Sustainable Food Becomes a Main Course

It wasn't very long ago that "sustainable agriculture" was the domain of the natural foods industry, locavores, and other greenies, referring to products aimed at a market niche of consumers seeking foods they deemed healthy for their families and the planet. But like so many other things in the green arena, sustainable ag has gone mainstream. A growing list of big companies are making commitments and taking actions that would have seemed unlikely just a couple years ago.

This is yet another arena in which Walmart seems to be playing a key role. In fall 2010, the retailer announced a series of five-year goals addressing the food supply chain, from farm to fork. The company set a goal of selling $1 billion in food sourced from 1 million small and medium farms while providing training to 1 million farmers and farm workers in such things as crop selection and sustainable farm practices. It also pledged to increase the income of the small and medium farmers it sources from by 10 to 15 percent and, in the U.S., double its purchase of locally sourced produce to 9 percent by 2015. Finally, because an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the food grown around the world never reaches a table, Walmart also set goals to reduce food waste in the supply chain.

State of Green Business

Walmart was hardly alone among big companies. Unilever launched a Cool Farm Tool to help suppliers measure the greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture practices, and help farmers decrease their carbon footprint with "what-if" scenarios. The U.K. consultancy Two Tomorrows ranked Unilever first in the food and beverage sector -- ahead of Nestlé, Danone, Pepsico, and Coca-Cola -- in sustainability leadership, citing their work in founding the Marine Stewardship Council and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and as one of the early supporters of fair trade and nutritional labeling.

Another pool of growing activity is focusing on sustainable seafood. Indeed, the tide is turning on how some companies are sourcing fish, due in large part to years of activist pressure stemming from concern about both depleted fisheries as well as the environmental damage of large-scale fish farming. One target was Trader Joe's, which gave in to a relentless "Traitor Joe's" campaign by Greenpeace, saying it would sell seafood only from sustainable sources by the end of 2012. Greenpeace also played "good cop," praising retailers with sustainable seafood policies, with Target leading the pack.

There was action by both companies and activists on integrating sustainability considerations into a range of food and beverage products, from coffee to cattle. And 2010 also brought signs aplenty that food producers were cooking up innovations that could reduce their products' impacts -- aquaculture environments that mimic nature by raising a variety of ecologically complementary species, for example.

Beyond that is a growing awareness of what it takes to bring food to market, and the environmental implications of the journey a typical meal travels. Of course, "food miles" and "locavores" are hardly new concepts -- and the growth of farmers' markets is an old, albeit positive, story. But the conversation has gotten more sophisticated as experts recognize that distance traveled isn't the only metric worth considering; sometimes, what's local isn't what's most sustainable.

Nonetheless, when one totals the miles in a relatively simple meal, the results can provide food for thought. Students at California College of the Arts took on an assignment to map the local "tacoshed" -- the distance traveled of every ingredient in that common Mexican dish -- and found that for a single, humble taco, the ingredients had traversed a total of 64,000 miles, or just over two and a half times the circumference of the Earth. ¡Ay caramba!

Photo CC-licensed by tlindenbaum.