Bringing sustainability to food supply chain

In 2050, the world population will be nine billion people, an increase of two billion over 2014. Increasing prosperity in emerging countries means demand for qualitative better food is growing. If we want to ensure food security sustainably, we must make more-efficient use of raw materials and energy while reducing food waste. At present, 25-30% of food products are wasted somewhere in the chain or are used for low-value applications.

It is estimated that 25% of total global greenhouse gas emissions are directly caused by crop and animal production and forestry. The crop and livestock sectors use 70% of freshwater resources and, together with forestry, occupy 60% of the Earth’s land surface. On its website, the WWF—originally known as the World Wildlife Fund—says, “By 2050, the world’s population will reach 9 billion, the global middle class will grow from 2 to almost 6 billion, and the consequent demand for food may at least double. So how can we produce enough and good quality food for all these people without destroying the planet, and jeopardize our future?”

It’s a great question. And many of the answers can be found along the complex, ever-evolving supply chain. From farm to fork, from seedling to store, here’s a look at some of the ways that transportation and logistics providers are making a difference—and often finding that sustainability can lead to increased efficiency and a better bottom line.

On the Farm

Farmers are using a number of methods, including water conservation, renewable energy sources, more efficient use of non-renewable sources and the newest, though still a bit controversial, trend—vertical farming. Vertical farms are immune to weather and other natural elements that can abort food production. Crops can be grown under carefully selected and well-monitored conditions that ensure optimal growth rates for each species of plant and animal year-round. In other words, there are no seasons indoors

No one thinks of New Jersey as a hotbed for farming, but in an abandoned steel mill in Newark—about as urban as you can get—leafy greens such as spinach, arugula and kale are being grown in vertical stacks without soil, without water and without sunlight. The company behind vertical farming, AeroFarm, has so far invested more than $30 million into the project, using a technology called aeroponics.


In the UK, a study by WRAP indicated that 60% of household food waste arises from people not consuming edible goods in time. The answer may lie in the twofold approach of more effective branding and labeling that allows consumers to better understand the shelf life of food, and in active and intelligent packaging innovations that help foodstuffs last longer.

This is where active and intelligent packaging comes into play. Active packaging is defined as “packaging in which subsidiary constituents have been deliberately included in or on either the packaging material or the package headspace to enhance the performance of the package system”, meaning anything that makes packaging better at protecting its contents.

Intelligent packaging “contains an external or internal indicator to provide information about aspects of the history of the package and/or the quality of the food.”

Transportation and Distribution

Transportation is a key element in any supply chain, of course, but it takes on added importance in the food and beverage industry, especially with products that must be refrigerated. Ginsberg’s Foods, an independent food distributorship in Hudson, New York, can serve as a microcosm for how an efficient transportation management system (TMS) cannot only greatly reduce its carbon footprint, reduce emissions and more, but also improve the bottom line.

Family owned since beginning as a local grocery store in 1909, Ginsberg’s has 35 trucks that cover more than 30,000 miles per week in six northeaster states. Like most food distributors, Ginsberg’s Foods has used traditional fixed route dispatch and routing practices, delivering loads to the same customers the same day each week. The system was complicated because many customers don’t have standing orders, and many of them require the distributor to adhere to a four-hour delivery window.

In 2015, the company decided that a dynamic routing system that would account for orders and delivery windows, while being fully integrated with onboard communications technology, was necessary to manage and monitor deliveries by account on a real-time basis.

After a review, Ginsberg’s selected TMW Systems, a Cleveland-based transportation software provider to commercial and private fleets, brokerage and 3PLs. TMW, a Trimble Company, serves more than 2,000 customers, including many of the largest, most sophisticated and complex transportation service companies in North America.

Warehouses and DCs

The energy it takes to heat, cool and light a large food warehouse or distribution center is enormous—even more for cold and frozen storage than dry goods. Being able to minimize energy in cold storage is a big deal. If they can do that, it’s a huge advantage in cost and pricing. And it’s good for the environment. Inside cold storage is going to LED lighting. It’s energy efficient and doesn’t generate heat.

Yusen Logistics, a New Jersey-based 3PL, has completed an LED retrofit that will reduce electricity usage and expense by more than 60 percent at one of its Carson, California, warehouses. The company replaced 966 outdated fixtures with LEDs at the 486,000 square foot facility. The change is expected to reduce energy use on average by one million kilowatt hours (kWh), and decrease power consumption by as much as 65 percent over the previous year.

On the Fork

The Food Policy Research Center says that about 40 percent of the United States food supply is never eaten, among the highest rates of food loss globally. At 1,500 food calories lost per person per day, that is double most other industrialized nations and 50 percent more than was lost in the 1970s. Producing food uses resources and causes environmental impacts, such as water pollution, soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions. Discarding food drains the food supply in a world with a growing demand. Very small proportion of food is composted in the United States. As a result, uneaten food is the single biggest component of municipal solid waste. In landfills, food gradually breaks down to form methane, a greenhouse gas that's at least 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.