Summary by Oliver Balch, Event Chairman
Over 100 experts from all different sections of the food and drinks industry gathered on Wednesday morning in central London to hear how leading companies are driving sustainability down their supply chains.
The Origin Green breakfast briefing, held at the ExCel exhibition centre at the start of the three-day Food Matters expo (22-25 Nov 2016), kicked off with an overview of Bord Bia’s flagship Origin Green initiative by Jim O’Toole, director of meat and sustainable development.
Origin Green’s primary goal is to put Ireland on the map as an efficient supplier of high-quality, sustainable food producer. It was appropriate, therefore, that O’Toole first turned his attention to those at the heart of the country’s food industry: farmers themselves. After all, the initiative’s success or failure ultimately stands on getting them on board with the sustainability agenda.
The early signs are promising. Four years on since Origin Green’s launch, over 46,000 beef and 16,000 dairy farm owners are now signed up to the initiative’s farm audit programme. O’Toole was frank about the initial challenges around engaging producers. “No farmer likes having someone come onto his farm and tell him what he needs to put right,” he said.
The business case for sustainable farm and food production makes for a compelling argument. Take energy use. Investments in more efficient technologies and streamlined processes is expected to see energy consumption (per unit of production) drop by 16% by next year (compared to 2010). The reduction corresponds to an estimated saving of €12 million; so not only good for the planet, but good for food producer’s profits.
The opportunity side of sustainable supply chain management was picked up by the next speaker too, Dr. Nicola Robinson MRCVS from McDonalds Global. The global restaurant chain is actively looking to use its “buying power for good”, she insisted. That should, in theory, give a huge advantage to any potato farmer or beef producer, say, who can demonstrate that their commitment to sustainable farming is watertight.
Nor does McDonalds expect food producers to do all the leg work alone. It’s in the business interests of big buyers to help their long-term suppliers get up to speed around sustainability issues, Robinson asserted. She cited the case of a large European fishery with which McDonalds has closely collaborated over many years, via their fish supplier Espersen, to help it become certified under the benchmark Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) scheme.
“It would have been easy for us just to disengage ,” said Robinson. “But long-term relationships are important to our business and so we felt it was important to give them the time and support to implement the necessary changes.”
David O’Flynn, head of corporate responsibility at the private-owned beef and lamb producer Dawn Meats, elaborated on this common theme of buyer support and collaboration. He described a wide variety of ways that Dawn Meats is cooperating with its 20,000 or so UK and Irish farmers to share insights and best practices around sustainability. His examples ranged from promoting easy calving through to advising on operating suckler beef systems with the lowest possible environmental impact.
To spread the word about sustainability among its supply base and beyond, Dawn Meats has gone as far as to set up its own demonstration farm. The 56-hectare Newford Herd Farm in the west of Ireland sets out to show in practice how sustainability principles apply to grassland management, herd health, breeding and a host of other issues.
“Over 2,000 farmers came along to our first open day back in May, which proved to us just how much appetite there is among Irish farmers to learn about adopting more sustainable farming techniques,” O’Flynn said.
Although the presentations were all upbeat, none made out that driving sustainable through the agricultural supply chain is an easy task. The final speaker, Tom Cumberlege, associate director of advisory services at The Carbon Trust, stressed the multiple layers and multiple actors that make up today’s complex food chains.
Good data can help simplify the task, he argued. Since its inception, Origin Green has worked hand-in-hand with the Carbon Trust to develop mechanisms and metrics for accurately assessing the environmental impacts of beef farming in particular.
This isn’t about collecting numbers for numbers’ sake, Cumberlege insisted. Improvements require targets, and targets require metrics: that’s the essential rationale behind Origin Green’s emphasis on consistent monitoring and, by extension, continuous improvement.
The morning briefing presented a compelling case for why driving sustainable business practices through the agricultural supply chain makes good economic sense. The various speakers also clearly laid out how this could be done, as exemplified by the strategies and practices of Origin Green partners such as McDonalds and Dawn Meats.
Bord Bia left few in any doubt that its overall approach is cogent, that its overall objectives are sound, and that its initial attempts to gain industry buy-in are going well. Now it’s time to move on to the next stage: wide-spread implementation. At present, Origin Green has some impressive individual case studies of sustainable farming; if Ireland’s agricultural supply chain is to become fully sustainable, it will require each and every producer to be an exemplar too.
Working at both farm and manufacturing level, Origin Green clearly sets out Ireland’s ambition to become a world leader in the delivery of sustainable, high-quality food and drink products. To date there are 527 Irish food and drink companies registered with Origin Green representing over 90% of exports.
Oliver Balch Chaired the Origin Green breakfast seminar at Food Matters Live 2016 and is an independent business and sustainability journalist, primarily contributing to The Guardian.