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More than one path for brands to create climate-friendly foods

In one Natural Products Expo East educational session, founders learned about different ways to support the planet while feeding a variety of consumers' tastes.

Davina van Buren

October 25, 2022

5 Min Read
More than one path for brands to create climate-friendly foods

Let's face it: Food choices can be confusing. Some argue for purely plant-based diets, while others see the value in grazing animals to enrich the soil and build ecological diversity.

Still others are more concerned with emissions and climate effects associated with certain foods. Does the planet benefit more when consumers eat vegan products that were shipped across the globe or when they eat eggs or meat farmed in their own backyards? 

At the Natural Products Expo East education session, "From Plant-Based to Pastured Meat: Exploring the Question of What Makes a Food Climate Friendly," moderated by Climate Collaborative Executive Director Courtney Pineau, panelists discussed the different ways that natural products companies approach this dynamic issue.

Pineau began the session highlighting three key points from a recent International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC) study: 

  • The impact of plant-based diets on reducing emissions.

  • The role of agroecology and climate-smart agriculture to restore land and biodiversity, and sequester carbon.

  • The potential for meat analogues to support transition to a healthy and more sustainable diet—although the carbon footprint and impact of these foods is still unknown.

Just like the global population, climate impact has many facets. Three panelists brought together a range of perspectives on what makes food climate friendly. 

Related:Sustainability: Creating a regenerative agricultural system

Inform climate-friendly operations with data

Julia Collins, founder & CEO at Planet FWD—an organization that helps consumer companies measure, reduce and neutralize carbon emissions and improve water, land and energy use—said it's impossible to ignore the basic complexity of food.

"There is no diet that will make everyone—and the planet—simultaneously healthy," she said. "We need to begin with understanding not only our own narrative, but the ecosystem as a whole." 

One of the most important things consumer companies can do is to get clear on their Scope 3 emissions, which means understanding where emissions originate across the entire product life cycle, Collins said. 

"When companies understand how emissions relate to farming, manufacturing, retail, distribution, consumer use and end of life, you have the clarity to make big decisions, such as 'What would be the impact of electrifying my fleet? Sourcing an organic or regenerative product? Lightweighting our packaging?'"

Collins' approach is simple yet profound: Brands must take a holistic approach to understanding the effect their products have on climate. 

"We can make snacks out of anything," she said. "As we think about the next wave of consumer products, maybe we should first ask: Where are the opportunities to maximize regeneration, and how can we use ingenuity to make products from those things?" 

Related:15 brands on a mission to improve soil health

More than one path for brands to create climate-friendly foods

Increase farming biodiversity with indigenous foods 

Priyanka Khole, founder of emerging brand Svaa Haa Foods, spoke on the importance of indigenous foods to the future of food. She's inspired by the ancient wisdom of honoring crops and reimagining them as modern, accessible snacks that connect the values of gut health and soil health. 

"Mother Nature gave us thousands of crops, but we spend most of our time and resources cultivating only a few of them," Khole said. "Many ingredients are associated with recipes that are not necessarily modern. It behooves us to look at these ingredients through a modern lens and introduce diverse, nutrient-dense and climate tolerant crops into our mainstream stacks." 

She spoke about her experiences growing up in India, where 40% of the population consumes a plant-based or vegetarian diet. It was simply a part of life to lean into the power of legumes, pulses and proteins sourced directly from biodynamic farms operated by local families. 

Khole emphasized the importance of ESG values and economic empowerment for brands sourcing from or producing products in other countries.

"Climate crises in other parts of the globe impact us here." she said. "We can't just say 'I'll be conscious' in Western culture when degradation of farms and communities is happening somewhere else in the world." 

Support native prairies and grasslands

Megan Meiklejohn educated session attendees on the importance of restoring grassland ecosystems, and how regenerative farming can help that mission. As SVP of supply chain innovation for the Savory Institute's Land to Market Program, she helps brands source ingredients from regenerative farmers.

"The relationship between animals and grasslands is broken, and it needs to be reestablished," she said. "We can mimic how herds of grazing herbivores live in nature with cattle." When cattle are fed on grasslands, both the animals and the ecosystem evolve together instead of lands being artificially stripped for crop-growing. 

"Animal products can be beneficial, and they have a place in reducing climate impact by restoring soil health using regenerative agriculture," Meiklejohn said. "I don't think we should ever make global recommendations, especially around diet. What we really want is native prairie lands and grasslands." 

The future of climate-friendly food 

The panel discussion revealed the need for diverse solutions—because consumers are diverse eaters whose choices are based on personal preferences, culture, ethnicity, economics, personal ethics and more. Many players in the natural products industry are striving toward the common goal of creating a healthier planet. Therefore, it's critical that the industry works together. 

"One of the best things you could do is find your biggest competitor and reach out to them. It's not just about one brand or one methodology—it's about a rising tide lifting all boats," Collins said.

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Everyone who registered for Natural Products Expo East or Natural Products Expo Virtual can watch this session, "From Plant-Based to Pastured Meat: Exploring the Question of What Makes a Food Climate Friendly." Other Expo East events and educational session, on the NPEV On-demand Content page or the New Hope Network Events app. Other Expo East events and educational sessions can be found on the NPEV On-demand Content page or the New Hope Network Events app.

About the Author(s)

Davina van Buren

Davina van Buren is a North Carolina-based food writer and farmer. In addition to writing for numerous food brands, restaurant and agricultural tech companies and industry trade journals, she also grows heirloom vegetables and microgreens for local chefs.

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