Flexibility and sustainability vital for the future of food

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 4th February 2010

An industry expert has emphasised the importance of economic and environmental sustainability in the food industry in the face of global upheaval during a speech to the British government.

According to to the CEO of market insight group IGD, Joanne Denney-Finch, the food industry needs to be flexible and responsive in order to overcome the challenges of the next decade: environmental degradation, economic recession, shifting markets, climate change and a 25% increase in food requirements.

World on a Plate

“Most of the world’s fertile farmland is already in use, so we need to use it more effectively and sustainably because already about 40% of the world’s farmland is categorised as degraded and the problem of over-fishing is even worse,” Denney-Finch told delegates of the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum. “Human water consumption has risen six-fold over the past century – more than double the growth in population. That can’t continue, because the water table is falling in many crop growing parts of the world and according to the U.N., if this continues, we’ll lose a third of cereal production within 15 years.”

“We need to get more from less – in volatile conditions.”

Changes in consumer behaviour will prompt further need for adaptation. “Chinese meat consumption has doubled over the past 15 years and dairy consumption is growing by 25 per cent per annum,” Denney-Finch reported. “Consumers are still reeling from the shock of recession and there could be many more after-shocks to come. Shoppers will continue to spend carefully, scrutinising closely for value.” Despite this, Denney-Finch warns not to disregard the ethical shopper. “Fairtrade, free range, local food, and environmentally friendly products have all maintained momentum during the recession… In developed countries, consumer empowerment is likely to be extended further, so that shoppers have all they need to make the most sustainable choices.”

Denney-Finch also highlighted economic volatility as a key challenge for the industry in years to come. “Input costs – especially energy – are fluctuating unpredictably. Trade flows are in a state of flux. The balance of wealth is shifting from West to East… The food industry is always racing to get ahead of this curve and because events are unfolding so quickly, companies will need to move faster than ever.”

Denney-Finch put the food industry at the forefront of the fight against environmental challenges. She reported favourably on changes that have been made already: reformulation, Fairtrade, reduced waste, reduced carbon emissions and reduced HGV miles. ‘The industry is already mobilised… I think we’ll find that most of the solutions that we’re going to need are already known to us.”

Among the possible future changes Denney-Finch highlighted: the removal of barriers to trade, improved recycling and packaging, reduced food waste (and the accompanying increase in production), extended Fairtrade ethos, improved food science, farming best practice and increased competition. “It would be good to see plenty of new business start ups and fast growing small companies alongside the best established players to ensure a vibrant marketplace. Competition, channelled in the right direction, will always encourage human ingenuity and produce extra-ordinary results.”

“The equation to solve is complex and challenging, but when you have a third of the world’s population working on it, or if we draft in consumers, the entire population, we do have the capability to solve it and to build a better food future.”