Industry leaders are implementing innovative strategies, such as supply chain transparency, circular economy practices, renewable energy initiatives, fermentation technology and regenerative agriculture programs, to take responsibility for their environmental impact and create a more sustainable future.

Kimberly Decker, Contributing writer

February 22, 2024

8 Min Read
environmental protection

At a Glance

  • Industry leaders are prioritizing supply chain transparency, ensuring products meet necessary certifications and regulations.
  • Companies are implementing sustainable practices, such as repurposing byproducts, reusing wastewater and using bio-packaging.
  • They’re also incentivizing farmers to implement regenerative agriculture practices, with a goal of mitigating emissions.

“With great power there must also come great responsibility.” So said Uncle Ben to a young Peter Parker, commonly known as Spider-Man, way back in the early Marvel days. While “great power” may not be the best characterization of the food and beverage industry’s pervasive influence and reach, forward-thinking entities in the space are using their available might to take responsibility for the effect their operations have on the planet, its environment and its inhabitants.

Tracing supply chains

Without supply chain transparency, producing food sustainably is effectively impossible. This is especially so in the organic space, where even the added scrutiny of certification hasn’t shed full light on things.

“The industry is unfortunately riddled with organic fraud and greenwashing,” Linnea Halter, marketing coordinator at Global Organics Ltd., said. That’s why Global Organics will be amplifying its traceability efforts in 2024 as USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) implements its Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) rule.

Arguably the most significant change to the NOP since its creation, the SOE aims to address organic fraud by requiring organic suppliers and producers to attain NOP import certificates for all organic imports regardless of origin country, and that certified-organic entities establish fraud prevention programs before March 19, 2024.

Global Organics is already rolling out its program to team members and supplier partners. “We have a comprehensive quality team that tracks shipments from the country of origin to our contracted warehouses in import countries, allowing us to closely monitor the entire supply chain and ensure our products meet all necessary certifications and regulations,” Halter explained.

Closing the food loop

The idea of reshaping the food system into a circular economy wherein waste finds new life upstream just makes sense. According to the team at Fiberstar Inc., it pays dividends, too.

“Many operations are working to reduce their environmental impact by creating a more circular economy — repurposing operational byproducts and, in some cases, reusing wastewater, filtering vented air and introducing bio-packaging,” Jennifer Stephens, VP of marketing at Fiberstar Inc., said.

The company closes its own loop via what Stephens calls its “core technology and business:” Citri-Fi citrus fiber, a functional ingredient that begins life as a byproduct of citrus juicing.

The product line embodies the upcycling ethos in that production proceeds cleanly and efficiently with minimal outputs and no chemical modifications. This yields “a clean label food ingredient that provides water holding and emulsification” and also diverts valuable plant-based fiber from sale into lower-valued markets, according to Stephens.

What’s more, the company vets its supply chain via “a holistic sustainability program,” which starts with its suppliers, who are required to be certified sustainable through Rainforest Alliance, GLOBALG.A.P. or SAI (Sustainable Agriculture Initiative) Platform’s Farm Sustainability Assessment programs, per Sheila McWilliams, regional sales manager at Fiberstar Inc.

McWilliams said citrus pulp suppliers even have to clear Fiberstar’s own steep environmental, social and ethical benchmarks.

Forgoing fossil fuels

The production of single-use plastic packaging is a fossil fuel-intensive process. By sheer virtue of making its compostable packaging materials from plants, World Centric enters the emissions-reduction race with a head start.

World Centric is getting even further ahead of the pack, however, by shunting yet more of its products’ production away from dependence on fossil fuels. “This coming year, we’re focusing on increasing the percentage of our products made with renewable energy,” Izabela Suster, Ph.D., sustainability manager at World Centric, said.

Case in point: Because it’s during manufacturing that a packaging’s emissions really start to mount, World Centric set a goal in 2023 to direct 35% of its business spend toward third-party contract manufacturing facilities with on-site renewable energy.

The company is also piloting an initiative to cost share renewable energy purchases from the grid at suppliers’ facilities, “further increasing the percentage of our products made with renewable energy,” according to Suster.

To track progress, the company surveys suppliers regularly about on-site renewables projects and working capacity, integrating that data into its own product life-cycle assessments to accurately model emissions savings as renewable energy capacity rises.

Leveraging fermentation

Fermentation may be older than mankind, but it’s also the latest “hack” that companies like M2 Ingredients Inc. are tapping to grow a more sustainable food system.

