Marks & Spencer's (M&S's) £200M bid to become carbon neutral by 2012 and Tesco's £500M move to label the carbon footprint of its products and cut carbon dioxide emissions from its stores, are just the latest developments in the 'greening' of the UK's food supply chain.
The implications for the nation's food and drink manufacturers are huge. M&S chief executive Stuart Rose said: "We will clearly label the food we import by air; UK, regional and local food sourcing will be a priority." Tesco is said to contribute 2Mt of carbon to the atmosphere a year and the impact on suppliers of its decision to label the carbon costs on around 70,000 products will be even more significant.
The M&S strategy will affect all of its suppliers, including manufacturers, which operate from a round 2,000 factories. M&S supplier Northern Foods' procurement strategy, for example, is already taking on an increasingly ethical dimension.
As interest in sustainability rises up the agenda, the focus on food miles, as outlined in the government's Food Industry Sustainability Strategy (FISS), is set to intensify. While many see it as a threat, a new report The Food Miles Challenge www.reportbuyer.com describes the opportunities it creates.
Manufacturers are already responding to FISS (see feature p26). Food and Drink Federation president Iain Ferguson says: "In terms of sustainability, this is an exciting time and we've got new debates coming: things like the food/fuel debate, which we haven't had to deal with before ... this is an opportunity for the industry and government to work together."
Expect to see much more in future about the life cycle analysis (LCA) and carbon footprint of different food and drinks. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has just published the results of new research, which will feed into the debate about reducing the environmental impact of food production and consumption.
The Shopping Trolley Report states: "LCA data availability is distinctly inconsistent and uneven." It also reports that the bulk of published evidence tends to focus on energy use, but that "food production and consumption makes similar if not larger contributions to other environmental impacts"
While urging caution in comparing the impacts of different products, one of the report's more interesting findings concerns the consumption of meat versus plant-based foods. It states: "Because of the relatively low efficiency of the process by which animals convert their plant-originated feed into food, it is possible to conclude that plant products are generally less environmentally harmful than animal products."
This is an argument that many vegetarians and others, including Tara Garnet at the Surrey University-based Food Climate Research Network, have long supported. But it is now gaining more widespread credibility.
As nations around the world become more affluent they tend to move from eating vegetable to animal proteins and this is recognised as being an inefficient use of agricultural land. FDF's Ferguson says: "If we all ate vegetarian diets, there would be an enormous amount of land available for biofuels and that's a debate that we are probably going to have to have."
Double-deck trailers cut CO2 emissions
Christian Salvesen has introduced two innovative double-deck trailers for its Marks & Spencer frozen food distribution contract. At just under 5m in height, these are said to be the highest ever to be built to carry temperature controlled food.
Each vehicle carries more cages of frozen foods than conventional trailers and this means that fewer deliveries are now required.
Paul Mohan, md of Christian Salvesen's Temperature Controlled Business Unit, says: "The new trailers are not only a major development for Christian Salvesen, but for the industry in general. Cost saving solutions, as well as lower carbon dioxide emissions are [our] goals ... this new trunking system will allow us to work towards achieving both of these targets."