CEO’s Perspective

Richard Walker, Managing Director, Iceland Foods

The food industry bears a huge share of responsibility for the global climate and biodiversity crises. The way we currently produce and consume our food is simply not sustainable and requires rapid and transformative change.

All over the world, food production is the main driver of biodiversity loss. Agriculture threatens almost 90% of the species currently threatened with extinction. Commodities like palm oil and soy are driving deforestation that will turn the rainforests from carbon sinks into net carbon emitters, further disrupting the global climate and depriving us of a huge wealth of plant, insect, and animal species.

Large-scale industrial farming relies on significant use of pesticides, which impact pollinators and wild ecosystems, and on synthetic fertilisers which impact soil health. Similarly at sea, we are threatening the planet’s oceans through overfishing and pollution. More than a third of marine fish stocks are being harvested at unsustainable levels and the oceans will soon contain more plastic than fish (by weight).

Plastic pollution is inextricably linked with our food systems and plastic production is expected to double by 2050, with much of it being employed in single-use packaging.

And what do we do with the food that comes at such a high environmental cost? Heartbreakingly, we throw away no less than a third of what we produce – on farms, in processing and distribution, in stores, and in our homes.

There is a real and dangerous dichotomy here. Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, with a million animal and plant species threatened with extinction, many within decades. At the same time, we rely on biodiversity for food security and sustainable development. It maintains healthy soils and ensures pollination and helps protects environments from climate change.

The challenges are huge and complex, and they can only be solved through innovation and collaboration. It is heartening to see supermarkets stepping up to take action to combat climate change and biodiversity loss. But there is much more to be done – and fast – if we are to achieve a sustainable industry and society.

We need to be more transparent in collecting and reporting data on our plastic usage, food waste and carbon footprints. We also need to set ambitious targets for reducing all of these, as well as stepping up recycling. It is imperative that we all interrogate our business operations to find efficiencies and new ways of working, to show willingness to collaborate with our peers and suppliers to drive innovation at scale through systemic change.

By working together across our industry, we can demand and drive more sustainable approaches to both agriculture and fishing. We also need to work together to support our customers to change their behaviour to reduce their food waste and plastic consumption and help them to make the switch to more planet-friendly diets.

Food retailers working together, and with our suppliers and customers, have a unique opportunity to be a catalyst for real change. If there is to be a future for humanity, we have no alternative.