During the past 30 years, environmental issues and awareness have evolved from a futuristic horrorfantasy to a documentary of real and tangible concerns that affect everyone. We are bombarded with news of global warming, vanishing species, compromised water systems, contaminated foods and the dangers of using fossil fuels. Environmental awareness takes many forms, and ironically, increasing environmental awareness has led to conflicts within the environmentally "green" groups.
Within the food industry, there are natural and organic food manufacturers as well as those that are quasi organic. Consumers of organic or natural foods are, in many cases, offended at the direction the movement has gone. The "big boys" such as General Mills, Kraft, Wal-Mart and others have joined the movement because they see markets for the products. Growth in this segment has exceeded 10% per annum for the past decade.
In developed countries, issues that affect the environment have become an essential element to food manufacturers. It affects food, packaging, energy systems and attitudes. It involves recycling, reuse, choice, image, sustainability, economics, education and even ecoterrorism.
FOOD AND BEVERAGES. Organic food sales have steadily increased during the past decade. This signals a commitment on all levels of the food chain to the April May June 2008 movement. Growers, poultry and meat producers and dairies must take steps to ensure that what they produce meets the criteria established for organic foods and ingredients in their markets.
According to information provided by Elizabeth Sloan, Ph.D., president of Sloan Trends and Solutions, Escondido, California, USA, approximately 170 countries have some definition of organic. Codex Alimentarius established a guideline for organic foods. The document, entitled "Guidelines for the Production, Processing and Labeling of Organically Produced Foods" and also known as GL32 – 1999, was last revised in 2007. Aims of the guidelines are to:
• Protect consumers against deception and fraud in the marketplace and unsubstantiated claims • Protect producers of organic produce against misrepresentations of other agricultural produce as organic • Ensure all stages of production, preparation, storage, transport and marketing are subject to inspection and comply with the guidelines • Harmonize provisions for the production, certification, identification and labeling of organically grown produce • Provide international guidelines for organic food control systems to facilitate recognition of national systems as equivalent for purposes of import • Maintain and enhance organic agricultural systems in each country and to contribute to local and global preservation
Codex documents are, as stated above, guidelines. The organization hopes the guidelines will be adopted as national standards to ensure international harmonization. However, definitions of organic still vary from country to country. The documents may be accessed at http:// www.codexalimentarius.net/download/ standards/360/CXG_032e.pdf.
Reviewing current and projected sales of organic foods and beverages (See "Organic Food and Beverage Market," Page 12), Europe is the leader in organic food consumption. However, the US Agency for International Development and non-government organizations from Europe have been quite active in developing nations on the African continent and elsewhere to create and implement organic farming operations as a means for building value-added exports. These and other growers must meet the European standards for organic and be certified to ensure they are using good agricultural practices to assure food safety.
The driving force behind the growth of organic foods is the belief they are healthier and better for you. This is especially true among women shopping for their families. Issues such as producing without pesticides and hormones play a major role in people’s decisions to buy organic. It is also a sign of the influence of organic foods advocates on well-educated persons in Europe and elsewhere. Many seem to believe that conventionally produced products are "loaded" with pesticides, hormones and chemicals.
PACKAGING. Food packaging has been a lightening rod around the world for many years. There is a belief that food packaging makes up most of what goes into our landfills. According to T. W. Downes, Ph.D., retired professor, Michigan State School of Packaging, East Lansing, Michigan, USA, this is patently false.
There has been a greater push throughout the world to ensure that food packaging is reused. Europe is again the leader in this area. German packaging regulations are designed to ensure that most packaging is reused. The German laws were implemented in three phases during the early 1990s and updated and enhanced throughout the decade.
The burden of recycling and disposal is on the processor packaging the products. If packages cannot be recycled or reused, the processor will be accountable. This law has proved unpopular with other European Union members, although the EU as a whole acknowledges the importance of reuse and recycling. According to some experts, this program "can be considered to be successful in reducing waste, spurring the redesign of packaging to be more environmentally sustainable, and increases refilling and recycling." This is not to say that there are not problems. There are issues with recycling plastics, plus the German market for recycled products is not good.
WATER AND WASTEWATER. Water is essential for all life and many processing systems. Water systems can become contaminated with chemicals or pathogens. Parts of the central US had a major problem in the recent past with Cryptosporidium parvum after floods swamped a water treatment plant.
The Rhine River, which serves as a highway and drinking water source for much of Europe, was closed for chemical spills, as was the Songhua River in China in late 2005. In the Chinese situation, an explosion at a chemical plant resulted in huge quantities of benzene and nitrobenzene being released into the river.
The oceans are also a concern. A 15 February, report in Science stated that "Overfishing, pollution, climate change and other human activities are threatening nearly every ocean and heavily affecting more than 40% of them." The work was coauthored by Dennis Heinemann, Ph.D., senior scientist, at Ocean Conservancy, Washington, DC, USA.
