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What don't people understand about solving food sustainability challenges?

What don't people understand about solving food sustainability challenges?

Carbon labeling, the interplay between deforestation and certification and the breadth of the interests at play are often not fully understood in the context of sustainability, the experts say.

Good afternoon! In today's edition, we asked the food sustainability experts to tell us the parts of their field they thought were often misunderstood and let us know better ways to think about the challenges. Questions or comments? Send us a note at

Sandra Noonan

Chief sustainability officer at Just Salad

Carbon labeling is an emerging trend in the food industry. Increasingly, food and restaurant brands are calculating the planet-warming gases generated across their supply chains, and they’re subsequently displaying these in the form of carbon labels — also known as climate labels or eco-labels — on their products. (Just Salad, where I work, is one example: It displays carbon labels in its mobile app, right next to calories.) What people might not understand is that brands don’t do carbon labeling just to show customers they’re “carbon-conscious."

Carbon labels also show us where in our supply chains — Packaging? Agriculture? Transport? Waste? — we can reduce a product’s footprint. For example, our partner, Planet FWD, has helped us estimate the following: If we convinced a full 50% of our customers to sign up for our Reusable Bowl program, then the packaging-related emissions of a Just Salad meal would fall over 40%. That’s something concrete that we can work toward, and it also shows why reducing single-use waste is a climate solution. Thus, climate labels aren’t “for show” — rather, they’re actionable, product-level metrics that can sharpen a brand’s climate strategy.

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Kevin Rabinovitch

Global vice president of sustainability and chief climate officer at Mars, Inc.

Deforestation is still a major challenge in global food supply chains for ingredients such as cocoa, palm oil, soy and beef. Tackling deforestation will be vital to ensuring the sustainability of the food sector and to help achieve global net zero ambitions, yet there isn’t a clear consensus on exactly how businesses will achieve this.

There’s a misconception that certification is the silver bullet to solving deforestation issues and raising industry standards. While it has a role to play, at Mars we believe we must go further, as certification on its own cannot solve the problem. That’s why we’re focused on transforming our agricultural supply chains for ingredients such as palm oil and beef — by simplifying our supply chains, rewarding the best suppliers and collaborating with stakeholders to halt deforestation. One example is our Palm Positive Plan, where we used this strategy to reduce the number of palm mills we source from over 1,500 in 2019 to around 100 in 2021, and were able to achieve deforestation-free palm.

Only by simplifying supply chains will businesses be able to gain a deep understanding of the social and environmental impacts of their supply chains, work in closer partnership with suppliers to address these challenges and have full confidence in the origins and impacts of raw materials.

These aren’t simple changes and will require a deep transformation of our global food and agricultural supply chains. However, tackling deforestation and addressing fundamental root issues will be critical if we want to safeguard the sustainability of our food systems for the future.

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Rashida La Lande

EVP, global general counsel and chief sustainability and corporate affairs officer at Kraft Heinz

We live in an interesting time: As our population grows, we need to not only ensure that there is enough food to feed people, but that that food supply meets their nutritional needs in a positive way. This places an increased burden on the food system, which often leads to negative environmental impacts. Agriculture, a foundational component of the food system, is the fifth leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge of food sustainability is that it must address both these issues: We must sustainably feed the world while curbing emissions. And that does not come with an easy solution.

Instead, the solution is multifaceted and has to account for improvements at all stages of the supply chain — from how farmers care for their soil and their animals, to the water and energy inputs to each product made, to the transportation across countries and oceans, to the recyclability and waste associated with products after consumption.

What motivates me around this issue is the innovation and collaboration that is happening to find true solutions that help mitigate the negative impacts of the food system, while helping companies continue to meet the needs of their consumers. Across the food sector, we’re digging in to better understand the emissions profiles of ingredients, working with farmers to care for the soil, investing in renewable energy at manufacturing plants, reducing waste and redesigning packaging to improve the sustainability profile of what comes to market.

Solving for food sustainability will require continued innovation and collaboration so that we can all have access to delicious food and nutrition while helping create a healthier planet.

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Jim Andrew

EVP and chief sustainability officer at PepsiCo

Food production needs to increase 70% by 2050 to feed our growing population. However, as we increase production, we also need to operate within planetary boundaries to ensure we have a positive impact on the environment and people. It is a conundrum that many people are trying to solve but no one has all the answers yet. It’s also at the heart of our PepsiCo Positive (pep+) agenda, which puts sustainability and human capital at the center of our business and strategy. As part of this end-to-end business transformation, our ambition is to decouple the growth of our business from the resources we use — this means that as our business grows, our environmental impact grows more slowly and ultimately even shrinks. In our latest Environmental, Social and Governance Summary, we reported initial progress on our pep+ agenda and some of the innovations we are trialing as we believe technology can be a powerful enabler to help us decouple. A great example is our partnership with N-Drip, an Israeli startup whose gravity-powered drip irrigation system is expected to help our farmers use 50% less water and fertilizer compared to flood irrigation, while also using less energy. We will need a lot more innovative technology like this to build a truly sustainable food system.

Learn more.

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Nicole Johnson-Hoffman

CEO at Future Meat

I think a lot of mainstream conversations around food sustainability oversimplify its complexity. It is a vast, industry-spanning space that involves people with diverse motivations, aspirations and concerns that keep them up at night, from drought and oil prices to consumer demands and their children's future. One thing I have learned is that there is no perfect solution for a space so inherently complex. There will always be competing interests and unanticipated impacts in a food supply chain. The key is to be open to learning continuously and making the smartest trade-offs possible.

