Keith Nunes 2019KANSAS CITY — Food and beverage companies and the trade associations that represent different groups of companies across specific commodities and applications should consider following the lead of the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) and declare environmental sustainability a non-competitive issue. The group’s declaration encourages association member companies to share sustainability best practices with the goal of improving the overall environmental impact of the entire industry.

Experience indicates this endeavor will pay dividends. NAMI identified food safety and animal welfare as non-competitive issues in 2001 and 2002, respectively. Since then the meat industry has seen significant reductions in the presence of pathogenic bacteria on finished products, and more than 95 per cent of the beef, pork and lamb processed in North America voluntarily follow guidelines and conduct audits to ensure animal welfare.

“Many meat and poultry companies have integrated sustainability into their businesses and have successfully shown they can lower their impact on air, land and water,” said Anna Potts, president and chief executive officer of NAMI. “Sharing these best practices across the industry is a win-win for members, consumers and the environment.”

All sectors of the food industry are facing pressure to improve the environmental sustainability of products, processes and production practices. Consumer packaged goods manufacturers are seeking ways to create more sustainable packaging options, develop more efficient distribution systems and reduce waste. Crop producers are facing criticisms regarding pesticide use, water and land management.

There are several reasons why this effort should be pursued industrywide. Notably, the impact and costs of climate change on the food and beverage industry will be shared by all. A report by the financial analysis company Moody’s Analytics finds the economic implications of climate change will be dramatic if efforts to halt rising temperatures fail.

In addition to the supply chain disruption caused by extreme weather, higher temperatures, higher atmospheric concentrations of CO2, and changes in precipitation patterns will directly impact global crop yields, according to Moody’s. The changes will not be uniform across regions and crops. Growing seasons will lengthen in colder climates and shorten in hotter ones.

It may seem counterintuitive for competing businesses and industries to collaborate on an issue like environmental sustainability. The members of NAMI faced such a situation in 2001 when they declared food safety a non-competitive issue. Recalls due to food borne pathogens were frequent, and the group’s membership quickly learned consumers did not view such incidents as company or brand specific. The news was affecting the entire industry negatively.

A similar situation may unfold if consumers become more concerned about the health of the environment and climate change. It is doubtful they will ask what specific segments of the industry are doing; they will want to know what the food industry is doing to protect the environment.

This is not to say declaring sustainability a non-competitive issue means companies should not promote the successes of their individual sustainability investments, initiatives and achievements. Creating points of differentiation should be encouraged to motivate everyone to improve. But from a macro perspective, high-level information should be shared to improve the entire industry’s sustainability profile.

The North American Meat Institute’s leadership in making environmental sustainability a collaborative issue is inspiring. It is a model the rest of the industry should follow to preserve environmental resources and mitigate the long-term consequences of climate change.