The UK Food Sector faces an unprecedented challenge: achieve net zero goals and transform our food system – nothing else will be sufficient to combat the climate crisis

28 March 2023

Through the WRAP Courtauld Commitment 2030, 76 food businesses are committed to cutting the absolute greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the UK food system by 50% by 2030 (from a 2015 baseline). On paper, current odds would seem stacked against this ambition.  

Recent research suggests the food system alone is likely to drive the world beyond 1.5C of global heating without urgent action; the need to transform the food systems to prevent this scenario has been long established. In the UK context, at WRAP we estimate the food we consume is responsible for around 35% of UK territorial GHG emissions

Our UK food system GHG model has tracked food related emissions annually since 2015 and estimates a reduction of around 12% in overall GHG emissions 2015-2020, largely due to decarbonisation of the grid. Based on these figures, the average annual rate of reduction in GHGs will need to increase by 60% from its current trajectory for the remaining years to 2030 for the sector to meet its GHG target. 

UK food businesses do not exist in a vacuum. The Committee on Climate Change is definitive that current policy initiatives from UK government relating to food lack the scope and ambition to meet our national GHG targets. Furthermore, despite widespread consensus that acting to achieve net zero is in the national interest, the Green Finance Institute estimates there is an investment gap of around £20bn in the UK preventing the necessary reductions in net GHG emissions relating to agriculture and land use

It’s clear that more of the same isn’t going to cut it. However, climate despair and giving up is not a sensible option, nor is it remotely necessary.  As part of our 2021 report on UK food system GHGs, we proposed a pathway of GHG reductions to meet the Courtauld 2030 target based on analysis of where this was feasible (see graphic below).

Graphic showing the pathway to achieving 50% emissions reduction by 2030 - bar chart

Graphic 1: Pathway 2030: Delivering a 50% reduction in the GHG footprint of UK food and drink

At WRAP we have seen in other contexts the power of collaborative action, the potential for progress on wickedly complex environmental issues and the potential for the UK to influence on these issues globally with world leading voluntary agreements. WRAP has demonstrated how the voluntary approach can deliver measurable outcomes, with the Courtauld Commitment reducing the UK’s food waste by 27% since its launch 17 years ago. In the last three years of reporting, the UK Plastics Pact has doubled the recycled content in packaging and driven the significant elimination (84% reduction) of unnecessary packaging . Transformation can only be achieved by working together. 

We have also seen recently clear indications that leaders of large food businesses understand that global heating is an existential threat and have a desire to play their part in transforming it. The WWF Commitment For Nature has shown that significant portions of the extremely competitive UK grocery retail sector are willing to collaborate on transformative change. Following the latest pledge for action on GHGs from the WWF Commitment for Nature Group, we are now pleased to announce that we have secured commitment for phase 1 of the WRAP Retailer Net Zero Collaborative Action Programme under Courtauld 2030. The eight inaugural supporters of this programme*, representing around 80% of UK grocery retail market share, have agreed to work with WRAP and key partners through Courtauld to address the urgent challenges. The first is to ensure consistent measurement and reporting of their scope 3 GHG emissions. The second is help identify collaborations that can plug current action gaps and accelerate progress on the most material issues for reducing GHGs from the huge amount of our food that is sold in UK supermarkets.

On the issue of measurement and reporting their GHGs, grocery retailers are still grappling with how to accurately measure the environmental impact of the food products they buy and sell. This issue is an important barrier to progress in the case of grocery retail where > 90% of a companies’ GHG emissions are likely to derive from the products they have purchased to sell, and the end use of those products by customers. Trustworthy data is needed here to guide difficult decisions with financial consequences in order to achieve GHG targets. 

Last May WRAP launched our Scope 3 Measurement & Reporting Protocols for food and drink businesses; we have since piloted these protocols with 17 UK food businesses**. Through a series of case studies developed from these pilots, we identified key issues for consistent reporting of GHG emissions such as rules for the use of highly variable emission factors  provided by suppliers to estimate emissions from key products. It is extremely important that retailers agree on a common approach, in line with international guidance, to increase trust in their reporting on GHG emissions and reduce the data burden of this reporting on suppliers.    

We are entering a crucial phase on this issue in UK food where initiatives such as the Mondra coalition (through the BRC climate action roadmap) are beginning to demonstrate viable technical solutions on GHG data for complex food supply chains. At WRAP we are committed to ensuring solutions for the sector on GHG reporting, that are rigorous in quality and practical in application, are found on measuring GHG emissions in food supply chains. During 2023 we will work directly with UK government through the Food Data Transparency Partnership on this important issue.

Trustworthy measurement of GHGs from food and subsequent analysis of these data is vital for the sector to take the some of the difficult decisions needed. However, that alone will not be the silver bullet that drives the change needed for the sector to reform. At WRAP we see through our co-ordination of Courtauld 2030 a wide range of valuable initiatives looking to drive action on green finance, on farm emissions, changing consumption patterns, tackling deforestation and other key action areas in the pathway we set out when publishing the WRAP UK food system GHG emissions model (see graphic 1).  However, it is clear that key potential levers that could enable the food sector to meet its net zero ambitions are not being pulled quickly enough for a variety of reasons, including power imbalances within food supply chains, perceived lack of demand from consumers and lack of political will. While the challenges are manifest, for grocery retailers, the need to revise business models reliant on ever-increasing levels of consumption, and adequately reward the necessary best practices on-farm to reduce the GHG emissions associated with food, is particularly acute.

At WRAP, we also consistently hear feedback from professionals in the sector that the breadth, pace and variety of action in this space is overwhelming, making it extremely difficult to understand if their business is doing the right thing, and taking targeted action at the scale necessary. At the moment, the likely answer in many cases is that greater commitment will be needed for their business to achieve their sustainability ambitions as highlighted in a recent report by Eating Better. In response, we are committed to using the Retailer Net Zero Collaborative Action Programme to build an assessment of the action currently being undertaken by grocery retailers on key areas of GHG mitigation. We will then use this information to identify key gaps and, use Courtauld 2030 as a pre-existing governance vehicle with widespread buy-in across UK food to help address these. The ultimate goal of phase 1 is for WRAP to use its convening power to identify high-impact actions and drive these forward, helping the sector with our ambitious, shared goals on climate action. Phase 2 will continue and scale collective action on reducing GHGs in a way and at a pace never seen before.

We have seen in recent months where business as usual in the UK food sector issue can lead us. The origins of the recent shortage of imported vegetables available on our aisles and rapid inflation in our food prices are driven by a complex set of domestic and geo-political circumstances. However, arguments over the exact drivers of the current crises should not distract from the key warning light for rapid onsets of food insecurity in the UK that global heating could drive. While some would argue that reducing emissions from UK food alone will not make a material difference to this outcome, the need for pathway forging by the UK and other wealthy nations to demonstrate global leadership on this issue has never been more acute. 

If one were to add up the emissions of countries that emit less than 2% each (a 'negligible amount') – they emit more than China. With food systems responsible for approximately 1/3 of global GHG emissions, imagine if the UK food sector and others like it decide not to act?

Aldi, Co-op, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsburys, Tesco and Waitrose  

** Tesco, Sainsburys, Coop, M&S, Jordans Dorset Ryvita, Westmill, AB World Foods, Barfoots, Albert Bartlett, Apetito, Bidfood, Kepak, Hilton, ABP, Avara, Dunbia and CH&CO.