Sustainable Food Summit: Food Industry Should Better Address Social Impacts

06 Feb 2012 --- these were two of the key lessons from the fifth edition of the Sustainable Foods Summit (www.sustainablefoodssummit.com). Hosted in San Francisco on 17-18th January, about 180 executives convened to discuss key sustainability issues in the food industry.

Feb 6 2012 --- Provide greater authenticity and address social inequalities in food supply chains; these were two of the key lessons from the fifth edition of the Sustainable Foods Summit (www.sustainablefoodssummit.com). Hosted in San Francisco on 17-18th January, about 180 executives convened to discuss key sustainability issues in the food industry.

A number of speakers highlighted the inadequacies of existing supply chains. Apart from the growing income disparity between growers and distributors, complex and sometimes cumbersome distribution structures are making the food industry susceptible to fraud. According to Kenneth Ross, CEO of Global ID, fraud is costing the food industry USD 49 billion a year. He states ‘the premium prices of organic and sustainable foods make them a growing target of this underground economy’. Ross calls for the use of authentication tools to combat food fraud and safeguard consumer interests, otherwise trust in eco-labels could wither.

The growing importance of authenticity has been responsible for Non-GMO Verified to become the fastest growing food eco-label in North America. Retail sales of certified products reached USD 1 billion in 2011. Courtney Pineau from the Non-GMO Project stated the popularity of the eco-label stems from Americans seeking assurances that their foods do not contain GMO traces. Over 90% of all soy, sugar beet and canola is now grown using GM seeds; it is estimated that GMOs are present in over 75% of processed foods in the US.

Juliette Caulkins gave details of the UTZ Certified scheme, which provides traceability and transparency across the supply chain. UTZ Certified has become the largest sustainability program for coffee, and is becoming popular for cocoa. By encouraging good agricultural practices, the scheme has enabled companies like Cargill to increase efficiency and double exports. Also in the Sustainable Ingredients session, FairTrade USA and Alter Eco outlined the positive impact fair trade practices can have on impoverished growers in developing countries.

The importance of addressing the social footprint of food products was highlighted several times during the summit. In the opening keynote, Thaleon Tremain of Pachamama Coffee Cooperative praised co-operatives for the benefits they provide to growers. According to Tremain, ‘many co-ops are formed to meet the needs of farmers and communities’ giving them a greater social footprint than capitalist enterprises.

Frontier Natural Products gave details of its Well Earth supplier program, which builds long-term partnerships with its growers. It has set up sourcing projects in countries, such as India, Sri Lanka and Madagascar. Keith Lord of Sambazon explained how his company had to set up its own distribution model for açaí berries because existing supply chains did not meet its needs. The company works directly with growers and has set up a processing facility in the Amazon to launch the first certified organic and fair trade açaí berry products. By ‘cutting out the middle-men’, it has also been able to invest in several social infrastructure projects in the northern Amazon.

Another speaker, Stuart Reid from Food Co-op Initiative, stated how new distribution models can also have a positive social impact on American farmers. Reid said that about 20 new retail co-ops are opening each year, supporting local farmers and building regional markets. Co-operatives enable farmers to build local relationships with retailers and consumers; they can also encourage biodiversity as farmers do not have to grow a narrow variety of crops for large retailers.

Developments in sustainable agriculture were also featured in the summit. Danielle Nierenberg from Worldwatch Institute explained how agriculture could address many of the planet’s problems. She said ‘there is a growing realization that agriculture is the solution to reducing food waste, getting youth in employment, urban agriculture and sequestrating carbon emissions’. With growing concern about the ability of the planet to feed itself, she outlined how improved production & storage efficiency and urban agriculture can raise food production levels. According to Nierenberg, 50 billion tons of CO2 could be sequestrated by soil over the next 50 years. In another paper, Tobias Bandel of Soil & More showed how soil composting techniques has reversed desertification of Egyptian soil.

The gamut of sustainable packaging options available to food & beverage companies was discussed in the final summit session. Michael Osborne Design showed how packaging design and new materials can reduce the packaging footprint. Alex Zakes of Terracycle gave details on how the company has grown from supplying plant food to one of the most enterprising recycling firms in the US. Terracycle has set up recycling programs that convert packaging waste into novel product applications. Natureworks outlined the growing use of biopolymers in food and beverage applications. Other papers by Sealed Air and Earth 911 focused on the role of packaging in waste reduction and food packaging recyclability. The session ended with case studies from Pasta Prima and Guayaki Yerba Mate Tea on how they have adopted novel sustainable packaging solutions.

As the fifth edition of the international series of summits closed, many questions about sustainability in the food industry remain: In light of growing incidents of fraud, what analytical tools can authenticate sustainable food products and protect consumer trust? How can supply chains become more equitable to growers? How can food & beverage products create positive social impacts? What new distribution models are applicable for sustainable food products? With sustainable agriculture playing an important role in mitigating climate change and food security, how can adoption rates rise? The next editions of the Sustainable Foods Summit (Amsterdam 7-8th June 2012) aim to address such questions.

www.sustainablefoodssummit.com

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