The food industry needs to step up on protecting forests

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

Yet regardless 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 motion — it accounts for greater than a third of worldwide GHG emissions.

In truth, based on the World Benchmarking Alliance, only 26 of the 350 largest food and agriculture corporations are working to cut back greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) consistent with the Paris Agreement, and 123 corporations haven’t even set targets for reducing GHG.

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

While this shift from plastics may appease consumers within the short term, the truth is that packaging sourced from trees will increase the logging of important forests.

Further, there’s a business case for solving the issue. One global survey from Cargill found that 55 percent of participants said they’re “more prone 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 corporations. In a recent study, through which 1,000 largest publicly traded corporations were assessed for ESG performance, only 4 food sector corporations made it into the highest 100 list. 

So, what’s the challenge? 

The disparity within the statistics is difficult to reconcile, especially with news coming out day-after-day in regards to the world’s biggest brands launching latest eco-lines, green products and incorporating more plant-based decisions into their foods. How is it that we aren’t seeing more progress being made on the availability chain side, especially around using forest-based packaging and paper? 

Although many within the sector are striving to cut back emissions related to core food ingredients and products, it’s failing to capitalize on the numerous and timely gains that might be made by reducing the hefty footprint related to packaging. The issue is most corporations aren’t applying sustainable business practices throughout the whole thing of their operations or working with supply chain partners to implement available solutions that may take pressure off the planet’s only carbon storage and sequestration system — forests.

Paper packaging for instance, which many corporations have switched to as consumers demand more plastic-free options, leads to logging greater than 3 billion trees every yr. While this shift from plastics may appease consumers within the short term, the truth is that packaging sourced from trees will increase the logging of important forests and intensify pressures on rainforest nations to issue logging concessions — just as they ought to be working to slow deforestation under the Paris Agreement.

Greater deforestation ultimately destroys the livelihoods of Indigenous people and native communities, the ecosystems they depend on and exacerbates biodiversity decline and rising emissions. But turning back to plastic is not the reply.

[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 maneuver the needle on ending deforestation and slowing the climate emergency, the food industry must speed up efforts to decarbonize its supply chains, discover and transition to sustainable sources and importantly, proceed to innovate to maneuver us closer to a low-impact and circular economy. 

Investing in scalable, next-generation alternatives is the trail forward on sustainability across all industries, especially food. Using hemp, or agricultural waste from crop stalks and fruit peels, could make strong and versatile packaging that doesn’t harm ecosystems, recycles a waste product and is the one strategy 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 all the time at its forefront. If we’ve learned anything from corporate responsibility practices, it’s that we are able to not depend on quick-fix results and latest gimmicky products to repair the issue. Although these may idiot some consumers, there isn’t a fooling the environment. We’d like to speculate in supply chain transformation and put money into scalable solutions that may tackle the issue directly and quickly before it’s too late.

Let’s take Ben and Jerry’s latest commitment as a reminder that each one food brands can do more — and that sustainable packaging alternatives have gotten competitively priced and able to be scaled.


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