• Retail, Waste

Overconcentration is a threat to efficient food production – agriculture must break free of fossil energy

Consumer habits play an important role in reducing food waste and greenhouse gas emissions from wasted food, says Hanna Karikallio, Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Institute Finland. System-level changes are needed to produce food for the growing global population in a way that is environmentally and socially sustainable.

The global food system is efficient: it can produce enormous amounts of affordable food. However, the system is unsustainable. Food production relies on cheap fossil energy and fertilizers. When energy prices soar or the availability of fertilizers drops, we are on the verge of a crisis, says Hanna Karikallio, Research Manager and Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Institute Finland. Both of these have happened after Russia attacked Ukraine.

“The global population is growing, and more and more food is needed. Year after year, we’ve managed to produce record crops. It’s a balancing act that can be shaken by just a couple of crop failures. Extreme weather phenomena are amplified by climate change and have already destroyed coffee crops in Brazil, for example, which has increased the price of coffee,” Karikallio says.

Overconcentration of food production is a big risk

Karikallio points out that people all over the world rely on a narrow range of cereal crops and meat and dairy from just a few animals. From her perspective, this is a big risk. Expanding the range of food plants and distributing production more evenly across the globe would increase the sustainability of the food system, also in times of crises.

“The production of wheat, soybeans for animal feed, sunflower oil and palm oil, for instance, is highly concentrated. No single country should be able to impact the global availability of food as much as Russia, for example, as the world’s most important exporter of wheat.”

Many countries in Africa and the Middle East rely on imported food. Despite its economic power, not even China can feed its own population. On the other hand, people in affluent countries have enough food to waste.

Wasted food could feed a couple of billion people

On a global scale, a third of all food produced is wasted or lost. According to Karikallio, this amount would be enough to feed a couple of billion people.

“Food waste is a huge issue. Finland alone wastes 450–500 million kilos of food every year. That’s around 25 kilos per person. Producing this food causes just as much emissions as the food that’s eaten. Greenhouse gas emissions from food waste correspond roughly to the emissions from an average of 100,000 cars per year.”

Most food is wasted or lost in households as expired or leftover food is thrown away. Karikallio thinks consumers can play an important part in preventing food waste.

“Planning your grocery shopping and meals helps, for example. When you buy food in the right packaging size for your needs, you can avoid extra food spoiling in the fridge.”

Finland produces most of the food it needs – fertilizers and energy are imported

According to Karikallio, Finland’s level of self-sufficiency is high. The reason for this success is agricultural policy.

“80 percent of the food we Finns eat is produced in Finland. Our northern climate means it’s difficult and expensive to produce food, but policymakers have ensured that we still have extensive domestic production of cereal, meat and milk. Even during the pandemic, disruptions in food availability have been very short. The most important factor here is a highly functional food chain from primary production to retail. We should hold on to it.”

We are not self-sufficient in fertilizers, but we could be in terms of the energy needed in agriculture, Karikallio points out. Policymakers have become aware of environmental and climate issues only recently.

“Climate change, biodiversity, security of supply and agriculture are often seen as separate, although they are all connected.”

Open dialogue is needed across the value chain

In Karikallio’s experience, food producers are happy to be part of research projects and eager to obtain new information that helps them develop their business. She calls for open exchange of information across the value chain to enable the transition to a more sustainable food system.

“Many entrepreneurs in agriculture know a lot about the market and the economy but are struggling with profitability. Retailers get data on consumption immediately. Producers need it, too, so they can react to changes more quickly. There should be a way for the whole value chain to benefit from information.”

Dialogue is important in making system-level changes.

“Food production must break free of fossil energy and mineral fertilizers. Everyone must join the transition to a circular economy. Research on circular economy needs funding and lots of participants. In addition, we need cooperation, so we can make extensive use of production side streams, minimize waste, recycle nutrients and cut down energy use.”

This article is part of a series where different stakeholders discuss the challenges we are facing now and in the future regarding food availability, safety and distribution chains. The articles are published following of our virtual roundtable.

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