August 28, 2023

Sustainable Supply Chains

Modern food supply chains are long, linear, and wasteful. They depend on numerous stakeholders and middlemen, with little transparency or ability to track the flow of goods, emissions, and financial returns through the system. These supply chains have enabled urbanization and introduced new foods and flavors to our palates. But they have also decreased visibility into where our food comes from, increased food, nutrient, and plastic waste, and yet fail to ensure that nutritious foods are available to all people around the world. And the growth of these depletive supply chains is unsustainable. The alternative is short, circular supply chains that help us stay within our planetary boundaries while still moving food and resources to where they need to be, even as our population and economy continue to grow. Investing in this alternative is a key focus for us. 

The evolution of the modern food supply chain

What’s the big deal with the food supply chain?

Food doesn’t appear on our plates by magic. It moves from the grower to the consumer through a complicated network of stakeholders who transport and transform raw ingredients into finished goods. Since the dawn of agriculture, supply chains have emerged, formally and informally, to ensure that urban areas have access to enough food to sustain their populations. But a limited ability to preserve foods, combined with rudimentary and slow transportation infrastructure, meant that these supply chains tended to remain relatively local. Resources were efficiently captured and preserved to minimize spoilage and waste. Food scraps could be fed to animals or composted and returned to the fields from which they came. Animals walked from the countryside to the cities to be slaughtered. But this meant that food had to be produced relatively close to where it was consumed, limiting urban growth.

The modern food supply chain really began to take shape during the Industrial Revolution, when technological advancements increased both the distance foods could travel, and the time it could spend traveling without spoiling. First, in the late 19th century improvements in transportation technology (railroads, steamboats, and eventually automobiles) decreased the time it took to transport people, animals, and goods over long distances. This meant perishable foods could travel further without spoiling. The emergence of gas-powered and electric refrigeration in the early 20th century further increased the amount of time before spoilage. And all of this shipping and transportation of goods increased the need for flexible packaging options – leading to the prevalence of plastic in this supply chain by the mid-to-late 20th century.

Rather than staying local in the areas where they are produced, today many food products travel great distances from grower to consumer – one study estimated that US meals travel 1,500 miles to get to our plates. The global food system has improved food security and nutrient density around the world, and exposed our palates and cuisines to new ingredients and tastes. It’s allowed our cities to grow and our growers to specialize. But as it has become longer and more specialized, this supply chain has become linear instead of circular, and wasteful instead of resource-efficient. 

The Current State: Linear, wasteful supply chains

The food supply chain comes full circle in one way or another. The packaging we use to protect our food re-enters the system after throwing out the trash at night, in the form of microplastics and ocean garbage patches. The food scraps we throw in the garbage while we’re cooking or cleaning out the fridge end up in landfills, where they decompose and release toxic methane emissions. The nutrients in the food we and other animals eat pass through the digestive system and into the sewage system, where they travel into waterways and lead to aquatic dead zones and tainted drinking water. And all the stakeholders along the supply chain have an environmental impact in the form of greenhouse gas emissions – but the complexity of the chain makes it almost impossible to understand the true footprint of the food that ends up on our plates. 

To put some numbers behind these problems:

  • Plastic packaging is ubiquitous in our food system - it's difficult in many parts of the world to go a day without coming into contact with some sort of food wrapped in some sort of plastic. 40% of plastic is single-use, and less than 10% is recycled. Most of this packaging ends up in waste streams where it never biodegrades, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller microplastics that contaminate soils and water systems, kill an estimated 1 million sea creatures every year, and re-enter the food system in the seafood we consume. But this microplastic pollution is only half the story because plastics also create pollution in the form of greenhouse gases through their production from fossil fuels. Finding alternatives to single-use, non-biodegradable plastic packaging will be essential to reduce food system greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of this system on our oceans. 
  • An estimated one-third of food is lost or wasted, both upstream during harvest, production, and transportation, and downstream from retail, food service, and households. ReFed data shows that 36% of this surplus ends up in landfills, primarily from the downstream sectors. This indicates that these downstream sectors are purchasing too much food, and are not using it efficiently. Cutting food loss and waste by 50% could reduce as much as 20% of the world food gap, and reduce the 11% of global methane emissions created by food decomposing in landfills, helping us stay within the planetary boundaries while meeting the ethical requirement of No Hunger.
  • Today, we waste 56% of the phosphorus that is used for food production. Phosphorus is “life’s bottleneck” because it is essential for all living organisms to produce DNA, the store of genetic information, and ATP, the store of cellular energy. Humans and farmed animals absorb some, but not all, of the phosphorus that is mined and applied in agriculture, and most of the rest ends up in waterways where it leads to aquatic eutrophication and dead zones. This is a huge waste of a precious and non-renewable resource without which our food system will fall apart, potentially leading to mass starvation. EAT-Lancet estimates that we must increase phosphorus recycling rates from waste streams by 50% by 2050 to stay within the planetary boundaries. 
  • The food system is responsible for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, but reducing emissions is challenging because the supply chain is so decentralized, and individual participants may have little to no incentive to address their own emissions. Large food manufacturers are uniquely positioned to play a role in emissions reductions because they create “nodes” that connect to tens, hundreds, or even thousands of upstream and downstream partners. But addressing these emissions requires first gaining transparency into where they occur, and then implementing strategies to reduce them – such as incentivizing growers to use regenerative practices, or processors to switch to renewable energy. Supply chain data transparency is needed to address Scope 3 emissions and reduce the pressure our food system creates on the greenhouse gas planetary boundary. 

If we continue to let this linear, wasteful supply chain grow it will eventually degrade natural systems like our oceans, and deplete finite resources like phosphorus. Instead, we need to build a new, circular supply chain that regenerates natural ecosystems and reuses and repurposes finite resources, and along the way reduces greenhouse gas emissions and improves access to nutrient-dense foods for all people. We believe this supply chain is achievable, and are seeking to invest in innovations that can help us build it. 

Are you interested in learning more about how Sustainable Supply Chains fit into our Theory of Transformation of the global food system? Check out
Food is Solvable!

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