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Serving up sustainability

Head of the Table for the Food & Beverage Industry

Plates spinning


Navigating a way through the sustainability maze is no easy task, for any industry. But, for the food and beverage sector, the challenges ahead are formidable. Having recovered from the fast-moving and severe impacts of a global pandemic, the industry now faces increasingly tough hurdles. Many are beyond its control, with economic inflation, rising energy prices, and steadily shrinking margins causing daily concern.

With more operators chasing the same customer base, competition has never been higher, whilst the need to keep on top of rapidly changing buying habits and new regulatory constraints adds to the dilemma of where to head next.

But, despite the number of plates the sector is trying to keep spinning, it’s determined to keep sustainability as a key element of its future evolution.

The Sustainability Stakes for the Food & Beverage Industry

Taking the global food chain as a whole, the complexity and scale of the task become clear. The industry is responsible for 690 Mt CO₂e¹ each year, or around a third of global emissions. However, that's a figure that takes everything into account, from land use to farming practices (use of fertilisers, for example), through to packaging, transport, and refrigeration at the point of sale (a large contributor by itself). This holistic overview of the food chain is at the heart of the European "farm to fork" strategy, which has led to its European Green Deal.²

Narrowing the focus to the food and beverage industry making the end products (known as "gate to gate"), it produces around 11% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the overall food chain. This varies geographically; 11% is for the EU, it's around 1% in India and 3% in China. Although the majority of GHG emissions are happening either upstream (agriculture and livestock farming) or downstream (distribution and retail), this is still a big amount. At 94 Mt CO₂e/year, it's close to the total emissions of Belgium.

Why the Food & Beverage Industry is Taking Decarbonisation Seriously…

You can already see how the sector cannot simply focus on one issue at a time. There are too many variables at play, and to do so would leave any business vulnerable. There's no doubt that uncertainty in the economic sphere, whether from inflation or from a purely cost perspective, is the main concern.

But concerns are not the same as priorities. Even back at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, food and beverage leaders were putting sustainability high on their priority lists. In 2020, a survey found 67% of food, beverage and agriculture decision-makers believed it was no longer enough to simply "do no harm". The clarion call was that they should be acting together to go beyond, moving towards an effective, regenerative food system.³

More recent surveys have backed this feeling, with a majority of food and beverage operators putting sustainability as their main priority, closely followed by efficiency/waste reduction, and food safety. The reasons for this stem from a range of pressures, chief among them:

  • consumers are demanding more sustainable products
  • to gain a competitive advantage, through new customers or commercial opportunities
  • enhancing financial performance (as a result of lower energy costs, or reduced waste)
  • making sure operations are compliant with new regulations

The food and beverage industry is of critical importance. It's the largest manufacturing industry in the UK, and contributes more to the economy than all other manufacturing sectors, including automotive and aerospace. In the US, in 2019, it was worth $412 billion to the economy, giving 1.7 million people a living, and in the EU it employs 4.6 million people and generates a turnover of €1.1 trillion and €230 billion in added value, making it one of the most significant manufacturing industries for the continent.

And, ultimately, we need it to survive. It knows that the growing effects of climate change mean it needs to react, faster than most. Elemental issues like droughts or floods at the wrong time are additional variables the industry could well do without. It knows, more than most industries, that it has a vested interest in helping secure our planet’s future.

And why it sees efficiency and sustainability as two sides of the same coin

In the US, the recent Decarbonization Roadmap singles out the food and beverage industry as a key opportunity for reducing GHG emissions since most other industries have a projected upswing in emissions before declining. The diversity of the industry is a challenge, but the plan suggests energy efficiency is a blueprint for change: 

“Because hot water and steam are significant energy users, and sources of energy loss, in food processing plants, efficiency improvements in steam generation are a critical opportunity that needs to be a focus. DOE estimates a typical industrial steam assessment can identify energy savings of 10%–15% per year"⁴ 

Across the pond in the UK echoes are heard. Here, thanks to its exceptional thermal energy qualities, steam is used in many operations. Almost half of the food and drink processing sector’s total energy demand is to generate steam, usually by installing a boiler in every food and drink manufacturing site. The need for steam is driven by the required production speeds and product quality, so keeping the right quantity and quality of steam for many processes is essential. Efficiency is the first point in addressing sustainability, and with it come the additional benefits of energy savings.

When you think back to all those competing demands on a food and beverage manufacturer, this has one huge benefit, in that: 

"…a change to the generator of the heat does not require modification of the food processing equipment or production line"⁵ 

Across the slightly smaller pond again, to continental Europe, and the resonance in approach gets louder still. It's energy usage, once again, that is the focus, and steam is still a critical component in food and drink manufacturing. Here, a recent study by Food Drink Europe⁶ gives several pointers to the way forward:

  • Reducing heat demand: e.g. by improved insulation, recovering energy from steam condensate, cleaning in place without heat
  • Electrification of heat: introduction of electric boilers and/or heat pumps to reduce the quantity of heat needed from combustion units
  • Decarbonising combustion units: by using cleaner fuels (green hydrogen, ammonia, or bio-based residues)
  • Using renewable energy for heat: viewing concentrated solar heat (CSR) as the most suitable option

Setting a Benchmark

There are few other industries that face the number of stumbling blocks in the way of sustainable progress as the food and beverage industry does. That's why it's remarkable that it stands out as among the most progressive in this arena. A recent study gave companies in the sector the highest score in their "Environment theme", and trailed only the construction industry and finance, legal, and consulting in overall performance.⁷

This is a testament to its resolve to act now, to optimise for efficiency with the tools available, and to have a vision for meeting the many competing demands on its doorstep. The industry has many more mountains to climb, but it has acknowledged this is no time to stand still. 

1 CO₂e – carbon dioxide equivalence is often used when trying to measure the impact from the food value chain. It considers issues like land use, or facts like one ton of methane (e.g., produced by livestock farming) would equate to 25 tons of CO₂e since it has 25 times more global warming potential.
The Food Industry Is Leaning Into Sustainability | TNC (nature.org)
Industrial Decarbonization Roadmap (energy.gov)
Food & Beverage Companies Must Target Procurement to Boost Sustainability Perform | EcoVadis 

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