Consumers are increasingly demanding edibles that are better for people and planet, traceable and transparent in their production, likely due to mounting recalls and exposes on the pitfalls of industrialized production. Meanwhile, behemoths like Mars, McDonalds, Unilever and Wal-Mart have announced broad sustainability commitments for their supply chains and operations, following the lead of pioneers like Stonyfield Farm and Whole Foods Market.
Granted, sustainability is an amorphous, subjective, piecemeal concept in food, as with any arena. Eaters, industry and the media alternately characterize it as local, organic, natural, low carbon, resource efficient, in "eco friendly" packaging, fairly traded and the like. A sampling of recent conferences indicates that a comprehensive, clear framework has yet to be cooked up.
January brought the Sustainable Foods Summit to the U.S. Billed as an opportunity to "debate and discuss key sustainability issues," it covered certification, metrics, agriculture, sourcing, packaging, trade, labor, distribution, retailing and marketing.
Attendees heard about social and environmental certifications (biodynamic, Fair Trade, Food Alliance, Rainforest Alliance, Scientific Certification Systems), measurement frameworks (Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association, Stewardship Index) and brand case studies. The latter seemed most valuable, highlighting the possibilities and benefits around leading-edge practices, including Bon Appetit's conversion to local and fair labor sources, Straus Creamery's data on how their organic, grass-fed dairy's greenhouse gas footprint is demonstrably smaller than an industrialized farm, Earthbound Farm's switch to 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic packaging and Theo Chocolate's direct sourcing partnerships that enhance quality and livelihoods.
Given the inclusion of entities with marked philosophical differences, such as favoring organic, local or Integrated Pest Management farming methods, the Summit seemed a ripe opportunity for the critical conversation that are needed to characterize and advance sustainability. However, the event took on a seminar format with only brief Q&A, relegating any real analysis and synthesis to discussion among likeminded peers during breaks and affording little resolution.