Challenge of greening agri-food system is ‘absolutely massive’, industry says

Policymakers and the industry are looking at ways to reduce the agri-food sector’s carbon footprint and bring it to carbon neutrality by 2050. [© European Union 2011 - EP]

As nations gather in Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit, efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of the food and drink industry – a vital sector of the economy – are a central part of the conversation.

Discussions on climate change often focus on the usual suspects when talking about emissions: power generation, cars and planes, shipping, and factories.

But many of the emissions-generating activities that people participate in every day get considerably less attention. Food and drink are one of those areas.

The emissions from this sector, measured from farm to fork, make up an estimated 30% of total carbon emissions in the EU, with the manufacturing process accounting for about a tenth of these emissions. By comparison, aviation makes up about 4%.

Of course, food and drink are also what sustains human life. So policymakers and the industry are looking at ways to reduce this necessary sector’s carbon footprint to carbon neutrality by 2050, the overall goal for the entire economy set by the US, EU and UK.

However, because it involves such a large value chain with so many actors, the food and drink sector may be one of the tricker ones to decarbonise.

“It’s clear that all the segments should be part of the solution,” said Yolanda Garcia Mezquita, an official at the European Commission’s energy directorate.

“That’s the reason that there are a combination of policy measures in the Fit for 55 package we put out in July. There is a pricing mechanism, the ETS, but also we have policy measures in order to ensure there are regulatory measures to incentivise the adoption of measures in the different sectors of the economy,” she said at a recent EURACTIV event.

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Roadmap to reduction

The industry recently published a roadmap that could serve as a basis for decarbonising the food manufacturing sector, with the EU’s carbon neutrality target and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in mind.

“As an industry, we’ve just had the decarbonisation roadmap, which is very clear about what needs to happen,” said Chris Daly, chief sustainability officer for Europe at PepsiCo, the food and beverage multinational company.

“But the scale going forward of what needs to be done is absolutely massive compared to what has been done up to this point in time,” he told participants at the event, supported by industry association FoodDrinkEurope.

The report points to three main challenges for the sector to decarbonise: it is primarily made up of SMEs, a lot of technical support will be needed, and the value chain is mainly segmented. “Typically for a food manufacturer, 90% or so of the emissions will fall outside of its value chain. That means this manufacturer is going to be dependent on the industries that serve it.”

Olivier Dubois, senior natural resources officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), agreed that there would be significant challenges in the sector’s decarbonisation journey. “The energy sector often doesn’t talk to the agriculture sector or the food sector, which is a bit of a problem because there are very good synergies between the two,” he said.

“The business case of energy suppliers is linked to the business case of the agrifood actors,” Dubois added. “If agrifood actors, SMEs and farmers, improve their business because they have less food losses, better quality and more food than they can sell, then they can pay a better tariff to energy suppliers. But this is overlooked. We also don’t have enough intelligence on how to de-risk and optimise the locations for renewable energies in food chains.”

Still, there is a lot of potential for decreasing emissions in the sector. “It has the potential to reduce more than just its emissions, and that’s important to stress,” said Faustine Bas-Defossez, from the Institute for European Environmental Policy, a think-tank.

“It can indeed drive changes in the wider supply chain through influencing the way we produce and also the way we consume food. For instance, on the production side, it can develop meaningful sustainability strategies to drive raw material sourcing through mechanisms, and assist suppliers to meet more demanding standards going beyond existing legislation.”

Food producers can also inform and influence consumers to make better climate choices through labelling and marketing campaigns, Bas-Defossez added. But the most significant emissions reduction potential lies in changing the systems of energy use and food transport, she stressed.

“Avoiding and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are the first and main priority for the climate mitigation efforts, and that’s really what the industry should focus on,” said Bas-Defossez. “What’s needed is systemic changes and systemic innovations and not just quick fixes.”

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Focus on farmers

Last year, the Commission put forward a Farm to Fork strategy that aims to make all the food and drink value chain elements less energy and carbon-intensive – from agriculture to production and consumption.

Daly said the strategy has helped push a focus on agriculture. However, he would still like to see more clarity from EU policymakers about how agriculture emissions will be reined in.

“Agriculture is a challenging area – if you look at the food and drink industry, nothing will happen if we don’t reduce the footprint from agriculture, but we know the science on agriculture isn’t quite there yet,” he said. “If you look at the carbon footprint of a food and beverage company, 30-40% will come from agriculture. Therefore, we absolutely need to get agriculture going in the right direction.”

“The government needs to step in and create the right kind of regulation in order to bring the different parts of the value chain together,” Daly added.

“The Farm to Fork strategy in the EU and the framework on sustainable food systems seems to be going in the right direction,” agreed Bas-Defossez. “But it is a bit worrying to see that there are still some [global] reactions to the EU plans, not necessarily supporting them, for instance just recently what came from the state secretary for agriculture in the US, looking at farm to fork strategy and its objectives as not being science-driven.”

As COP26 continues, attention will be broadening to sectors that haven’t been front and centre in the climate discussion until now. That will include food and drink and the agricultural systems that supply it, as policymakers and industry experts grapple with this vast sector with a disparate value chain.

> Watch the full event on YouTube below:

[Edited by Frédéric Simon/ Alice Taylor]

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