The food and agriculture industry today is responsible for approximately 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And with the global population expected to rise to almost 10 billion by 2050, those emissions are set to rise if we continue with our current production methods.
Feeding the world is a mammoth task with farmers, scientists, innovators and policy makers all involved in the effort to ensure there is enough food to meet everyone’s needs.
But designing a sustainable food system encompasses everything from how and where we grow our produce to how it’s being harvested and transported around the world and finally to how it’s being purchased and consumed in homes.
So here are a few things to consider as you build a sustainable food business
How food is produced
Animal agriculture makes up 75-80% of total agriculture emissions and represents 44% of human-caused methane emissions – which is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 100 years. Instead of farming animals, focus your efforts instead on growing fruit, vegetables, herbs, nuts and seeds. We also need to move away from large-scale factory farming practices and go back to smaller family farms.
Practice regenerative agriculture to protect biodiversity and enrich the soil. Elements of regenerative agriculture include crop rotation, avoiding mono crops and plowing less frequently. It also includes silvopasture – integrating crops and livestock can enhance soil fertility and reduce irrigation requirements.
Grow organic produce where possible without fertilisers and pesticides and stay clear of genetically modified organisms. The nitrogen contained in fertilisers can get into the groundwater or end up in nearby streams and even oceans causing algal blooms and oceanic dead zones by using up all the oxygen.
Farmlands around the world use around 70% of the world’s freshwater resources. This can drive competition and conflict – especially in times of drought. Put sustainable irrigation methods in place like drip irrigation, sprinkler irrigation, deficit irrigation and sensor irrigation. Not only can this help save water, but you’ll also need less energy because you don’t need to pump water into the system.
Natural resources are only one part of agriculture. Human resources are another. You are responsible for your labourers, suppliers, delivery drivers and even your end customers. Keep their health and wellbeing at the forefront of your mind and ensure you pay living wages, provide a clean and fair working environment and support local communities.
How food is harvested and transported
Do your research and grow what your marketplace wants. Where possible, secure a buyer before you plant your crops.
And be sure to invest in the proper storage, processing and transportation facilities to avoid food waste during the harvesting stage.
As organic waste decomposes, it emits methane – which is 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide over 100 years. By installing methane digesters, you can turn food waste into biogas – which can be used as an energy source for your business or to sell on to a local energy grid – and digestrate – which can be used as a nutrient-rich fertiliser.
Composting can also help you reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill – preventing methane and saving you money on hauling and disposal. Compost can also be used as fertiliser to enrich the soil and improve plant growth.
Work to reduce unnecessary packaging and to eliminate plastics entirely as you transport your produce to its final destination. Use biodegradable packaging that can be recycled or composted instead. And consider the food miles your produce is travelling. Are there opportunities to serve your local communities, grocery stores, hospitality venues and even households?
How food is sold and consumed
If you’re a grocery store…
- Work with suppliers and manufacturers to eliminate plastic packaging and stop providing single-use grocery bags
- Sell discounted produce that is mis-shapen or nearing its sell-by date to avoid food waste and donate food that hasn’t sold to food shelters in your community
- Automate your ordering systems to reduce excess inventory
- Better label own-brand products with how to recycle the packaging
- Use natural refrigerants rather than hydrofluorocarbons to cut emissions
- Use electric vehicles in your at-home delivery service
- Create a zero-waste, refill section to encourage consumers to bring their own containers when buying product in bulk
If you’re a hospitality venue…
- Conduct a waste audit and train staff to reduce food waste
- Store food properly, using the first-in, first-out method to ensure older stock is used up before newer items
- Install water-saving toilets to reduce the amount of water used with each flush
- Replace water-intensive equipment with water-efficient models
If you’re selling direct to consumers….
- Educate your customers about the benefits of regenerative farming practices and certifications like Fairtrade and Soil Association
- Provide tutorials on how to use the entire product and how to cook with leftovers
- Use electric vehicles in your at-home delivery service
- Reduce unnecessary packaging and eliminate plastic packaging entirely
Our food systems touch on food security, energy use, air and water pollution, human rights and biodiversity loss. Doing your part to be a sustainable food business can help protect the environment and increase productivity, reduce waste as well as operating costs and invest in the health and wellbeing of our local communities.
In spite of the gravity of the challenges, the food industry is also one of the most exciting with huge innovation and progress being made around the world.