Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by Dr Mirjam Roeder et al, Researchers, Sustainable Consumption Institute and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, The University of Manchester


Executive Summary


This piece of evidence explores issues of sustainable food supply and demand as well as addressing various challenges evident within aspects of the food supply chain. Implications for supply chain actors are drawn out. The information provided is based on Sustainable Consumption Institute and Tyndall Centre research focussing on climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies for food and a related sustainability labelling thesis.

Main findings:

Emissions implications

· Under climate change projections out to 2050, agricultural production in the UK will likely benefit from increasing yields.

· However, taking advantage of higher yields can only be realised with an increasing use of fertilisers, especially nitrogen, thereby increasing the UK’s territorial emissions.

· This highlights a potential conflict between the UK wishing to reduce its territorial emissions, while taking advantage of its favourable climatic conditions, and low-emission intensity to increase agricultural production for export.

· If a consumption-based emissions accounting framework were to be considered in parallel to the conventional territorial framework, this would be able to account for a global benefit in terms of emissions, whilst the UK increases its share of global crop production.

Building resilience

· Agriculture is more vulnerable to climate change than many other sectors, and must consider adaptation carefully to avoid further emission growth whilst taking advantage of favourable conditions for cereal crops.

· To reduce the volatility of the food system and also to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts, proactive planning and monitoring is necessary.

Consumer choice

· Effectiveness of labelling schemes largely depends on the legitimacy perceived by the actors (not only consumers, but institutions, NGOs etc) who then drive demand for and supply of more sustainable goods.

· Enhancing this legitimacy is a complex process.

· The consumer’s role in driving the effectiveness of labelling schemes has been limited to date. Focus must therefore be broadened from individual consumers and manufacturers to other important actors such as retailers, NGOs, procurement bodies or civic organisations.

· Gaining legitimacy for any highly simplified form of communication around sustainable food (e.g. a label) is challenging and likely necessitates huge investments into the institutionalisation of a highly inclusive labelling and standard setting process.

· Not all decisions can be refined to a label that gives an obvious ‘sustainable’ choice to the consumer

· Alternative measures to consider might be stricter regulations on false environmental claims

Retailers as key actors

· SME’s may find it challenging to reduce their emissions due to a lack of available resource. Retailers and government are seen as having the potential to offer knowledge and expertise to help. Even actions with fairly short payback may not be attractive enough to encourage take-up.

· Many actors see retailers as key, either in facilitating or perhaps mandating change through the supply chain.



1. The evidence presented here is based on research being undertaken at the University of Manchester within the Sustainable Consumption Institute, and linked to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

2. One of the specific projects on which the evidence is based involves constructing a suite of emission scenarios focussing on the food supply chain. The context within which the scenarios are being developed contrasts the mitigation and adaptation challenges associated with a 2°C of warming by 2100 (Government target) with those associated with a 4°C of warming by 2100 (current track). Although the focus of the work is climate change related, wider sustainable concerns are explored through stakeholder engagement and consumer focus groups.

3. The project takes a consumer-perspective on the issue by quantifying the full supply-chain emissions in addition to associated territorial emissions. In addition, scenarios are bounded within a cumulative emissions budget framework, as opposed to simply aiming for some long-term emission reduction target.

How can the environmental and climate change impacts of the food we choose to eat best be reduced? What are the land-use trade-offs that affect food production and supply and how should these be managed?


4. Climate change mitigation is an issue of cumulative emissions rather than long-term targets [1]. Therefore short-term demand-side measures rather than longer-term technologically-driven changes are often more beneficial from a climate impacts point of view.

5. Climate change impacts associated with the food we eat should be assessed by considering the various stages of the food supply chain to identify emission ‘hot spots’. Moreover, given the nature of potential future climate impacts are uncertain, mitigation measures should be flexible to build resilience into the system.

6. One of the biggest challenges for cutting emissions from the food system is connected to the use of fertiliser, especially nitrogen, to deliver reasonable yields. In plant production, nitrogen is the most important nutrient for most crops, especially wheat which is the main crop in the UK, and has a high demand for nitrogen to produce sufficient yields and quality. The production of fertiliser is very energy and emission intensive [2]. Another major emission is N2O emissions directly from soil resulting from transformation processes caused by microorganisms in the soil.

7. Nitrogen fertilisation is necessary to deliver required yields [3] but at the same time produces emissions. To reduce the environmental impact, alternative production methods for fertiliser can reduce emissions. Direct emissions from soil, which also contribute significantly to the global warming potential of agricultural production, can be minimised by efficient crop management such as soil-specific nitrogen application rates, sensitive timing and applications methods or the application of costly nitrogen inhibitors.

