Article: Digging Around for Sustainable Food

My latest GreenBiz piece focuses on the food sector, particularly organic and natural products companies. The article centers on the lack of cohesion and clarity in characterizing ‘sustainable’ food, the gap between perception, marketing and demonstrated outcomes, and the unsustainable trends that are increasingly seen in the natural and organic food trade…as well as the broader, non-organic industry.

Digging Around for Sustainable Food
Melissa A. Schweisguth, 3/29/11

Sustainability has become firmly planted in the food sector, as noted in the State of Green Business report. TIME even conjectured that the food movement stands to drive wider environmentalism. Consumers are increasingly demanding edibles that are better for people and planet, traceable and transparent in their production, likely due to mounting recalls and exposes on the pitfalls of industrialized production. Meanwhile, behemoths like Mars, McDonalds, Unilever and Wal-Mart have announced broad sustainability commitments for their supply chains and operations, following the lead of pioneers like Stonyfield Farm and Whole Foods Market.

Granted, sustainability is an amorphous, subjective, piecemeal concept in food, as with any arena. Eaters, industry and the media alternately characterize it as local, organic, natural, low carbon, resource efficient, in “eco friendly” packaging, fairly traded and the like. A sampling of recent conferences indicates that a comprehensive, clear framework has yet to be cooked up.

January brought the Sustainable Foods Summit to the US. Billed as an opportunity to “debate and discuss key sustainability issues,” it covered certification, metrics, agriculture, sourcing, packaging, trade, labor, distribution, retailing and marketing.

Attendees heard about social and environmental certifications (biodynamic, Fair Trade, Food Alliance, Rainforest Alliance, Scientific Certification Systems), measurement frameworks (Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association, Stewardship Index) and brand case studies. The latter seemed most valuable, highlighting the possibilities and benefits around leading-edge practices, including Bon Appetit’s conversion to local and fair labor sources, Straus Creamery’s data on how their organic, grass-fed dairy’s greenhouse gas footprint is demonstrably smaller than an industrialized farm, Earthbound Farm’s switch to 100% post-consumer recycled plastic packaging and Theo Chocolate’s direct sourcing partnerships that enhance quality and livelihoods.

Given the inclusion of entities with marked philosophical differences, such as favoring organic, local or Integrated Pest Management farming methods, the Summit seemed a ripe opportunity for the critical conversation that are needed to characterize and advance sustainability. However, the event took on a seminar format with only brief Q&A, relegating any real analysis and synthesis to discussion among likeminded peers during breaks and affording little resolution.

The Organicology Conference, billed as “the study of a sustainable food future,” followed. It drew the core of the organic trade: small and medium farms, processors, retailers and distributors; and NGOs, media and policy experts.

Developed by four entities dedicated to organic agriculture, it clearly defined sustainable food as organic, local/regional and small-scale, with fair labor, equitable prices and broader environmental stewardship factoring in strongly. This characterization is backed by research on the environmental benefits of organic farming and regionalized, smaller-scale, diversified production. A recent UN Report confirms that such “ecological farming” methods have the capacity to double crop production.

Agricultural issues predominated, with topics including the impact of GMO’s on organic agriculture, soil and seed production, farm food safety, the Farm Bill and policy, and socially responsibly business. Organicology provided an excellent opportunity for the organic vanguard to learn, strategize and reaffirm its vision of sustainability but, by design, didn’t engage the mainstream trade. Perhaps this was an implicit statement that conventional systems are best replaced altogether.

Natural Products Expo West, the nation’s largest natural products trade show sprung up in March. In its 31st year, it offers the best view of an industry birthed from social consciousness. Responsible packaging, fair trade and green purchasing were among the educational programming; organic offerings were well represented and non-edibles included scores of purportedly planet-friendly personal care and household products.

However, after taking it all in, one might wonder where sustainability fits in. Veterans lamented how the industry has lost its roots, once connected to farms and whole foods but now a mirror of the mainstream it sought to supersede. Highly processed and packaged items, single-serve packtypes and far-flung superfoods predominated. Many brands touted their “natural” status, a term that’s largely unregulated and undefined, and tangential to sustainability. Organic products often mirrored “conventional” offerings, apart from their Certified Organic status, failing to offer a truly sustainable alternative. One hopeful exception is Big Tree Farms’ CocoHydro instant (dehydrated) coconut water mix, which significantly reduces the environmental footprint associated with packaging and shipping this super-trendy drink, and that leaves freshwater in its origin country rather than exacerbating scarcity issues.

Surprisingly, few companies actively conveyed their sustainability practices. Certainly, some see social responsibility as a baseline not needing to be touted, while others feel their organic or “natural” status in itself is sufficient. Regardless, leaving good deeds left unknown fails to effect wider change, one of the driving factors in the industry’s genesis.

Many exhibitors did use compostable and recyclable sampling ware but there were no recycling or compost bins on the show floor. One had to leave the hall and hunt out a few (sponsored) bins. This is yet another disconnect that may leave one questioning the sustainability of the mainstream natural products sector, and revisiting the vision of Organicology, while wondering how it might become the status quo.

This entry was posted in Agriculture & Food, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) & Sustainability Strategy, Writing & Presentations. Bookmark the permalink.

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