There’s no disputing the fact that the food industry’s environmental footprint is huge. Food production is one of the biggest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, habitat destruction, freshwater use, and pollution. The statistics paint a troubling picture, yet there is hope.

Over hundreds of years, agriculture and food production have slowly but surely impacted life on our planet. The ways we grow and produce food have been responsible for some of humanity’s greatest impacts on the environment, consuming increasingly scarce resources, transforming habitats and threatening biodiversity. And it’s becoming abundantly clear that the growing global population requires a more sustainable way of producing the food it needs. The question is, can we feed the world and save it at the same time? 

Measuring the impact of food production 

With half the world’s habitable land now used for agriculture,*1 it’s undeniable that feeding an ever-growing human population has a huge environmental impact. In fact, the UN Food Systems Summit declared in 2021 that the way we produce and market food is harming our environment *2.  

The statistics are sobering. Food production is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions *3. Added to this, 70% of global freshwater withdrawals are used for growing food, and 78% of global waterway eutrophication – pollution from excessive nutrient load  – can be traced back to agriculture *4. 

Land continues to be cleared for agriculture, with the proportion of forested land falling from 31.9% of the world’s total land area in 2000 to 31.2% in 2020 – a net loss of almost 100 million hectares *5.  And when forests or grasslands are cleared for farming, the amount of carbon the soil can store is reduced by 50-75% and species-rich habitat is lost *6. 

Then there’s the impact of modern farming methods, which in many settings have become heavily dependent on inorganic fertilisers and pesticides, not to mention unsustainable practices such as monocropping and heavy tillage. Biodiversity above and below ground has suffered as a result. 

Wild mammal populations have plummeted by 82% since 1970, and bird, fish, amphibian, and reptile populations have also undergone an alarming decrease in size *7. Livestock present on the earth now outweighs wild mammals by a factor of 15-to-1, with agriculture and aquaculture found to pose a significant threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 species found to be at risk of extinction on the IUCN Red List *8. Insect populations are also at threat, with farmland in climate-stressed areas where most nearby natural habitat has been removed losing 63% of the pollinators that play an essential role in maintaining biodiversity *9. 

If there’s one sobering statistic that stands out, it’s this. It is estimated that 60-70% of the world’s ecosystems are degrading faster than they can recover *10. 

There is a real and growing need for business to report internally and disclose externally on progress from key topics such as climate, farming practices and biodiversity. The starting point for an informed sustainability programme is having the correct tools in place  for accurate measurement. Creating visibility of your supply chain and the current sustainability performance of your products, allows you to engage with suppliers and producers across both simple or complex multi-tier supply chains, enabling guidance on what practice changes will make a substantial difference and should be incentivised. 

The measurement  tools available also need to be flexible, as the requirements and issues between product categories and geographies do vary. Producers of food need insights across products and suppliers to improve decision-making for supplier management, sustainable sourcing options, Scope 3 product carbon disclosures and their Net-Zero programmes. A drive for standardised reporting of Scope 3 and Net-Zero is underway with organisations such as WRAP providing protocols for food businesses to adopt to allow consistency in disclosures. 

"New Protocols will give businesses a consistent methodology for measuring and tracking their progress in reducing supply chain emissions. This will help ensure evidenced and rational decision-making on how to ensure businesses meet their declared targets to reduce GHGs from their operations." *11

One way to make a difference: Reducing food waste

Food waste is a significant issue contributing to the environmental impact of food production. Currently, around one third of all food produced is lost or allowed to spoil *12 between production and consumption — and this wasted food is a key contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, with around 6-8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions tied to food wastage *13. In fact, every year, around 3.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent are produced from food loss. If food loss were a country, it would rank as the third highest greenhouse gas emitter globally, after the US and China *14. 

Wherever food is wasted, all of the resource usage to create that food is also wasted, including farm inputs, natural resources, energy and labour. 

Rapid and ambitious changes to food production systems are needed to address these serious issues. To get started, it’s vital that all players in the agri food industry have complete traceability into the systems and processes behind growing and producing food. ​​Armed with this knowledge, organisations are in the best position to identify ways to reduce food waste and shrink the environmental footprint of food production. 

TELUS Agriculture & Consumer Goods can help. Sustainability Management uses robust sustainability evaluations, smart benchmarking and data-driven insights to help you transform your supply chain sustainability programme beyond compliance. Organisations can further reduce their food waste  with Cold Chain Management which improves food safety within supply chains with accurate temperature management at every stage. Find out more about our Sustainability solution by downloading our brochure, or request a demonstration today. 

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  1. Our World in Data, 2021, Environmental impacts of food   
  2. United Nations, 2021, UN Food Systems Summit
  3. Poore, K., & Nemecek, T. 2018, Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers, Science, 360(6392), 987-992.
  4. Our World in Data, 2021, Environmental impacts of food   
  5. FAO, 2021, Tracking progress on food and agriculture-related SDG indicators
  6. Natural History Museum, 2021, Soil degradation: the problems and how to fix them
  7. Chatham, 2021, Food system impacts on biodiversity loss
  8. Our World in Data, 2021, Environmental impacts of food   
  9. The Conversation, 2022, Climate change triggering global collapse in insect numbers
  10. The World Bank, 2022, Environment
  11. Wrap, New Scope 3 Measurement & Reporting Protocols help UK Food & Drink businesses
  12. WWF, 2022, Fighting climate change by preventing food waste
  13. United Nations, 2022, Global Issues: Food
  14. Markets and Markets, 2021, Cold Chain Monitoring Market with Covid-19 Impact – Global Forecast to 2026
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