Food Sustainability Made Simple
What is it, and how do we achieve it?
What is it, and how do we achieve it?
Sustainability has become increasingly important to the food industry over the last several years. Many of the industry’s most prominent companies in the field, such as Unilever, Nestle, and ConAgra have created a set of goals related to water or carbon emissions targets to achieve by or before the year 2025 based on the Sustainable Development Goals devised by the United Nations.
Food in grocery stores has more language on the package, such as natural, plant-based, and sustainably sourced. Even product packaging in the grocery stores is changing to have more bio-based products to reduce or eliminate plastic. We see a rise in plant-based protein products popping up in fast food restaurants and big brand names in supermarkets. Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have become household names in just a few short years. But what does this mean in correlation to food sustainability, and are we making an impact?
Our food chain is dynamic and perpetually in flux. With the rapid changes that we see in the food industry and even neighboring sectors, it can get quite complicated and complex to interpret which products are sustainable and just trying to keep up.
In this series, we want to assess what is sustainability and what we can do to support a sustainable food system. Part 1 addresses the different areas to consider within food sustainability, where later we will delve into how to determine fact from fiction.
Part 1: The Definition
What is Food Sustainability?
The established definition of sustainability captures three core pillars in its function to provide and perpetuate. The first pillar of sustainability is the environment, which establishes a dogma where we replenish as much or more of the resources we consume. The second pillar involves the people within the supply chain, such as farmers, manufacturing workers, and distribution. The final pillar is governance, which involves the overall organization responsible for the operation. This series aims to walk you through each component that encompasses the complexity of Environmental, Social, and Governance, also known as ESG. Food sustainability is multifaceted, but our goal is to break it down into simplified phases.
Food Sustainability for the environment captures a few different factors. Primarily, we focus on three distinct areas that impact the environment: water, carbon emissions, and energy used in production. These include the amount of water used to produce the crop or finished food. Some crops such as nuts and asparagus use a lot of water during their growing process. Animal agriculture yields a significant amount of carbon emissions. In fact, consuming pulse-based protein such as peas or other legumes reduces the number of carbon emissions by 8x (1). Additionally, carbon emissions can relate to the distribution of the food itself, called food miles.
Finally, the last factor is the energy that is required to produce a particular food. Energy can relate to the quantity of fossil fuels used in the agricultural process or the amount of energy needed to process food in a manufacturing setting. Most still rely on fossil fuels, so the energy required here can be relatively large. Because so many resources go into making food, some companies are now looking at utilizing food waste to create upcycled foods and food products. The quickest ways to reduce your carbon footprint and water impact are reducing meat intake and eating local produce when in season.
The second pillar is around the people, which can relate to the impact on the local community or the number of wages given to the workers. In food sustainability, we want to look at products that impact the local community by providing them with living wages and fair working conditions. Let’s use a migrant worker as an example. Some companies issue housing for migrant workers, but if they don’t provide them with livable conditions, a fair wage, or breaks during work hours, this can lead to a vicious cycle where the worker is dependent on the housing and cannot leave. A great book to read on this is “Tomatoland” by Barry Estabrook.
Additionally, the community impact is critical to note as well. We want companies to be mindful of its effects on the community. For example, plastic companies that negatively impact their air quality around them risk local residents’ health with an increased risk of asthma and lung cancers. This information can be challenging to find because this information is not widely published. However, the companies which create positive impacts, such as Bombas or Aerofarms, by employing locals with stable jobs or regularly donate items in need are often ready to share this information on their websites or with the press. You can look for seals like “fair trade” to help with your search.
Finally, the governance of the company is also a critically important factor in food sustainability. All food companies want to stay up with the trends; however, it’s vital to conduct themselves ethically and responsibly. Companies like Cargill are now promoting the power of plant-based protein still have a significant stake in the meat industry. Another example is Amazon – the massive giant has a reputation for treating their workers poorly by not providing breaks and creating undesirable working conditions. A great example of a company doing well in this space is Costco. They give the workers a livable wage, provide benefits, and give back to the community through various outreach programs.
To summarize, food sustainability can be highly complex. Factors involving the environment, community, and corporate ethics create a large span of all things related to food sustainability. We want to support a world that can be more sustainable, and our diet is one way to do so. With a lack of definitions and regulations in this area, there is substantial opportunity for interpretation by the end consumer. Stay up to date on the latest in food sustainability by subscribing and checking our website regularly as we will be posting new content on this area regularly.