Nestlé, PepsiCo and Kraft Heinz have announced long-term commitments to creating a sustainable food system.
Food companies are setting their sight on net zero. Will they succeed?
Amid consumer pressure and increasing backlash for the food industry’s contribution to climate change, food organizations have scrambled to set stringent sustainability targets over the next few decades. Yet, even as some businesses have made progress in reducing their emissions, most enterprises’ net-zero goals have ultimately fallen flat in several areas.
For one thing, net-zero targets are different across the board, with each food company focused on specific measures to lower its carbon footprint. The challenges they face in reaching their targets are equally variable.
Despite experts’ pessimism regarding a net-zero food economy, most organizations recognize there is little room to forgo their sustainability endeavors.
According to recent findings, the world’s food system accounted for 34% of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2015, equal to 18 billion tons of carbon dioxide. The environmental effects of the food industry are no secret as the planet’s rapidly-increasing population has led to higher demand for food, energy and water — all of which are necessary for food production.
Agricultural irrigation is responsible for 70% of global water consumption, with fertilizer run-off, pesticide residues and livestock waste polluting precious water resources and posing significant ecological damage and public health concerns.
For example, nitrate-based fertilizers can seep into groundwater wells. In rural farm areas in Nebraska, nitrate levels far surpass toxicity standards for the safe consumption of drinking water. Of course, harvesting, animal biomass, manufacturing, packaging, distribution and food waste have all contributed to an unsustainable food system.
Yet, perhaps surprisingly to some, food mile emissions are not nearly as significant as land use change and widespread deforestation due to farming. Agricultural land makes up 48% of the environmental footprint in the United States consumer food supply chain — distribution and processing make up 26%.
Food corporations have noticed these statistics. Of course, changing consumer preferences for sustainable, organic food and criticism by environmental activists have given constant reminders of industry impacts.
Net zero goals fall flat
Various food businesses have made headway toward their net-zero goals — Beyond Meat produces 90% fewer GHG emissions by using pea protein for manufacturing its plant-based meat products. Meanwhile, Pete and Gerry’s — an organic egg company — works with small family-owned farms instead of factory farms to decrease waste and boost local agricultural economies.
Larger food enterprises like Nestlé, PepsiCo and Kraft Heinz have also announced long-term commitments to creating a sustainable food system through individual operations.
When it comes to determining corporate GHG emissions, metrics break down into the following:
- Scope 1: Direct GHG emissions from the food organization’s equipment or vehicles
- Scope 2: Indirect GHG emissions through purchased energy for heating, cooling or electricity
- Scope 3: Indirect GHG emissions throughout the company’s end-use operations, such as purchasing, waste, transportation and retail
For many corporations, Scope 3 emissions are the most challenging to mitigate. In 2021, PepsiCo — which hopes to attain net zero by 2040 — reported 93% of its GHG emissions were Scope 3. The business’s partnerships with third-party distributors have made attempts particularly difficult, especially in encouraging their partners to take accountability for their own sustainability.
Likewise, while Kraft Heinz reported a 0.6% and 2.3% reduction in Scope 1 and 2 emissions in 2020, its Scope 3 emissions rose 7.5% year-over-year.
The clock is ticking for Nestlé to reach its ambitious net-zero targets, too. There are fewer than 1,200 days for them to reduce their footprint by 20% to stay on track, with only 1,865 days to reach their 50% reduction target by 2030.
Regardless of whether experts feel optimistic or not about a net-zero food economy, there are ways food companies can reign in their emissions and achieve sustainable targets for a more resilient food economy.
As it stands, sounder criteria are necessary to achieve net zero. Corporate clout can shift policies within the food system, from agriculture to harvesting and throughout the supply chain. Therefore, big-name brands should unite to shape the essential benchmarks for all food organizations.
Other ways food corporations can work together to become more sustainable include investing in the latest agricultural technologies that promote sustainable farming and promoting sustainability and working more closely together with small-scale farmers.
They can provide the necessary financial support and equipment for small farms to meet food production requirements; safeguard soil fertility and adopt a more regenerative farming approach; eliminate deforestation and restore agricultural lands to forested areas; and encourage third-party distributors to set sustainable standards of their own.
Finally, strengthening consumer connections and encouraging greater sustainable behaviors has the potential to alter the food industry for the better.
It is difficult to say whether a net-zero food system is attainable. It is certainly something that will only be achievable after a while. However, food companies must continue to create a sustainable industry to protect the environment and secure the food system for the future.