Kompass Nachhaltigkeit

Öffentliche Beschaffung

Food Products

Social and ecological risks in the supply chain of food products

Short overview (in German)

What you should take into consideration when purchasing food products

Municipal catering comprises:

  • Conference, reception or event catering
  • Hospitality services in the town hall
  • Operating or leasing canteens in local government buildings
  • Leasing cafés, kiosks or (drink) vending machines

According to the German Environment Agency (UBA), some 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to food. The impacts of industrial agriculture and food production differ greatly depending on the product group: the biggest environmental stressors (according to the European Commission) are meat and animal products but sourcing eco-friendly alternatives for this food group is also a major cost driver. However, using regional and seasonal produce and reducing the number of meat dishes on the menu can significantly alleviate any negative cost effects, if not completely compensate them.

Tropical fruits in particular place a serious strain on soils and also on farm labourers in conventional agriculture. Generally speaking, the working conditions of small farmers and labourers in the cultivation and producing countries are often poor, particularly in conventional agriculture.

Procuring fair and organically grown foods can, for example, strengthen workers’ rights and cut down on the use of chemicals.

    Further Information

    For general information on integrating sustainability into the procurement process, see here.

    An online tool to assess the local human rights situation by "Helpdesk Business & Human Rights" is available here.

    Municipal best practice examples of sustainable procurements of food products, see here (German only).

    Further information on food products (in German)

    Information on fair trade (in German)

    Supply chain risks of food products in detail

    Supply chain in detail

    Click on the individual stages in the information graphic on the left to learn more about the ecological and social risks when procuring food products.

    01 Cultivation/Production

    Large areas of land are needed to grow and produce food. Both the cultivation and production of basic products in the food sector are sources of serious environmental and social problems in places. In conventional agriculture in particular, environmental pollution and human rights abuses can have a massive negative impact on workers’ health, soil fertility and key resources (water, land) in the surrounding municipalities. Examples of risks include:

    Environmental risks

    • Use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers that can contaminate water, air, soils and foods
    • Massive CO2 and methane emissions, e.g. with beef, poultry and pork production, greenhouse gases, rice from irrigated cropping
    • Extinction of species accelerated through use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers
    • High levels of water and/or energy consumption, e.g. for making synthetic fertiliser and growing certain foods, e.g. avocados
    • Soil degradation, e.g. through salinisation
    • Species diversity impacted by monocultures
    • Deforestation for agricultural purposes: This leads to soil erosion and to a loss of biodiversity
    • Use of genetically modified seed and fodder (see: German Genetic Engineering Act (GenTG) and the Ordinance on genetically modified plant production (GenTPflEV)
    • Risk of resistant germs and pathogens in poultry farming owing to use of antibiotics
    • Laws prohibiting animal cruelty are often overlooked in the case of animal products (e.g. animals are not housed or transported properly or are mutilated)
    • Retail and supermarket chains discard up to 30 % of fruit and vegetables owing to optical deficits

    Social risks

    • Health of farmers and plantation workers is compromised by the incorrect use of chemicals and contact with pesticides, and by a lack of appropriate safety measures for workers (who contract illnesses due to a lack of protective gear, for example) 
    • No decent wages
    • Long working hours, often in excess of legal regulations, and unpaid overtime
    • Child labour and forced labour
    • Violence, discrimination and harassment of workers
    • Bad housing and sanitation facilities, especially for seasonal and migrant workers
    • Water shortages in regions where water-intensive crops like avocados are grown, e.g. in Chile, for example, reduces water availability for the local population   

    Further reading (in German)

    02 Processing

    The degree of food processing is steadily increasing and the volume of processed meals is growing year by year. The generally high levels of energy needed to produce these products, and their often elaborate plastic packaging, makes for a poor ecobalance. A food item’s carbon footprint is often determined less by the product itself and more by where and how it is grown, where it is subsequently shipped to and how it is packaged. In 2018, some 1.13 billion items of packaging were used for food. According to the German Environment Agency (UBA), around 19 million tonnes of packaging waste was accumulated in Germany in 2020. In the case of fruit and vegetables, the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) states that almost 60% is pre-packaged and, in more than 50% of cases, plastic wrapping is used. Packaging often makes up 25% of an item’s total weight.

