What Exactly is a Food Supply Chain?

July 11, 2022
min read
Holly keeNAN
Environmental journalist
Outdoors enthusiast

Breaking down the food supply chain

Companies often make it hard to see the chain of events that came before consumer purchase because they risk criticism. The food supply chain has become more fragmented and challenging to discern. Nevertheless, understanding the different steps in the food supply chain is key to further investigating where it all goes wrong.

The evolution of the Food Supply chain

Food production looked a lot different pre-industrial revolution than it does today. People sourced their groceries and meats from their local village markets and many people harvested their own food. However, the increase in transportation methods and privatization of land has led to a disconnect between the producer and the consumer. Nowadays, we turn to chaotic supermarket aisles and bustling restaurants to satisfy our appetites. 

So, what does the Food Supply Chain look like today and how do the different parts affect our environment? The complex would be an understatement but let’s try and break it down.


Agriculture can be separated into two main types of farming. Livestock farming and arable farming.

Livestock farming is where animals such as cows and pigs are reared for meat and dairy products. In the U.S alone, over 55 billion livestock animals are killed each year. There are many different methods of livestock farming and over the last 30 years, intensive farming has become increasingly popular. Intensive farming allows farmers a higher yield and more profit over organic farming. However, these methods subjugate animals to inhumane living conditions. 

In most cases, farming livestock is very unethical and, on top of that, it is the biggest contributor to food GHG emissions. Globally, Rearing Livestock alone produces 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. 

Arable crops are foods such as plants, fruits, vegetables, and grains. Farmers will often use tilling methods to grow a diverse range of crops. Furthermore, most vegetables and fruits found in supermarkets have been sprayed with fertilizers. Fertilizers provide the plant with the nutrients it needs to grow.  

However, these farming practices have devastating consequences on the environment. Tilling removes carbon dioxide from the soil and releases it into the air. Furthermore, the combination of using tilling and fertilizers has contributed to the depletion of soils. If we do not drastically change the way we farm, scientists suspect we have less than 60 years before we run out of topsoil.

Overall, agriculture contributes  50 - 80 percent of all GHG emissions produced in food production. 


After the food has been harvested, it is ready to be processed. Food processing can be divided into three different categories. Unprocessed, processed, and ultra-processed foods (UPFs).

Unprocessed foods - Whole fruits and vegetables (often found at local grocery markets) 

Processed foods - Dried fruits, salted nuts, whole grain pasta, and flour. 

Ultra-processed foods - Cakes, chips, candy, and reconstituted meats. 

The processing stage of food production contributes a small amount of GHG emissions (in comparison to the agricultural stage) at only 4% of emissions. Nevertheless, UPFs are still increasingly bad for the environment in many different ways.

For example: 

 Many UPFS contain palm oil and soy oils which have an increasingly negative impact on the environment

  • UPFs also use extensive packaging. 

  • UPFs contain controversial food additives with potential dual detrimental impacts on the environment and health. These food additives encourage overeating which leads to an unnecessary amount of consumption. 


Once the food has been processed, it is then packaged to help conserve the food product and protect it from pests.

There are many different types of plastics used to package food and how they affect the environment depends on the origin of materials used and the end of life scenario. For example, petroleum (a crude oil) is a nonrenewable raw material as it takes several million years to form. 

However, one of the plastics manufactured from petroleum is polyethylene terephthalate. This type of plastic is highly recyclable and is often used for plastic in fruit and drink containers. 

This packaging is good in one sense as it is highly recyclable, however deriving the raw material to make the plastic in the first place is harmful.

The food packaging stage only contributes around 5 percent of GHG emissions to the food supply chain. Nevertheless, food packaging/containers account for almost 45 percent of the materials landfilled in the United States.


Nowadays, supermarket aisles see an abundance of food from across the globe. Transportation has allowed us to have exotic fruits amid winter and avocados from the heart of Mexico. In the UK, 95% of fruits come from abroad and half of the vegetables are imported. The carbon impact of food transportation depends on the distance between origin and destination and the mode of transport used.

For example, coffee beans are grown in countries near the equator such as Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. The beans are then transported by cargo to many European countries. 

Overall, transportation contributes roughly six percent to the overall food chain emissions. Nevertheless, buying fruits and vegetables that are in season and grown locally can help reduce the GHG emissions produced in transportation. 

