Online Exclusives

Sustainable Foods Summit

By Joanna Cosgrove, Online Editor | March 1, 2012

An examination of existing food supply chains yielded a call for greater authenticity and more attention to social impacts.

Despite the progress of global food chain management, the industry still has a long way to go, according to a panel of speakers recently assembled at the fifth edition of the Sustainable Foods Summit held in San Francisco and convened by Organic Monitor, a research, consulting and training company focused on the global organic and related product industries. Four key food chain issues were highlighted at the Summit: authenticity, social footprint, sustainable agriculture and sustainable packaging.
Apart from the growing income disparity between growers and distributors, complex and sometimes cumbersome distribution structures have continued to make the food industry susceptible to fraud. According to Kenneth Ross, CEO of Global ID, fraud is costing the food industry $49 billion a year. “The premium prices of organic and sustainable foods make them a growing target of this underground economy,” he stated, and called 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 $1 billion in 2011. Courtney Pineau from the Non-GMO Project noted the popularity of the eco-label stems from Americans seeking assurances that their foods do not contain GMO traces. More than 90% of all soy, sugar beet and canola is now grown using GM seeds; it is estimated that GMOs are present in more than 75% of processed foods in the U.S.
Juliette Caulkins, commercial director and associate director at UTZ Certified Good Inside, gave details of the UTZ Certified system, 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 plan has enabled companies like Cargill to increase efficiency and double exports. Also in the Summit’s 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 footprintof 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, and said “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 acai berries because existing supply chains did not meet its needs. The company worked directly with growers and set up a processing facility in the Amazon to launch the first certified-organic and fair-trade acai 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. Mr. Reid reported 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.
Agricultural developments, especially those of the sustainable variety were said to have the potential to address many of the planet’s problems, according to speaker Danielle Nierenberg from Worldwatch Institute. “There is a growing realization that agriculture is the solution to reducing food waste, getting youth in employment, urban agriculture and sequestering carbon emissions,” she said. And given the growing concerns regarding the ability of the planet to feed itself, she outlined how improved production and storage efficiency and urban agriculture can raise food production levels. According to Ms. Nierenberg, 50 billion tons of CO2 could be sequestered by soil over the next 50 years.
In a separate but related paper, Tobias Bandel of Soil & More showed how soil composting techniques have reversed desertification of Egyptian soil.
Ever the popular buzzword, sustainable packagingavailable to food and beverage companies was also discussed in the final summit session. Michael Osborne Design demonstrated how packaging design and new materials could reduce the packaging footprint. Alex Zakes of Terracycle, a company that has set up recycling programs that convert packaging waste into novel product applications, detailed how his company had grown from supplying plant food to one of the most enterprising recycling firms in the U.S. Natureworks LLC outlined the growing use of biopolymers in food and beverage applications. In addition, papers by Sealed Air and Earth 911 focused on the role of packaging in waste reduction and food packaging recyclability. The session ended with the presentation of case studies from Pasta Prima and Guayaki Yerba Mate Tea regarding how they adopted novel sustainable packaging solutions.
At the close of the summits, many questions about sustainability in the food industry remained, including how certain analytical tools could authenticate sustainable food products and protect consumer trust in light of growing incidents of fraud; how supply chains could become more equitable to growers; how food and beverage products could create positive social impacts; what new distribution models are applicable for sustainable food products; and how to encourage the adoption rate of sustainable agriculture rise given its role in mitigating climate change and food security. Organic Monitor said those questions would be at the heart of the next editions of its Sustainable Foods Summit series, which will be held in Amsterdam this June 7-8 and in San Francisco next January 22-23.

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