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Decarbonising the Food Sector

February 2024 by Nicola Siddons & Lily Mann

As the world approaches the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees of warming, the imperative for food companies to decarbonise has reached a pivotal moment.

In December 2023, COP28 opened in Dubai with a long-awaited declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action, recognising the profound potential of food systems in responding to climate change.


The environmental impact of modern food systems

Contemporary food systems drive 90% of deforestation, 60% of biodiversity loss, and 70% of the world’s freshwater use. These systems, contributing to over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), heavily rely on fossil fuels utilised in the production of pesticides and fertilisers, as well as in processing, transport, distribution, and cooking.

Climate change also poses substantial threats to the food system, impacting both food security and the resilience of companies in the sector. The IPCC estimates that, without significant mitigation efforts, climate change could reduce crop yields by up to 25%, exacerbating global food insecurity.

Unravelling emissions across the sector

When examining the carbon hotspots for most food products, the primary contributors are land use changes and on-farm activities, accounting for over 80% of the footprint.

In contrast, transport is a small contributor to emissions. For most food products, it accounts for less than 10%, and for the largest GHG emitters, such as beef herds, it’s just 0.5%.

Beyond transportation, all post-farm supply chain processes – encompassing processing, retail and packaging – generally account for a small share of emissions.

Where should food companies focus their attention?

Many companies in the food and hospitality sector focus on reducing emissions within their own operations, i.e., scopes 1 and 2. Whilst this reduction is integral to a comprehensive net-zero plan, the real carbon hot spots are elsewhere in the supply chain.

The most substantial opportunity for companies to contribute to reaching zero carbon emissions lies in reducing land use and on-farm emissions. These scope 3 targets are also a requirement for organisations under the Science Based Target Initiative and will only become a greater focus with evolving legislation and compliance standards. The continued use of poorly managed offsets to avoid reducing emissions is increasingly viewed as both reputationally and ethically damaging.

The food sector can most effectively reduce scope 3 emissions by fostering a shift toward regenerative agriculture and agroecology. According to the Carbon Trust, embracing sustainable agricultural practices has the potential to reduce on-farm emissions by up to 50%.

Fixing the food system is a complex and urgent task critical to stopping climate change. As noted in COP’s Declaration, there is a lot that can be done. The potential benefits of decarbonising the food system extend across people, planet and profit. However, the vast scope of possibilities can make it difficult for organisations to set, measure and meet sustainability targets while navigating climate jargon, misinformation and inadvertent greenwashing.

The Carbon Literacy Project’s Shareable Food Course has been developed to protect against such reputational risks, offering holistic, science-based solutions tailored to your organisation, and will kickstart your transformation to zero-carbon.


The Business Benefits of Going Green

Decarbonisation isn’t only an ethical imperative but also strategically essential for food businesses. A robust net-zero strategy enhances a company’s reputation and brand, ensures regulatory compliance, improves investment opportunities, mitigates risks and ensures resilient supply chains. Embracing sustainable practices can also lead to long-term cost savings. A study by the World Economic Forum found that companies with a strong focus on sustainability outperform their peers, boasting a 4.8% higher profit margin over the long term.


Education as a catalyst

Confusion within the food sector about initiating this decarbonisation process has led to unintentional greenwashing, with organisations suffering reputational damage.

Addressing this requires education, and the implementation of Carbon Literacy programs for the workforce can be the driver for this transformative change. Educated employees become advocates for genuine engagement and action towards tangible net-zero goals. A study by Harvard Business Review found that companies with well-implemented sustainability education programs experienced a 50% reduction in environmental incidents and a 25% improvement in overall performance.

The Carbon Literacy Shareable Food Course covers the production, impacts and solutions of carbon emissions from farm-to-fork, all in a day’s worth of interactive, peer-led training. It encompasses all relevant materials, including a complete script for trainers, a trainer manual and evidence-based science sources. Editable and optional slides provide the flexibility for further customisation to align with your organisation’s specific niche in the sector. Learners gain certification as Carbon Literate based on the individual and group actions they pledge after training.


Ahead of the curve: Foodbuy’s CL journey

Foodbuy UK & Ireland is a leading food procurement organisation that sources food and other products for the world’s widest range of food service and hospitality clients, including their parent company, Compass Group UK & Ireland. In an industry-first initiative, Foodbuy delivered Carbon Literacy training to its first cohort of learners in August 2023. All 13 team members who undertook training gained certification on the first attempt, thanks to their proactive pledges targeting key carbon-emitting areas of the food system.

Their pledges encompass initiatives such as creating and disseminating a supplier matrix detailing scope 1-3 emissions and adding carbon footprint tracking and net-zero commitments as key points in supplier meetings. Furthermore, the pledges also involve sharing the latest science-based tools for measuring emissions with clients and hosting information sessions for suppliers on sustainable practices.

Recognising the transformative impact of Carbon Literacy training, numerous learners from the Foodbuy team pledged to facilitate the upscaling of Carbon Literacy training at Foodbuy. Leading by example, Chief Operations Officer Andy Porter pledged to ensure that all new recruits receive Carbon Literacy training within their first year at Foodbuy. By committing to this, Foodbuy is not only providing professional development for their team but also empowering them with the skills necessary to drive and advocate for effective carbon reduction.

We are really pleased that Foodbuy will be training a second round of learners later this year and are excited to see how climate action in the Food Sector grows and strengthens with their influence. Hear from the Foodbuy team on their experience of Carbon Literacy here.

Curious about the climate action Carbon Literacy training could unlock in your workplace? Get in touch at food@carbonliteracy.com for the shareable food course or info@carbonliteracy.com for other sectors.

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