Consumer Use 

After food products are distributed across thousands of supermarkets, they are ready to be purchased and consumed by people. The emissions emitted from consumption depend on how the food product is prepared for consumption. For example, a Pizza would produce more CO2 emissions than a salad during the consumption stage as it needs to be cooked in an oven, thus increasing its overall emissions. However, the consumption stage of the food supply chain contributes a relatively small amount (around 1-2%) of CO2 emissions.

What can you do to reduce the carbon food footprint?

The Palau app can help you track the ecological impact, your food has on the environment. The app breaks down each food supply chain section and shows you where most of the CO2 emissions have come from. Once you have scanned a few food products, you will receive an average score out of 100.

By regularly choosing foods that only receive moderate to good scores on Palau, we can show food companies that we care about our impact on the planet and we want them to revaluate their food supply chains.

What does "Being Sustainable" Really Mean?

Defining the word sustainable is a tricky process. When I think of sustainability a million and one ideas come to mind. Nature, mindful living, eco-friendly companies, vegetarian diets….The list goes on. However, with so many descriptions of sustainability, how are we meant to provide the word with an accurate definition? It appears that the word has been so overused (and misused), that the true meaning of the term has been lost. 

The origin of the word 

In 1987, The UN and a group of environmental experts came together to discuss the causes of rising environmental issues and their connection with industrial and economic growth. They defined the term ‘sustainable development’ as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

In today’s society this is still the most commonly accepted definition of sustainability. However, companies, governments and organisations have often misused the word leading it down a long, obscure road. 

What sustainability means for businesses 

In today's economy, the word ‘sustainable’ is often used as a marketing tool for companies and organisations. Businesses are investing more money into successfully communicating their so-called ‘sustainable triumphs’ rather than actually creating radical change when it comes to helping the planet. Understandably, businesses want to be successful and make a profit, but misleading statements will only take us further into the rabbit hole. 

So, how do we even begin to get ourselves out.

The power for change lies in the consumer's hands 

Pointing fingers at companies won't be enough to create radical change. 

Instead, we need to empower consumers. We need to provide them with the tools to make informed decisions about the products they want to purchase. A study carried out in 2016 showed that people desire more information about a food product's carbon footprint. 

Apps like Palau are making this a reality. With a quick scan, people can gain information on products and how they are affecting the planet and their health. By making food systems transparent, Palau can cut the greenwash and take the consumer straight to the truth.

If consumers have no idea what is good or bad for the planet, then companies will keep abusing the concept of sustainability. However, if we make sustainability transparent to the buyers, we can educate the consumer and provide them with accurate measurements.

In the case of companies, it is all about satisfying the consumers and turning their balance sheets into profit. Whatever the consumer decides they want, the businesses will follow.

Therefore, it is the consumers who have the power to force companies to change. By people choosing to only purchase products that have good scores on Palau, companies will have no choice but to reevaluate their production lines so that they meet the demands of the buyer. How to measure Sustainability 

How do we measure Sustainability?

We measure the sustainability of food products by examining a range of different areas in the supply chain. First, we break the CO2 emissions down into six key areas; agriculture, transportation, processing, packaging, distribution, and consumption.

Furthermore, we also provide information on the type of packaging used, the origin of ingredients, and if any threatened species were affected in the production process.

Finally, we take all these areas into account and provide the consumer with an overall ecological score of the desired food product. 

Nobody is perfect 

In an ideal world, we would all be living zero-waste, carbon-neutral lives. But let's face it, that isn’t a viable option for most people or companies. Living like this requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice.

Nevertheless, the more people, governments, and companies that face up to the fact that we are currently not living sustainably, the more we can work together to change it.

The fundamental goal behind Palau is to encourage food companies to be honest about the impact they are having on the planet. We want businesses to cut the greenwash and start by being fully transparent with consumers. 

Everyone is tired of hearing big statements and empty promises. The era of using sustainability just as a marketing tool is about to die.

Now companies will have to focus on delivering transparent and credible facts to be considered good for the planet.


We’re building a community for like-minded people making the effort to consume products in a conscious way that reduces waste and helps save the planet.

We’re a community of thrifters.

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