The Food & Drink Federation (FDF) has given a positive response to the UK government’s new goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.

Not to welcome an announcement that goes further than any other developed economy in terms of ambition, while providing a welcome boost to global climate change efforts and a lead for other countries to follow, would be surprising.

However, the UK food manufacturing trade body’s endorsement came with a significant caveat that would likely be shared by the business community at large, not to mention the majority of citizens. Setting the UK on a course to net-zero emissions was a “very welcome and important step”, the FDF said, but it called on government to “bring forward the policies needed to meet this new challenging target”.

This echoes the report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the UK government’s expert advisory panel, which has informed the ambitious change in the country’s climate strategy. Upgrading from the existing 2050 target of an 80% emissions reduction from 1990 to net-zero will require a “major ramp-up in policy effort”. Indeed, the CCC states the new goal “is not credible unless policy is ramped up significantly”. 

The report states: “Delivery must progress with far greater urgency. Many current plans are insufficiently ambitious; others are proceeding too slowly, even for the current 80% target.” The CCC report reflects not only the scale of the challenge, but also the level of effort and breadth of engagement required from the private sector and consumers.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in food production and consumption. Agriculture accounts for around 9% of UK GHG emissions. In addition to general reductions that can be achieved through the wider application of low-carbon agricultural methods, for example relating to nitrogen use, manure management and the digestibility of livestock feed, under a “Further Ambition Scenario” the report includes a 20% reduction in the consumption of beef, lamb and dairy.

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By GlobalData

The role food companies have to play in fostering such a significant change in UK diets is clear. It is interesting and perhaps disconcerting, therefore, to find the food manufacturing sector is barely mentioned anywhere in the report, which does acknowledge the “strong role” for the retail sector in reducing the meat component in composite foods and promoting and increasing the availability of plant-based meals. 

While at times it seems the CCC report mentions every stage of the food chain apart from food processors, this does not necessarily mean the concerns of the food manufacturing sector have been ignored in its research and in the framework it has prepared for government. 
The FDF says it has a good relationship with the CCC and has been engaged as a key stakeholder. To a degree, the absence of specific references to food manufacturing can be attributed to researchers analysing food production in terms of the entire food chain.

Reducing emissions from food processing itself is not a significant component in the CCC analysis. While food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, it is only responsible for 8% of industrial emissions.

The chief concern for food companies in relation to emissions from food processing is the lack of policy relating to the decarbonisation of heat production. Indeed, the FDF sees fit to mention this specifically in its short reaction to the net-zero announcement. In comparison with renewable and low-carbon electricity generation, work at a national level on greener heat production remains worryingly undeveloped. 

The relatively modest contribution food processing makes to industrial emissions underlines it is in their supply chains, upstream and downstream, that the bulk of food manufacturers’ GHG emissions are concentrated. As climate change concerns have increased, food companies, like all manufacturers, have had to assume greater responsibility for supply chain emissions. The heightened focus on GHG emissions resulting from the net-zero goal may increase the pressure on food companies to account for their indirect (Scope 3) emissions and set targets for their reduction.

The CCC’s report also places a strong emphasis on waste reduction as a means of driving down GHG emissions and specifically calls out the vital importance of eradicating food waste. As with the issue of dietary change, food companies have a key role to play in addressing food waste. The food industry is already engaged on the issue but the CCC report articulates what will be further required from food companies. 

“Major societal change will also be required in reducing food waste across the supply chain – from farmers to manufacturers, retailers and consumers,” the report states. “These will require measures to promote waste avoidance more proactively, increased availability of portion sizes for smaller-sized households, and communications on waste avoidance techniques.”

The report highlights that the 10m tonnes of food which is wasted has still required the use of agricultural land in its production. Wasted food generates carbon emissions in its cultivation and in its disposal, serving no purpose in between the two stages. While the CCC report points out consumers are responsible for 70% of the food wasted in the UK, the net-zero goal can be expected to increase the already considerable pressure on food companies to step up engagement on the food waste issue.

In fact, while eliminating food waste and fostering dietary change are areas where the raised climate ambitions call for increased personal responsibility from consumers, they also expose food companies to the risk of negative publicity. Progress requires action by food companies and retailers in areas like pack sizes, new product innovation and communication, and the food industry could well face criticism if behaviour change is slow to materialise, as has routinely happened in relation to other diet and health issues.

This potential threat underlines the importance of the FDF’s call for the government to bring forward policies to support its ambitious new goal. To achieve the desired changes in diet, which are crucial in achieving broader aims around both agricultural emissions and land use, the CCC report says active promotion by retailers must be supported by public information and consumer education campaigns “promoting the benefits of moving away from red meat and dairy”.

While stressing the urgent need for new policy, the CCC report says many of the required “policy foundations” are already in place which, given the paralysing effect the Brexit turmoil has had on government in the UK, is just as well.