Creating a sustainable food system depends on a shared mentality as well as collaboration

Like most industries, food and drink is grappling with how to create a sustainable and, where possible, circular system. At the heart of that challenge is dealing with the huge and extremely complex global food system, which encompasses the way we grow, make and consume food.

Creating a sustainable food system depends on a shared mentality as well as collaboration

The challenge is made greater when considering how to create more food to feed a growing global population whilst, at the same time, using less natural resources. The need to transform this system is even clearer when looking at the impacts of climate change, water scarcity and topsoil degradation.

Achieving that first requires having a mentality that we at PepsiCo call ‘sustainable from the start’. This acts as a mental cue to think about sustainability and lifecycle at every stage of the product development process – from how we produce raw ingredients, through to production and distribution.

We want this mentality to filter through our whole supply chain and out into the wider industry. Much has been said of the need for collaboration to achieve system change, and whilst that is crucial, it needs to go hand in hand with a shared mentality and vision for a sustainable food system at every stage of the process.

Stage 1: sustainable agriculture 

A sustainable food system has to start with how raw materials are farmed and grown. Agriculture is responsible for around 70% of the world’s water consumption and about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. As one of the world’s largest food and drink companies, we have a responsibility to grow everything we need with as little waste as possible. We do that through our Sustainable Farming Programme, which allows us to innovate and upskill farmers and growers to improve their practices and make more whilst using less.

For example, through the use of our mobile and web-based crop monitoring technology, growers can better understand how their crops are performing and the reasons behind any changes. Currently, all our potato fields – across 14 markets in Europe – are covered by the technology which supplies intelligence across 48,000 hectares of potato production.

By using the crop monitoring technology, farmers can carry out in-field crop monitoring, receiving live data from any field they are tracking across more than 200 data points. The technology also gives farmers early warning about irrigation requirements so they can start watering their fields at the right time.

Stage 2: sustainable production

Food manufacturers have a good opportunity to be creative in how they switch to sustainable methods of production. Whilst renewable energy has a big part to play – we already use 100% renewable electricity for manufacturing in nine markets in Europe – the by-products of manufacturing can provide good alternative sources of energy. For example, at PepsiCo, we have built a biomass energy plant in our potato crisps factory in the UK, which utilises the unusable bi-products from the potatoes to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

The industry also needs to collectively make sure we’re pursuing sustainability. This can require significant investment, but new ways of financing these transitions are emerging. For example, in October we launched a green bond to finance projects across our supply chain and green finance has an important role to play in helping the industry invest in sustainable production.

Stage 3: sustainable packaging and distribution

Packaging is clearly a big issue for the industry, and it’s a complex problem. Whilst the over-reliance on single-use plastic is rightly criticised, it’s important to recognise that plastic protects the safety and freshness of food, making sure consumers receive a high-quality product. With 88 million tonnes of food wasted every year across Europe, plastic also helps to prolong shelf lives and mitigate waste.

As a company we have set out a vision to build a world where plastic need never becomes waste through reducing the amount of plastic we use, working with others across the system to increase recycling and looking at ways to reinvent our packaging through new ways for consumers to enjoy our products and exploring new materials.  We have made commitments to work towards a circular economy and we are members of the UK Plastics Pact, including committing to achieve 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging.

The industry has begun stepping up to design products that can be easily recycled in existing systems. Recycling will become the mainstream option in the future, but businesses across the food sector must work together to achieve a circular economy.

The pace of change across the industry in terms of technology and practices has been encouraging. Innovations are coming for all parts of the system. Creating a sustainable food system requires continued collaboration and a shared vision, not just for single parts of the system, but through the whole value chain – from the farms where food is grown, to the factories where products are made, and to how we recycle or reuse the packaging.

By Chris Daly, Supply Chain VP, Strategy, Transformation and Sustainability – PepsiCo Europe

Comments (1)

  1. Sophie Churchill says:

    Great piece.

    A further sustainability challenge is that too many people are eating too much food and not helpful calories. What part do food and product manufacturers have in that element of sustainability? It impacts of course on quality of life, health systems, resources… Reduced consumption is more sustainable than the circular economy based on over-consumption…

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