by Emissis
Jun 13th, 2024
12 mins

First Published:

Climate change is an existential crisis with far-reaching consequences in various sectors, including the food industry. This industry is integral to human survival but is also a significant contributor to environmental degradation. With a rapidly expanding global population, the pressure to increase food production intensifies, threatening to exacerbate climate-related issues. This article delves into how climate change is reshaping the food industry and underscores the importance of transitioning to sustainable food production.

“Climate change poses an “existential threat” to life on Earth”

The ramifications of climate change on the food industry are profound and multifaceted. Fluctuations in climate patterns lead to unpredictable growing seasons, which challenge traditional agricultural calendars and practices. These changes reduce crop yields and lead to the proliferation of pests and diseases, further endangering food security.

Climate change also exacerbates resource scarcity, making water an increasingly precious commodity. As droughts become more prevalent, competition for water resources intensifies, affecting the quantity and quality of food produced. This situation is particularly dire for regions already water-stressed, where farmers must decide which crops to prioritise and how to sustain their herds.

The adverse effects of climate change do not affect all farmers equally. Small-scale and subsistence farmers are especially vulnerable to the whims of the climate. Many of these farmers lack the resources or insurance to recover from crop losses or damage to their property caused by extreme weather events. The resulting economic instability can increase poverty and hunger, further exacerbating social and economic disparities.

Moreover, as climate change disrupts traditional farming practices, there is an urgent need to support farmers in adopting more resilient agricultural methods. Support can include access to education, resources, and technology to help them adapt to the changing environment.

The industrialised food system and its reliance on synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and fossil fuels are unsustainable and a significant contributor to climate change. Modern agriculture, from farm machinery to food processing and distribution, is energy-intensive and produces substantial greenhouse gas emissions. To mitigate the industry’s impact on the planet, we must completely rethink how we produce and consume food.

The globalisation of the food industry has led to a system where the average meal travels thousands of miles from farm to plate, contributing to a significant carbon footprint. By prioritising locally grown food, we can reduce emissions associated with transportation and provide consumers with fresher, more nutritious options.

Local food systems are inherently more agile and can quickly adapt to changing local conditions, which is paramount in the face of climate instability. These systems also encourage the preservation of local varieties and farming techniques, which can improve the local environment. We can ensure a more personalised and secure food supply chain by fostering local food economies.

Challenges Facing UK Food Retailers (H2)

In 2008, the United Kingdom passed a pivotal legislation called the Climate Change Act. This ground-breaking act mandated that the UK reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 compared to 1990. The implications of this act are far-reaching, particularly for industries like food retail that traditionally have a significant carbon footprint.

The term “carbon footprint” refers to the total greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, event, organisation, service, or product, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent.

The Climate Change Act has catalysed change within the UK food retail sector, spurring a shift towards sustainability that benefits the environment.

To meet the stringent requirements, UK retailers have had to re-evaluate and take action to reduce emissions from their operations, from energy and refrigerants in their supermarkets to fuel used in transportation (Scope 1 and 2 emissions); these are significant but controllable sources of greenhouse gas emissions from the food system.

As the deadlines set by the act approach, UK food retailers need to continue to innovate and integrate sustainable practices into every aspect of their operations. This means reducing emissions arising from their entire value chain (Scope 3 emissions), the upstream supply chain, and downstream activities, such as the use and disposal phases, beyond the direct and energy emissions covered within Scopes 1 and 2. Scope 3 emissions are usually retailers’ most significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The WWF Basket tracks a range of climate data submitted by food retailers, including Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.

In 2022, Co-Op, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose signed a new commitment to drive action to tackle scope 3 emissions through their supply chains. Find out more about WWF’s Retailers Commitment for Nature – Climate Action here.

Greener Practices for Food Retailers (H2)

There are a number of green initiatives that can be adopted by retailers to lessen their carbon footprint. These include: Energy Efficiency: Investment in energy-efficient lighting, refrigeration, heating and air conditioning systems to reduce power consumption.

Waste Reduction: Minimising food waste through better inventory management and donating unsold but edible food to charities.

Sustainable Sourcing: Sourcing products from suppliers that practice sustainable farming and production methods.

Recycling Programs: Improving recycling facilities and encouraging customers to recycle packaging materials.

More information can be found in our article The Environmental Impact Of Energy Consumption In Food Manufacturing

Advantages of Adopting Greener Practices (H2)

Aside from meeting legislative requirements, there are several advantages for food retailers to adopt green practices:

Customer Loyalty: Consumers are becoming increasingly environmentally conscious, and retailers that demonstrate a commitment to sustainability can build customer loyalty.

Cost Savings: Energy-efficient technologies can lead to significant cost savings in the long term.

Brand Image: Being recognised as an environmentally responsible business can enhance a retailer’s brand image and competitive edge.

Food Chain Technology Innovations (H2)

Technology facilitates the development of alternative food sources, such as lab-grown meat and vertical farming, which could dramatically reduce the ecological footprint of food production. These innovations have the potential to provide sustainable protein sources and fresh produce even in urban environments, thereby reducing the need for extensive land use and long-distance transportation.

Technology also empowers consumers to make informed decisions about their food. Through apps and online platforms, individuals can trace the origin of their food, learn about the farming practices used, and understand the environmental impact of their dietary choices. By providing transparency and information, technology bridges the gap between consumers and producers, fostering accountability and encouraging more sustainable consumption patterns.

Social media and digital marketing have given rise to a new wave of consumer activism, where individuals can advocate for sustainable food practices and influence industry trends. As consumers become more vocal and connected, their collective choices can drive significant change in the food industry, pushing it towards more environmentally friendly and ethical practices.


Since the Climate Change Act set out the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, the cost of electricity has risen from 5.37 pence per kW in 1990 to 10.72 pence in 2020, placing additional pressure on food retailers.

Climate change poses a significant threat to our food system. Still, technological advancements, new tools, and insights are now available to help retailers achieve Scope 3, reduce energy costs, and forge a sustainable food system for all.


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