Agri-food sector to assess its environmental footprint


An EU sustainable food chain roundtable launched yesterday (6 May) is seeking to develop a methodology for assessing the environmental footprint of individual foods and drinks by 2011.

“Our aim is to deliver an environmentally sustainable food and drinks for consumers,” said Jean Martin, president of the Confederation of the European Food and Drink Industries (CIAA), a member of the European Food Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) roundtable.

The roundtable brings together farmers and suppliers, food and drink producers, packaging firms and consumer organisations to develop environmental assessment methodologies for products and means for effective consumer communication, and to report on improvements.

“Perhaps we’ll help save one or two planets by 2050,” said Martin.

Environmental impact of agri-food sector

According to the Commission, the food and drink sector contributes to some 23% of global resource use, 18% of greenhouse gas emissions and 31% of acidifying emissions. “EU agriculture puts the highest pressure on environment in the food chain lifecycle,” while manufacturing is not such an important contributor, said Almut Reichel of the European Environment Agency.

Referring to beef and dairy production as the “bad guys”, Reichel said they caused the highest emissions.

The price of sustainable food

“The price of beef price should be higher to correspond to its environmental impact,” argued the secretary-general of the European farmer and agri-cooperative lobby COPA-COGECA, Pekka Pesonen. “As long as prices go down, we are not going to reach sustainability,” he continued, describing the need to boost economic growth while maintaining sustainability as “a challenge none of us has solved so far”.

Lifecycle assessment

“We need to give consumers the right information from the start, so that we won’t be accused of ‘greenwashing’,” said Jean Martin, underlining the roundtable’s objective of trying to overcome the shortcomings of the EU 27’s “inconsistent” schemes and “incomplete” methodologies for measuring the various impacts of a product cycle. A framework assessment methodology for food and drink products should be finalised by 2011.

In parallel, the Commission’s in-house research centre – the Joint Research Centre (JRC) – has been working since 2005 to identify reliable lifecycle assessments, but not just for food products. The JRC is also developing a common European database to exchange information.

It is important to “assess individual products, to know at what stage of their lifecycle their biggest environmental pressure lies and compare products,” said the deputy head of unit for SCP at the EU executive, Rosalinde van der Vlies.

Future EU regulation

Karl Friedrich Falkenberg, director-general of the Commission’s environment department, said the EU executive would continue to regulate “here and there”, and “finetune” the bloc’s Eco-design and Eco-labelling Directives by introducing some “more ambition” to them. He underlined the need to define “realistic goals at reasonable cost,” and stressed the need to change consumer-lifestyle preferences.

“Balanced regulation is needed to create level-playing field for companies,” agreed Kellogg Europe President Tim Mobsby.

Amid concerns that growing resource scarcity and rising costs for raw materials are dampening prospects for Europe's economic growth, the EU is looking for ways to decrease the environmental impact of industrial activity, product manufacturing and consumption patterns.

In July 2008, the European Commission adopted action plans on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) and a Sustainable Industrial Policy (SIP). The plans followed a 2005 Commission communication on a thematic strategy for the sustainable use of natural resources, which calls for sectoral initiatives to be launched together with economic operators.

A European Retail Forum and Retailers' Environmental Action Plan (REAP) was launched earlier this year to promote voluntary action to reduce the environmental footprint of the retail sector and its supply chain, promote more sustainable products, and help consumers to buy green (EURACTIV 03/03/09).

  • June 2009: Plenary meeting of the founding organisations of the 'Food SCP Roundtable'.
  • June 2009: Food SCP Roundtable's three working groups established.
  • Sept. 2009: First meeting of the working groups.

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