Everyone, everywhere, should have access to good food that doesn’t cost the earth. But what makes food good or bad? Nutrition? Taste? The impact it has on our planet? Or how it was grown and by whom?

All of these elements are factors in the food choices we make every day. But we don’t often think about the impact these choices have on people around the world, or on the planet itself.

Why our global food system isn’t working

The complicated, interlinked processes that bring food from field to fork are clearly failing a lot of people. There is too much waste and destruction of our natural resources.

We live in a world where 2 billion people are overweight, while 1 billion go hungry. Where more than 20% of all greenhouse gases are produced by the food industry, and yet a third of that food is thrown away.

As one of the largest food manufacturers in the world, we have a responsibility to help shape a global food system that is fair for everyone. That is why we are launching our ‘Future Foods’ initiative – it’s our plan to help people transition towards healthier diets and reduce the environmental impact of the food chain. In it we are committing to:

  • An annual €1 billion sales target from plant-based meat and dairy alternatives within five to seven years
  • Halve food waste in our direct operations from factory to shelf by 2025
  • Double the number of products that deliver positive nutrition by 2025
  • Continue to lower calories, salt and sugar across all our products.

These new targets also support our global commitments to deliver a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023; halve our use of virgin plastic by 2025; and achieve net-zero emissions for all products by 2039.

Making plant-based foods the new normal

So why plant-based foods? Animal agriculture is known to be the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels and a cause of deforestation, water and air pollution and biodiversity loss. Reducing our meat consumption is essential. New research has shown that changing to a plant-based diet could reduce our individual carbon footprint by as much as 35%.

So we know that a diverse, plant-based diet is better for our health and the health of the planet. But if we want people to make the switch, we need plant-based options to be more accessible, affordable and appetising. They need to be the easy, obvious choice.

With a new sales target of €1 billion for plant-based alternatives, our customers will see a wider range of vegan and vegetarian options from our brands.

It’s an approach that is not just good for the planet, it’s good for business too. Two years after acquiring The Vegetarian Butcher, we have expanded this leading plant-based meat brand into 30 countries. Hellmann’s vegan mayonnaise is now available in 33 countries and Ben & Jerry’s now has seven non-dairy alternatives. And Magnum’s first vegan ice cream was recognised with PETA’s best vegan ice cream award in 2019.

It’s not up to us to decide for people what they want to eat, but it is up to us to make healthier and plant-based options accessible to all

Hanneke Faber, President of Unilever’s Foods & Refreshment Division.

Halving food waste

In addition to changing the way we eat, rebalancing the world’s food system demands a reduction of food waste and loss. Currently, a third of the food produced globally is thrown away, and 40–45% of that waste comes from our own homes.

The economic and environmental consequences of this waste is huge, as Liz Goodwin, Senior Fellow and Director of the World Resources Institute, explains: “Food loss and waste has massive impacts in terms of cost to the global economy, the environment and society. We know that food loss and waste contributes about 8% of global greenhouse emissions as well as wasting the land and water used in production of food.”

As a signatory of the Champions 12.3 10x20x30 initiative, we had already committed to halving food waste by 2030. We’re now bringing forward that deadline to 2025.

“We need as many companies as possible to step up and prioritise the issue of food loss and waste and take action to reduce it,” adds Liz.

Rebalancing our food with more healthy options

The transition to healthier eating also requires us to reformulate our existing foods to comply with the highest nutritional standards.

Lowering the sugar, salt and calorie count in our products is central to this commitment. We’ve already introduced a 110 calorie cap on our children’s ice cream and lowered salt, sugar and calories in a growing number of products, including a 30% reduction of sugar in our Lipton Ice Tea.

Our Future Foods strategy aims to extend these reductions, so that 85% of our foods will help ensure consumers do not intake more than 5g of salt per day, by 2022. And 95% of our ice creams will not contain more than 22g of sugar, and 250 kcal per serving, by 2025.

Fighting food deficiencies with fortified options

We are also committed to producing more fortified foods. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 2 billion people are still affected by micronutrient deficiency, but fortifying foods with small, safe doses of essential micronutrients such as vitamins A and D, iodine, iron and zinc is a simple way to counter this deficiency.

To this end, we plan to double the number of our products that can deliver positive nutritional value by 2025. This is defined as foods containing impactful amounts of vegetables, fruit, proteins or micronutrients such as zinc, iron, omega-3 and iodine.

Again, they will be following the well-established footprints of products such as Horlicks Classic, which is fortified with 21 micronutrients and has been a staple in South Asian households for generations.

Creating food that’s fit for the future

Of course, the success of these initiatives requires us to innovate so that we can hit these new health targets without compromising on taste.

Over 500 experts at our food innovation centre, The Hive, at the Wageningen campus in the Netherlands are working on creating a new generation of nourishing foods that are fit for the future. This is where biotech start-up Algenuity is working with our Foods and Refreshment R&D team to explore ways of bringing foods made with microalgae to market.

Collaboration like this is crucial if we are going to achieve our ambitious targets. That is why we are also reaching out to farmers, NGOs, universities and communities to work with us, so that we can create the sustainable change the world’s food system so desperately needs.

Be it Ben & Jerry’s ongoing Caring Dairy programme – paying a premium to farmers who use sustainable practices. Or Knorr teaming up with WWF UK to compile the Future 50 Foods report, highlighting what foods we should all be eating more of. The objective is the same: to help fix our food system so that it’s fair for everyone.

Hive test kitchen

A force for good in food

“The average person’s daily diet will need to change drastically during the next three decades to make sure everyone is fed without depleting the planet. By transforming eating habits, improving food production and reducing food waste, we can begin to solve these problems,” says Jessica Fanzo, Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Global Food & Agricultural Policy and Ethics at Johns Hopkins University.

Jessica adds: “Unilever’s commitments are integral to helping people make changes to their diet, with products they know and love.”

Our Future Foods strategy not only marks our commitment to transform our foods business, it’s also our commitment to helping transform the world’s food system. Only then will everyone, everywhere, have access to healthy, affordable food that’s good for the planet.

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