That being said, I do believe that cultivated meat technology, which can produce meat in small-footprint facilities close to population centers, has the potential to drastically slash emissions from animal agriculture supply chains and will be a game changer in food sustainability. However, I also acknowledge that it is one solution among many that the world will need to sustainably provide people with meat and other food they love and want. Farmers, who by and large do care deeply about their contributions and impacts, will continue to play an important role in a sustainable future. Their engagement with innovators and other stakeholders in the food sustainability space is key. So too is a broader recognition that a multitude of solutions is the only thing that will ultimately drive real change.

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David Darr

Chief sustainability officer at Vanguard Renewables

Food sustainability is one of the most challenging issues facing our nation. Yet, nearly 50 million tons of food go to landfills and incinerators in the US alone. Therefore, we cannot talk about food sustainability without talking about food waste.

A solution I believe most pertinent to solving food sustainability challenges is transitioning away from a linear economy to a circular economy. Currently, products are made for convenience, used once and then disposed of, whereas in a circular economy, a used product returns to the supply chain instead of the landfill. Circularity reduces food waste by redistributing surplus edible food while food by-products or other waste are repurposed.

At Vanguard Renewables, our vertically integrated renewable energy platform supports circularity with a commitment to decarbonization by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from farms and food waste. Feedstock providers receive a circular path to food waste that decarbonizes their operations. We also assist farms to manage manure, enhance regenerative agriculture practices, and improve soil and herd wellness.

Although a circular economy appears ideal, it is a large challenge to implement across the food system. For consumers, food sustainability improvement begins with our product choices. However, companies and government bodies must be willing to accept risks and create a company culture for the advancement of food sustainability and circular solutions implementation legislation or pathways. Improving food sustainability is not the responsibility of one food system entity because every stakeholder offers unique solutions and resources that together can tackle the food sustainability challenges.

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Jess Newman

Senior director of agriculture and sustainability at McCain Foods

Climate change is an existential threat to food sustainability. It’s causing supply chain disruption, devastating farmer profits and creating food security concerns globally. We know it will require an 87% increase in carbon emissions to feed the world in 30 years. Investing in regenerative agriculture is essential to the future of the food industry — and our planet.

Regenerative practices like planting cover crops, reducing tillage and synthetic input use, and expanding crop rotations not only build soil and farm resilience but also help reduce carbon emissions and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. To achieve the large-scale transformation needed, the industry must expand dedicated research on regenerative practices that allow farmers to be competitive and profitable and can be adopted at scale. We recently launched the second of three Farms of the Future to test cutting-edge technology to improve soil health, biodiversity and reduce water use and greenhouse gas emissions to help and encourage our farmers' transition — and will help us reach our global commitment to implement regenerative agriculture across 100% of our potato acreage by 2030.

An overhaul of agriculture is vital for food sustainability, but it must also be done in collaboration with farmers. Regenerative agriculture isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and there currently isn’t specific criteria around what to measure, but developing a framework that works well with and for producers as well as companies is critical to the long-term success and sustainability of the food industry.

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Alison Taylor

Chief sustainability officer at ADM

Our food system has a significant role to play in achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and helping to limit warming in alignment with the Paris Agreement. People may not realize that while the global agricultural sphere is full of complexity, sustainability does not have to represent a trade-off with other societal aims. Rather than needing to choose between an environmentally sustainable food supply and one that is also reliable, a focus on climate action within our food system will support both goals. Sustainable farm practices are enhancing reliability of supply by supporting soil health and the stability of crops. If farmers can produce more within their current footprint, then their efficiency is enhanced and supply is more secure.

Global players like ADM are making measurable commitments to climate action while supporting a resilient system through scaling regenerative agriculture practices. One example in North America is ADM's work with Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture's Field to Market collaboration, where we are partnering with downstream customers to implement practices that address water quality and soil health. These include cover crops, reduced tillage, complex crop rotations and nutrient management to reduce soil erosion, nutrient run-off and greenhouse gas emissions. In Europe, we are working with the Cool Farm Alliance to help growers pinpoint where greenhouse gases are being emitted at the farm level using new technology. By continuing to expand our collective efforts to regenerate soil and ecosystems, we are building a resilient food system where sustainability and reliability are central.

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Stewart Leeth

Chief sustainability officer at Smithfield Foods

Food safety and quality have been foundational to Smithfield Foods’ sustainability program since it was started 20 years ago. Good food is what we do best. We help feed families around the world with safe, affordable, center-of-the-plate protein that people can trust for its quality and flavor.

A common misperception is that sustainability challenges for modern food production are trending in the wrong direction. To the contrary: U.S. pork producers today use 76% less land, 25% less water and 7% less energy, according to a recent University of Arkansas study. Thanks to continued innovation and research, our industry continues to improve its sustainability performance.

Modern food production makes these improvements possible. Take, for example, today’s practices to raise hogs. While most Americans who are far removed from agriculture might picture them frolicking in the mud in a farm pasture, most pigs are raised indoors, which provides protection from weather, predators, parasites and disease as well as better veterinary care for each animal. As a result, trichinosis — a food-safety risk associated with outdoor hog farming — has been virtually eliminated, land use has been dramatically reduced. These modern farms also have manure management systems, which remove manure from barns for crop nutrients as well as for the production of renewable natural gas.

It looks different, but it’s better for the animals, people and the planet.

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See who's who in the Protocol Braintrust and browse every previous edition by category here (updated July 19, 2022).
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