• Waste, Regulatory environment

Implementing more sustainable materials into food packaging would make recycling more of a solution

As Secretary General of COPA-COGECA, Pekka Pesonen gives direction and clarity in promoting the best interests of the European agricultural sector and European agri-food, forestry, and fishery cooperatives among EU institutions and relevant stakeholders. Recently, the group has seen a shift in its role to include not only agricultural advocacy, but also supply chain and worker shortage issues that continue to affect food supply not just in Europe but around the world.

“I own a farm. It’s not particularly big, but perhaps it does give me a more unique perspective on farming and food in general than most people might have,” says Pesonen. Being an eighth or ninth generation farmer helped ingratiate him into the Finnish food industry, where he started in the 1990s.

“Back then, you measured the product for shelf space and return on investment (ROI). That led me to a deeper understanding of the EU agricultural industry, which is where COPA-COGECA focuses its efforts. Funnily enough, all that early work with shelf space, space management and space efficiency was a great pathway into what I do now with packaging.”

The concept of agriculture has become alien to most people today

Pesonen notes that most people have no link with the agriculture sector, a stark difference from how it was 50-plus years ago. “This has led to some moments where we had to start reminding people that unfortunately, milk doesn't come from a supermarket, or that fruits and vegetables don’t just magically appear; they need to be grown.”

He says that simply, this information and way of life no longer exist to most people. “It's not there in the immediate environment. In the EU, and especially EU institutions such as the European Parliament, there typically is a congregation of people that don’t necessarily have any ties to agriculture. Fortunately, that's why we are here, to provide them the information.”

Precise information can help the EU food industry respond to consumer demand

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic immediately followed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the role of COPA-COGECA has widened to include not just agricultural advocacy. Recently, the organization has functioned almost like a communications agency in talking about supply chain issues and worker shortages that plague food supply not just in Europe but around the world.

“With COVID, suddenly the value chain had to reorganize itself to address new community needs. It was a systemic issue. At the broader EU level and also with national governments, we came up with recommendation initiatives to not only ensure that we have these supply chains taken care of, but that safer COVID standards for seasonal labor are also considered,” Pesonen explains.

Pre-COVID, he concedes that the EU food industry had “many very good years” and, because of this, the supply chain was more adaptable than many had thought. However, he views that implementing a blockchain system is a sizeable part of the answer to future disruptions.

“If we have a mechanism where consumers can demonstrate their interest and willingness, especially in relation to price, and we get that data all the way to the farm level, we will be able to directly respond to consumer demand. The certainty between operators along the food chain is really very valuable. Precise information gives us an immediate, credible, accurate response to consumer demand. This could help immeasurably during times of crisis, too,” he reasons.

Thinking of ‘waste’ as fuel can lower our carbon footprint and slow down climate change

Climate change is another ongoing crisis that Pesonen says COPA-COGECA wants to help mitigate. The looming reality of an increasingly warmer planet has caused many industries the world over to look at what they’re doing and change their ways.

“By simply eliminating food waste – which in many ways is linked with the excess of having a mid-20th century mentality towards food retail – we could make significant changes. Developing flexible packaging systems will enable us to minimize the waste even further.”

Pesonen sees a singular importance to what is done with food waste. “What we do with the waste we have in our industry can actually help solve issues. We should think outside the box and reclassify some of what we’d call ‘waste’ into fuel. For instance, the European Union has been very active in biogas production. This is where we see the kind of secondary product for a secondary process live out its usefulness to the fullest.”

In combination with the effective use of packaging materials and flexible systems to reappropriate waste to respond to consumer needs, we will be able to make a huge contribution when it comes to our carbon footprint. “Hopefully, these will slow down and maybe one day nullify the effects of climate change,” he says.

A universal approach is necessary to tackle food waste

Pesonen remains optimistic that COPA-COGECA can help bring about a more circular and sustainable future. “I'm confident that it will be possible to have true replacements for plastics, carbon, even other materials. We can find good solutions to the questions we face today,” he says.

On the other hand, he offers a word of caution to his peers. “It is all well and good that we engage in discussions – it’s very important work. But it is perhaps more important that the world follows suit. There needs to be a more universal approach to this. Food waste, climate change and everything else we’ve talked about is not just a European problem. It’s an African problem. It’s an Asia Pacific problem. Ultimately, it is a world problem.”

One of the best things we could do today, he says, is to start phasing out plastics for more sustainable packaging materials. “The only way to truly make recycling more of a solution is to implement more sustainable materials into our packaging; this will help avoid direct pollution, increasing landfills, and so forth. We recycle quite a lot in Western nations, but we still have somewhere to go as a planet. Now is a pivotal moment for the circular economy to be realized.”

This article is part of a series where different stakeholders discuss the role packaging has in enabling accessible, affordable and safe food in an uncertain world. The articles are published ahead of our virtual roundtable.

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