“We produce 100% organic products using a solid fermentation platform developed through the expertise of our in-house mycology team,” Sandra Carter, Ph.D., founder and CEO of M2 Ingredients Inc. “That allows us to grow all our functional mushroom species in a state-of-the-art facility on the California coast.”

The proprietary process minimizes land and water use and reduces carbon dioxide emissions relative to traditional mushroom farming, with vertical integration granting the company control of each step, “from spawn production and growing to milling and packaging,” Carter explained. At no point do pesticides, herbicides or processing solvents enter the picture.

Because mushrooms are “bio-accumulators” that concentrate pollutants from their growing environment, M2 Ingredients Inc. insists on growing all its functional mushrooms on a substrate of organic oats sourced from the same family run operation that’s been on its team since its founding. “Their stewardship and commitment to organic practices align with our own values and it’s been a privilege to grow with them,” Carter said.

Regenerating agriculture

Lonely are those who continue to deny the strain that large-scale agriculture imposes on the planet.

“We believe that agriculture can be a force for good,” Heather Tansey, VP of environmental sustainability at Cargill, said. “By embracing practices like regenerative agriculture, we can produce food more sustainably.”

Michelle French, director of global sustainability programs at ADM, agreed. She explained that regenerative agriculture is built upon “indigenous ways of land management” that adapt to local conditions to minimize soil disturbance, maintain living roots year-round, continuously cover bare soil, maximize crop diversity — including associated soil microbes and pollinators — and responsibly manage inputs like nutrients, pesticides, water and more.

ADM is putting these principles into practice via its re:generations Programs, which supply financial and technical support to incentivize farmers to implement regenerative practices like cover cropping, nutrient management and conservation tillage. “By taking this holistic approach, we’re focused on restoring and enhancing the health of ecosystems while supporting sustainable food production,” French said.

As of November 2023, the program enrolled 1.9 million acres of North American farmland, putting ADM on track to exceed its goal of two million acres enrolled for the year’s end, according to French. “These additional acres will help us continue our progress toward our goal to engage four million acres across regenerative agriculture programs in North America, EMEA [Europe, Middle East and Africa] and Latin America by 2025,” French explained.

Meanwhile, Cargill counts nearly one million acres across 24 states within in its RegenConnect program, which also boasts international participation in Germany, Poland, Romania and France. Tansey said the program is “enabling real change on farms” while also helping Cargill’s food and beverage customers “make progress against their sustainability commitments.”

Cargill is even roping cattle ranches into the effort with its BeefUp Sustainability projects, which help ranchers adopt grazing methods that could reduce emissions across the North American beef supply by 30% per pound of product by 2030.

The systems these programs encourage prove that “addressing climate change and helping farmers isn’t mutually exclusive,” according to Tansey. “Agriculture is how we nourish the world,” she said. “With the right innovation, it can also be how we regenerate and sustain our planet’s resources.”

Managing water, waste

The California almond industry would likely agree. After all, California’s almond growers “have been adapting to a new reality of extreme drought, flooding and more” for some time, per Charice Grace, manager of trade marketing and stewardship at Almond Board of California (ABC).

As far back as 1982, the industry abandoned inefficient practices like orchard flooding and the use of massive sprinklers in favor of microirrigation — with nearly 80% of California’s almond farms now using this more targeted irrigation approach. “This transition has helped industry reduce the amount of water used to grow almonds by 30% over the past two decades,” Grace said.

Looking ahead, reducing water use per pound of almonds by an additional 20% ranks as one of ABC’s Almond Orchard 2025 Goals, along with achieving zero waste its in orchards “by putting everything grown to optimal use,” according to Grace.

On that front, nearly half of California’s almond farmers now follow the zero-waste practice of whole-orchard recycling: Literally grinding up and reincorporating aging orchards back into the soil to extend carbon sequestration, improve the soil’s water-holding capacity and boost future yields.

Almond growers are also repurposing the nuts’ hulls and shells as upcycled ingredients, partnering with Bay Area food innovation firm Mattson to develop five product prototypes using them, including performance nutrition bars, a caffeine-free tea and “lower-impact coffee,” Grace explained.

Maybe those concepts will someday land on shelves in post-consumer recycled plastics strengthened and made more heat-stable with almond shells — another innovation avenue ABC is exploring, and another route to making our food system more sustainable and circular.

About the Author(s)

Kimberly Decker

Contributing writer

Kimberly J. Decker is a Bay Area food writer who has worked in product development for the frozen sector and written about food, nutrition and the culinary arts. Reach her at [email protected].

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