Headline News About Food Security and Environmental Impact Present Challenges and Opportunities for the Food Industry

Dr. Food is an inveterate reader of the weekly influential current affairs periodical The Economist. In history, it was always a Saturday morning treat to sit down with the magazine and a coffee and be immersed in the brilliantly written ways of our world. Now, of course, saving the planet and the pocketbook, it’s read online anywhere anytime! Items on food proliferated on the issue for Oct. 2nd. A decade ago, items of news on agriculture and food were exceedingly sparse. It’s a measure of the burgeoning importance of and widespread interest in issues such as food security and the impact of food production on climate change that this journal is increasingly peppered with food-related articles. Here’s a flavour from that week:

  • “Treating beef like coal would make a big dent in greenhouse-gas emissions”! The article has an eye-catching graphic on CO2 emissions (see below) which shows beef far exceeding arable crops, albeit with rice higher than cow’s milk, pork and chicken and, bizarrely, higher than Japan and air travel prompting the whimsical thought that, if “seeking to save the world”, one could keep on flying but give up beef!
  • The finger is pointed at cattle for emitting methane and accounting for two-thirds of beef’s total GGE. More controversially, 27% of emissions are attributed to land-use changes, such as clearing land for grazing and growing feed. Of course, this provokes an incendiary reaction from those producing grass-fed beef, particularly on land that is perfect for pasture and, through improving the quality of the soil, actually increases the capacity for the land to sequester carbon! 

Source: The Economist.

The same edition of The Economist included: a “Leader” on the roles of new technology and government regulation in “New Foods”, sitting alongside other leaders on high profile issues such as political clampdowns on technological behemoths in China (e.g. Alibaba and Ant Group), and an aquacultural review of “seaweed at scale” and its food and carbon sequestration uses. 

The 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (aka COP 26) is on now in Glasgow, Scotland. You can hardly miss it as it’s dominating the media.  COP is the decision-making body responsible for monitoring and reviewing the implementation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change whose objective is to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous … global warming”. It’s a big deal and many of the big political and business names are attending. In the previous weeks leading up to the meeting, countries and companies released statements relating to their promises and programmes to reach carbon net zero by 2050 or before. Mars, the privately-held food company, is one example:

  • Mars has pledged fresh climate action to achieve net zero emissions across its full value chain. This isn’t just a Mars commitment. The company has 20,000+ suppliers and together they are promising to eliminate deforestation, transition to 100% renewable energy and much more! The clear implication is that Mars is and will continue to rationalise its supplier base to deliver its promises. Palm oil is a case in point – Mars is sourcing all from those certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – the number of palm oil mills that it deals with has been slashed from 1,500 to fewer than 100 and their names are in the public record and all are RSPO-certified. In Asia-Pacific, 1 mill has replaced 780 smaller ones reminding us that reaching net zero may not be small business-friendly! Mars is using a combination of satellite mapping to monitor land use and 3rd party validation by the not-for-profit AidEnvironment.
  • Mars is joining the Science-Based Targets Initiative’s (SBTI) “Business Ambition  for 1.5C Pledge” and  the Race to Zero. Its managers should take good note – executive pay will be linked to Mars achieving environmental targets! The corporate focus will be on:
  • Absolute emissions’ reductions across its entire GHG footprint including ALL scope 3 emissions such as business travel, customer emissions, use of sold products and product end-of-life (i.e. disposal and recycling of final product & packaging), and setting 5 year milestones to drive action and track progress;
  • Elimination of deforestation in its supply chain;
  • Challenging its 20,000+ albeit diminishing suppliers to deliver GHG value chain emission reductions;
  • Publishing a full net zero roadmap by 2022 to align with the anticipated SBTI rules on net zero commitments by the end of 2021.

Linking executive pay to achieving environmental targets shows how ingrained these objectives are within the company. The cost of some other companies’ borrowings are linked also to their environmental performance. British grocer Tesco attracted loans of £5bn at the beginning of the year. The interest paid will drop if the company achieves its targets related to Scope 1 and 2 emissions. They aim to be a Net Zero Carbon business in the UK by 2035 (15 years ahead of the UK as a country) and by 2050 for their entire international business.

Another recurrent line on the environmental news is the GGE impact of global meat and dairy production on climate change.  The global meat and dairy industries are a soft target – pardon the pun but it’s “Easy Meat” for the “Green” lobby. Who isn’t going to defend the future of our planet and the wellbeing of cute farm animals when we’re told that the livestock and meat industry is causing problems? Particularly when anti-cattle activists are so zealous, passionate and increasingly professional about getting their side of the story across; whereas the pro-meat and dairy protagonists are, often, grumpy and focus on scientific arguments to support their case when most consumers are swayed by their emotions and side with those who seem to understand and share consumer citizen values. Most people prefer simple “facts”, too and, unfortunately, there’s no one global livestock production system and explaining life cycle assessment for meat products from the growing of livestock feed through to the disposal of leftover meat products and packaging, whilst not rocket science, is far from being simple!

Most pro-meat and -dairy groups do need to up their game on convincing consumers about the relevance of their products in the third decade of this century. It’s a VERY tough job and regularly made tougher by news coverage revealing the stark reality of producing farm animals that we then slaughter for our own consumption! You can see why, particularly younger people, might be swayed by vegetarian/vegan arguments and embrace plant-based products which mimic meat and dairy products.

