The sustainability agenda

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Nina Pullman

BY NINA PULLMAN

@nina_pullman

The sustainability agenda

How can producers respond sustainably to food crazes and what is the consumer appetite for ethical produce? President of organic watchdog Ecovia Intelligence, Amarjit Sahota, chats to Nina Pullman

The sustainability agenda

Amarjit Sahota, president at Ecovia Intelligence

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What do you see as the key themes in the food sustainability debate for this year?

Amarjit Sahota: The key themes of the European edition of the Sustainable Foods Summit are sustainable ingredients, social and customer impacts, and marketing best-practices. We would like to highlight the use of sustainable ingredients in food and beverage applications, and discuss the various ways companies can address their customer and social impacts. 

Where do you feel there has been most progress?

AS: In the last five to seven years, the food industry has made much progress in terms of sustainability. Large food companies, such as Unilever and Nestle, have set ambitious targets to reduce their environmental impacts, e.g. carbon emissions, packaging impacts, wastage, etc. 

Secondly, sustainable food sectors, such as organic and Fairtrade, are also no longer considered a niche. We are seeing these products become mainstream in many countries, especially as retailers promote their private label ranges. There is a general consensus that food and beverage companies need to do more to address their environmental and social footprints.

Where is there more work to be done?

AS: We see much more work to be done. For instance, the world climate summit (COP21) in November 2015 saw countries make commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. The food industry is a major producer of greenhouse gases, however relatively few companies are taking steps to reduce their emissions. More food companies need to make commitments to reduce and offset their greenhouse gases. The Belgian company Alpro is one of the few companies to have done so; its Provamel brand has been carbon neutral for a number of years. At the Sustainable Foods Summit, we will show how food and beverage firms can produce ‘climate-friendly’ products.

There is also much more work to be done in terms of water and resource usage, wastage, packaging impacts, biodiversity conservation, social impacts and sustainable production methods. 

What needs to be done at farmgate levels to help push the sustainability agenda?

AS: At farmgate level, we need to encourage sustainable farming practices. We need to see more efficient, if not lower use, of agro-chemicals to ensure soil fertility. One key area for farming is ethical sourcing: to encourage products are grown in an ethical manner, which means respect for the environment and/or grower. We are seeing this today for coffee, cocoa, tea and vanilla, but not so much for fruits, vegetables, grains and livestock products. 

What risk do food trends such as the craze for avocados pose for sustainable food systems? How can producers respond to strong demand in a sustainable way, in your opinion?

AS: This is a difficult question, as food fads and crazes are a feature of the food industry. There is a risk that high demand will cause producers to cut corners. For instance, we have heard stories that quinoa production in parts of Latin America has become unsustainable because of high demand from Europe and Latin America. The promotion of quinoa as a superfood led to a surge in demand, with producers in some countries raising production to unsustainable levels. 

The same is true for organic foods; supply always lags behind demand because of the conversion period to organic agriculture. Supply-demand imbalances have therefore become a feature of the organic food industry. 

What are your thoughts on GM crops and how do they fit into the sustainability picture?

AS: Most in the sustainable food community do not see GM crops as a sustainable solution. Although advocates say GM crops can reduce agro-chemical usage, there are the issues of ownership and transparency. 

Many in the food industry do not feel comfortable with companies owning seeds so that farmers have to license from them. In the US, there is  a bigger issue of transparency. A growing number of American consumers are calling for transparency whereby food products with GM ingredients should be labelled as such. The US government passed the mandatory labelling bill in July 2016, however it has put the onus on consumers to check whether GM ingredients are on products via QR codes. 

How is the consumer perception of sustainability changing, in your opinion? What needs to be done to gain further consumer interest and momentum around sustainability?

AS: Consumer perception of sustainability varies. Awareness of organic and Fairtrade is generally very high, however education of issues such as greenhouse gases (and agriculture) and water impacts remains low. Similarly, awareness of food waste is rising, partly because of organisations like Wrap in the UK, however education of packaging waste and composting is comparatively low. 

We can say consumers are becoming more aware of ethical products, but do not always understand what sustainability means and how it is related to their lifestyle.

How effective do you feel campaigns like ‘Save our Soils’ have been? Has there been some progress here?

AS: Campaigns like ‘Save Our Soils’ have an important role in raising awareness of environmental issues. We find that these campaigns succeed in making these issues more prominent to consumers. The results are not always instantaneous, however they are effective in education. An example is Wrap and its campaigns to fight food waste; its Courtauld Commitment, introduced in March 2016, encourages food companies and retailers to reduce food waste. The topic of food waste gets a lot of media attention because of these campaigns. 

Another example is sustainable palm oil; NGOs like Greenpeace and WWF have played an important role in raising awareness of deforestation in south-east Asia caused by palm plantations. 

How do you see the organic market developing from here? Could it offer a viable alternative to conventionally-produced food on a large scale?

AS: Definitely! The market remains small in the UK, however this is not the case in other parts of Europe. In Denmark, eight per cent of all food sales are now organic. For milk and eggs, the market share is above 25 per cent. 

In Germany, the market share of organic foods is approaching five per cent. The market share of some fresh fruit and vegetables in Germany is already approaching 10 per cent.

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