8. The annual production of around 15 million tonnes of wheat [4] makes the UK a major cereal producer in the EU. UK farmers achieve some of the highest yields for wheat in the world, a considerable portion of which is exported for a variety of uses. (However the development of emerging biofuel markets may change this in future).

9. Work carried out by the SCI/Tyndall Centre [5] considers different climate change adaptation options for UK wheat production. These involve the application of increased levels of nitrogenous fertiliser in order to access higher yield potentials under future climate scenarios with associated rises in CO2 and temperatures. The results showed that the greenhouse gas intensity of UK wheat production per unit of wheat produced is unlikely to be significantly affected by such adaptation measures. However, this is subject to the increased yields being realised. Similarly, the prospect of increased climate variability (resulting in more extreme weather events) may in fact reduce yields in some years and subsequently result in some years which demonstrate an increased greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity of production.

10. Of more immediate concern is the extent to which the UK’s national greenhouse gas inventory is likely to be exacerbated by such adaptation measures. The agronomic adaptation required to access higher yields may result in little difference in the specific greenhouse gas emissions per unit of wheat produced, but if the UK continues to devote the same area of land to wheat production, but increases yields, there will be an increase in the total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions [5]. On the one hand, it could be argued that it is imperative that the UK (with its high yields and efficient production) takes up the responsibility of supplying increasing quantities of wheat to service increasing global demands   . On the other hand, doing so might jeopardise the UK’s ability to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets, if assessed using the conventional territorial framework. Making use of the alternative consumption-based accounting framework for emissions may be appropriate in order to identify if on a global scale, efficient production within UK territory for consumption both in the UK and elsewhere results in lower emissions globally than if a similar amount of food were to be produced outside of the UK.

How can the Government help to deliver healthy food sustainably, whilst also delivering affordable food for all?


11. From a climate change perspective virtually no other economic sector is as exposed to natural influences to the same extent as agriculture. Therefore, adaptation is essential to prevent or at least reduce negative impacts of climate change and take advantage of possible benefits for UK farming.

12. In the last decade early warning systems and monitoring mechanisms proved to be useful to stabilise food supply in food-insecure regions. As proactive instruments, such methods could help food producers and the food industry to diminish impacts and risk from climate change and prevent sudden ‘surprises’. Monitoring and alerting instruments allow for better planning and adjustment of production and stock/storage systems and can avoid rapid short fall in supply and sharp price peaks.

13. "Affordable to all" does not necessarily mean low prices but a stable and fair economy with stable incomes and access for all to safe, healthy and sustainable products and diets.

How can consumers best be helped to make more sustainable choices about food?


14. From our research, the key issue to consider here is exactly what is meant by ‘more sustainable choices’? Products that deliver on one element of sustainability (e.g. fair-trade) may well not deliver on another (e.g. GHG emissions from airfreight). These sustainability trade-offs indicate that not all decisions can be refined to a label that gives an obvious ‘sustainable’ choice to the consumer. Rather the consumer may have to interpret what is important to them in terms of sustainability and, in addition, balance this alongside issues such as price, nutrition etc

15. One of the most prominent instruments to help consumers make more sustainable product choices has been product labelling, introduced by various actors. Among others the House of Commons Environmental Committee has called for "simplification, unification and verification of environmental labelling, preferably into a single sector-based, universal scheme incorporating different key elements" [7] to address what has arguably become a confusing labelling situation for consumers and businesses alike. In regard to this call there are different things to consider for the food but also other sectors.

16. Based on research of existing product labelling schemes we found that their effectiveness largely depends on the legitimacy perceived by the actors driving both the societal demand for, and the supply of, more sustainably produced products [8]. Enhancing the perceived legitimacy of a labelling scheme is a complex process including input and output related as well as moral, pragmatic, and cognitive dimensions.

17. Due to multiple barriers on the micro, meso and macro levels, consumers’ direct demand for more sustainably produced food and other products and their role in driving the effectiveness of labelling schemes has been limited, although should not be totally neglected. Individual consumer power has been repeatedly utilised indirectly (in a sense of individual consumers being mentally prepared to discriminate among products because of concerns related to sustainability issues) by NGOs to pressure companies to transform their supply chains towards sustainability. Next to individual consumers procurement bodies are increasingly seen as an important source of strategic demand. On the supply side, labelling schemes have been often used to symbolise to consumers and other stakeholders companies’ broader CSR commitment. At this point, businesses that inhibit the lead position within the supply chain and have the power to pull or push the rest of the supply chain are of key importance. When looking at the effectiveness of product labelling schemes it is therefore crucial not to focus only on individual consumers and manufacturers but also other important actors such as retailers, NGOs, procurement bodies or civic organisations [8].

