Extreme weather events, economic shocks and conflict undermine food security. Sustainable food packaging plays an important role in ensuring food supply and security helps boost the resilience of food systems globally.
In a recent report, the World Food Programme (WFP) states that a seismic hunger crisis is enveloping the world amidst a time of unprecedented needs.[i] A deadly combination of numerous elements – from climate shocks, conflicts and COVID-19 to the spiraling costs of food and fuel, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and its knock-on effects for countries that depend on that region for food – could push 48.9 million people towards starvation this year, according to the WFP.
The sudden disruption to food supply illustrates not only the interconnectedness of our food systems but has also exposed its vulnerabilities. Both Ukraine and Russia are global producers of agricultural commodities, such as wheat, barley, corn, sunflower oil and seeds, that underpin food security.[ii] Long before the latest emergency unfolded, however, food, fertilizer, oil and shipping costs were already on an upward trend as a result of the COVID-19 global epidemic.[iii] The war has exacerbated these underlying issues and continued to drive prices to new heights.
The consequences of food price inflation and food supply disruption will be grim, especially for many developing countries that do not have the resources to strengthen their food storage policies.[iv] “Crisis represents a challenge for food security for many countries, and especially for low-income food import dependent countries and vulnerable population groups,” according to Qu Dongyu, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General.[v]
The packaging industry can contribute to developing the resilience of our food systems
Increasingly, governments and others are focusing on building resilience to help millions of hungry people globally. To this end, the European Commission has acknowledged the need for an integrated approach across food systems which recognizes interdependencies, taking into account industries providing necessary inputs and packaging material.[vi]
Packaging can help drive a constant flow of food from farm to fork, making it more accessible and affordable. By ensuring food safety and hygiene, sustainable food packaging is essential in driving access to food for all, no matter where they live. In addition, to retaining the benefits of processing and extending shelf life, packaging also allows food to travel from the producer to the consumer whilst keeping its nutritious value intact.[vii]
Yet, despite the fundamental part it plays in the transportation and protection of the food it contains, packaging is still often unfairly regarded as the culprit when it comes to sustainability, especially impact on environment. Whilst in reality, food systems’ biggest impact on the environment is the food that goes to waste, it is estimated that 931 million tons of food available to consumers landed in the waste bins of households, retailers, restaurants, and other food providers in 2019 alone.[viii]
Sustainable food packaging is key in ensuring and storing food supplies in the longer term
The longer its shelf life, the more value food has in times of crisis. Packaging is an important part of that, extending the shelf life and therefore the availability and affordability of food.[ix] As the world faces years of food shortages, the need for good, safe packaging remains as important an issue as ever.
Securing supply is about guaranteeing the continued operation of functions critical to society, including the availability of food in shops. Given the dynamics of a global environment, crises and disruptions cannot always be prevented, but emergency preparedness will limit negative impact on consumers.
Here packaging types play an important role in terms of food protection and preservation in transport and storage. A frequently misunderstood feature of packaging – especially of lightweight flexible packaging – is its ease of scalability: flexible packaging is easily adapted to match the size and requirements of the product it protects. Smaller portions and portioned packaging offer a sensible way to reduce food waste through storing in discrete lots or sections, where the spread of mold and bacteria is restricted. This type of packaging is especially beneficial in keeping populations supplied with the necessary food and provisions that require protection so they can be consumed over time.
[i] Unprecedented Needs Threaten a Hunger Catastrophe - April 2022, World Food Programme. https://www.wfp.org/publications/unprecedented-needs-threaten-hunger-catastrophe-april-2022
[ii] Rising prices increase alarm for food security and political stability, UNCTAD. https://unctad.org/news/rising-prices-increase-alarm-food-security-and-political-stability
[iii] A food crisis was brewing even before the Ukraine war – but taking these three steps could help the most vulnerable, IFPRI Blog. https://www.ifpri.org/blog/food-crisis-was-brewing-even-ukraine-war-–-taking-these-three-steps-could-help-most-vulnerable
[iv] Higher grain prices will mean more food insecurity, EURACTIV. https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/opinion/higher-grain-prices-will-mean-more-food-insecurity/
[v] Ukraine war squeezes food supplies, drives up prices, threatens vulnerable nations, UN News. https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/05/1118172
[vi] Contingency plan for ensuring food supply and food security in times of crisis, European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/food-farming-fisheries/key_policies/documents/com2021-689-pe-2021-7931_en.pdf
[vii] Food Packaging—Roles, Materials, and Environmental Issues, Journal of Food Science, 72: R39-R55. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1750-3841.2007.00301.x
[viii] Food Waste Index Report 2021. United Nations Environment Programme (2021). Nairobi. https://www.unep.org/resources/report/unep-food-waste-index-report-2021
[ix] Food should be considered a priority commodity, and packaging is an important part of that context, Huhtamaki Think Circle. https://www.huhtamaki.com/en/think-circle/articles/all/food-should-be-considered-a-priority-commodity-and-packaging-is-an-important-part-of-that-context/