This week, two major environmental conferences that involve the food industry are taking place.
In Cancun, Mexico, the Cancun Climate Summit, the latest round of international talks on climate change that began on Nov. 29, continues through Friday. Closer to home, the Food Industry Sustainability Summit, jointly sponsored for the first time by the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, starts its four-day meeting today in Arlington, Va.
In both cases, the overarching issue is how modern civilization can continue to function without ultimately wrecking the environment. While the food industry's impact on the environment comes in many forms, let's look at one of the most powerful examples — refrigeration.
According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, nearly one-third of the carbon footprint of supermarkets can be linked to leakage of refrigerants. These include both traditional HCFC refrigerants — though they are being phased out because of their effect on the ozone layer — and the HFC gases that are being phased in to replace the HCFCs.
The problem with HFC refrigerants (as well as HCFCs) is that they have a very high global warming potential, up to 3,900 times that of carbon dioxide. If food retailers could either prevent refrigerant leaks, or shift to more natural refrigerants, the effect on the atmosphere would be striking.
For example, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Nov. 28, climate experts Veerabhadran Ramanathan and David G. Victor wrote, “Shifting from HFCs to substitutes that are 100 times less potent as climate warmers could offset nearly a decade's increase in warming that is expected from rising emissions of carbon dioxide.”
Ramanathan and Victor used this as one example of a strategy that the countries meeting in Cancun this week could agree to pursue. The delegates “would need only to ask that the Montreal Protocol” — the international body phasing out HCFCs — “take on the further authority to regulate HFCs,” they wrote. Since a major global agreement on slowing carbon emissions is not likely at this time, incremental steps like this would at least represent a step forward, buying the world some time.
Regardless of their views on climate change, food retailers need to be prepared for the possibility that the Montreal Protocol, or the Environmental Protection Agency or even one day the U.S. Congress will regulate HFCs.
Many retailers are already beginning to address this issue through participation in the EPA's GreenChill Advanced Refrigeration Partnership. And last week, to coincide with the start of the Cancun Climate Summit, the Consumer Goods Forum, a Paris-based group of retailers and manufacturers, agreed to begin phasing out HFC refrigerants by 2015 and replace them with non-HFC refrigerants.
It's clear that food retailers have a role to play in helping to make the world inhabitable for future generations.