Have you ever wondered how your food ends up on a supermarket shelf?

Most food items, including processed foods like biscuits and fresh food like meat, take a long journey between the farm and the supermarket. This journey is known as the value chain. All foods have impacts on nature and climate, but the ways in which they’re produced and processed at different stages in the value chain can have varying impacts.

Most supermarkets and food companies buy their food items and raw ingredients from middle-suppliers who have processed or added value to the item in some way. There can be several middle-suppliers between the farm and the supermarket. This means the supermarket or food company doesn’t always know the farm, town, or even country, where their ingredients or raw produce are grown. Having this knowledge of the value chain for each ingredient is called traceability.

So, what does this look like in practice? Let’s take a frozen beef pie as an example.

Beef value chains can be complex because cattle are moved between multiple owners and properties during their lifetimes. A calf may be born on a breeding property in central Queensland, where it spends the first portion of its life, before being sold as a ‘weaner’ to a different property with more grass cover to help it grow. It may then be sold to a ‘finishing’ property or a feedlot to fatten it as much as possible. From there, it will go to an abattoir where it is killed and processed. That’s four different sites in the value chain before a food company is even involved.

Cattle on a farm

Beef value chains can be complex.

From the abattoir, the meat (in varying stages of processing) may be sold to a butcher or large meat supplier where it is processed further, turning it from a whole carcass into cuts of meat, or mince. This meat differs between the mince we buy, and the 'offcuts' that a company such as Patties may buy to make pies.

From here, it may be sold to the consumer, or a food company may purchase the mince to use as an ingredient in their factories.

Similarly, the wheat used to make the pastry may begin its life on a farm in Western Australia. Once it’s harvested, it may be sent to a wheat silo, before it’s sold to a mill. The wheat is then ground into flour and packaged, before being sold again to food companies (like the pie business to use in their pastry) or supermarkets.

The pie company then produces and sells their frozen product to supermarkets that sell it to consumers from their shelves.

Although there are several other ingredients that go into the pie, these two ingredients demonstrate the far-reaching effect of the value chain and the many different points at which nature and climate impacts can occur. For example, deforestation may have recently occurred at the first farm where the calf was born, and at the second farm, a lack of water could be a major issue. On the wheat farm, chemical use may damage the soil health and biodiversity, and then at the mill, energy use may be a large greenhouse gas emitter.

Wheat farm

Climate impacts can occur during different points in the value chain.

Because most food companies buy raw ingredients from a processor/supplier, rather than directly from the farm, they don’t always know where these nature impacts are occurring. Traceability is important because it enables food companies to understand their impacts and dependencies on nature, and in turn, put in place systems and policies to reduce their impacts.

For example, a pasta sauce company may trace their value chain and realise their tomatoes are coming from a region facing severe water shortages. As a result, they may choose to source their tomatoes from another region with higher water security. This reduces the company’s impact on nature, but it doesn’t do anything to reduce impacts at the original tomato farm.

Food companies that buy directly from farmers have greater ability to create change. Another tomato sauce company who purchased tomatoes directly from the first tomato farm may also be aware of the water issues, and instead of shifting to a different supplier, decide to engage with the farmer to help them implement more sustainable practices. The company may offer to partially fund a new water-saving irrigation system, or a landscape design which helps conserve water. This reduces the company’s impact on nature, but also leaves nature in a healthier state.

Consumers don’t have the same power to leverage change at farms as companies, particularly big supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths. But if you care about nature and the way your food is produced and want to see Australia become a world leader in sustainable food production, you can join ACF in pressuring food companies to create a food system that’s better for nature, climate and people.

Join us in calling on Woolworths and Coles to stop allowing deforestation and nature destruction in their supply chains.

Australian Conservation Foundation