By George Frier, Head of Food & Drink at Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP

The Herald:

Sustainability is a key operational objective for everyone involved in the production and supply of food and drink around the globe. 

Population growth and competition for scarce resources (especially water and energy) require concerted action to address. 

Food production contributes over 25% of greenhouse gases (beef cattle being the biggest by far) and uses 70% of global freshwater withdrawal. The latest threat is “sogflation” – crop failures due to flooding leading to scarcity and price rises.

The good news is that across Scotland and the UK, class-leading food and drink businesses have a clear focus on sustainability in its widest sense. 

Examples include:

■ Food waste: waste levels in production and consumption have been steadily tackled such that since 2007 the food and drink sector in the UK has reduced waste by 34% per capita. Food material whether post-production or post-purchase historically destined for landfill is frequently repurposed. Consumers have a greater awareness and there is increased supplier backing for differentiation between “best before” and “use by”. 

■ Energy consumption: companies increasingly use recirculating energy systems to reduce or recycle waste heat. Scottish Sea Farms has invested more than £30m in a new freshwater smolt facility using a recirculating freshwater system, which in addition to core energy efficiency, reduces the length of time that smolts have to spend at sea with consequent environmental benefits. 

■  Food packaging and logistics: at every stage in the supply chain, sustainability has to be embedded and integrated.

■ Can products be reformulated to reduce emissions and lower carbon content?

■ Is all packaging necessary or able to be redesigned?

■ Can energy used in manufacture and storage be recirculated and self-generated?

■ Can technology help? Undoubtedly. The ability to measure effectively the carbon cost of stages in the supply chain has improved significantly. Extended shelf life for food owes much to improvements in the composition of products, smart packaging and greater awareness of the longevity of food products.

■  Vertical farming has a significant role to play in the efficient use of land and scarce water resources but is capital intensive. 

■ Scientifically formulated animal and fish feed can be used to maximise protein yield per kilogram with consequent savings in manufacturing, transport, and waste products. 

■ Drones are increasingly being deployed to target irrigation of fields in areas that need it most. 

For some time now, it has been widely recognised that concerted, collaborative action is needed in addition to actions by individual organisations.

The Courtauld Commitment 2030 is a pan-UK voluntary agreement aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (‘SDG’) 12.3 and plans to achieve reduced food waste, greenhouse gas emissions and water usage to reach worldwide environmental objectives.

The targets are ambitious, including a 50% reduction in per capita waste by 2030, measured against 2007 levels. 

A Food Waste Reduction Roadmap has been set out and organisations in the food supply chain are encouraged to adopt an approach of “Target, Measure, Act”: 

■ ‘Target’ is defined as goals not less than those set out in SDG12.3; 

■ ‘Measure’ is measurement against set targets;

■ And ‘Act’: focuses on operational food waste (production), collaborative action (e.g. better supply chain planning / utilisation), and citizen (consumer) waste.  

Tellingly, the most recent WRAP (Waste, Resources and Action Programme) survey shows that individual consumer waste is only dropping very slowly and awareness levels of how to reduce food waste remain low.

The Food & Drink Federation and its Scottish affiliate’s members are committed to these goals, and the Scottish Government has invested through bodies such as Zero Waste Scotland and its Food Waste Hub to identify and develop innovative solutions to this challenge.

Household names have taken the lead by investing time, money and people in this vital task. Investment sustains jobs. Nestle’s milk crumb factory at Girvan has reduced its food waste to zero. 

Paterson Arran (a shortbread maker) has reduced waste by 59% despite increasing production by 87%. 

Linking best practice in agriculture with creative thinking has helped north-east ice cream producer Mackies move to a more vertically integrated model, combining the growing of honey and production of fruit and sauces on their farm, and using wind turbines, solar panels and a low carbon refrigeration system to improve efficiency and faster freezing of its products.

Sustainable production needs investment but can deliver long-term sustainability of jobs, prosperity – and most important of all, available resources. 

We all share this responsibility both in the choices we make and the actions we take.