Sustainability and future-proofing the food system

How does the food system impact the environment and what is its obligation to reduce climate change?

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sustainability future-proofing the food system Pepsico Adm Good Food Institute Boston Consulting Group Unmetered Unmetered

With between a quarter and a third of human caused greenhouse gas emissions linked to food production and climate change intensifying to a point that its impacting how, where and when key crops are grown, improving sustainability in the food system is no longer nice to have – it is a must have.

But where can the most gains be made the most quickly and with the largest impact?

A good starting point is protein, according to a group of experts from across the food industry gathered by FoodNavigator-USA to explore sustainability and future-proofing the food system.

In this first installment of a four-part video series that will run over the next four weeks, they discuss how protein can be considered through a sustainability lens with an open mind and without finger pointing, and place it in the context of other GHG contributors, including other type of food production, emerging technologies, and both human and business needs and desires.

‘We have to try to double the amount of protein and food over the next 20 to 30 years’

When experts first began looking for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change, the focused on obvious high emitters – like energy – but given how far away major milestones remain, like the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, the food system’s impact must now also be considered, Neeru Ravi, principal and alternative proteins topic lead in North America for the Boston Consulting Group, notes in the video.

She explains, “If, for example, we stopped using fossil fuels today, we still wouldn’t be able to meet the Paris Agreement without shrinking food’s carbon footprint,”​ which accounts for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

And as animal agriculture accounts for 15 points o that 26%, she argues, rethinking livestock emissions and land use for animal agriculture offers “a real opportunity to address that emission and lead towards a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”

But simply stopping animal agriculture is not a feasible solution, said David Bucca, CEO and founder of precision fermentation company Change Foods. Nor is simply carrying on in the same way, he added.

“We have to try to double the amount of protein and food over the next 20 to 30 years. Whilst on the other hand, we’re already … having such a large impact with our current food supply, that in order to increase, it means its only going to potentially get worse unless we think about other ways to either cut back or innovate or redirect consumers to try new different foods or with new changing nutritional habits,”​ he said.

“When you think about global systems, you also have to look at the trends and changes. So a lot of that growth is actually really coming out of Asia and Africa over the next 20 to 30 years, in particular, with rising middle class with growing effluent and with changing diets, of course, and most of them seem to be increasing, having more burden on animal based and derived food products, such as meat and dairy,”​ he added. “And so we have to think about also global supply chains and food security, how are we going to, you know, get good quality protein, in large part to these, these areas that have these increasing demands.”

‘Alternative proteins can dramatically reduce emissions’

One potential way to do meet these seemingly opposing needs is through increased alternative protein production, argues Caroline Bushnell, vice president of corporate engagement at the global non-profit The Good Food Institute.

“When compared to conventional meat production, alternative proteins can dramatically reduce emissions, requiring far less land, eliminating the need for antibiotics in our food system and helping to feed more people, more efficiently with fewer resources,”​ she said.

Comparing techniques such a cell cultivation and precision fermentation to create protein to renewable energy production, she added alternative proteins “can really seize the opportunity to produce the food that people love to eat, while also ushering in a more sustainable, secure and just food future.”

She added alternative protein production can also bring climate benefits, such as reductions in biodiversity loss, deforestation and air and water pollution.

A case study: How PepsiCo is supporting regenerative agriculture

While current protein production methods significantly impact the environment, it alone cannot successfully bear the full burden of reversing climate change – stakeholders from across the food chain and in different categories also must step up.

Among those doing this is PepsiCo, which through its Pep+ program launched in 2021 is address three major environmental threats through positive agriculture, positive value chain and positive choices, said Kathryn Matheson, senior director, global foods, research & development and PepsiCo.

For example, she noted, PepsiCo through Frito Lay has committed to using regenerative agriculture and sustainable practices on more than 7 million acres of land, including all the land used to produce two of its top ingredients – corn and potatoes.

She added the CPG giant’s efforts to repair and protect the land begin before fields are prepped and seeds are planted with an advanced breeding program that focuses on new varieties that can require less water, fewer inputs, can fight disease without additional inputs and contribute greenhouse gas.

The government’s role in the ‘wild west’ surrounding sustainability in the food system

As dedicated as many in the food industry and agricultural segment are to improving sustainability, they can’t do it alone – the government and public policy also must support the emergence of a new transformational food system, added Alison Taylor, chief sustainability officer at ADM.

She explained US policymakers are taking both a carrot and a stick approach to encouraging a more sustainable food system.

For example, she pointed the US Department of Agriculture’s Climate Smart Agriculture grants that support partnerships between companies, academics, non-profits, and entrepreneurs to further scale sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

“It’s a great deal of money that the government has committed to this program, and a pretty rigorous review,”​ she noted.

She also pointed to oversight efforts to protect against greenwashing, such as the Federal Trade Commissions ongoing review of its “green guides,” as well as efforts to standardize the definition of regenerative agriculture and establish measurable outcomes.

“It’s a little bit of a wild west out there, and with more governments thinking about how can we learn from programs, like the Climate Smart Agriculture grant program, and create standards and better education for farmers”​ the more sustainable the food system will become, she said.

Looking ahead

In the coming weeks, FoodNavigator-USA will continue to delve into how stakeholders can enhance the sustainability of and future-proof the food system, including specific actions players across the value chain can take to reduce and reverse climate change.

Please check out the next installment to be published next Thursday June 8 at

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