Radical changes in agriculture needed for sustainability

5 Jul 2011

The fourth edition of the international series of summits took place in Amsterdam on 23-24 June, diagnosis bringing together over 130 senior executives from the food industry. Organised by Organic Monitor, unhealthy the summit covered a diverse range of sustainability issues, including climate change, evolution of eco-labels, ethical trading, sustainability metrics, commodity sourcing, marketing innovations and sustainable ingredients.

The opening speaker, Dr. Ulrich Hoffmann from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), discussed the challenges of food security. He stated that growing consumer affluence was raising demand for animal feeds such that a 50-70% rise in food production was required. He called for a paradigm shift in agricultural development from green revolution to an ‘eco-intensification’ approach. His paper underscored the role of sustainable agriculture; considering 70% of agricultural food production is undertaken by small-scale farmers, organic farming plays an important role in creating ecological, social and economic benefits to these producers.

Ruth Mathews, executive director of the Water Footprint Network, highlighted the growing prominence of water footprints. Since 92% of the world’s water footprint is in agriculture, she suggested the food industry take greater accountability for water consumption. Launched earlier this year, her organisation’s new waterfootprint standard can determine the amount of water used directly and indirectly to produce agricultural products. She showed how 1 kg of beef has a waterfootprint of 15,400 litres, compared to 2,500 litres for rice and 300 litres for beer.

Also in the sustainability initiatives session, Professor Dr. Michael Braungart of EPEA International Umweltforschung suggested food and ingredient companies consider eco-efficiency approaches to produce zero waste. He explained how the Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) Design Approach can be utilised to recycle nutrients, rather than putting food and packaging waste into landfills. Other papers in the opening session covered sustainable packaging, ethical finance and sustainability metrics.

The climate change session opened with a stark reminder of the challenge ahead; the chairperson stated a reduction in greenhouse gases of over 50% is required if global temperatures are not to rise by over 3-5°C. Chris Reu from VU University Amsterdam showed how sustainable agriculture can create positive impacts in African countries. Success stories were given on how new agro-forestry systems were rehabilitating barren land, creating enterprise, increasing food production and sequestrating carbon emissions.

The Carbon Disclosure Project gave examples on how carbon management practices can reduce business costs as well as curb emissions. In the same session, case studies were given of pioneering commercial organisations taking the lead in reducing carbon emissions. Alpro, the leading health & wellness company in Europe, went over its plan to become carbon neutral by 2020. The Swiss supermarket chain Migros shared its initiatives in carbon footprint reduction, which include green buildings, sustainable sourcing, packaging reduction and carbon labelling of products. Other papers looked at the role of soil fertility in carbon sequestration, sustainable protein challenges and sustainable dairy production. The session adjourned with a panel discussion on the prospects of a low carbon food industry. With a growing number of food products having carbon labelling, questions were asked as to what this really means to consumers; how many consumers could relate to 1,000g of CO2 emissions?

The third summit session honed in on marketing and distribution innovations. An overview was given of the global market for eco-labelled foods. Although organic and fair trade are the leading eco-labels, it was shown that the number of eco-labels is proliferating whilst some are converging. Henk Gerbers gave insights into the development of Bio Plus, which has grown to become the number one organic brand in the Netherlands. Albert Heijn, part of the Royal Ahold Group, stated it plans to have all products in its corporate brands produced sustainably by 2015. According to the Dutch supermarket chain, it is already on target to reduce its carbon emissions by 20% by 2015. Cohn & Wolf shared some preliminary findings from its Green Brands survey, stating that 18 of the leading 44 global green brands are in the grocery sector. Its research revealed that although consumers are demanding more green products, the popularity of eco-labels varies by country.

The final session of the 2-day summit looked at the positive contribution of sustainable ingredients. Various approaches to sustainable sourcing were covered, including fair trade, sustainability roundtables and ethical partnerships. Hilary Parsons explained how the Shared Value approach of NestlĂŠ creates positive social benefits to coffee and cocoa growers in developing countries. In another paper, it was shown how the Green Palm certification trading scheme can mitigate the negative aspects of palm oil sourcing. Dr. Maha Misbah went through the process of Unilever setting up supply chains for the novel allanblackia ingredient. Alexandre Harkaly from IBD Certification gave details of its Eco-Social scheme, which combines organic, fair trade and biodiversity into one standard.

Although many positive case studies were given of sustainability initiatives in the food industry, the general consensus from summit participants was that greater strides in sustainability are necessary. Mitigating climate change and inefficient production systems remain major challenges, whilst new challenges concerning food security, water scarcity and waste management are emerging. The next editions of the Sustainable Foods Summit will continue to discuss such challenges.

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