Climate change and how the produce industry is and should react to it were the central themes covered by the International Fresh Produce Association’s virtual town hall meeting.
Rachel Blake, IFPA’s manager of global insights, took a step-by-step approach through climate change evidence, consumer attitudes on the subject, and some of the mitigating actions produce companies are doing and could be doing.
Relying on research conducted by an IFPA partner, Blake noted that the climate change problem has reached crisis stage. She reported that a survey of 12,000 leaders from 124 countries found that 90 percent of the respondents were worried about climate change, with more than half having a very high level of concern.
In fact, weather forecasters have predicted that by 2030, impact from heatwaves, droughts and extreme rain events will each have increased significantly. There are predicted to be four times more frequent heatwaves, two times more frequent droughts and 1.5 times more major rainstorms.
Of course, this is concerning to people all over the earth and in every industry, but agriculture clearly has a special relationship with the climate. “We are significantly impacted by climate change,” Blake said, adding that producers have already been impacted by lost acreage and reduced yields.
She also noted that the ag industry is a significant contributor to climate change as scientists have pegged the industry’s contribution at 10-12 percent, with the lion share of that coming from the livestock sector. In relative terms, “the fresh produce industry is a relatively small contributor,” she said.
In fact, the fresh produce industry has a great opportunity to play a positive role in reversing or at least stemming the tide. Again, reporting on research, Blake said consumers are very concerned about climate change, ranking it, in late 2022, as the second biggest worldwide issue, following the global economy. And while consumers believe the public has an important role to play in addressing the issue, collectively they are also looking at government and business to do their parts.
Concerns run across all generations with older folks (55-plus) focusing on the environment and younger generations (18 to 34) taking a more holistic approach with the view that social issues are an important part of the equation as the world tackles the inequitable distribution of climate change outcomes.
For this presentation, Blake focused on consumer concerns and opportunities that are in the sphere of the ag industry. She divided the actions the industry must take and the other actions that are desired but are more long range. In the must-have category are food security and sufficient supply along with the problem of waste. In the area of wants, consumers would like to see action addressing deforestation, loss of biodiversity and problems arising from intensive farming activities.
The opportunities arise because consumers are paying more attention to brands and what they are doing. Consumers are expecting individual businesses to take a lead role and they will reward the companies that do with their dollars.
Blake indicated that there is often what is called a value-action gap between what consumers want and their actual support of it through dollars. For example, a large percentage of consumers say they will buy products made from recycled materials. But those products are more expensive and there is almost a 30 percent gap between the percentage of those who say that is important and those that actually buy the product. “That gap presents an opportunity,” Blake said.
For example, if a company can provide sustainable packaging at an acceptable price point, there are customers waiting to make that purchase.
Logistics management is another area where efforts can be rewarded. Consumers are looking for more efficient transportation — and a smaller carbon footprint — for the manufacturing and delivery of the products they want. Clearly, the local food movement can capitalize on this consumer want.
Blake said it is also extremely important to communicate to consumers what a company is doing in the sustainability area. She opined that the fresh produce industry needs to broadcast more clearly and forcefully what it is doing. “Communication is key and one needs to do it carefully, but there is a big opportunity,” she said.
Blake noted that each company should take a look at their own operations and determine what role they can place to address the climate change issue. She said some of the tech actions that resonate with consumers including precision agriculture, vertical farming, and climate optimized logistics. She also noted that floriculture has work to do as much of the product sold in the U.S. is grown in countries near the equator, which means many miles are involved in the delivery.
She said most companies can make what she called “purposeful choices” to help make a difference. In this arena, Blake listed activities such as efficient use of water and energy, good soil practices, organic farming and local production. She also noted that companies need to be transparent.
“What’s important,” she said, “is that you do something.”
Blake added that there are consumer trends that bode well for both the environment and the fresh produce industry. The rise of plant-based diets helps reduce the impact of livestock on the environment and clearly helps the fresh produce industry. The healthier eating concept can have the same impact.
As a quick summary of the presentation, the IFPA executive told attendees to focus on the climate impacts they are having with their operation, accelerate the use of technology, share best practices, and reduce, recycle and decrease their contribution to the waste stream.
By Tim Linden