    The following environmental and social risks can arise when processing basic products to make food:

    Environmental risks

    • Use of chemicals and preservatives
    • Long transport distances from the point of cultivation to point of processing
    • Water consumption and contamination (e.g. through pesticides in water used to wash fruit and vegetables)
    • High energy consumption levels for processing and storage
    • Many foodstuffs generate massive CO2 and methane emissions, e.g. the production of butter, cheese, chips, coffee and chocolate…
    • Use of plastic packaging results in a poor ecobalance
    • Softeners and adhesive residues migrate into foods
    • Microplastics from degraded plastic waste end up in oceans and groundwater

    Social risks

    • Inadequate worker safety: people’s health is compromised by chemicals used in processing and by the absence of adequate protective gear, e.g. in slaughterhouses
    • No decent wages
    • Long working hours, often in excess of legal regulations, and unpaid overtime
    • Housing provided for workers on site is sometimes unfit for human habitation
    • Workers experience violence, discrimination and harassment
    • Pseudo-self-employed workers via service contracts designed to undermine labour laws

    03 Consumption

    Scientists assume that more than 70% of all diseases in Western industrialised countries are food and lifestyle induced. The main factors include poor diet, a lack of physical activity and excess weight.

    Food consumption gives rise to the following social and environmental risks.

    Environmental risk

    • Food wastage due to poor volume planning

    Social risk

    • Unbalanced diet leads to an increased health risk

    04 Disposal

    Germany generates around 12 million tonnes of food waste a year. A study by Münster University of Applied Sciences shows how better planning can significantly reduce food wastage in  commercial kitchens. In its National Strategy for Food Waste Reduction, the German government has committed to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030. Food disposal gives rise to the following social and environmental risks.

    Environmental risks

    • Unnecessary use of resources due to food wastage
    • Loss of water, energy, vitamins and minerals in the soil, hours and scope of work, fertilisers and cropping areas
    • Around 4.4 gigatonnes of completely unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions end up in our atmosphere every year due to wasted foodstuffs. 
    • Emissions, water pollution and soil contamination owing to incorrect disposal, particularly of plastic packaging

    Social risk

    • Ethical conflict: Worldwide, more than 800 million people are chronically underfed.

    05 Transport

    Kiwis from New Zealand, tomatoes from the Netherlands, grapes from South Africa and their consumption in Europe: just a few examples of where the foods you eat come from. Around 4% of the foodstuffs consumed in Germany are imported – and account for 70% of the kilometres clocked up for food transport. Long distances are often covered from a basic product’s cultivation site through to its point of consumption. Imported goods consume 11 times more energy, emit 11 times more CO2 and account for 28 times more sulphur dioxide than local produce. The high perishability of certain foodstuffs leads to the use of more CO2-intensive forms of transport, like airplanes, to ensure faster transport. Higher perishability also means that products have to be refrigerated. This consumes yet more energy and puts more strain on the environment. Fuel consumption and emissions negatively impact the environment and stress the climate in a way that is also harmful to human health. Transport with heavy-duty vehicles such as trucks is regulated by the Euro 6 emissions standard (Commission Regulation EU/582/2011), and procurers should demand compliance from hauliers. 

    Environmental risks

    • Climate-damaging CO2 emissions through food transport, especially with overseas goods
    • Emissions of nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and sulphur oxide, especially when using diesel engines

    Social risks

    • Poor working and living conditions for professional truck drivers from Eastern European countries
    • Illegal and unfair social dumping due to tough price war in this sector
    • Failure to observe rest times and take breaks