There are concerns about not only the quality of water but also its quantity. It was recently reported that major US lakes such as Powell and Mead, which double as electric power generators, could dry up by 2021. This would have enormous impact on the Southwest and Southern California. The Aral Sea in Central Asia has already suffered such a fate. Aquifers throughout the world are reportedly not being recharged at the same rate that water is being withdrawn.
To ensure steady supplies of fresh water, some countries have constructed desalinization plants. Desalination separates saline water into two products: fresh water and water containing the concentrated salts, or brine. Such separation can be accomplished by a number of processes. The three most common processes are distillation, electrodialysis and reverse osmosis.
Among the places where these plants have been constructed are the United Arab Emirates, which has the largest facility in the world; Singapore; Israel; Perth, Australia; and several places in the US. The main drawback is these facilities are expensive to build and operate, which precludes their construction in some areas where they would be most needed.
Water and water conservation are issues that food processors around the world must address. In countries with rigid environmental standards, such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada as well as several countries in Europe, food processors must not only monitor water use but they must also monitor discharges.
Many processors also treat their water. Treated water can be discharged into community systems, or if the operation is in rural areas and the water is free of hazardous material, that water may be used to irrigate fields. Local authorities routinely monitor plant effluent and in some places have no problem shutting down operations that lose control of their discharges.
A good example of how a food processing facility can handle and treat water was described in the November 2007 issue of Baking & Snack. The newly built Kettle Foods plant in Beloit, Wisconsin, USA, filters and treats 1.65 mil gal (6.25 mil l) of water per day. Of course, building a "greenfield" plant with this in mind is much easier than retrofitting an older facility.
ENERGY AND POWER. Energy may be the top concern the world over. Although temperatures on earth have cycled throughout the years, most people now agree that our world is warming. One of the main causes of this is burning fossil fuels with the subsequent release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the environment.
The Kyoto Protocol was established to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by industrialized nations throughout the world. The US has not signed this agreement. China and India, which are the largest polluters, are not bound by the agreement. China continues to build coal-burning power plants, which are terrible polluters, but its economy is booming and it is rich in coal.
The use of fossil fuels raises several questions beyond carbon dioxide. Prices of crude oil now range near or above US$100 (€64) per barrel, so fuel costs must be considered in the equations of processors the world over. Fossil fuels are also a finite resource. These factors drive work in alternative energy sources (wind, water, solar and nuclear) and in the area of renewable fuel sources.
Rising fuel prices also push equipment manufacturers to design and build more energy-efficient processing equipment. Better insulation, using or burning waste gases and more efficient heat-transfer systems are all ways to reduce operating costs.
Europeans are the "greenest of the green" when it comes to environmental awareness and recycling, yet they also are the largest users of nuclear power. Nuclear plants produce few emissions and are generally clean. Hot water is generated as a byproduct of the process. The big concern is what to do with spent nuclear rods.
At this moment, 35% of all the energy in Europe is generated by nuclear power plants. France gets 78.5% of its energy from this source. The US lags far behind. It has been years since that country brought a nuclear plant online.
More and more countries are looking to use alternative sources of energy generation. Among the countries that established facilities to harness wind are Germany, Spain, Denmark, Ireland, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Greece, Italy, Sweden, Turkey, Morocco and Egypt.
Perhaps the most well-known and used form of alternative energy is solar power. Processors around the globe that receive lots of sun often install solar collectors to augment existing power sources or to power a given part of a plant. As one drives around, it is more and more common to see solar collectors on plant roofs.
Several types of solar energy systems are used including solar heating, solar conversion and photovoltaic conversation.
The hot button at this time, however, is biofuels, which are fuels from plant sources. Ethanol is the most well-known biofuel. It burns cleaner than gasoline, can be manufactured from any carbohydrate source and can help reduce dependence on oil, especially when one considers that much of the oil reserves are in volatile areas around the world such as the Middle East, Venezuela, Angola and Nigeria.
Biofuels are not a panacea, however. Their production is energy intensive, the total energy in a unit of ethanol is less than that of a similar unit of diesel or petrol, and changes in production patterns whereby products like corn are grown for ethanol instead of food or feed can adversely affect whole industries. As corn or other grains have been diverted to fuel production, it has affected grain and food prices, which has rippled into other areas.
Brazil has committed to producing ethanol from sugar cane. The ethanol is used to fuel 40% of the automobiles throughout the country. According to printed sources, sugar cane has several advantages over corn. Ethanol yields from sugar cane are twice that of corn. However, there is a potential devastating impact on the soil and the rainforest.
QUO VADIS? Environmental awareness is here to stay. In most places throughout the world, people seem to understand that taking care of the earth will help sustain life as we know it. Poor countries have other concerns, however. Putting food on the tables and ensuring that there is clean water trumps environmental awareness. Growing worldwide commitment to "green" will escalate as developing countries continue to create the infrastructure and implement human welfare programs.
In the more affluent areas of the world, green is synonymous with doing business. These wealthy nations are the ones who will need to drive the green revolution in developing countries. To do this they need to show people in poorer nations that such ideas are not an affectation of the wealthy, but a program that will benefit them and their children.