Interview: WRAP ups the ante on food targets

The NGO’s new climate lead tells Nick Hughes how the current sustainability landscape requires a fresh level of ambition from businesses.

It’s been a busy few months for the waste and resources action programme (WRAP). In July, the NGO raised the stakes on its flagship Courtauld Commitment by setting more stretching targets for greenhouse gas emissions, food waste and water use.

Then in September, WRAP published what it billed as the most comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gas emissions(GHG) linked to UK food and drink production and consumption ever undertaken.

Sandwiched between the two was the annual report for the UK’s food waste reduction roadmap, produced in partnership with the IGD, which showed progress among out of home businesses on reducing food waste remains patchy and public sharing of data by those same businesses has not improved in the past 12 months.

The pandemic has provided legitimate cover for hospitality and foodservice businesses choosing to deprioritise action on sustainability issues. But with the sector in recovery mode, and WRAP’s analysis highlighting the key role for businesses in hitting food waste and emissions targets, the time for excuses is surely now over.

New emissions landscape

On GHG emissions specifically, the updated Courtauld targets require food businesses to achieve a 50% absolute reduction by 2030 against a 2015 baseline – a higher rate of progress than the previous 20% reduction by 2025.

When the original 2025 target was launched the UK was in a “very different landscape” regarding emissions targets and accounting, explains WRAP’s head of climate action strategy, Karen Fisher. “When we looked again at the context of net zero and wider industry targets, it was apparent to everyone that we needed to refresh that level of ambition,” says Fisher, who took up the newly created role in September.

WRAP’s recent analysis found that equivalent to 35% of the UK’s total emissions arise from producing and consuming food and drink, including emissions generated overseas for imported food. The hospitality and foodservice sector is estimated to account for 5% of those emissions compared with 6% for food manufacturing and 3% for food retail.

WRAP concluded that a 50% reduction in food-related emissions by 2030 (in line with a 1.5C trajectory) is possible, but only if urgent action is taken in five priority areas.

Some of these are more straightforward for businesses to tackle than others. The analysis found businesses must continue to decarbonise their own operations, and it’s here Fisher suggests the greatest foodservice progress has been made to-date principally through measures to improve energy efficiency and switch to renewable electricity.

Sticky scope three

Where things get stickier concerns the need for businesses to develop a better understanding of emissions throughout their wider supply chains, including meeting their commitments to zero deforestation. These scope 3 emissions account for the greatest share of food sector emissions but are harder to measure and have historically been overlooked by some businesses who find it easier to tackle scope 1 and 2 direct emissions.

The dial is shifting however and Fisher says scope 3 emissions are now firmly on the radar as more businesses make net zero commitments. “It's quickly going to get to a point where it's just not going to be acceptable to not include scope 3 and I think that seems to be very well understood.”

WRAP recently set up a Courtauld Commitment Supply Chain GHG Working Group “because we were seeing and hearing that businesses were starting to set targets for their scope 3 emissions, but they had the same challenge [about] how to track progress”.

Fisher says this confusion and proliferation of different accounting approaches was “causing a bit of inertia”, with businesses unable to see a path forward. The aim of the new group is to bring together different parts of the supply chain to help the whole industry move forward on initiatives like developing a standardised accounting and reporting methodology and more systematic methods of data collection.

Business engagement has been good, according to Fisher, including from foodservice businesses such as Compass, Sodexo, Bidfood, Apetito, McDonald’s and KFC.

The group will also look to agree a common set of GHG emission factors for different foods. Fisher suggests current reliance on average values for product footprinting is problematic because “the range is huge; it's really hard for businesses to know which number is representative for their own supply chain”.

Beef is one example of a food where “it really matters where and how it’s produced”, according to Fisher, who adds the focus needs to be on generating farm level data “which is just not the space we’re in currently”.

Dietary change

WRAP says meeting 2030 emissions target will also require widespread adoption of government dietary recommendations, as set out in the Eatwell Guide, and more integrated messaging to consumers around food waste and consumption.

Fisher believes dietary change is one area in which foodservice businesses, and contract caterers in particular, have a real opportunity to reduce the emissions from the food they serve due to “the influence they can have in terms of dietary choice; more so than retailers”.

Caterers are already making moves in this direction. Compass Group UK & Ireland, for example, is currently trialling a new labelling scheme across its workplace catering sites which will see dishes rated for their environmental impact.

Waste challenges

Waste reduction will also be critical, both to the climate target (Wrap says emissions associated with UK food waste are 36MtCO2, equivalent to 23% of total food system emissions) and the revised target to achieve a 50% per person reduction in food and drink waste in the UK by 2030.

The latest food waste reduction roadmap update showed that although food retailers, producers and manufacturers reduced food waste by 17% compared to their baselines, foodservice and hospitality data is not yet sufficiently robust to calculate comparisons over time.

WRAP points to a perfect storm of challenges that have impacted the efforts of businesses to embed food waste measurement, including the Covid-19 crisis, post-EU exit disruption and other sustainability ‘asks’ on businesses, for example to reduce single-use plastics.

These haven’t prevented seven new foodservice providers committing to the roadmap in the past year – Amadeus, Elior UK, Fooditude, St John’s College, University of Cambridge, University of Portsmouth, Wasabi and Wellocks – taking the total to 42. Of those, 29 are implementing WRAP’s best practice ‘target, measure, act’ approach to food waste, yet Baxter Storey remains the only hospitality business publicly reporting its levels of waste in accordance with the roadmap’s guidelines. That may soon change if the government moves ahead with plans to make food waste reporting mandatory, a policy WRAP supports.

What’s clear, says Fisher, is that waste prevention must be a priority both from the perspective of food waste and emissions, and WRAP will increasingly be urging businesses to “consider high embodied impact waste streams like meat” as part of their reduction efforts.

Meat is also being addressed as part of WRAP’s Meat in a Net Zero World initiative, another collaborative forum with the aim of optimising productivity and minimising waste from farm to fork.

At its launch in 2020, the initiative came in for criticism from some NGOs for not having a reduction in meat consumption among its objectives. Fisher insists this particular forum “is not the right place for that” but she does note that WRAP is “starting to have a conversation about how should we be approaching the less and better [meat agenda]” with forum members, which include some of the UK’s biggest meat producers. 

While emissions and waste tend to dominate public discourse around food sustainability, Fisher says water mustn’t be forgotten as an issue of critical importance. This is reflected in a new Courtauld 2030 target for the UK food and drink industry to have achieved sustainable water management in the top 20 most important product and ingredient sourcing areas in the UK and overseas.

It’s a lot for businesses to work through at a time when minds are focused on the job of recovering financially from the pandemic.

Still, those businesses who fail to do the heavy lifting now are only storing up greater problems – both for themselves and the planet – in the future.

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