Resource inefficiency greatest in primary food production, say researchers

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Lifecycle analyses of food and drink products have revealed that manufacturers are responsible for only a tiny percentage of the overall carbon...

Lifecycle analyses of food and drink products have revealed that manufacturers are responsible for only a tiny percentage of the overall carbon footprint of their products.

Dr Wayne Martindale has been working with students at Sheffield Hallam University to identify how much carbon is used to produce a range of products as part of a £1.3M food innovation project.

His findings showed resource efficiency steadily decreasing further up the supply chain, with emissions generated in primary production dwarfing those generated by food and drink manufacturers. This highlighted substantial opportunities to reduce emissions through optimising the upstream supply chain, said Martindale. “It probably won’t come as a great surprise to anyone that the supply chain from the field to the factory is not as efficient as it could be. But when you look at it in terms of carbon emissions, you can really see the cost of this inefficiency.”

Lifecycle studies also showed insufficient evidence that organic or locally supplied foods were necessarily more environmentally friendly than those produced via conventional agricultural methods and distributed through centralised transportation systems, he said. “The environmental issue of organic vs conventional agriculture is really not as clear cut as some lobbyists present it to be. The organic lobby for example, seems to forget that organic fertilizers like manure are not carbon neutral. It costs energy to raise the animals that produce it.”

The extent to which broader issues such as the social benefits gained from sourcing Fairtrade products from overseas producers would influence any government-backed eco-labelling system were not yet clear, he said. “Once you start looking at this issue in more detail, it becomes incredibly complex. But some things are fairly clear. You can for example work out how much carbon dioxide is used to grow and harvest a tone of grain, and how much energy is then used in transport, drying and milling. But putting a lifecycle analysis on a bag of oranges is completely meaningless to consumers.”

The debate over the methodology underpinning ‘eco’ labelling rages on, with Procter & Gamble recently rejecting carbon footprint labels as “too confusing”. But any form of carbon audit at least helped businesses identify areas of inefficiency, said Martindale. Given that energy cost, money, the commercial imperative and the environmental imperative were frequently the same, he added. “Take crisps. Potato suppliers are graded on things like the percentage of dry matter, because it requires more energy to cook and process a potato with a higher water content. Therefore storage methods that retain less water are both commercially and environmentally beneficial.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently commissioned research from Newcastle Business School (NBS) at Northumbria University to assess the environmental impact of 30 grocery products from plough to plate. This was taking a wide range of factors into account, said David Oglethorpe, professor in business analysis and supply chain management at NBS: “Green labeling is not just about food miles. We are looking at the complete lifecycle of a product from the agricultural inputs to the use of refrigerants, plant and machinery to its transport, packaging and disposal.”

Food manufacturers keen to find out how they can reduce their carbon footprint are invited to attend a new short course at Schumacher College in Devon facilitated by Carbon Sense, which helps businesses address climate change. Speakers at the course, which runs from October 11-15, include Tesco climate change manager Katherine Symonds and Green & Black’s founder Craig Sams. For more details, log on to

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