Sustainable Foods Summit findings
Sustainable packaging, non-GMO verified authenticity and the social impact of food distribution models: these were three of the key themes of the fifth Sustainable Foods Summit. 180 executives met in San Francisco on 17-18 January for the carbon-neutral event to explore key sustainability issues in the food industry.
One major focus of the event was the inadequacy of current food supply chains and distribution models. According to several speakers at the summit, income disparity between growers and distributors continues to grow, while distribution models leave the industry open to fraud.
The US food industry loses $49 billion a year to fraud. Kenneth Ross, CEO of Global ID, commented, “The premium prices of organic and sustainable foods make them a growing target of this underground economy.” To reinforce consumer trust in ecolabels, Ross recommended the use of authentication tools.
Courtney Pineau of the Non-GMO Project took up this discussion, using the popularity of the Non-GMO Verified label as an example. With retail sales of non-GMO certified products reaching US$1 billion in 2011, non-GMO Verified is the fastest-growing ecolabel in North America. GM seeds are used to grow over 90% of all soy, sugar, beet and canola; in the US, over 75% of processed foods contain GMOs. Pineau argued that the popularity of the Non-GMO Verified label is a reflection of American consumers’ desire for assurances that their food does not contain GMOs.
While the summit included much discussion of the benefits of certification and authenticity in developing countries, one speaker turned his focus on America. Stuart Reid from the Food Co-op Initiative explained the positive social impact new food distribution models are having on American farmers. Each year, around 20 new retail co-ops open, which support local farmers and build regional markets. Reid said that co-operatives can help build biodiversity in rural areas as farmers are not restricted to growing just one form of produce to sell to large retailers. The co-ops also enable farmers, retailers and consumers to build positive, local relationships.
Danielle Nierenberg from Worldwatch Institute presented a paper discussing the role of agriculture in the planet’s future. She commented, “There is a growing realisation that agriculture is the solution to reducing food waste, getting youth in employment, urban agriculture and sequestrating carbon emissions.” She argued for urban agriculture, improved production and improved storage efficiency as ways to raise food production levels to feed our increasing population.
Sequestration was also a hot topic: Nierenberg said that 50 billion tonnes of CO2 could be sequestrated by soil in the next 50 years. Another presentation, by Tobias Bandel of Soil & More, demonstrated the way desertification of Egyptian soil has been reversed by soil composting techniques.
The final summit session examined sustainable packaging options available to the food and beverage industry. Presentations included reconsidering packaging design and materials to reduce the packaging footprint, packaging waste being converted into novel product applications, biopolymers in food and beverage applications, and the role of packaging in waste reduction and food packaging recyclability.
Questions for the future
While the summit answered many questions, many questions remain. Further summits will take up such questions as: What analytical tools can be used to guarantee authenticity of sustainable food products? How can food supply chains and distribution models be more equitable for growers? What positive social impacts can the food and beverage industry have? How can sustainable agriculture be harnessed to manage climate change?
The next summit will be held in Amsterdam, on 7-8 June 2012. It will look at the evolution of food ecolabels and discuss sustainability best practices in the food and beverage industry. The sixth north American summit will be hosted in San Francisco on 22-23 January 2013.
For information on the summits, see the Sustainable Foods Summit website.
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