Food supply sustainability offers ‘large opportunities’

There are large opportunities for food businesses who 'get it right' in terms of supply chain sustainability and resilience, according to UK champion for Global Food Security Professor Tim Benton.

Such businesses will make gains in both business success and consumer appeal he told edie after addressing the Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF) ‘Secure and Sustainable – Rio+20 Challenge’ event in London yesterday (May 21).

Without sustainability, supply chains will gradually be eroded, becoming more prone to disruption caused by extreme weather events he told Federation delegates.

“You are in the perfect place to drive consumer behaviour by preferentially supplying food that is more sustainably sourced,” he said, before warning that sustainability would never be easy.

“The food industry needs to become more sophisticated in assessing what ‘sustainable’ might mean, and developing ways to address the complexity of the issue, rather than relying on simple metrics such as C02, which only partially covers the ground,” said Mr Benton.

Sharing the Federation platform with Defra secretary of state, Caroline Spelman, Prof Benton welcomed the UK Government’s pre-Rio recognition of the complexity food systems impact on climate change.

He said: “Assessing what is sustainable is complex, partly because there are multiple currencies (CO2, water, land, people, biodiversity, transport miles) and partly because of a range of indirect effects,” he said.

“These indirect effects can act through a number of routes. A farmer can, say, put some nitrogen on his field that leaches off downstream and affects the water quality and biodiversity a long way off.”

Prof. Benton also warned that a short-fall in the demand-supply balance would cause other farmers elsewhere to farm harder, therefore causing a complex indirect effect through the market. He said. “We’d therefore buy on the market, causing someone else, somewhere else, to intensify their production, creating the potential for environmental harm that outweighs our local environmental good.”

As a result he concluded: “Sustainable agriculture is not simply about assessing CO2 emissions along the food chain, or totting up the red herring of the transport miles.”

Rio+20 is set to take place in Brazil, on June 20-22.

Edie staff

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