Is our food system giving the earth indigestion?

Paul de Gannes Paul de Gannes
Technical Director, Process Engineer
25 May 2021
6 min read

To capture nature more accurately, 19th-century French painter Claude Monet often painted on extremely large canvases, many metres in length. If you look at his work up close, the brushstrokes are blurred and hazy, but step back from the canvas and the water lilies come to life, capturing the imagination.

When it comes to our global food system, it's time to think like Monet! Rather than focusing on individual elements, we must stand back to truly appreciate a broader, more inclusive perspective. This takes us beyond the standard snapshot delivered by the appetising and mouth-watering close-ups of food on Instagram, to a deeper understanding of how our food system plays a significant role in maintaining a healthy planet.

According to an EAT-Lancet Commission report co-authored by Professor Walter Willet from Harvard Medical School, food is the single strongest lever to optimise human health and environmental sustainability on earth, and will be a defining issue of the 21st century. However, it seems that many don't yet see it that way.

Consumer adoption of circular economy practices hinges on convenience, availability and understanding of sustainable options offered by companies. This is in line with behavioural science studies that look into how easy, or difficult it is to teach an old dog new tricks.

How will manufacturers measure up?

How can manufacturers adopt wide-scale, sustainable practices that deliver benefits today – not merely cost savings – to the food supply chain, which will lead to further investment and truly deliver long-lasting value in this area?

Approaching food production as a holistic challenge is also an opportunity. The production system in its entirety needs to be taken into account when trying to determine whether a product is environmentally acceptable or not. This includes all elements and activities that relate to production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption.

Often, the product itself is organic, but factors such as using plastic mulch for weed control or transporting the product over long distances make it a less desirable option. The ability to communicate this type of information to consumers is imperative if we are to empower through education.

As climate change awareness increases, more people are demanding sustainable manufacturing practices, with 66 per cent of consumers and 73 per cent of Millennials happy to spend more money on brands and products that are environmentally conscious. Although, IFIC's 2019 Food and Health survey shows that 63 per cent found it hard to know which products are environmentally sustainable.

Nutrition facts and labels were only required on packaged foods starting in the 1980s after research brought customers to scrutinise the healthiness of their food. But, with the discovery that not all products labelled 'organic' are that sustainable, how would they know they are making truly sustainable choices?

The onus to make the right choices doesn't solely rest on the consumer. In this regard, manufacturers are starting to feel the pressure to be more transparent about their practices. Blockchain platforms like IBM Food Trust allow for information about a product to be uploaded all the way along the supply chain from start to finish. Consumers can then access this information by scanning a QR code displayed on the items.

What if all products were labelled with a standardised indicator for carbon footprint and water consumption, and you could get an environmental score for your trolley, online or in-store? Technology could even then create suggestions for how consumers could improve their score to optimise their personal impact on the environment.

Consumer results could be extrapolated further for analysis, with individuals scores pooled together so that neighbourhoods, cities and even countries could be scored for their sustainability efforts.

Just imagine if these results were used to track how countries were achieving targets set out in global carbon emission reduction agreements. How much impact can each individual contribute if we are fully aware of our environmental scores? Individually, perhaps not so much; but collectively, it can be huge.

Food for thought

Macro changes are happening to the planet and its people, but many of the impacts are felt at a micro level. For instance, climate change is altering the wine industry. Hotter temperatures are threatening the viability of today's vineyards by producing overripe grapes with low acidity and 'cooked' flavours. How can the industry adapt?

Some wineries are approaching sustainability with an innovative mindset. Sant Miquel vineyard in Catalonia, Spain, is a renowned industry leader championing the fight against climate change. Among the many initiatives it has implemented, was the installation of a biomass boiler in the winery. Fuelled by vine cuttings, grape pomace and other materials that were traditionally burned – saving an estimated 1 300 tons of CO2 annually.

If the product that sustains a business into the future is being adversely impacted by climate change, adaptation necessitates that sustainable practices be embedded into the very core of the business' strategy and production. A product must become sustainable by design to underpin the economic sustainability of the business.

This may give a highly competitive edge for manufacturers who choose to align with sustainable principles, particularly with environmentally conscious consumers and even other business stakeholders. Last year, Procter & Gamble's shareholders voted overwhelmingly for the organisation to publish a report on its efforts to halt deforestation and demanded more transparency and action, despite its Board of Directors' advice against it, since the company uses numerous forests.

In addition to this, the Wall Street Journal even released a list of 100 Most Sustainably Managed Companies in World, designed "to help investors and consumers sort out how companies are performing on environmental and social issues."

Change, one nudge at a time

There are many opportunities to nudge people's behaviour by making subtle changes to the context in which they make decisions. While the sustainability message doesn't resonate with everyone, the circular economy has the potential to redefine customer 'convenience' and win over even the most ardent climate sceptics. At first glance, it might seem like a privileged position to care about the provenance of food.

However, studies show that consumers in developing markets are 23-29 per cent more willing to pay a premium for sustainable products because they are more aware of the needs and challenges in their surrounding communities.

Illustrating the importance of convenience, residents in Africa's second-largest informal settlement were given a chlorine water purification solution, and yet water-borne diseases continued to run rampant. It turned out with households making daily trips to a water source, an extra trip to the store for the chlorine solution was too inconvenient, even though the benefits were well known. The chlorine was then moved to the water source itself and only then habits started to change. As a result, uptake rates increased from 10 per cent to 60 per cent.

Is this the justification food manufacturers and other factors along the food supply chain were waiting for to drive improvement in 'environmental goodness'? Will we see a future where the increased consumer demand for an environmental-based competitive advantage inspires tangible, scalable innovation in this field?

After all, it's not only 'food' that we're talking about here – it's our world, it's our lives. If we've learned anything from Monet's artwork, it's that it pays to look at the bigger picture. If the Earth is our canvas and we are the painters, what would we want it to look like? Will it be a work of art or a piece of art that needs more work?

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Paul de Gannes
Written by
Paul de Gannes

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