Sustainable foods and their true value

Wednesday, 17 May, 2017

The Sustainable Foods Summit aims to show how sustainable products have a lower impact over conventional products.  A growing body of evidence presents the disparity between the price we pay for food and the costs of production and consumption. Reflecting market prices do not expose the environmental, social and health impacts of food products.

Costs of food production including pesticide use, waste and resource use, as well as their associated impacts on soil, pollution, and biodiversity, show organic foods have lower environmental cost because of their sustainable production methods.

Farmer and producer payments, worker rights, land ownerships and health considerations are some of the social costs associated with foods. Fairtrade certified products, such as coffee and tea, have lower social costs since some of these externalities are removed.

Various studies reveal sustainable foods have lower impacts, or external costs, than conventional foods. Research by the social enterprise True Price found that sustainable cocoa beans grown in the Ivory Coast have 15% lower external costs than conventional beans. Another study showed that sustainable coffee in Vietnam has 20% lower external costs than conventional coffee.

A growing number of companies are looking at the hidden environmental and social costs of their products. The trading firm EOSTA has used the true cost accounting approach to determine the external costs of its organic fruits and vegetables. These calculations are being used to demonstrate the environmental and health benefits of organic products.

A similar exercise by the Dutch ethical chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely revealed its sustainable cocoa has a 40% lower social and environmental footprint than conventional cocoa. It is sourcing organic and fairtrade cocoa beans directly from farmer cooperatives in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, giving them a premium of at least 25%.

By determining external costs, companies can take steps to remove negative impacts in their supply chains. For instance, Tony’s Chocolonely has made a commitment to source cocoa with zero social and environmental costs by 2019.

A major challenge, however, is transferring these studies to consumers. Sustainable foods, especially organic products, are considered elitist by some consumer groups. Overstating the negative health and social impacts of conventional products could further alienate such consumer groups.

The true costs of sustainable food products will be featured in upcoming editions of the Sustainable Foods Summit. European edition: 1–2 June, Amsterdam; Latin American edition: 18–20 September, São Paulo; Asia–Pacific edition: 28–29 November, Singapore.

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