Collaboration between farmers and retailers key to reducing carbon footprint of food supply chain


‘The era of cheap food is coming to an end’ according to recent comments from Tesco boss Philip Clarke.

The economics are simple: increasing energy costs, burgeoning global populations with a preference for middle-class diet, and scarcity of food staples due to erratic weather, are leading to increased costs across supply chains. Farmers in particular don't need any warnings about the challenges of climate change in the face of growing demand. In the UK alone, the past year has shown weather conditions ranging from droughts, flooding and an extremely cold spring, which have impacted crops and cost the industry millions of pounds.

Perhaps it is too early to say how these episodes of erratic weather are related to changes in the earth's climate, but no-one can afford to wait and see. Retailers and food processors need to work together with farmers to ensure Britain does not find its food cupboards bare and to help consumers understand the environmental impact of the food they buy. This may involve significant up-front investment but will be a huge step forward for businesses surviving on short-term contracts to supply retailers and food processors.

Economic fair play can also help protect the environment. For example, the majority of the carbon emissions associated with food products occur before the stock hits the retailer’s shelves, and it's only through more secure and longer-term partnerships between suppliers and retailers that investment can be made in lower-carbon technologies and measures that continue to support the ecological health of our countryside.

The Carbon Trust has been working with Marks and Spencer and its UK asparagus supplier, Cobrey Farm, based in the Wye Valley. The collaboration between the retailer and the farmer enabled a revolutionary new way of growing British asparagus, which extended the UK growing season. This new approach avoided importing asparagus from Peru, which saved approximately 610,000kg of CO2 emissions in 2012 due to avoided air freight from Peru and also lessened the reliance of produce from areas historically more exposed to water stress.

Collaboration across supply chains will also help retailers pass on information to consumers, so they are more aware of the  consequences of their shopping choices. For example, shoppers responded warmly to supermarket campaigns about "ugly" produce. The 25 percent reduction in British fruit and vegetable production last year had left supermarkets unable to source the types of blemish-free produce that their customers had come to expect. However, after reassuring their consumers that there was no difference in quality, more than 300,000 tonnes of misshapen fruit and vegetables made it into supermarkets in 2012, cutting waste and helping support farmers and retailers alike.

These examples show that farmers cannot act alone and that food prices and climate change may no longer be just a point to debate at dinner parties. These issues could affect the dinner on all our plates.

Read more about our work on supply-chain carbon strategy and greening supply chains.