KNOWLEDGE MAP Back to overview

An overview of insights on the (un)sustainability of the international food system.

Food & Sustainability

How sustainable is the processing, transport and retail of food?

In general, the processing, transport and retail of food has relatively little direct impact on the environment. But these links in the food chain do have a large indirect impact because they decide what (un)sustainable products they buy from suppliers and offer to consumers.

Direct sustainability

When it comes to agricultural products such as fresh vegetables, fruit and meat, the lion share of direct environmental impact takes place during production. Even when beef is shipped from Brazil, CO2 emissions from slaughtering, packing, cooling and transport are negligible compared to the methane emissions from the cows themselves. This is because economies of scale have made these intermediate food chain links very efficient. Only with fresh products that must be cooled in the supermarket (such as milk), energy consumption in the retail sector becomes significant.

The more steps of processing a product goes through, the more the total environmental impact will increase. Soda is an example in which the largest CO2 emissions occur during processing and packaging, and for fresh fruit juice this occurs during transportation by truck. There is only limited research into the sustainability of complex, composite products, such as pizzas and ready-made meals, because it is difficult to go further back than a few suppliers in the food chain when tracing product flows. The same applies to the complex life cycle of product packaging. Still, there are initiatives that aim to better map the sustainability of product flows, such as the British Carbon Trust, The Sustainability Consortium and the European Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) programme.

Marinussen, M., Kramer, G., Pluimers, J., Blonk, H. (2012), p. 16-18.

Blonk, H., Alvarado, C., & Schryver, A. D. (2007), p. 19, 23.

Pluimers, J., Blonk, H., Broekema, R., Ponsioen, T., & Van Zeist, W.-J. (2011), p. 37, 44.

Stichting Duurzame Voedingsmiddelenketen (2008), p. 8-9, 16.

See website PEF.

See website Sustainability Consortium.

Role of processing, transportation and retail

Although the direct impact of processing, transportation and retail sustainability is limited, these parties can play a decisive role in realising sustainability through their choice of products and suppliers, and particularly the final placement of products in shop shelves. For example, there is a growing prevalence of bargains and brands in the supermarket. Consumers indicate that they buy at least 30% of their purchased food products in sales, and 40% in the supermarket’s own brand. At the same time, consumers who prefer affordability and bargains eat less fruit, vegetables and fish and more meat. These consumers are thus more susceptible to bargains made on meat, which is something supermarkets make use of.

PBL (2013), p. 103-104.

Onwezen, M., van ‘t Riet, J., & Barels, J. (2011), p. 29.

Bartels, J., Onwezen, M.C., Ronteltap, A., Fischer, A.R.H., Kole, A.P.W., van Veggel, R.J.F.M., Meeusen, M.J.G. (red.) (2009), p. 14.

De Bakker, H. C. M., & Dagevos, H. (2010), p. 117.

Value chain initiatives

Many large supermarkets have privately set joint safety and quality standards, which they can use to have more influence on the process of production and food processing. In the Netherlands we have the Integrated Chain Management (‘Integraal Ketenbeheer, IKB’) certificate, which guarantees additional security checks in the production chain of beef, pork and poultry. European supermarkets together use GlobalGAP, a standard that requires manufacturers and suppliers around the world to meet food safety protocols and standards for quality and sustainability. Furthermore, the Sustainable Trade Initiative (‘Initiatief Duurzame Handel’) is committed to promoting fair trade practices and there are international roundtables where organisations work together to create sustainable palm oil and soy chains.

WRR (2014), p. 30.