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The Role Sustainability Will Play in Reforming Our Global Supply Chain

October 1, 2021
By Leslie Lake

Like nearly every aspect of our lives, COVID-19 has forced many people to reexamine, or at the very least acknowledge, their relationship and reliance on the global food trade. In the first half of 2020, as the closure of international ports crept across the globe to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the role that global trade played in our food consumption habits became abundantly clear. Seafood counters and butcher’s cases grew leaner and leaner as grocery store staples like salmon, shrimp and beef became difficult to find because they were regularly imported from Norway, Thailand or New Zealand. Steak took its place with hand sanitizer and toilet paper on the growing list of items that, when found at the grocery store, felt like winning a lottery.

As international food trade has resumed, grocery store shelves have largely returned to normal. But the question remains, should it go back to normal?

There are arguments to be made on every side of the global food trade. Detractors may say it’s creating negative environmental impacts or pricing out small growers with factory farms. Those in favor could argue that it’s creating jobs and competitively priced commodities around the world, year-round. But a recent report from the U.S. International Trade Commission found that the myriad of trade agreements the U.S. has entered into with other countries have only had a “small, positive effect” on the U.S. economy – hardly a ringing endorsement for the economic impacts of the global food trade.

Research has found that our global food production system contributes to one-third of worldwide greenhouse emissions and 60% of biodiversity loss. And even with millions going hungry, 931 tons of food goes to waste every year.

Last week, the United Nations Food Systems Summit convened for the first time, and one of the major issues under discussion is the sustainability of our current food systems. The pandemic opened many eyes to how reliant our food system is on foreign trade, and the environmental impact of the current system is far from sustainable.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack noted in a Summit statement that “we must use the power of ingenuity to improve on food systems so they provide safe, nutritious, affordable and accessible food for all, while conserving natural resources, and combating the climate crisis.” The food and beverage industry should expect to receive growing pressure to mitigate the environmental impact of their operations. Steps should be taken now before it’s too late.