Peter Erik Ywema

Questions and answers with Peter-Erik Ywema

Peter-Erik Ywema is General Manager SAI Platform (Global), an organization created by the food industry to communicate and to actively support the development of sustainable agriculture involving stakeholders of the food chain. In the early nineties he was amongst the researchers that developed life cycle assessment as a tool to better understand real and significant environmental impacts. We spoke to him about life cycle analyses, climate change mitigation in agriculture and international efforts to address climate change.

What do life cycle analyses have to offer in global efforts to mitigate climate change in agriculture?

I think the most important thing about the life cycle analyses is that they offer a complete picture of the impact that a given agricultural product has on the environment. Examining individual components within the production chain to isolate their impact on climate change and the environment can give incomplete and even misleading results.

I can give you an example from an analysis on dairy product packaging I worked on in the Netherlands during the early 1990’s. At the time, the concept of environmentally sound packaging was very new and there was little information and no standards. Our group looked at several different packaging formats: the boxes developed by the Tetra Pak company, glass and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and polyethylene bags. When we confined our analysis to the packaging, the polyethylene bags appeared to be by far and away the least environmentally damaging option. But when we expanded the analysis to look at how the plastic bags performed through the market chain, we found that leakage was quite high, around to two to three percent. When this loss of milk, which requires a lot of energy to produce, was factored into the equation, the bag packaging became considerably less attractive from an environmental point of view. For many people this came as quite a surprise, but with the data we had from our life cycle analysis we could back up our position.

By giving us the big picture, life cycle analyses helps us pinpoint where to focus our efforts to mitigate climate change in agriculture and make our food systems more environmentally sustainable.

Where do you see the greatest potential for climate change mitigation in food production?

At this point, life cycle analyses indicate that on-farm measures to mitigate climate change in agriculture have the biggest impact. Central to reducing on-farm emissions is making energy use more efficient, particularly energy used in processes involving water, such as pumping. Proper use of fertilizer and pesticide use is also very important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Shopping at a supermarket in Swaziland

But we have to recognize that all of us, as food consumers, are part of the food chain. Lifecycle analyses indicate that consumer practices have a huge impact environmental impact. Simply by using less water and less energy to prepare foods like tea and pasta we can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the environmental impact of our food systems.

Those of us working on life cycle analyses of the food chain often feel that addressing issues related to consumer behaviour lies outside our mandate. But there are areas we might want to look at. For example, a presenter at a conference I attended recently pointed out how the traditional way to for cooking rice that her mother had taught her used far less water than instructions given on the package she bought at the store. So, there are opportunities to improve food packaging cooking instructions and marketing so that consumers can do more to mitigate climate change and safeguard the environment.

In general, a relatively small fraction of the gains that can be made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the food chain come from the food processing and retailing sectors. This is particularly true in developed countries, where food industries with access to latest technologies have maximized their efficiency in terms of energy use. Transportation is another area where opportunities to reduce emissions are not as great as in other areas of the food chain. The local food movement is valuable from a cultural and culinary perspective, but in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the environmental sustainability of the food chain, it’s not necessarily a big factor. The environmental footprint of imported foods, even if they come from far away, can be less than locally produced foods, especially if local production requires significant amounts of energy, for example to maintain greenhouses.

What are the differences in the way smallholder farmers and large-scale industrial industries perceive climate change mitigation?

There are key ways in which the perspectives of large industrial farms differ from those of smallholder operations regarding climate change mitigation.

Dairy farming in Bangladesh

For smallholder farmers, practices that can mitigate climate change almost always go hand in hand with reduced costs. For example, when fuels, like diesel or gasoline, or fuel wood are used more efficiently, farmers save money and resources. Other climate-smart practices, like improved fertilizer management, can cut costs and raise yields at the same time. So, for these farmers, the advantages of these practices are often immediately evident and represent one of the most readily accessible ways of improving their livelihoods.

On the other hand, large-scale industrial farming operations have a much more complex cost structure. For them, reducing energy consumption fertilizer costs may not be the highest priority. This is especially true if companies have already invested resources to maximise energy efficiency and lower input costs, as is the case in many developed countries. For these companies, management may prefer to concentrate on other options for reducing overhead costs; options that may not necessarily be directly connected to issues of climate change and environmental sustainability. So in large scale farming financial optimization, does not always necessarily go hand in hand with sustainability optimization, especially when subsidies distort incentives to reduce input costs

What potential is there to build partnerships with food production-related industries to reduce emissions? How do you see FAO's role in fostering these partnerships?

The recent review published by FAO in 2010, ‘Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Dairy Sector A Life Cycle Assessment’ showed that in developing countries there are many opportunities for improving the performance of the livestock sector, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and making it more environmentally sustainable. In many developed countries, a lot of time, effort and money have been invested in this area. So, there are clearly opportunities for international partnerships to improve food systems through the transfer of technology and know-how.  

As an intergovernmental organization FAO certainly has a role in bringing countries together. But this transfer of technology can’t happen unless businesses in the partnering countries are involved. So it’s important to build partnerships between the business community and the public sector and civil society.

I’m a pragmatic person, somewhat allergic to abstractions. So I’m not inclined to spend a lot of time attending meetings to establish and maintain formal partnerships just for the sake of having partnerships. I think it’s important for any international partnership to start small and have clearly defined activities that address specific technical issues.

The 17th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP17) will be held in Durban, South Africa in November. What would you like to see come out of this conference?

I attended my first UNFCCC Conference in Cancun. I was deeply impressed by the passion and the professionalism of everyone involved. But I must say that in the end, I was somewhat disappointed by the suggestions and conclusions that came out of the meeting. The language describing the activities the Parties had agreed to seemed very abstract. Another thing that disappointed me was that no organization or entity was explicitly tasked to see that these activities were actually carried out. For people working in a business culture, this is very strange, and I think it explains why up to now there has been relatively little interest from the business community in the process.

Of course, I recognize that UN organizations and conventions like FAO and the UNFCCC are committed to a consensus-based process, and with so many different Parties at the table, the ‘common ground’ can often be described only in very generic of terms.

That being said, it seems to me that little is being done to build connections between the business community, governments and civil society. There is no one, or no entity that is assigned to act as the ‘glue’ that can bind stakeholders with different interests together in a common purpose. This may sound like a somewhat dull task, but if we can build this cohesion, I think there’s huge potential for making progress toward making food chains more environmentally sustainable and climate-smart.

last updated:  Wednesday, August 1, 2012