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Food matters: The quest for sustainable production and consumption

An interview with Professor Michael Hauschild, Department of Management Engineering, Technical University of Denmark

Population growth and increasing demands on the Earth’s resources challenge the food industry to develop new approaches and technologies to ensure sustainability. The Life Cycle Assessment tool is helping to support these efforts throughout the EU.

Earth calling

In 1987, sustainable development was famously defined by the United Nations as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Socio-economic growth and related earth system trends have continued to accelerate, and as a result, the world’s biological capacity is being stretched to its limits and the current ecological footprint of human populations is unquestionably harming the environment for future generations.

One of the key needs we face is the unrelenting requirement for food – and an enormous scale of production is required to meet this need. The sheer size of the agricultural sector, based as it is on animal products and traditional crops, exerts a correspondingly heavy impact on the environment. Industries around the world have a responsibility to take appropriate action to mitigate this impact, but where and how should efforts be directed to provide the most effective solutions to the problem?


Guiding the world

The UN has developed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide the global population, including industry, in addressing the strain on the earth’s resources. Goal number 12, “Ensure sustainable consumption and production” is of particular interest, in that it has a direct or indirect impact on the majority of the other SDGs.

According to the UN, the food sector accounts for around 30 per cent of the world’s total energy consumption and some 22 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. But does it really have to be this way?

Around 30 to 40 percent of all food produced (some 1.3 billion tonnes worth approximately USD 1 trillion) each year is estimated to become lost somewhere along the journey from production to distribution and then final consumption. A substantial part of what is lost is simply discarded by consumers in their own homes. This is not only wasteful in terms of individual household spending, but also a tragic waste of the Earth’s precious natural resources.

The current production of the food industry would thus suffice to feed around 12 billion people, were it not for this loss, yet this mountain of food is consumed by just seven billion – approximately two billion of whom are even considered to be underfed. These imbalances, if successfully addressed, would translate to a huge potential gain that would benefit both the environment and society.


Life cycle assessment

A growing number of initiatives currently support industry and other stakeholders in addressing the goals described in the UN SDGs. I have been privileged to work in the field of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) since the development of the Danish Environmental Design of Industrial Products (EDIP) back in the 1990s and, more recently, I helped the European Commission developing its current recommendations for how to perform LCA.

LCA is a methodology that systematically evaluates and quantifies environmental sustainability measures, making it easier for parties to work together to reduce their ecological footprint. The  core idea is to evaluate environmental aspects of a product system through the stages of its life cycle, encompassing all the activities that go into making, transporting, using and disposing of the product.

Today, LCA is used as the backbone of the EU’s strategy for managing resources and waste – the entire product strategy, you might say. It applies to the food industry, when sourcing, producing and distributing raw materials or ingredients to create a final product.


Industry and consumer roles

Collectively, the food industry has a big part to play in helping to achieve SDG 12, and in contributing to the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources. Most of these efforts, in my opinion, should be aimed at halving per capita global food waste at retail and consumer levels, and achieving similar reductions in food losses along the production and supply journey.

Optimising food production and consumption is also a question of diet choices. Today’s consumer diets typically include many animal-based foods, and the animal-based food chain is notoriously inefficient. Beef, for example, is the least efficiently produced, losing around nine tenths in the conversion of grass into dietary protein. Changing our eating habits, therefore, can be a key factor in doing what it takes to meet the UN goals.


Future targets

But just how much better at food production and consumption do we need to become? What exactly is a sustainable level? This is a hotly debated topic, and many remain unconvinced that human societies can ever achieve environmental sustainability. From a climate change perspective, however, a clear goal is to meet the targets of the Paris climate agreement, which starts in 2020 and has been signed by an overwhelming majority of countries. To meet the targets of the agreement we need to reduce carbon emissions by around 70 percent in 2050 and close to 100 percent in 2100.

The challenge in attaining these targets is exacerbated by a continuous population growth (not least caused by increased life expectancies around the world) and growing affluence. To have any chance of meeting the Paris agreement targets, innovation in technology needs to step up to increase overall efficiency by a factor of around eight by 2050. This translates to an improvement of more than five percent annually from today onwards. So, the short answer to how much better we need to become is: seriously better. It’s a giant challenge for the entire food value chain, and particularly for agriculture.


Moving forward

Industry and politicians should use the Paris agreement targets to understand the seriousness of the challenge we are facing and to help them determine where to place their focus and resources. In the short term, we need to work on our consumption patterns and improve the efficiency of our technologies but in order for technology improvements to be effective we must have the final target in view. For the longer term, entirely new consumption patterns, technologies  and tools will need to be developed to reach these targets. For food manufacturers, the emphasis must be on rethinking their supply chains, contributing know-how and new ideas to other sustainable development stakeholders, and prioritising sustainably sourced and produced raw materials and ingredients.


About Michael Hauschild

Michael Hauschild is a professor and the head of Quantitative Sustainability Assessment at the Department of Management Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark. Here, he has led the department’s Life Cycle Engineering research activities, teaching and professional training for more than a decade. He is the recipient of the Great Environmental Prize of the Nordic Council of Ministers for his work in development of the Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) of the Danish Environmental Design of Industrial Products (EDIP) programme.

 Michael is also associate editor for the CIRP Journal of Manufacturing Science and Technology and a member of editorial boards for several journals within the field of sustainable engineering, as well as the founding Chair of the Nordic Life Cycle Association (NorLCA) whose work is aimed at the dissemination of life cycle thinking in the Nordic countries.

Here, Prof. M. Hauschild of the Technical University of Denmark discusses the 17 sustainable development goals in a broader context. An interesting question in this blog is clearly ”How many of the 17 SDG’s can be directly related to the sustainable development, production and use of emulsifiers?” It is probably more than most would initially think - and we are obviously planning to revert to this topic in much more depth later this year in the blog.

The use of food additives, for example, is a highly useful technology for maintaining adequate levels of safely consumable food while reducing food waste. Emulsifiers, whose primary task is to combine oil and water in a stable system, can extend a food product’s shelf life by stabilizing its natural structure and components. And the same type of additives can reduce the energy consumed in production, and cut production waste by supporting batch-to-batch quality, too.

Claus Hviid Christensen, Editor