Sustainable food production must be the hot topic for 2019, says M&S

Amid new scientific studies outlining the climate impact of farming and increasing consumer demand for plant-based foods, land use for food production will face "unprecedented" scrutiny in 2019, Marks & Spencer's (M&S) director of sustainable business Mike Barry has claimed.

Sustainable food production must be the hot topic for 2019, says M&S

Barry predicted that land use will be the next 'big bucket of emissions' targeted by businesses

Speaking at an Aldersgate Group event in central London last week, Barry was asked to summarise how key events in 2018 – including the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) flagship report on global warming and the COP24 summit – had set the UK’s sustainability sphere up for the coming year.

He argued that such events had served to place land use “under the spotlight” in a way he had never seen before, with consumer pressure driving many businesses within the food and drink and consumer goods sectors to set ambitious targets on carbon, environmental stewardship and animal rights.  

The IPCC report, for example, states that limiting demand for greenhouse-gas intensive foods through shifts to healthier and more sustainable diets is “key” to limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5C, beyond which millions more people will be affected by issues such as water stress, heatwaves and droughts.

“I can see a pathway forward for decarbonising mobility and power because we can predict what the solution will be, but when it comes to the food system and deforestation– which account for 15-20% of global emissions – we simply don’t have that clear pathway,” Barry said.

“We’ve seen new scientific evidence on planetary diets and an explosive growth of vegan and vegetarian diets, plus lots of great pledges from individual businesses on this issue, but it’s still less than the sum of the parts.”

Barry specifically championed a shift in land use away from livestock – which currently accounts for 83% of all existing agricultural land use – and towards the production of lower-carbon, plant-based commodities. M&S’s recent actions in this area include the launch of its new Plant Kitchen range, which includes 60 vegan products, and the development of its digital supply chain maps for beef and dairy, he added.

Barry’s sentiments were echoed by IPCC Working Group member Joana Portugal Pereira, who emphasised the importance of this shift in meeting the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement.

“We need to include behaviour change in our efforts, rethinking our consumption patterns and individual choices – particularly in regard to urban mobility and dietary choices,” Pereira said.

“We must shift from carbon-intensive diets to low-carbon ones – this is not entirely to do with meat and will be trickier than it may seem on first sight, but is essential.”

 A planet-friendly plate

Barry and Pereira’s comments came on the same day that non-profit EAT, which works to help make the global food system more sustainable, published its flagship ‘planetary health’ diet report. 

The body claims that if everyone followed its framework, called the EAT-Lancet diet, the food system could sustain a population of 10 billion people while tackling issues such as hunger, rising obesity rates and environmental sustainability challenges.

Developed by a group of 37 scientists, the diet encourages participants to source most of their protein from nuts and legumes while minimising their meat and dairy intake and eating starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, less frequently.

Given that the global meat sector is widely classed as a key contributor to climate change – and one of the worst-prepared industries for climate challenges such as droughts, floods and heatwaves in the world – such recommendations come as no surprise.

Indeed, Oxford University recently dubbed veganism as the “single biggest way” for a person to reduce their negative impact on the planet in terms of water stewardship and biodiversity preservation, as well as carbon reduction.

Collaboration and competition

The good news is that growing consumer awareness of these environmental issues, coupled with greater scrutiny of the ethical challenges posed by the global meat, seafood and dairy industries, has led to a sharp uptake in plant-based diets in recent times. The number of people identifying as vegan in the UK has increased by 350% since 2008, according to research by the Vegan Society, with similar trends having been tracked across the US, China, Australia and mainland Europe.

With the vegan milk and alternative protein markets both forecast to undergo dramatic levels of growth in the coming years, companies producing and selling food and drink have begun to increase their vegan and vegetarian offerings.

This month alone, the likes of McDonald’s UK, Pizza Hut and Gregg’s have added new veggie dishes to their menus, with the latter having trended on Twitter for three days after the launch of its Quorn sausage roll.

Speaking exclusively to edie after The Aldersgate Group event, M&S’s Barry explained that this trend is an example of “collaboration at one end and competition at the other” for food retailers, with sustainability now serving as a “non-binary” issue which is both a pre-competitive and a selling point.

“When it comes to launching new vegan or vegetarian products, all food retailers are going to try and win – but by winning, you inspire other people to come into the market and trying to knock you off of that perch, spurring even more progress,” he said.

“What we need is an absolute commitment, behind-the-scenes, to work together on developing frameworks and tackling challenges like deforestation and food waste. But when it comes to low-carbon products, we want everyone else to be competing.”

M&S at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum

M&S’s director of sustainable business Mike Barry will appear at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum to discuss the event’s theme, “embracing the fierce urgency of NOW”. Specifically, Barry will offer his insight into why seizing the potential of the digital revolution is not optional, and why collaborating to drive sustainability is more critical now than ever before. 

The two-day event, taking place 5 & 6 February 2019 at the Building Design Centre, London, will also include debates on how to solve the plastics crisis and the state of corporate action on sustainable packaging. 

For more information and to register for the Forum, click here.

Sarah George

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