The big talking points at the Sustainable Food Forum 2023
In the opening panel about how to transform the global system of food production, environmental activist Sir Jonathon Porritt ripped into the existing system. “The food system is the single most destructive force on planet earth,” he claimed. “No less an emergency than climate change, in fact one of the main driving forces of it.” He went on to say the food industry has “systematically hacked people’s appetites, encouraging a flow of ultra-processed food damaging people’s health. If it doesn’t shock you, you’re beyond shocking.”
Marjolein Brasz, CEO, Foodvalley, suggested any problems with consumer health were not “just with food production, but consumption patterns also.” Angela Francis, UK director of policy at the WWF, said change needs to come from the “top down through policy”. But Porritt said the meat and agri industries would fight “tooth and nail to protect their interests, even if this harms sustainable food reform. There is a huge amount of naivete in the alternative agri-world. Big meat and big ag is as dangerous as big oil. The idea of working with them to achieve sustainability targets is a self-indulgent fantasy”.
The trouble with scatter-gun supply chains
A key theme across both days at the Sustainable Food Forum was the need for increased transparency across the entire supply chain, right down to the original source of specific ingredients. Not only is this key for companies to measure their green progress, it’s also a prerequisite for an effective eco-labelling solution. Anne Marie Butler, global director of strategy and innovation at Edlong, said transparency wins consumers hearts, saying they “want to be a part of a company’s journey”, and that companies need to be more specific and evidence-based on eco-claims.
However, she also warned that achieving a cohesive strategy among so many stakeholders in so many varying sectors made progress extremely challenging. “Nobody is working towards the same goal because no one knows what the goal is,” she said. “A scattered approach means that we end up pulling against each other. We need everyone to sit down and agree on the key goals.”
Side sessions on the shifting regulatory landscape with regard to labelling and eco-claims also illustrated the need to be aware of the latest changes, or wind up falling foul of a beady-eyed consumer with a Twitter account.
90% of plastic packaging ends up in landfill
Packaging is essential for preserving food products and minimising contamination, it’s also where brands communicate nutritional information and brand identity. But as we heard from Hoa Doan, head of impact at EarthShot Prize winners Notpla, harmful materials such as single-use plastics are still far too common. “We need champions at every level in the value chain,” she said. “There is an industry appetite for sustainable packaging using natural materials that enrich the environment, not pollute it.”
And whilst these can be recycled, the reality is that most packaging is not reused. Paloma Lopez, co-founder & CEO at Future Fit Foods, said “as much as 90% of food packaging ends up in landfill”. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, with new and more sustainable alternatives on show across the forum, such as seaweed, which is fast emerging as a key sustainable ingredient trend in the packaging space, being used to create edible packaging solutions with minimal environmental impact.
“We cannot meet today’s sustainability challenges using conventional fertilisers”
Sustainability is not a trend, it means longevity. And central to this longevity is soil health, the “starting point” for a secure food system in the words of Anglo American’s head of marketing Kayhan Atalay. He spoke about the adverse impact of intensive farming practices on soil biodiversity and pinpointed chemical fertilisers as a key part of the problem, claiming that we “cannot meet today’s sustainability challenges whilst using conventional fertilisers that rely upon fossil fuels.”
The Sustainable Food Trust’s Fabia Bromovsky also emphasised the need “to take sustainability back to farm level”, beginning with a re-appreciation of the precious biodiversity found in soils. And Dr Fabrice DeClerck, science director at EAT, discussed how ancient farming practices may be able to help us meet the sustainability challenges of tomorrow. After highlighting the intensive and environmentally damaging nature of conventional agriculture today, he offered an alternative in the “Milpa system” of farming, an intercropping technique practiced by the Mayans of growing beans, maize, and squash together. Owing to the nitrogen-fixing properties of these crops, he said processes like this offer a way to eliminate the need for harmful conventional fertilisers whilst delivering highly nutritious staple foods.
Fragile, vulnerable to diseases, conflict and climate catastrophes
The global population will rise from eight to 10 billion by 2030, so food security is high on the agenda for the food industry. As well as the ongoing unpredictable climate, the war in Ukraine has also reverberated throughout supply chains worldwide, triggering ingredient shortages and raising food prices. And then there’s the issue of food waste, with one-third of food produced globally feeding bins, not humans.
We also heard how the food system has grown ever-more homogeneous, with monocultures replacing the genetic diversity once available. Some 75% of the world’s food comes from 12 plants (three – wheat, maize, and rice – supply over 50%) and five species of animal. As Fabia Bromovsky of the Sustainable Food Trust stressed, this leaves the food system fragile and vulnerable to disease, conflict, and climate catastrophes.
Speaking on the panel Can (Re)formulation save us? Reniera O’Donnell was one of many speakers to call for more diversity in food production for the sake of both food security and global population health. Calls to cut down on meat and dairy consumption were also a common theme. And speakers also noted that the meat and dairy industries are handed subsidies which are not afforded to emerging plant-based food businesses.
Edwin Bark, senior vice president at Redefine Meat, proposed that the environmental costs of meat production should be reflected in the end-price, bridging the price gap between meat and plant-based alternatives. He also called for more funding to be allocated to alternative-protein sources to help “level the playing field” between well-established food business and emerging ones.