The third North American edition of the Sustainable Foods Summit was hosted in San Francisco on Jan. 22 to 23. Improve efficiencies in food supply chains was the resounding message from the summit, which brought together over 160 senior executives from the food industry. A number of speakers highlighted the inefficiencies in food production, distribution and consumption.
The general consensus from summit participants was that intensive production methods were not the sole solution to feed the growing global population. Sustainable agriculture has a role in improving the environmental and social footprint of food products, while reducing food waste can expand the supply base, reduce food inflation, as well as improve food security.
In his opening keynote, the journalist Jonathan Bloom highlighted the hidden costs of food production. According to Bloom, agriculture takes 10 percent of oil, 45 percent of land and 80 percent of water resources. “Morally callous” is how he described the fact that one-third of food produced for human consumption is wasted, while over 15 percent of American households struggle to find enough food.
Amy Kirkland from the Food Waste Reduction Alliance said that landfill should be the last resort for food waste. Source reduction, feed hungry people, feed animals, industrial uses, composting were preferred routes over landfill. However, currently two-thirds of food waste goes to landfills, creating environmental pollution as well as contributing to social issues. The Bon Appetit Management Company showed how it is reducing food waste by apportioning meal sizes and changing menu options. The foodservice company has also set up a food recovery program to feed the hungry. With no centralized waste disposal system, Whole Foods Market is composting its food waste. The natural & organic food retailer stated waste management infrastructure was vital for a successful food waste program.
Michael W. Hewett from Publix supermarkets said retailers now factor a ‘myriad of competing elements’ when tackling sustainability. He believes change is vital; the current environmental footprint of the human population is 1.3 planets, while 3 Earths would be needed to meet the needs of a 9 billion population. Hewett called for radical innovation and collaborations to meet the challenges ahead; food supply chains should be a major focus considering they have 80 percent of sustainability opportunities.
United Nations Global Compact and FLO-Cert highlighted the role of sustainable agriculture. With its new Fairtrade Gold Standard, FLO-Cert is encouraging small farmers to set up carbon offsetting projects. The new initiative involves smallholdings getting carbon credits for undertaking sustainable agriculture and reforestation projects.
Day two of the summit began with an update on the global market for eco-labeled food and beverages market. According to Amarjit Sahota, president of Organic Monitor (organizer of the summit), the number of food eco-labels is proliferating. He warned that multiple logos and seals on food products could deter consumers from buying sustainable foods. To overcome ‘label fatigue’, the Ethical Bean Coffee company provides Quick Response (QR) codes on its products so consumers could get as much, or as little, information as they required. The Canadian company has set up ethical sourcing projects for its sustainable coffee in Guatemala.
The growing move towards locally grown food is increasing the number of community supported agriculture projects in the U.S. In her paper, Liz Young from Local Harvest highlighted the positive impact such projects can have on farmers and local communities. The pro-GM labelling movement is also gaining ground in the U.S. According to the Non-GMO Project, prop 37 did not pass in California because of low funding and consumer confusion. However, Courtney Pineau believes the proposed bill has propelled the ‘Right to Know’ movement, with a rise in campaigning expected this year.
The impact of new technologies on the sustainable development of the food industry was the subject of the final session. James Clark, founder of Room 214, explained that consumers are becoming more connected to each other by social media, yet less connected to the environment. Describing this as the ‘dark side of social media’, he encouraged more transparency in social media communications for sustainable products. Other papers covered mobile communications, online distribution, novel production methods, and food authentication tools. In light of the growing number of fraud cases in the food industry, Global ID described the use of chemical fingerprinting to detect food origins, species and quality.
The third North American edition of the summit covered a wide and diverse range of subjects on sustainability and eco-labeling in the food industry. Many new questions have emerged from the summit: What practical methods can make the food industry more efficient? What steps can be taken to improve infrastructure for landfill diversion and/or food recovery programs? What can be done to encourage innovation from food waste and food by-products so there are zero-waste systems? How will new technologies impact eco-labels and supply chains in the coming years? Will eco-labels continue to proliferate or will there be some rationalization? Such questions will be addressed in upcoming editions of the Sustainable Foods Summit.