Almost as though, spookily, he had been in the room, UK Environment Secretary David Miliband picked up on a theme of the ‘Supply Chain Standard’ round table on global sourcing (see page 18) in a speech to the National Farmers Union in February.
The environmental impact of global sourcing strategies is rapidly becoming a critical issue with consumers and, to an only slightly lesser extent, with commercial supply chain customers, and ‘food miles’ is, being superficially the easiest aspect to understand, leading the agenda. Miliband has told the NFU, rightly, that ‘Consumers are increasingly demanding, and will create new markets… I am encouraged that so many people from the supermarkets to the Carbon Trust want to find ways to explain to consumers the different environmental impacts of their products’ and he went on to suggest that ‘as well as quality nutritional standards, environmental standards become the norm on food packaging’.
Wisely, he conceded that this is not an easy piece of work. Indeed. Only the previous week, a Manchester Business School study for the UK government suggested that many ‘organic’ foods use more fossil fuels in their production or distribution and so are less ‘environmentally friendly’ than conventional products. The conundrum of whether hot-house crops from this country or near-Europe are ‘better’ environmentally than imports from Africa, air freighted but grown under artificial heat and light, is well known. But Miliband is quoting figures suggesting that ‘the food and drink sector as a whole is estimated to be responsible for up to 30 per cent of greenhouse gases in Europe’. Since actual farming is only down for seven per cent or so, that puts logistics and distribution into the frame.
It is possible to question whether ever-increasing consumer information on packaging is not on the point of being counter-productive – how many shoppers will factor in food miles or carbon footprints alongside e-numbers, salt levels, trans-fats and the rest? But it is clear that the food distribution industries both globally and locally, will very shortly be required to come up with some robust methodologies for assessing their contribution to the grocery carbon footprint (see John Lamb’s column page 10). To retain business, they are going to have to find ways of reducing that footprint.