The future of food sustainability

In a volatile and ever-changing socio-economical and environmental landscape, companies must remain proactive in their part toward the sustainability cause, whether through cooperation with the public sector, adopting intelligent tools, and seeking new opportunities for growth and adaptation.

Climate change, a growing population, and a pandemic – these are just a few factors influencing and shaping the global food systems. With changing needs and evolving technologies, companies small and large, food and beverage companies needed to take a step back and re-evaluate their place in the sustainability network. From ensuring traceability in the supply chain and the elimination of plastics, manufacturers have adopted various sustainability models.

“When it comes to adopting sustainable operations, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every business,” remarked Marcel Koks, director of F&B Industry & Solution Strategy at Infor. “In fact, sustainable transformation requires organisations to review their products, sourcing of materials and processes, and analyse how they can build sustainability into every aspect of their operations.”

Koks laid out the various paths a company could take to undertake such a review: firstly, through defining sustainability for a company’s operation, and how they can implement cross-functional, eco-friendly initiatives across the organisation. Then, a map on the business’s sustainability transformation trajectory, including the green goals they aim to achieve, and the short and long-term business case it presents. Finally, the definition and evaluation of the potential impact of the goals, and how technology enablers can accelerate the process.

Merging the public and private

In these exceptional times, cooperation, particularly between the public and private sectors, is of the essence. This two-pronged approach toward achieving sustainability is an important channel in ensuring prolonged and viable solutions.

“It is important that partnerships between public and private sector organisations address sustainable solutions at the source — ensuring that policies and initiatives are in place to encourage sustainable practices amongst businesses and reduce wastage. Businesses must also realise that they have a responsibility to the environment and to their customers, who are demanding greater transparency and social responsibility in their purchase behaviour,” asserted Koks.

To that end, education is key for both the public and private sectors in developing a holistic understanding of the issues at hand, Koks continued. With the support of governments, leading players in the F&B sector can rally together to identify and discuss the challenges and opportunities in food production, manufacturing and packaging, as well as to consolidate research innovation and efforts in sustainability.

The emphasis on holistic cooperation is another key, as one considers the Asia-Pacific as a case study on the sustainability effort. With the region having made strides in addressing sustainability issues, stakeholders of all sizes are realising the parts they are playing in the overall network. Koks raised the banning of single-use plastics in some states in Indonesia and Malaysia, and the adoption of local food production in Singapore, as examples of sustainability measures in the region.

“While consumers can do their best to reduce, reuse and recycle, nothing is better than preventing plastic and waste from entering the value chain in the first place — and this is where innovation and public-private collaborations can play an effective role in sustainability, by intervening right at the source with policy and product,” said Koks.

Technology, once again, is also akey player in facilitating the processes: “For example, predictive analytics has proven extremely useful in helping companies calculate the bottom-line costs of recyclable, reusable, or compostable alternatives. Driven by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), the data garnered from these analyses can provide valuable insights into the impact of using alternative resources and any production or manufacturing processes that need to be modified as a result.”

Not a matter of size

This is the case even for smallholders, who might find themselves at a crossroads between sustainability and survival. Intelligent tools, like the Internet of Things (IoT) sensors that monitor growing conditions and help reduce the dissipation of water and maximise crop yields; along with the predictive analytics of expected crop yields and insight into the demand of end-use of the produce, will enable farmers to be agile and respond more efficiently.

If not, according to Koks, ecosystem partnerships with larger corporations can serve as an alternative: “Smallholders can tap on the resources from larger corporations to help streamline their processes, and the collaboration between both parties can spur agile innovation amongst large corporate entities as well. Partnerships will facilitate knowledge exchange and the sharing of best practices, with mutual benefits for both ends.”

For those who are concerned with “greenwashing”, referring to companies capitalising on sustainability as a profitable trend, Koks conceded that such cases might still be possible even in the foreseeable future. Hence, governments and regulators must ensure that guidelines and restrictions are placed to inhibit such practices – whether it is through the form of label management and compliance, or ensuring greater traceability through a company’s value chain – higher levels of accountability and transparency are both a desired outcome and means of prevention.

A changing world

And what of the pandemic? COVID-19 has exposed the various inefficacies in the global food system in the ways food supply, shortage, and wastage are negotiated. If there is a lesson to be learnt from businesses that have been affected positively and negatively, it would be: the ones who have evolved and made adjustments to their operations, are those who have, and will be, faring better than others.

Koks, said: “These companies have sought new growth opportunities by integrating sustainability across their core business operations, into their organisation’s strategic fabric, whether that is through minimising packaging, reducing waste in supply chains, or ecological renewal of the assortment.

“More importantly, however, these companies have leveraged technology to enable and accelerate this transformation. As the F&B industry now looks to navigate a post-pandemic future, technology will continue to be crucial in enabling smart, sustainable, and resilient collaboration and innovation across the sector — and lead companies into the future of food and beverage.”

This article was published in the October/November 2021 issue of Food & Beverage Asia.