Earth is reaching its best-by date. Better food processing and packaging can help restore its health

Pioneering packaging is helping extend the shelf life of products. - Image: Reuters/Neil Hall

Executive Vice-President, Sustainability & Communications, Tetra Pak

This article is part of the Forum COP26 Live

  • The world currently wastes one-third of all food produced.
  • The food processing and packaging industry can contribute to the transformation of food systems.
  • Food packaging can adopt many approaches to a more sustainable supply chain.

The United Nations’ latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report represents a code red for our global food systems. Stating that the global temperature, which rose 1.1°C between 1850-1900, is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C Celsius of warming, the report warns of overlapping risks across energy, food and water sectors, creating a disastrous future for global food systems.

These rising temperatures will reportedly reduce global yields in maize rice and, potentially, other cereal crops, while adversely affecting feed quality, spread of diseases and water-resource availability for livestock, with every increase of 0.5°C predicted to bring more frequent and intense agricultural droughts.

Ironically, our global food systems themselves are partially to blame for the current situation, accounting for over a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. With the global population projected to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, demand for food continues to grow, yet the world currently wastes a third of the food it produces due to inefficient production and preservation practices from developing countries’ lack of infrastructure, and developed countries’ unsustainable consumption practices.

These gross inefficiencies reveal a toxic and unsustainable relationship between our global food systems and the planet, amounting to some $12 trillion in hidden costs each year, which far exceeds the market value of agricultural commodities.

Solutions without borders

Though food production and environmental conservation have historically been at odds, only through working together and finding common ground will we enable the global transformation of food systems to best address this dangerous cycle.

Global challenges and crises have no borders and require international cooperation and multilateral responses to the food system issues. From farmers to processors to packers to distributors to consumers around the world, we must overhaul the way we approach, produce and consume food to adhere to the “planetary health diet”. These shared approaches are particularly critical as the world transitions to the post-pandemic recovery era.

Growing demand for food is driving up GHG emissions – but much food is wasted.
Growing demand for food is driving up GHG emissions – but much food is wasted.
Image: Statista


To confront this immense challenge, we must think strategically and creatively, looking beyond existing frameworks to reinvent food production processes and employ more sustainable, innovative models.

To demonstrate what this might look like in the food processing and packaging industries, here are three solutions focused on more environmentally sustainable food systems for the future:

1. Adoption of a low-carbon circular economy

As a global community, we face the challenge of minimizing the environmental impact of packaging while maximizing food safety and protection. Global food actors must drive innovation on materials and end-of-life solutions through collaborative approaches, designing processes that reduce or eliminate this carbon footprint.

While recycling is an important part of the solution, it is not enough. Ultimately, the only way we will sustainably support the food and nutrition demands of our growing population for generations to come is with the adoption of a low-carbon circular economy.

Throughout human existence, increasing consumption and economic growth has led to depletion of natural resources. The circular economy moves us away from this model to a system where we make use of the resources that are already in the value chain. The low-carbon circular economy goes a step further, also considering the climate impact of raw materials and the manufacturing value chain.

Continued innovation in the food packaging and processing space will go beyond recycling to consider the broader, long-term environmental impact of a product.

2. Ambient, long shelf-life solutions that keep food safe

World hunger is on the rise, yet an estimated third of all food produced globally is lost or goes to waste. Not only does wasted food lead to food insecurity, but it is the number one item by volume entering landfills, creating methane gas and driving 8% of global warming emissions. To mitigate food waste and combat malnutrition in developing countries, packaging solutions that keep food fresh for longer are imperative.

Tetra Pak pioneered aseptic processing and packaging solutions with this in mind, leveraging the sterilization process to lengthen product shelf life and safely preserve food without the need for preservatives or refrigeration. Ambient, long shelf-life solutions that keep food safe not only help to reduce carbon footprint, but also reduce food waste and enable food-insecure regions to store and access food for longer.

3. Boost supply chain transparency and traceability

Today’s supply chains are stretched and inflexible. Given that the global food systems account for over a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, an increased focus on transparency and traceability will help deliver safe, nutritious and healthy food in a sustainable way, reducing operational risks and increasing supply-chain resilience.

From sourcing, to manufacturing, to transportation, to consumption, it is only with visibility into every step of the supply chain that companies can improve their overall sustainability. To give an example, Unilever has been doing some very promising work in this area utilizing geospatial analytics in its sourcing to predict the possibility of issues, such as deforestation, and take action.

Tetra Pak is bringing about this transparency in the food packaging and processing industry with its “Connected packages”. Launched in 2019 and currently exceeding 2 billion in number, they are each labeled with a unique digital barcode, effectively turning packages into data carriers. This digitalization enables end-to-end traceability for producers, greater supply chain transparency for retailers, and access to information for consumers.

The quickest way to optimize human health and environmental sustainability is through agriculture and food. This new IPCC report puts added pressure on the food industry to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Here’s hoping it will mobilize its many potential partnerships and innovation to reform and ultimately save our global food systems.

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