Why food is an important factor for businesses concerned with climate change

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By Carolyn Wincer, 27th May 2021

In this article Travelife for Accommodation explains where food fits into climate change concerns and summarises the main factors for businesses to consider.

Conversation about climate action is very focused on our carbon footprint that relates to the energy we consume from fossil fuels. Whilst that is an issue of critical importance, we should give equal focus to other ways our organisations might be contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Food should be an issue of concern for all businesses because the production, shipping and waste of food produces significant greenhouse gases, and because food shipping produces carbon emissions that we may not have considered when assessing the emissions from our business.

It is important that all of us take a look at how we buy, consume and dispose of food  in order to combat climate change. Some businesses, such as those involved in hospitality or food retail, may even find that their food emissions outweigh their carbon emissions.

The impact of food on climate change

This is a complex issue and we don’t want to get too bogged down in technical detail in this article, especially when there is a wealth of information online from reputable sources such as WRAP, an NGO that tackles many sustainability areas including food, and the United Nations.  To help businesses understand the issues and how they might get started with combating them, we have highlighted four key areas businesses need to consider when it comes to climate action.

The type of food

Plant-based food has a lower climate impact than animal products, especially red meats with beef having the highest impact from production through to waste. By switching to more food and/or menu options that are plant based or meat free, it is possible for businesses to see immediate reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions. For some organisations this could be as simple as implementing ‘Meat-free Monday’ at the office.  For other businesses where food service is an important part of their operation such as restaurants, hotels or those that provide onsite meals to staff, a review their entire food service and supply chain to assess their climate impact, and how they could improve it, will be required.

If your organisation does decide to switch to more plant-based products it is important to verify that your food suppliers are using sustainable production methods. Whilst food products that are organic or vegan can be better for the environment, that doesn't necessarily mean that those suppliers are respecting human rights or employing fair labour practices. See our earlier article on sustainable procurement for more information about buying responsibly.

"By switching to more food and/or menu options that are plant based, businesses can have immediate impacts."

Production

The method of production can also be complex as it depends on things like irrigation, soil use and pesticides. Seasonality is another consideration in terms of whether produce is grown when natural resources such as sun and water are in good supply, or if artificial conditions are required so it can be produced year-round. Again, this is not a clear-cut issue. Whilst is might seem obvious that a restaurant in New York has no real need to serve strawberries in winter, cutting off that supplier should be a last resort before other options are explored so that they have a chance to protect the economic well-being in their own community. For example, can they produce a seasonal alternative or will they consider working with the restaurant on a reputable emissions offsetting programme?

Shipping

This is about the energy (carbon emissions) generated from getting food from the supplier to the end user. Some businesses prefer to include this in their overall carbon measurements because food is not an especially big part of their supply chain. Whereas companies that procure a lot of food on a regular basis might want to think more specifically about how to reduce food shipping emissions by looking for local options or working with the supplier on a carbon offsetting programme.

"Decomposing food waste is a high emitter of greenhouse gases yet a relatively simple place to start in terms of reductions."

Waste

Decomposing food waste is a high emitter of greenhouse gases yet a relatively simple place to start in terms of reductions. For example, composting food waste drastically reduces emissions and finding ways to order less food in the first place reduces both emissions and operational costs.

There are a lot of easy places for businesses to start with reducing food waste emissions that some simple online research can help with. These range from buying local so that you are less likely to order food ‘just in case’ because you have greater confidence that you can easily top up supplies, through to reducing portion sizes, eliminating decorative garnishes from plates and composting.

Businesses interested in innovation could consider growing some of their own food then using their own compost to help it grow. Some businesses turn food waste into income by selling it to local farms or offset some of their waste costs by finding farmers who will collect it for free to use as animal feed.

Finally, your company might want to be at the leading edge of combating climate change by investing in the latest circular technology that turns food waste into low-emission energy that powers your business.

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