According to a recent report by the World Resources Institute, the growing global population will require 56% more food by 2050 than in 2010, an increase that would demand a landmass nearly twice the size of India.

Sourcing that additional food in a sustainable way, however, presents an issue. For manufacturers of fortified products and supplements too, many of our naturally sourced ingredients are already being extracted using methods that are unsustainable – and that is without a population rise of three billion.

What is more, to meet the targets set out in the Paris Agreement that aim to keep global warming below 2°C, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 11 gigatonnes. How, then, can the nutraceuticals industry meet increased demand for food and natural ingredients while creating a more sustainable global supply chain?

More food will be required by 2050 than in 2010 as a result of the growing global population.
World Resources Institute

The concern goes beyond simply being able to deliver sufficient amounts of produce; Jose Graziano de Silva, director-general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, has called for a “transformative change in our food systems”, highlighting how “the coexistence of undernutrition, obesity and micronutrient deficiencies… is spreading and affecting almost every country in the world”.

The increasing prevalence of malnutrition in developed countries, or ‘hidden hunger’, is largely down to the accessibility and availability of convenience foods that are high in calories but lacking in nutrients. Yet growing populations mean there isn’t always enough of the natural, nutrientrich foods to meet demand.

“The increasing prevalence of malnutrition in developed countries, or ‘hidden hunger’, is largely down to the accessibility and availability of convenience foods that are high in calories but lacking in nutrients.”

Is naturally sourced really sustainable?

A huge change in currently under way in the marketplace. The Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD) found that 9% of all food products launched in Europe in 2018 were vegan, doubling from 5% in 2015, while research by Nielsen found 68% of shoppers would be willing to pay more for foods and beverages that don’t contain ingredients that they perceive are bad for them. Additionally, 53% of those surveyed say the exclusion of undesirable ingredients is more important than the inclusion of beneficial ones. The question here is ‘what makes something undesirable?’. There is an education piece to be done, particularly with regard to fortified foods and supplements – the fact something is processed doesn’t make it bad for you, or ‘unclean’. What is far more important is the consideration about the sustainability of the entire supply chain; while the advantages of using naturally sourced and plant-based ingredients are far ranging, and they provide a number of proven health and wellness benefits, their production is often anything but sustainable.

The soybean, for example, is one of the most important edible plants known, with seeds that are high in protein, vitamins, minerals and insoluble fibre, making it a quality energy source that is also good for constipation, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately, the huge demand for soy is leading to deforestation as large swathes of land are cleared to make way for soy plantations. In turn, the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere when forests are logged and burned contributes to climate change.

The same can be said of palm oil; a great source of tocotrienols, the product is found in nearly 50% of packaged products and in everything from ice cream to soap. Its popularity, however, has not only led to severe deforestation but also the deaths of an estimated 100,000 orangutans over the past 16 years. Meanwhile, the omega-3 industry is coming under scrutiny for unsustainable fish farming methods as fish stocks decrease.

Although natural foods such as these can be produced sustainably – for example, the omega-3 algae market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 11.5% between 2018 and 2023 – it is harder to do so while still meeting demand. Natural supply – as well as the land required to grow the produce – may not be sufficient as the world’s population nears the 10 billion mark. One argument is to bring more land under agricultural production, but this would spell the end for many of the Earth’s remaining forests, peatlands and wild areas, releasing the carbon in them and hastening climate change. What then, is the answer?

Sustainable production

The farming methods used play a major role in creating a more sustainable food supply chain. For example, industrial farming has built up a reliance on artificial fertilisers and intensive farming techniques. While this revolutionised ways of growing crops in the 20th century and enabled huge population growth, continuing down the same path today would have dangerous effects, including air and water pollution and soil decay.

Instead, sustainable methods, such as organic farming and agroecology, could enable a shift towards a more long-term solution. While organic farmers must adhere to strict rules on how they grow their crops and raise their stock, including using antibiotics only if necessary and cutting out chemical fertilisers and pesticides, agroecology employs a broad range of techniques that seek to minimise the environmental impact of farming but without formal inspections and certifications.

The importance of plant health on sustainable production isn’t going unnoticed, with the UN declaring 2020 the International Year of Plant Health. Up to 40% of global food crops are lost to pests every year at a cost of around $70 billion, while plant diseases cost the global economy around $220 billion. The aim of the 2020 focus is to put a global spotlight on improving plant health, in a bid to both improve economic development and address wider issues including hunger, poverty and threats to the environment.

Food waste must also be considered when thinking about a more sustainable food supply chain. Currently occurring throughout production, food handling and storage, processing, distribution and consumption, one quarter of food produced for human consumption goes uneaten. Reducing food loss and waste by 25% by 2050 would help close the food gap by 12% and the land gap by 27%.

Food products launched in 2018 were vegan.

A newer technique, but one that is being increasingly trialled and implemented, is to reuse what would have traditionally been considered as food waste, such as vegetable peel and fruit pulps. For example, potato peel extract is being researched as an antioxidant in food systems due to its high phenol content, while the EU’s BIORICE project is looking at how to recover peptides from industrial rice by-products for use as added-value ingredients in nutraceuticals and functional foods.

Although consumer demand is the driving force behind a lot of the new developments we are seeing, there are areas where we can help educate consumers to ultimately improve the sustainability of our industry. Take naturally sourced and nature identical ingredients, for example. While the clean label movement would favour the natural ingredients, it is often the case that these have a larger environmental footprint than their synthetic counterparts. With global research finding that only 44% of consumers trust industrially prepared foods, transparency is key, and this is increasingly becoming the key purchasing driver. It is here, then, that we can work together to communicate the importance of considering the sustainability of the entire supply chain rather than one individual product, and to look beyond terms such as ‘natural’ in order to have the biggest impact.

The right package for progress

Food packaging has moved into the spotlight in recent years, following a huge consumer backlash over plastic pollution. While alternatives such as the biodegradable polyhydroxy butyrate valerate, a bacterially grown polyester, are being promoted as ways of reducing waste across the food industry, these are still in their infancy. The unavoidable fact is that two thirds of plastic food container waste currently ends up in landfills, and a further 12.7 million tonnes of plastic reaches our oceans every year. Although the anti-plastic movement is being driven by consumers, and product packaging is a key focus, it is the responsibility of the entire industry to act where they can, regardless of their position in the supply chain.

This sentiment is true across all possible solutions to help combat unsustainable production methods. We are already seeing change in action, especially as the good food movement continues to gather momentum and shoppers demand food that is produced in a way that looks after both the land and the people who grow it. With sales of food produced in a sustainable manner increasing 7.2% in 2017 compared with 2016, it is clear that consumers are sitting up and taking notice; unquestionably, the industry will follow suit.

There is no clear path forward however, and the issue will be discussed and debated for years to come, but it is this thinking and innovation that will drive progress. Considering the arguments for how to create a supply chain where naturally sourced ingredients can be produced in a sustainable way, Vitafoods Europe 2019 and the Vitafoods Education Programme is aiming to open the debate to the industry with its ‘Future of the Industry Summit’ and making sustainability and traceability work for your seminar.