Food and Water

Here's how the food industry can decarbonize

With the decarbonization of food an urgent global challenge, the grocery sector has a “unique opportunity” to lead the way.

With the decarbonization of food an urgent global challenge, the grocery sector has a “unique opportunity” to lead the way. Image: Unsplash/Franki Chamaki

Simon Read
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Food and farming may be responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to climate scientists.
  • A leading supermarket chain says it can produce carbon-neutral eggs by feeding hens insects instead of soya.
  • The grocery sector is well-placed to lead the way on more sustainable food production, says a study.

Carbon-neutral eggs are on their way to our breakfast tables, as the climate crisis forces us to reinvent the ways we get our food.

The eggs come from a major UK supermarket which has started feeding its hens insects instead of soya on some of its farms.

Morrisons says this reduces deforestation and carbon emissions linked to the production and transportation of soya.

The grocery chain is one of many retailers searching for greener ways to supply food because existing methods are unsustainable. Scientists warn emissions from agriculture are increasingly responsible for near-term global warming.

Decarbonizing food industry

Food production systems are linked to a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, says the United Nations.

With the decarbonization of food an urgent global challenge, the grocery sector has a “unique opportunity” to lead the way, according to research from McKinsey and Company.

The grocery industry and suppliers need to work together to decarbonize the global food system.
The grocery industry and suppliers need to work together to decarbonize the global food system. Image: McKinsey & Company

The study says sustainable food production is both a necessity and an opportunity for grocery chains. Shoppers are paying more for products that they believe “to be both beneficial for the planet and good for themselves”.

McKinsey argues that those firms seen as sustainable can recruit the best workers and attract investors who are increasingly driven by Environmental, Social and Governance values.

Greener farming methods

Many grocers are already working with farmers to cut emissions, says the McKinsey report. It highlights a major Swiss outlet that has a fund to support its suppliers with climate-friendly projects, as well as a European dairy producer working with almost 8,000 farms in seven countries to promote sustainable agriculture.

The eggs laid by Morrisons’ insect-munching hens are another example of a grocery chain pushing greener farming.

The project uses technology developed by UK start-up Better Origin, which produces millions of insects in special containers to feed the hens.

Green credentials

The insects eat leftovers from the supermarket’s fruit, vegetable and bakery operations which Better Origin describes as a “world first supermarket-driven circular system”.

The farm that has produced the first of the eggs has serious green credentials: a large wind turbine, solar panels and a carbon sequestration programme to offset any remaining emissions. A fifth of its land is planted with trees.

Morrisons asked the Centre for Industrial Sustainability at the University of Cambridge to review the way it had calculated the environmental impact of the eggs.

Sustainable food production

Ian Bamford, Commercial Director at the Centre, says: “We were very pleased to… review and analyze the approach that Morrisons has taken to calculating the carbon impact of several of their egg producers… the mitigation actions that had been put in place by the first farm to produce carbon-neutral eggs enabled them to meet that goal.”

Morrisons is not alone. One of their UK competitors - Sainsbury’s - sells carbon-neutral eggs, from the producer Respectful. Those hens are fed with field beans instead of insects, reports the Guardian.

Wherever we buy them, planet-friendly eggs won’t be the only ingredient we need to establish sustainable food production. In the UK, at least one producer is promoting carbon-neutral potatoes and research is underway into whether feeding cows seaweed could reduce methane emissions.

Driving change

But some question whether world leaders are doing enough to promote change in the food and farming sector.

We need to start with acknowledging the urgency of the challenge”, Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change for the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy told Reuters. “The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] warns that governments thus far have not been up to the task.”

The United States is responding with increased federal investment in sustainable farming schemes and was one of more than 100 countries that committed to big cuts in methane emissions at the COP26 climate talks in 2021.

Shoppers might soon have more information to help them choose planet-friendly food. Scientists from Oxford University have developed an algorithm that could help consumers see the environmental impact of produce they are buying, the BBC reports.

Professor Peter Scarborough says: “It [eco labelling] fills a huge gap. Manufacturers, caterers and retailers have targets for reaching net zero [emissions] and they don’t have the tools they need to get there… The data could help manufacturers adjust their formulations.”

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Related topics:
Food and WaterIndustries in DepthClimate Action
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