Business and the planet can gain from new, radical ways, says Professor Steffen Boehm.
Could adopting the principles of the “circular economy” help food and drinks manufacturers in the South West thrive in an uncertain future? That’s a question being asked by me and my colleagues at the University of Exeter Business School in a major two-year research project which will help producers in the region.
The regional food and drink industry is hugely important to our economy, society, environment and culture. More than 250,000 people are employed locally in farming, manufacture, retail and catering, with many more businesses benefiting from the tourism that our top- notch grub helps attract. From the Cornish pasty to the Devon cream tea, Somerset scrumpy to premium seafood, the South West boasts internationally-recognised culinary treasures. Farmers play a vital role as stewards of the landscape, maintaining, enhancing and restoring the habitats cherished by locals and visitors alike.
But it’s not all rosy. In today’s interconnected, world prices for energy, water, raw materials, labour and other inputsvaryunpredictably.All food businesses are under increasing pressure to cut costs and improve efficiency just to survive. At the same time, the potential environmental downsides of the industry such as air and water pollution, food and packaging waste, carbon emissions and biodiversity loss through landscape changes are being scrutinised like never before. Add to all this the uncertainties of Brexit and our food and drink businesses seemingly face a perfect storm.
Now a radical new way of doing things called the circular economy has come along which may just help businesses weather that storm. Most businesses operate in a traditional, linear, way, making things and then throwing away waste. By contrast in the circular economy, businesses try to extract maximum value from the raw materials, water, energy and other resources they use, while eliminating avoidable waste and re-using or recycling unavoidable surpluses.
Our small, precious planet can’t go on providing resources and absorbing waste for ever. Embracing the circular economy concept could help businesses of any shape or size lower their harmful environmental impacts and reduce their vulnerability to risks beyond their control by retaining value in their processes.
There are already many ways for food and drink businesses to become “more circular”. These include installing equipment to recycle waste and by-products into marketable products, reducing or adopting new types of packaging, fitting renewable heat and energy technology and using sophisticated IT-based systems to streamline supply chains. Most of these require significant up-front investment out of the reach of many of the estimated 96 per cent of UK food and drinks manufacturers classed as small, and medium-sized enterprises (SME). They don’t have the cash, time or technical know-how to adopt these new techniques.
At the University of Exeter Business School we want to address this challenge. As part of a research project we will explore new ways for smaller food businesses to access the opportunities of the circular economy.
Our team of engineers, supply chain experts, mathematical modellers and social scientists, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will work closely over the next two years with SME food and drink manufacturers across Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset. We will help them identify and trial new low-cost technologies, processes, tools and product designs, then measure the benefits for business and the environment. We hope that by helping businesses to work in a circular way we can all protect and even restore wildlife habitats.
Given the importance of the dairy and bakery industries to the region, our research will centre on these sectors, collaborating with leading manufacturers of cheeses, ice creams, pasties and cakes. To kick off proceedings, two free workshops with high-profile speakers will be held for regional bakeries and dairies. Next month Neil Parish, MP for Tiverton and Honiton and chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, will give the keynote address at our event for businesses at the University of Exeter. In March, George Eustice, MP for Camborne and Redruth and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Farming, Food and the Marine Environment, will speak at our event for Cornish businesses at the university’s Penryn campus.
Our food and drink industry is a UK leader and we hope that by working together we can help our wonderful farmers and producers embrace change and protect the environment.
We expect our two events to be extremely popular, and places are limited: if you wish to attend, please email the organiser Dan Eatherley firstname.lastname@example.org
Categories: Reviews and Interventions