The food industry needs to step up on protecting forests | Green Energy Enthusiast

today is Aug 15, 2022

In July, Ben and Jerry’s — one of the world’s largest ice cream brands — announced that it is committing to ensure all of its packaging, including the 1 million pint containers for ice cream it produces every day, doesn’t come from wood fibers sourced from the world’s most vital forest ecosystems. The policy — announced appropriately on World Rainforest Day — adds to its prior commitment to producing packaging completely free of petroleum-based plastic. 

Yet in spite of Ben and Jerry’s leadership and 17 years after Walmart announced its initial sustainability goals, the larger food industry still lags significantly on climate action — it accounts for more than a third of global GHG emissions.

In fact, according to the World Benchmarking Alliance, only 26 of the 350 largest food and agriculture companies are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in line with the Paris Agreement, and 123 companies haven’t even set targets for reducing GHG.

Lack of awareness isn’t the problem — the industry knows there’s progress to be made. The food industry has publicly embraced climate action and sustainability with a series of large announcements, with ambitious benchmarks and strong commitments from household names, including Nestle, Danone, Kellogg and Coca-Cola. 

While this shift from plastics may appease consumers in the short term, the reality is that packaging sourced from trees will increase the logging of vital forests.

Further, there’s a business case for solving the problem. One global survey from Cargill found that 55 percent of participants said they are "more likely to purchase packaged food with a sustainability claim," a four-point increase between 2019 and 2022. Despite this, the talk isn’t translating into impactful actions and results by food companies. In a recent study, in which 1,000 largest publicly traded companies were assessed for ESG performance, only four food sector companies made it into the top 100 list. 

So, what’s the challenge? 

The disparity in the statistics is difficult to reconcile, especially with news coming out every day about the world’s biggest brands launching new eco-lines, green products and incorporating more plant-based choices into their foods. How is it that we aren’t seeing more progress being made on the supply chain side, especially around the use of forest-based packaging and paper? 

Although many in the sector are striving to reduce emissions associated with core food ingredients and products, it’s failing to capitalize on the significant and timely gains that can be made by reducing the hefty footprint associated with packaging. The problem is most companies aren’t applying sustainable business practices throughout the entirety of their operations or working with supply chain partners to implement available solutions that can take pressure off the planet’s most effective carbon storage and sequestration system — forests.

Paper packaging for example, which many companies have switched to as consumers demand more plastic-free options, results in logging more than 3 billion trees every year. While this shift from plastics may appease consumers in the short term, the reality is that packaging sourced from trees will increase the logging of vital forests and intensify pressures on rainforest nations to issue logging concessions — just as they should be working to slow deforestation under the Paris Agreement.

Greater deforestation ultimately destroys the livelihoods of Indigenous people and local communities, the ecosystems they rely on and exacerbates biodiversity decline and rising emissions. But turning back to plastic isn't the answer.

[Interested in learning how we can transform food systems to equitably and efficiently feed a more populous planet while conserving and regenerating the natural world? Check out the VERGE 22 Food Program, taking place in San Jose, CA, Oct. 25-28.]

To move the needle on ending deforestation and slowing the climate emergency, the food industry needs to accelerate efforts to decarbonize its supply chains, identify and transition to sustainable sources and importantly, continue to innovate to move us closer to a low-impact and circular economy. 

Investing in scalable, next-generation alternatives is the path forward on sustainability across all industries, especially food. Using hemp, or agricultural waste from crop stalks and fruit peels, can make strong and versatile packaging that doesn’t harm ecosystems, recycles a waste product and is the only way to eventually wean the industry off paper, wood and other natural resources.

The food industry is complicated, and conversations around its sustainability — particularly slowing deforestation — aren’t always at its forefront. If we’ve learned anything from corporate responsibility practices, it’s that we can no longer rely on quick-fix results and new gimmicky products to fix the problem. Although these may fool some consumers, there is no fooling the environment. We need to invest in supply chain transformation and invest in scalable solutions that can tackle the problem directly and quickly before it’s too late.

Let’s take Ben and Jerry’s latest commitment as a reminder that all food brands can do more — and that sustainable packaging alternatives are becoming competitively priced and ready to be scaled.


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