18. In the light of the above sustainability trade-offs and the complexity of the sustainability agenda in general, the prospects for gaining legitimacy for any highly simplified form of communication seems challenging. If possible to achieve at all, it would probably necessitate huge investments into the institutionalisation of a highly inclusive labelling and standard setting process.

19. Alternative measures to consider might be stricter regulations on false environmental claims as is found for example, with organically grown food, to strengthen existing schemes rather than implementing new ones.

20. There are also many problems and inherent limitations related to the implementation of labelling schemes in general and a simplified, universal sustainability label in particular. It is therefore crucial to accompany labelling efforts by other measures such as green public procurement, education, incentivising measures and choice editing [9].

Which aspects of the food production and supply chain are presenting the biggest problems for the sustainability of the food industry?


21. The demand for food is expected to increasing globally by 70% until 2050 [10] due to population growth, urbanisation and structural changes of societies. According to global climate change projections food production in regions in higher latitudes is likely to be favoured while yields in lower latitudes are likely to decrease and production might even be impossible [11]. This means that especially in regions with increasing demands, production will be very limited and a greater number of countries will rely on a few main producers. With this outlook food producers in the northern hemisphere, need to maximise their yields to maintain the global supply. To maximise yields, especially in case of cereals, higher levels of agrochemical use, particularly nitrogenous fertiliser, are necessary. This will increase the greenhouse gas burden associated with increased fertiliser production and N2O emissions from arable soils associated with these more intensive production methods. This would result in substantial increases in the national emissions inventory in key producer countries such as the UK, which may act as a disincentive to increase production in these countries. If this were the case it could raise significant concerns about the ability of the global food supply to increase capacity in order to adequately feed a growing global population [5]. Changing environmental conditions, extreme weather events and unpredictable weather conditions, plant pathogens, pests and weeds will add to the pressures on agriculture.

22. Socio-economic impacts such as increasing prices for food and production factors, scarcity of/competition for resources (especially fertile land and water), changing demands and consumer perceptions will increase the pressure for all sectors and a sustainable food system.

23. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) may find it challenging to effectively reduce their emissions due to a lack of available (personal or financial) resources. Retailers and government are seen as having the potential to offer knowledge and expertise to help reduce the level of GHGs associated with SME activities. The day-to-day survival pressures on many SME’s mean that even actions with fairly short payback periods may not be attractive enough to encourage take-up.

24. From our stakeholder research, it is clear that many actors see the retailers as key either in facilitating or perhaps mandating change through the supply chain. Clearly this is a sensitive issue with many suppliers already feeling pressure from reducing margins and the current economic climate.



1. Anderson, K., Bows, A. and Mander, S. From long-term targets to cumulative emission pathways: Reframing UK climate policy, Energy Policy, 2008, 36, (10), pp 3714-3722.

2. IFA, Fertilizers, Climate Change and Enhancing Agricultural Productivity Sustainably. 2009, IFA: Paris

3. Sylvester-Bradley, R., Kindred, D.R., Blake, J., Dryer, C. J., Sinclair, A.H. 2008. Optimising fertiliser nitrogen for modern wheat and barley crops. HGCA Project Report No. 438

4. Defra 2009. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2009. [cited 27.07.2010; Available from:

5.    der, M., Thornley, P., Gilbert, P., Campbell, G. 2011, "Adaptation strategies for sustainable global wheat production", Reframing sustainability? Climate Change and North-South Dynamics, Helsinki, February 2011 (Conference proceedings)

6. WWF, Livewell: a balance of healthy and sustainable food choices, 2011.

7. House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee 2009, Environmental Labelling. Second Report of Session 2008–09, London, p.8

8. Dendler, L 2010, 'Sustainability meta labelling. Key Actors and Factors for a potential Institutionalisation'. Knowledge Collaboration & Learning for Sustainable Innovation ERSCP-EMSU conference, TU Delft & The Hague University, Delft

9. Dendler, L 2010, 'Sustainability meta labelling. A discussion of potential implementation issues', Tyndall Working Paper, vol. 145

10. Foresight, The Future of Food and Farming, Final Project Report, 2011.

11. IPCC, Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment. Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Parry, M.L., Canziani, O.F., Palutikof, J.P., Linden, P.J.v.d. and Hanson, C.E. pp 976, 2007a.



This report presents independent research commissioned by the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI). The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the SCI, the funders or The University of Manchester.

17 March 2011