First up in this week’s whistle-stop tour of the sustainability headlines is a sobering analysis by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the hidden costs of our current food systems. Using the principles of true cost accounting and covering 154 countries, the FAO estimated that the combined costs on health, the environment and society add up to a staggering $10trn (£8.1trn) a year, representing almost 10% of global GDP.
The biggest hidden costs (more than 70%) are driven by unhealthy diets, high in ultra-processed foods, fats and sugars, leading to obesity and non-communicable diseases, and causing labour productivity losses. These losses are particularly great in high- and upper-middle-income countries.
One fifth of the total costs are environment-related, from greenhouse gas and nitrogen emissions, land-use change and water use.
Low-income countries are proportionately the hardest hit by the hidden costs of food systems, which represent more than a quarter of their GDP, as opposed to less than 12% in middle-income countries and less than 8% in high-income countries.
The FAO said the analysis, which featured within the 2023 edition of the organisation’s annual State of Food and Agriculture report, makes the case for more regular and detailed analysis by governments and the private sector of the hidden or ‘true’ costs of agrifood systems. It urged policy makers to use true cost accounting principles to transform food systems to address the climate crisis, poverty, inequality and food security.
Reducing current high levels of food waste is one way in which we can tread more lightly on the planet. Researchers from Aalborg University and the University of Copenhagen along with the United States Department of Agriculture, have set about modelling the energy and environmental savings to be made from cutting food loss and waste by 50% in Europe by 2030 (in line with SDG 12.3). They found that hitting such a target would save 8% of GHG emissions caused by food consumption and free up 12% of agricultural areas. There is also a 7% saving in water consumption up for grabs and a 14% saving in the energy used to produce the surplus food.
Sticking with waste and resources, FMCG giants Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Danone are being taken to task over their plastics recycling claims. EU consumer protection organisation BEUC, supported by ClientEarth and ECOS (Environmental Coalition on Standards), have filed a legal complaint against the companies for what they claim are misleading ‘100%’ recycled’ and ‘100% recyclable’ claims on plastic water bottles sold across Europe. The group is arguing that such claims, often reinforced by ‘green’ imagery and generic environmental catchphrases, suggest the bottles can be recycled in an infinite, circular loop and may therefore mislead consumers into viewing single-use bottles as a sustainable choice.
Although they acknowledge that recycling is less harmful than other disposal methods, such as incineration or landfill, the group say it is important companies don’t portray recycling as a silver bullet to the plastic crisis and need to focus efforts on reducing plastic at source.
“The evidence is clear – plastic water bottles are simply not recycled again and again to become new bottles in Europe. A ‘100%’ recycling rate for bottles is technically not possible and, just because bottles are made with recycled plastic, does not mean they don’t harm people and planet,” said Rosa Pritchard, plastics lawyer at ClientEarth.
In a week in which the campaign group Feedback has been challenging the legality of the UK government’s national food strategy (the verdict is expected in a few weeks) the King’s speech did little to shift the view of campaigners that Rishi Sunak’s government is at best lukewarm over the country’s environmental ambitions and targets. The standout environmental headline was a bill to license new oil and gas fields, which the government insisted is compatible with existing climate commitments. Environmental groups, however, were not buying the government line that it is “taking the necessary long-term decisions to put us firmly on track to deliver net-zero in 2050”.
“If the PM wants to make long term decisions in the interests of future generations he should take heed of the overwhelming consensus from the UK public, business and experts on the need for urgent action to tackle climate change and restore nature, which will in turn drive down bills and deliver green jobs and growth across the country. Instead, the government is failing to act and this will cost the UK public for generations to come,” said Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF.
There was a somewhat warmer welcome for a bill that will finally ban the live export of animals, an issue on which the government has been accused of dragging its feet. “After half a century of campaigning to see an end of live exports, we’re incredibly pleased that the UK government has prioritised this – albeit as the only animal welfare issue taken forward in their programme,” said David Bowles, head of public affairs at the RSPCA.
Also in this week’s Footprint news is a warning from the Food Standards Agency over a lack of staff for food safety enforcement; research showing a rise in greenhouse gas emissions from the world’s largest meat and dairy producers; and doubts raised over the biodegradability credentials of bio-based plastics.