Eating up the planet

David Read, chairman and founder of Prestige Purchasing, discusses the critical role we all have in building a better food system.

29 March 2019
food wastehealthmenusustainability
image credit: Getty Images

Meet the Expert

Who: David Read

What: Chairman

Where: Prestige Purchasing


In the middle of what is perhaps the biggest constitutional crisis in living memory, it’s easy to be drawn in by the daily twists and turns of the politics, to be consumed by the complexity, and fired up by whichever side of the argument your beliefs lead you. Even though we long for the certainty of a stable political and economic environment, as entrepreneurs we love the unpredictability, and thrive on the market opportunities it exposes.

But all the time, whilst we gaze mesmerised at the battle unfolding in front of us, an enormous conflagration is raging behind us. There’s now ample evidence that some time ago we reached a tipping point regarding our consumption of the world’s resources. Whilst we squabble over Brexit we are sleepwalking into an uncomfortable new phase where, as a species, we must change the way we live if we are to avoid highly unpalatable consequences for our children and those that follow them.

So why am I writing about this on an industry-specific website for leaders in the foodservice and hospitality sector? The reason is simple – our food supply system is broken and unsustainable, and we all need to show leadership on these changes. Our food system in the UK feeds around 67m hungry mouths every day, and each year our consumers spend £217bn on food. Broadly speaking, a half of what we eat originates in the UK, one third from the EU, and the remainder from the rest of the world.

Our sector (the agri-food sector) is responsible for 13% of all UK employment. So far so good. But the negative environmental/social problems now associated with both growing and delivering our food are significant and the situation is deteriorating. These problems are, for the most part, systemic in nature.

Fuelling greenhouse gases

Whilst there is clearly much good work now happening in our sector to improve things, much more action is needed and much more quickly. Take climate change for example. Under current global policies the climate will, by 2100, be on average 3.5 degrees hotter than it is today. This level will have significant negative impacts on crop yields, create droughts in many currently temperate areas, destroy existing ecosystems, raise sea levels to flood proportions in many crop growing areas, and increase the number of floods, droughts, storms and forest fires in vulnerable areas, including the UK.

Small words, but enormous impact on many food markets, creating huge availability issues and unprecedented price pressure. One third of all greenhouse gasses have recently been referenced as generated by the end-to-end food system, with predictions that this will increase to 50% by 2030.

The largest contributors to this issue are beef, lamb and farmed prawns. The highest vegetable protein sources generate less GHGs than the lowest sources of animal proteins. And the global food system throws away about one third of total production, which is over a billion tonnes per annum.

Beef production of course has particularly come under the spotlight on GHGs, with the DIFFERENCE between low and high impact beef production being enormous. The two biggest harm-doers in this area are grain fed cattle, and the clearing of forests (usually initially for timber) for conversion to pasture. Across the globe, every 60 minutes, 240 acres of natural habitat are destroyed in this latter process. That’s equivalent to losing an area each year equivalent to much of southern England.

And it’s not just our forests that we are destroying. Every 20 minutes we add c3500 to the world’s population, and lose on average one more species. Many parts of the world use intensive farming methods that are creating large scale losses in biodiversity.

This shouldn’t just matter to environmentalists, as our natural food chains have existed for thousands of years, and their disruption threatens our ability to produce safe, nutritious food in the future.

Take soils for example. One third of agricultural soils in the world are now seriously degraded, mainly through monoculture – a farming system that relies on chemical fertilisers to enable the same crop to be grown on the same land year after year. Soils are further degraded in many places by excessive use of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, all of which kill the invertebrates, fungi and bacteria that make up the very organic matter required for growth.

It’s also worth adding that the challenges in our food system don’t just extend to its impact upon sustainability. How we eat is also creating an epidemic of diet related disease. If current trends persist one in three of the UK population will be clinically obese by 2034. One in 10 of us (around 7m people) will be suffering from type two diabetes as a result, with catastrophic impacts on NHS budgets, not to mention the misery created in so many everyday lives.

Simple steps towards change

As the foodservice and hospitality sector, we don’t have the power or the wherewithal to solve all of these issues on our own. But together with our colleagues in the retail sector, we are in the privileged position of being both the guardian of consumers wellbeing, and their mouthpiece into the upstream supply chain where many of the challenges originate.

When I speak with procurement directors and business leaders in our sector on these subjects, I get a mixed response. Many are well read on these matters, and actively working with their suppliers to raise standards on sustainability and social matters. But many feel overwhelmed by the scale of change required, and their ability to influence outcomes, often coming to rest in the “too hard/low return” box. Lip service is not uncommon.

In my view we can all do more. For those on the start of the journey, with a will to move forward, here are some simple early steps:

  • Deforestation: eliminate any part of your supply chain that creates deforestation. Meat, sugars and oils are the three biggest areas to review.
  • Waste: put a large management focus on food waste reduction. Review and invest in technology. Measure and celebrate progress.
  • Renewables: put particular focus on energy and plastics.
  • Supplier performance: start measuring your key suppliers on their sustainability performance. Create a grading system that incentivises improved performance.
  • Menu choice: ensure that all menus have attractive healthy choices all the time, and promote them.

When Brexit is finally resolved, the government will inevitably give renewed attention to these matters, potentially through policy and/or taxation. This will almost certainly be painful for our balance sheets. If our sector acts decisively now, we can still do much to mitigate or even prevent legislation, and in so doing keep our reputations intact by protecting our customers too.

Let’s hope we are not too late.

This article was originally published by Food Spark’s sister service MCA, the leading UK provider of eating and drinking out market intelligence, renowned for unrivalled daily news coverage, market insight and events. Request a free trial of MCA’s News service here.

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