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Ben Cooper reflects on the sustainability and policy issues facing the food industry across the world in the coming year, which he believes could see a seminal shift in how long-standing challenges facing the global food system are addressed.

It may have been the deadly threat Covid-19 posed that brought the world to a standstill in 2020 but, in so doing, it illuminated, accentuated and, in some cases, exacerbated existing global challenges, nowhere more so than in relation to food.

For manufacturers, emergence from the pandemic will therefore be less a moment of relief and more the point at which the focus returns fully to the existing and mounting environmental challenges and social issues around nutrition the global food sector was already facing.

In fact, pressure on food manufacturers to engage actively and effectively in individual and concerted efforts to address these issues in 2021 will be greater than ever.

Supply chain focus

Making agricultural sourcing more sustainable has been an increasingly important priority for food companies for some years. With the pandemic raising questions about the resilience of globally extended supply chains and just-in-time logistics, commodity sourcing is likely to be an even more prominent sustainability issue for food companies in the coming year.

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By GlobalData

The need to continue reducing and mitigating social and environmental impacts from agriculture, coupled with an increased emphasis on shortening and simplifying agricultural supply chains, will foster the application of digitalisation and investment in new technologies, particularly vertical farming.

While the seminal reports from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) in October 2018 and August 2019 set out the importance of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from food production to the goals of the Paris climate accord, numerous further reports and studies during the past year have reinforced the broader significance of food companies’ work on sustainable agriculture.

Notably, WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020, published in September, highlighted the global food system’s huge contribution to biodiversity loss, stating drivers linked to food production are responsible for 70% of terrestrial biodiversity loss.

New impetus on climate change

Given the need for rapid progress on GHG emissions across the board between now and 2030, any delay the pandemic may have caused in implementing measures could have serious implications. In one critical respect, however, postponing the critical COP 26 climate conference by 12 months with 2021 becoming the crunch year for resetting the Paris climate agenda, has been positive.

For food companies looking both to support and draw support from the UN’s global climate agenda, Joe Biden’s election victory and confirmation the US will re-join the Paris accord on the day of his inauguration, is a game-changing development.

After the disruption of the Trump presidency and the pandemic, President-Elect Biden’s commitment to addressing climate change and related environmental challenges bolsters the Paris climate accord at a critical moment, providing renewed impetus in the lead-up to COP 26 when countries must commit to enhanced emission reduction targets, which are vital to getting the Paris aims back on track.

Moreover, food companies’ sustainability objectives in relation to agriculture will benefit if a higher profile is given to emissions from food and farming in the months leading up to COP 26 and at the conference itself. A study by researchers from the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University, published last month, pointed to the particular need for national plans to pay more attention to emissions from food and farming which accounts for around 29% of GHG emissions.

The study showed food and farming had not received the same attention from governments as areas such as clean energy and, if interventions continue at this level, on current trends the increase in emissions from food and farming alone would be enough to put the Paris goals beyond reach.

Among other key issues to be addressed at COP 26 is carbon pricing, a topic of enormous significance to food manufacturers that could unlock progress in numerous climate-related areas.

Build back greener

Overall, increased ambition in national emissions goals in November will signal the likely development by governments of enabling infrastructures, such as Biden’s plans on clean energy, and policy frameworks to support food companies’ own emissions reduction targets.

More food companies are expected to commit to net-zero emissions targets, which have become the “gold standard” for science-based targets aligned with the Paris aims, according to analysts such as US-based sustainability non-profit Ceres.

Notwithstanding the grave economic consequences of the pandemic, the environmental components governments are incorporating into post-Covid recovery plans could provide further support for food companies’ sustainability efforts. For example, recovery funds being made available to the farming and food production sectors in the EU over the coming two years, worth in excess of EUR10bn, are being dispersed with stipulations the funds are used in line with the EU Green Deal plan and offer added-value relating to sustainability, digitalisation and resilience. Governments are also facing calls for more effective alignment between public procurement policies and sustainable food production objectives, offering business development opportunities for food companies.

The post-Covid recovery can also be expected to foster increased policy and industry engagement on food waste and loss, owing to heightened public sentiment about the value of food resulting from the disruptions in the food supply in the early stages of the pandemic and the increased emphasis now routinely being placed on the issue in context of wasted environmental resources. The WWF Living Planet 2020 report points out 24% of GHG emissions from food and farming are produced from food that is destined to be lost in supply chains or thrown away.

The link to nutrition

Public procurement and food waste were among the issues highlighted by a report published last month by the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change. The report also recommended levying a tax on food with higher carbon costs. While this will have been an alarming proposal to some sectors of the food industry, the UKHACC’s recommendations overall speak to a trend that could and possibly should shape industry engagement and policy on food sustainability more broadly over the coming year, namely the integration of environmental and nutritional objectives.

The pandemic, once again, has played a part in bringing this trend to the fore, raising public awareness about the sustainability and resilience of food supply chains and the importance of good nutrition in preventive health.

Some of the rhetoric directed at food companies by health campaigners during the pandemic, in the context of the links between obesity and severity of illness from Covid-19, suggests they would be justified in feeling exposed on the nutrition issues while the pandemic continues and into the post-Covid recovery. However, as with the environmental impacts from farming, the level of “blame” levelled at food producers is also a reflection of the potential the food industry has to contribute significantly to collective solutions.

Collective efforts to address climate change and non-communicable diseases have been very slow to take advantage of the almost exact alignment between beneficial environmental outcomes and improvements in nutrition. The coming year could see a significant step forward in this regard and this can only be positive for food companies’ sustainability efforts.

Innovation and growth in the plant-based sector has already provided a springboard for the transformation of the food market the Paris climate goals will require, while also moving the needle on industry and public health goals on healthier diets. It is testament to the unique and significant role food manufacturers can play when health and environmental goals are addressed as one.

In this context, it could be said the UN Food Systems Summit, also scheduled to take place late next year, might be of equal or even greater significance to food companies than COP 26. The specialised focus of the event, and just as crucially the inter-stakeholder dialogue leading up to the summit, offers companies far more potential to engage with policymakers, NGOs and others.

The mechanisms through which the private sector can engage in UN initiatives can be cumbersome and outdated but the Food Systems Summit, which is particularly aimed at supporting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, is arguably an exception. Five “action tracks” have been initiated as forums for inter-stakeholder discussion: ensuring access to safe and nutritious food for all; shifting to sustainable consumption patterns; boosting nature-positive production; advancing equitable livelihoods; and building resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress. These are all areas food companies need to engage in but also where they can make a telling impact.

The interests of the agri-food sector are represented in the private-sector engagement process by various farming bodies from different countries and the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA), a coalition of the world’s leading food multinationals.

As 2020 ran its dreadful, deadly course, one question fascinated more perhaps than any other imponderable the months of disruption and distress raised: how different will things be after the pandemic? As the coming year progresses, answers to that question might start to take shape.

In relation to both environmental impacts and nutrition, debates have focused on the negative effects of an industrialised and globalised food industry. Recognising these impacts and reforming accordingly remains vital. But, if the palpable desire for change experienced during the pandemic endures, the post-Covid zeitgeist may well be focused less on apportioning blame and more about looking ahead and collectively finding solutions. Over the coming year, there will be plenty of opportunity for food companies to show what they can bring to the table.