Has the pandemic shown the food industry the path to a sustainable future?


When we hear the word ‘sustainability’, it’s easy to consider it simply in terms of reducing carbon emissions, slowing climate change and cleaning up the world’s oceans. While these are core reasons why sustainability is an outright necessity in the food industry, there are plenty of others too. These include meeting rising food demand and giving workers and communities a more equitable stake in the industry.

Covid-19, for all the upheaval it has wrought across the world, has forced many parts of the food industry and individual businesses to embrace more sustainable models. But what do these models look like, why are they needed so badly and is it likely the pandemic will lead to widespread improvements in sustainability in the years to come?

Sustainability - a need right now for the food industry

In the developed world, when times are good, the current just-in-time model appears to work just fine. From fresh produce to consumer packaged goods - food options are varied and prices are usually low. However, this masks a number of problems - the tight squeeze on suppliers, huge levels of wastage, the impact on the environment and the detrimental effect on supply in the developing world.

Food sustainability encompasses a multitude of goals - but essentially it means a production and consumption of food that does not degrade the environment and is fair for all workers and consumers. In many cases this prioritises a more local model (think the ‘food miles’ concept) and a stop to overproduction.

A more sustainable reset is so important for the food industry because the twin challenges of climate change and rising food demand are reaching a critical point. The industry can play a decisive role in managing both situations, but action is needed fast - especially in the area of regenerative farming.

Sustainability is also crucial to population health - with polar extremes already apparent between richer and poorer nations. Developed countries are experiencing increasing levels of health problems linked to overconsumption while developing countries still face a fight to eradicate hunger and malnutrition. Rebalancing supply is vital to redressing this balance.

In addition, the pandemic showed us the disruption that a major shock can cause to supply chains all over the world. Many believe shorter, more local chains relying on fewer locations can help the food industry to insulate against likely future shocks.

Has Covid-19 made the food industry more likely to change?

While none of these reasons for the importance of a sustainable model are new, there’s certainly a school of thought that the pandemic has shocked businesses into an ‘act-now’ mentality. This has been true of the attitude of many towards the pandemic on wider, governmental levels. There is a growing belief that coronavirus could be a watershed moment in the battle against climate change.

In many ways, the pandemic has left businesses with the most sustainable models in a more advantageous position. As a result, it has also forced others to temporarily adopt sustainable practices - although it remains to be seen how temporary this will really be.

Proximity of suppliers is a practical example of how this has played out this year. As international supply chains slowed and faltered, those with stronger local networks were more flexible and found it easier to adapt. Nando’s restaurant chains in the US have recently gained attention as their commitment to sourcing poultry locally meant they were able to manage supply issues more easily than some of their rivals.

But sustainability works both ways. While supermarkets and foodservice outlets look closer to home for their produce - changes are afoot in agriculture too. The rise of urban farming in the world’s largest cities means produce has fewer miles to travel to reach its destination. This has a number of knock-on benefits, including less money spent on transportation, fresher produce, more incentive for big-city vendors to shop locally and a stronger focus on community food networks.

One cause for concern is packaging in the industry. Hygiene protocols, in particular the fear that the virus could be easily transmitted from food and reusable packaging, has led to a slight resurgence in single-use plastics. Kantar reported a 6% decline in the purchase of loose foods, with shoppers preferring pre-packaged products. However, businesses are generally retaining their plastic reduction commitments while consumers still say they want to buy products with more sustainable packaging. This suggests the pandemic should not hinder the drive towards more sustainable packaging in the long-term.

The pandemic has also shown the industry how much of a force it can be for good in local communities. With food outlets closing and orders going unfulfilled, suppliers, wholesalers and retailers had to be more creative in their local area. Some provided meals to local frontline workers, or to the most vulnerable. Others directed their supply towards small businesses or explored a direct-to-consumer model.

The big question is whether these more sustainable practices will remain viable and profitable for food businesses after the pandemic.

Will the food industry continue to become more sustainable post-pandemic?

We just don’t know the answer to this yet. And while businesses on an individual level have made impressive steps towards a sustainable future, systemic changes are now required at government level. Indoor farming and sourcing produce locally are all well and good - but businesses must be incentivised financially to do so rather than out of a sense of benevolence or a PR opportunity.

It’s all a part of the larger ‘circular economy’ shift advocated by many across all industries. An op-ed in the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food calls for international co-operation to improve food standards and strengthen domestic food networks - to fight climate change and ensure global food security. There are certainly green shoots that have come from the coronavirus crisis as we’ve seen from how the industry has responded in the short term. But it remains to be seen whether this momentum will be carried forward.

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