Meat and dairy “bashing” may be fashionable but there’s plenty of initiatives abroad to redress these controversial issues, and find new processes that improve the sustainability of their operations and reduce their environmental impact:

  • Norwegian agri-tech company N2 Applied has been working on an EU-funded trial with Danish international dairy company Arla on its UK “Innovation Farm” using a scientific technique that applies air and electricity to slurry that “traps” methane and ammonia and, via a N2 plasma unit, converts cow manure into “sustainable fertiliser”. The N2 unit can eliminate harmful ammonia emissions (which reduce air quality), eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from methane, and enriches the nutrient content of livestock manure.
  • Earlier this year, Arla shared the output from the 1st year of its landmark Climate Check programme. Manure management was highlighted as one of the 5 main levers that will have a positive effect in supporting farmer cooperative Arla’s commitment to a 30% reduction of on-farm carbon emissions by 2030 and reaching carbon net zero farming by 2050. The challenge is to take these findings and find ways of making them work on a practical and affordable level on-farm.
  • The plasma-treated fertiliser converted from slurry using the N2 unit was independently tested when applied to winter wheat and found to reduce ammonia emissions by 90% compared with untreated slurry. Treated slurry produced on-farm has the potential to reduce the need for chemical fertiliser thereby reducing GGEs. IF N2 units were adopted across the UK dairy herd, they could deliver 17-21% of the UK’s National Farmers Union emission reduction targets for livestock. N2 Applied views that 1 N2 unit, working on a farm with 200 dairy cows, can reduce and remove a total of 183 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Back in 2016, the Brades family farm in Lancashire, UK, launched “The Original Barista Milk” for cafés and coffee chains to differentiate itself from commodity milk and to establish that premium “real milk” was better than the up and coming plant-based milks which were becoming fashionable with coffee drinkers (plant-based milks have a 10% milk market share in the UK).

As the “anti-dairy/milk” lobby switched their arguments for ditching cows’ milk for plant-based substitutes from animal welfare and human health to climate change concerns, so did the Brades family farm focus on reducing the carbon impact of its business. The result was a partnership with biotech startup Mootral which has developed a garlic-based livestock feed pellet that reduces methane output from cows by 30% – the pellets work by disrupting methane-producing enzymes in the cow’s gut.

Mootral is not alone in its methane reducing endeavours, UC Davis in the USA has found that some seaweeds in the cows’ diets can cut methane emissions by 82%. Royal DSM has recently received regulatory approval from Brazilian and Chilean agricultural authorities for its supplement Bovaer which, it is claimed, can cut methane emissions by up to 30% for dairy cows and 90% for feedlot cattle reared for beef. And, serendipitously redolent of Covid solutions, Cargill is trialling a methane-reducing mask for cows (90% of cattle methane emissions come  from the mouth and nostrils), and an anti-methane vaccine is being researched. 

The feeding of additives may work in developed countries where dairy and beef cattle may be fed indoors or fenced in but it’s more challenging in emerging countries with thousands of small-scale livestock producers who largely graze their animals wherever they can find grass. These countries contribute 70% of emissions from ruminant animals worldwide! As their household incomes rise, so will meat and dairy consumption exacerbating emissions’ problems although, agricultural development leading to increased farm sizes and changes in production systems may help.

There’s lots of international initiatives focusing on helping the global dairy industry edge towards a substantially reduced carbon emissions future. Arla and 10 other global dairy companies (e.g. Royal FrieslandCampina, Fonterra, Nestlé, Mars), plus other businesses in the dairy sector launched “Pathways to Dairy Net Zero ” in September just prior to the UN Food Systems Summit. Its focus is on accelerating climate efforts already underway and driving further necessary actions to reduce dairy’s emissions over the next decade.

Some critics of methane reduction products take the view that they’re no more than “greenwashing” and the best solution to reducing methane from cattle is just to eat less meat and dairy!

We’re going to see accelerated change in the global agriculture and food industry over the remainder of this decade. Our industry will be substantially “greener” to the good of the planet and to our businesses as the proportion of consumers rises inexorably who recognise that, through their purchasing decisions, “the power is on their plate”. Diets will change albeit slowly. Heavy meat and dairy eating countries will seek moderation, as others increase consumption of these aspirational foods. New foods will arrive but take ages to become established on our meal tables! “Story” foods will focus on provenance, seasonality, authenticity and the artisan. Working and school week foods will be better versions of what we woof down now – tasty, convenient, affordable and more understanding of evolving 21st century consumer values. All new? No – strikingly similar to our great-grandparents – eat what’s on your plate, don’t waste, respect the food producer, eat what’s in season! With food shopping and eating, there’s heart-warming circularity. We got seriously off track over the past century or so. Or some of us did in higher income countries. But consumers and the industry that feeds them may be slow to change, but they’re not stupid and, now, we seem to be juddering in a better direction for all concerned. 

Posted in Consumer, Credentials, Sustainability
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About the authors
Prof David Hughes: Around the world, David speaks to senior agribusiness and food industry managers about global food industry developments that are and will affect their businesses and industry. Energetic, engaging, humorous and insightful, David gains the very highest evaluations at seminars, conferences and Board level discussions in every continent he visits. Miguel Flavián: works for several Spanish organisations and companies to help them to learn from the developments of the British grocery market and improve their business back home.
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