The global food industry has an estimated market value of around $10 trillion, accounting for more than ten per cent of global GDP. However, inefficiencies and flaws in the food system are leading to $12 trillion in hidden environmental, health and poverty costs. It has been shown that by transitioning to a more sustainable food system we could make $5.7 trillion in economic gains each year, free up 1.5 billion hectares of land from agriculture, and unlock $4.5 trillion in new commercial opportunities every year until 2030. Transforming our food system isn’t just good for the global economy’s bottom line, or for planetary health, it also creates opportunities for businesses. While the Food and Land Use Coalition recommend 10 different transitions, if businesses take responsibility to immediately instil sustainable supply chains they will take significant steps towards this more profitable future.
The first thing businesses can do within their supply chains, and one that has been talked about quite extensively, is to ensure they are conversion and deforestation-free; that the commodities they’re buying or trading aren’t causing the destruction of nature. The development of the Accountability Framework Initiative ensures they have the tools to achieve this. What hasn’t been talked about widely to date is the importance of grasslands and savannahs in this effort.
The majority of agriculturally productive lands are in grasslands and savannahs, or spaces that could have been previously considered as such. This is the primary reason that we’ve already lost half of these landscapes. Despite the fact they are homes to rich biodiversity, valuable water sources and home to one fifth of the carbon on the planet captured terrestrially, we are sacrificing them to implement inefficient production models.
To both optimise production and minimize further encroachment into nature, land requires good stewardship. Unfortunately, in many places, unsustainably agriculture practices provoke land degradation. Take the Cerrado in Brazil for example: on average a million hectares is cleared each year, much of which is used to grow soy. However, there is enough suitable cleared land in the Cerrado, including degraded pasturelands, to triple soy production and eventually meet the expected global demand for soy in the next 50 years, without converting another inch of the most biodiverse savannah on the planet.
Businesses need to take responsibility for where the food in their supply chains originates; no longer can they accept it coming from areas that have been needlessly converted. They must work with their suppliers to implement better land management, build soil carbon and integrate agro-ecological approaches which improve soil health and other ecosystem services. Using lands to integrate production, with both animals and biodiverse crops, while also restoring ecosystems, is one way to achieve a more healthy landscape and maintain the health of soils — as is being done by ranchers in parts of the Great Plains of Northern America. Because of their deep root systems and because they are more resilient to droughts and fires, grassland and savannah systems store carbon more stably than other vegetation types. To that end, businesses must invest in rehabilitating soils so that degraded grasslands can be returned to food production.. This will ensure we have optimised food production and landscapes which can help limit global warming.
In addition to taking responsibility for where their food comes from, businesses must take action to make significant reductions in loss along their supply chains. A third of all food produced goes uneaten, representing a huge loss of the natural resources that went into its production, a $940 billion loss to the economy each year, and a total of eight per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The recent FAO State of Food and Agriculture report shows that 14 per cent of all food is lost after harvesting and before reaching retail.
Emphasis on food loss and waste in the private sector tends to be at the consumption-end; how businesses can improve the way food is delivered to customers to ensure that it doesn’t go uneaten, for instance in the hospitality sector. This is an incredibly important transformation. However, businesses must also work with their suppliers to make sure that the most amount of food possible gets from the farm to the consumer. Loss is a worldwide problem and to categorise it as something which only happens in developing countries (and waste as something which happens in developed countries) is inaccurate and misleading. However, the rates of loss do vary widely from region to region and commodity to commodity. As such, there is not a one-size fits all solution and, as FAO the report states, we must “identify critical loss points in specific supply chains as a crucial step in taking appropriate countermeasures.” This is where businesses can take action, by partnering with suppliers to first implement robust measurement frameworks that allow them to understand where losses occur within their supply chains, and then improving logistics like storage and transport, while providing training to improve handling practices, and investing in improved packaging to reduce loss.
We all have a role to play in transitioning to a more sustainable food system. Businesses have one of the most pronounced opportunities to drive change and the reality is they are expected to take responsibility for all stages of their supply chain. They have the power to demand better from producers and actors within their supply chain, while also channelling more investments to direct action in capacity building and restorative measures. The solutions exist for them to deliver impactful changes that deliver increased profits, improve the lives of the people with whom they work, and create a healthier planet.