is a grotesque waste of money - £19 billion in the UK alone. It is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste were a third country, it would be the third biggest emitter in the world. We need to turn these negatives into positives, unlocking the massive potential that reducing food waste offers. There’s been good progress. Through WRAP’s Courtauld agreement, we’ve reduced post farm-gate food waste in the UK by 27% per capita in ten years. We have also tripled the amount of food surplus distributed to hard-hit families since 2015. 

Globally, through progress is patchy. We’ve got less than ten years to reach our commitment to SDG 12.3 to achieve a 50% food waste reduction. Governments around the world need to demonstrate leadership and policy making to incentivise change; food businesses, big and small need to commit to the winning Target, Measure, Act formula we know works. And they both need to support us all as citizens, because that is where the biggest shift needs to be made, to do our bit.

Align health and sustainability agendas

The links between food sustainability and public health have gained traction in the last decade and there is a greater understanding of the synergies and trade-offs between dietary preferences and the environmental impacts of food supply chains. The concept of ‘healthy sustainable diets’ is gaining traction in governments and civil society alike.

Bridging the gap between the dual health and sustainability agendas needs careful navigating. It does not necessarily mean, for example, that any single product or ingredient needs to be avoided completely and thoughtful, informed decision making is required in the use of ingredients and foods that are both beneficial to people and planet. It requires harmonised, concerted action along the entire food chain, the political economy, and in our homes. But the ‘wins’ involved in taking this dual approach are enormous. In their State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, the UN’s FAO argued that a global switch to healthy diets would reverse the slide into hunger, offset all the associated costs of healthcare from unhealthy eating, and cut the diet-related social cost of greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75%.

In our recent Net Zero report we also explored the complementary strategy of a reduction in calorie intake. If the average UK calorific intake was reduced to 2500Kcal per day by 2050, it would make a significant contribution to reducing cumulative emissions associated with the UK food system, so delivering both health and climate benefits. We need leadership here though, with governments taking a systematic approach which looks to engage and inform citizens in a positive debate; reinforced by the food and drink sector.

Explore new frontiers of food

The effective use of data-enabled technology and innovation present possibly the greatest opportunities for increasing the productivity, resource efficiency and climate resilience of the food system. Different ways of communicating, monitoring and collaborating will open up new innovation pathways that connect people and organisations across value chains and landscapes in ways that have not been possible before. Innovations from alternative proteins to packaging technologies which can track products through the supply chain take us to the new frontiers of food. However, the promise of what these technologies can offer is by no means inevitable. It will need to be stimulated through business investment and coherent policy making, as well as capacity building in the skills and training required to make informed decisions and avoid unintended consequences.

A call to action

The world’s leaders are due in a few months to meet at COP26 at what feels like a critical crossroads in the history of mankind and the planet which sustains us. Fail to fix food and we are on the road to hunger, health crises, extinction of species which have inhabited the earth for billions of years, catastrophic weather events. Succeed and we restore the food system to all its life and health sustaining, equality enhancing, poverty eradicating, replenishing worth.