I pulled out the latest issue of Green Futures for a bit of light relief. It instantly lifted my mood as it reminded me just… how exciting sustainability issues can be.
Twenty years have passed. There’s plenty of food to go round, and it hasn’t cost the earth to produce… So what’s changed? Andrew Purvis has a crystal ball.
What will the food and drink industry look like in 2032? If world leaders, policy-makers and the private sector make the right commitments, the world will be better fed, the planet won’t be toast and there will be no unsustainable products on shelves. A whole host of initiatives – some by business, some by government – will have combined to get us there.
Every company will have a route map to sustainability, including a set of well-informed targets developed with scientists and stakeholders. Progress against these will be reported transparently, to make sure pledges are met. By 2032, all board directors will be remunerated on the basis of sustainability and rewarded for meeting these targets (as they are at Marks & Spencer and Unilever now). Enlightened
companies will have abandoned quarterly reporting to shareholders, instead informing them about more solid, longer term prospects.
Choice editing will play its part, too. In store, consumers will no longer have to trouble themselves with logos (such as Fairtrade or Soil Association), traffic light symbols or carbon labels, because manufacturers will have done the work to ensure sustainability throughout the supply chain. Every product will have a sustainability story behind it – about producer partnerships, fair trade, provenance, conservation, packaging and waste – accessible by those who are interested via a QR code (or its 2032 equivalent) in the comfort of their home. Working with universities, food and drink companies will develop a holistic sustainability calculator, factoring in greenhouse emissions, water use, transport miles, packaging, waste, land use and social impacts, all represented by a single kitemark.
In the field, ‘precision farming’ technology similar to PepsiCo’s i-crop (developed with Cambridge University) will glean data from moisture probes in the soil and combine it with rain forecasts to avoid under- and over-watering. Similar tools will be developed to ensure that nitrogen fertilisers are applied only in dry weather, in the right location and in the right amounts, driving down cost and reducing spill off into water courses. And where other agrichemicals are needed, the technology will be available to ensure the optimal dose is applied with minimum impact to wildlife or the soil. Public-private partnerships will fund research into drought-resistant GM crops and varieties with root systems that allow them to absorb nitrogen more efficiently. Organically produced fertiliser – not synthetic – will be the norm, and biogas fermenters will drive nitrogen production facilities on farms.
In the developing world, extension services will address the knowledge gaps and infrastructure challenges that are holding poor farmers back, and they in turn will share knowledge with the North about nutrition. In the developed world, we will find ourselves eating more fruit and vegetables, more pulses but less red meat and dairy produce, influenced not only by the South but by consistent messages and price incentives from the industry and the Government.
Brands will be directly engaged with organised smallholders, in much more equal trading relationships, helping each understand the needs of the other. Increasingly, producer cooperatives will be shareholders in brands, as happens today with Divine (chocolate) and Liberation (nuts), benefiting everyone.
It may sound like an ambitious menu. But everything on it is entirely feasible, and backed by a strong business case, too. And if we don’t opt for something along these lines, the future may leave a very bitter taste in the mouth. – Andrew Purvis