Sustainability has become increasingly crucial across a spectrum of industries. While all businesses face this issue, it’s had more impact in some sectors than others. Food production is one such industry seeing remarkable change as it moves toward a higher standard of sustainability.
This transition to eco-friendly practices is far from a new phenomenon. As the years have gone on, though, sustainability efforts have grown in both frequency and scale. Heading into 2021, the food production industry is tackling environmental issues with renewed vigor.
In other words, 2021 could be a year of substantial change in sustainability for food production. Here’s where the industry stands today and how it got there.
Rising Environmental Pressure
The most evident factor driving the movement toward sustainability is growing environmental concerns. 2020 marked the end of the warmest decade on record, and every decade for the last 40 years has set a new record. While this troubling trend results from multiple factors, the food production industry holds more responsibility than many.
Food accounts for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and agriculture is responsible for 70% of freshwater consumption. Farming and agriculture also use half of the world’s habitable land and threaten 24,000 species with extinction. Given this substantial impact, any improvement in the industry could mean a considerable gain for environmentalism as a whole.
The food industry faces a unique challenge as the global population keeps growing, too. People need food, so the sector must increase production, but it also needs to simultaneously reduce its resource consumption. Food producers must find ways to make more with less.
The Economic Case for Sustainable Food Production
These environmental problems aren’t the only driver behind food production’s rise in sustainability. Companies in the industry have also realized going green can have considerable economic benefits as well. As the sector has grown aware of these fiscal advantages, it’s stimulated further sustainability initiatives.
A 2018 report revealed that more sustainable food and land use could save the global economy $2.3 trillion by 2030. In that same timeframe, it could also provide 70 million jobs. Even companies that aren’t environmentally minded can’t afford to ignore that kind of financial gain.
In the past, sustainability’s considerable upfront cost stopped many companies from pursuing it. As the long-term economic benefits have become more evident, the food production industry has started to move past that roadblock. More businesses are taking on these higher initial expenses in pursuit of profitability down the road.
Technological Growth Enabling Sustainability
Today’s technology has enabled the food production industry to become far more sustainable. Most notable is the rise of precision agriculture, which uses data-centric technologies to help farmers produce more with fewer resources. IoT sensors play a crucial role in this approach.
IoT soil moisture sensors are some of the most revolutionary technologies in sustainable agriculture today. These devices measure soil’s moisture level and control irrigation systems accordingly, only using as much water as necessary. The EPA predicts that these sensors could save more than 390 billion gallons of water a year.
Genetically engineered crops have also played a considerable role in food production sustainability. Through selective breeding and gene editing, scientists can create pest-resistant plant variants or species that require less water or fertilizer to grow. As a result, farms use fewer resources to cultivate these crops.
Artificial meat is another technology helping food production become more sustainable. Livestock production accounts for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions, considerably more than plants. As companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods produce substitutes that taste more like real meat, they help the food production industry become more sustainable.
Shifting Business Practices and Consumer Habits
New technologies aren’t the only factors transforming the food production industry. Consumer habits and business practices are changing, pushing the sector toward sustainability. As environmental issues become more prominent, these trends will keep growing.
A 2019 survey found 47% of American consumers prefer to do business with environmentally conscious companies. As the public votes for sustainability with their spending, the food production industry has responded. This trend has led to a growing adoption of sustainable farming practices.
On top of using technology like soil sensors, more farms are embracing crop rotation. By varying the crops they plant instead of repeatedly growing the same ones, farms preserve soil quality and save resources. Their embrace of movements like urban farming has also helped them use less land.
The small farm movement is one of the most substantial recent changes in food production sustainability. The industry is moving away from larger, more destructive factory farms in favor of smaller, more sustainable ones. Environmentally conscious behavior is easier for these smaller facilities, since they’re less industrialized and can change with minimal disruption.
From Production to Preparation
Food preparation has also become greener as production practices become more sustainable. Restaurants and other food businesses can ensure consumers are getting a green product from start to finish.
Methods as straightforward as cooking on pellet grills can lead to significant results. These grills burn an average of one pound of pellets per hour, far more efficient than gas options. Using eco-friendly packaging also helps companies produce a more sustainable finished product.
For example, New Belgium Brewing co-founded the Glass Recycling Coalition to produce eco-friendly glass bottles for its beer. Similarly, Boxed Water is Better built its entire business model around using recyclable packaging to combat plastic waste in water.
The Future of Sustainable Food Production
Looking into 2021 and beyond, the food production industry will likely only become more sustainable. In the short term, that likely means more companies switching to eco-friendly packaging and using fewer pesticides and other harmful chemicals. In the long run, farms will transform, embracing more precision technologies and less conventional approaches, like agroforestry and urban farming.
The UN suggests that post-COVID recovery will present new opportunities for becoming more eco-friendly. One of the leading examples in this area is implementing renewable energy as electricity needs rise again. Solar and wind power are becoming more affordable by the day, so food production companies will likely use them more in the future.
As technology advances, new areas to improve sustainability will emerge. Farms could become more automated and feature more genetically modified plants. Lab-grown meat could finally rise as a viable alternative to livestock.
The Food Industry Is Becoming More Sustainable
Historically, the food industry has been environmentally destructive. That has started to reverse over the past decade as more companies and consumers realize the need for sustainability. If these trends continue, 2021 could be the most eco-friendly year yet for food production.