Understanding the challenges and potential solutions of sustainable food production
What are some of the key food sustainability issues we face today?
Making measurement practical
We need a supply chain we can trust and we need to trust in the sustainability claimed. Data is a key part of building this trust, but finding practical ways of measuring the relevant indicators of sustainability is not easy. Any means of measurement that is time-consuming or expensive is not practical. The food industry is already short of both time and money. We have to make it easy for farmers, fishermen, producers, and distributors to measure whatever is needed to ensure the sustainability of the food that reaches our plates. The Sustainable Food Trust Global Farm Metrics are working closely with farmers to achieve this, but there isn’t a perfect solution to this yet.
Managing the sheer volume of data
The food system is vast, diverse and complex. Consequently, so is the data it produces to ascertain the sustainability and ethical nature of it. Even if every farmer had a practical and standard means of measurement, they would likely still be measuring different things to fishermen or fish farms or chocolate makers. Not only that, but there are numerous factors to consider that all need different data points: greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, water consumption, soil health, land use change, impact on human health and human equality.
That’s a lot of data. For it to be useful, it needs to be managed in such a way that it is presented clearly and is easily transferred without additional manual data entry to where it needs to go to inform purchasers and consumers, such as on menus and labels. That is precisely what Tried & Supplied’s food procurement software does.
Re-establishing the logistics for a local rather than a global supply chain
For decades the food system has worked as a global commodity market and the logistics infrastructure has been built to support long-distance bulk transport. Regenerative farming requires greater diversity of produce each in smaller quantities. This change in food output means a change in logistics infrastructure to support the transport of smaller loads. These smaller loads can’t travel the same distance cost-effectively so it’s important to re-build the demand for local produce creating a geographical density of delivery that works commercially. Reversing this infrastructure is a little chicken and egg as you need the demand before you can create the cost-effective delivery, but you can’t get the demand very easily if the delivery isn’t yet cost-effective.
Mitigating farmer risk and the effects of soil degradation
Farmers often end up shouldering all the risk of switching to more regenerative practices. Especially if the soil they are farming is already degraded, the first few years of growing regeneratively might not produce a very good harvest, yet they have to make the investment upfront. For farmers, who are rarely cash rich, this can present a significant barrier to becoming more sustainable. By seeing farmers as service providers who tend the food that ends up on our plates, businesses can support them through advance commitment to buy their produce or by renting acres from them and “hiring” them to grow what they want to buy.
Adapting to nature’s unpredictability
Nature is fundamentally unpredictable. To create the predictability of supply we have experienced over the last few decades requires massive overproduction and wastage as well as a focus on intensive farming and fishing methods. We need to be better at adapting to nature and what nature produces for us locally so that we put the natural systems under less strain. The problem here is that, as consumers, we have become so used to being able to eat exactly what we want when we want it and have come to expect a degree of consistency incompatible with the beautiful diversity of what nature actually produces.
Creating flexible menus to support diversity of ingredients
As food businesses we can help to alleviate the pressure on the food system by creating flexible menus that support a diversity of ingredients. The key here is not to over-define customer expectations, avoid specificity and sell the natural diversity of the produce. For example, rather than specifying one of the Big 5 fish, such as salmon or tuna on the menu, you can use the more ambiguous “daily catch” which sells the freshness of the produce and the beauty of surprise. Customers unfamiliar with the fish you want to serve are more likely to choose the “daily catch” than a specific dish for a sustainable fish like hake that they don’t know. They will also know that every time they come in, there will be something different, but equally delicious on your menu. The level of deliciousness needs to be consistent, but the precise taste doesn’t have to be. The diversity of flavours can be just as attractive to customers when they aren’t made to sound too exotic and unfamiliar for them. Terms like “seasonal greens” can be a great catch all for numerous less well known vegetables customers wouldn’t otherwise choose.
What does good look like when it comes to sustainability in the food industry right now?
Low input sustainable food production
The importance of reducing the chemical inputs of our food system (fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, anti-biotics) is not emphasised nearly enough. These chemicals all have a major impact on the health of our soils and waters, the animals that live in them and feed off anything produced in them and that includes us. There is evidence to suggest that chemical inputs in food are causing the rise in severe food allergies, infertility and chronic diseases. At the same time they are degrading our natural resources in a dangerous way that will limit the number of harvests we get out of them. They also contribute to greenhouse gases. A shift to buying more organic, regenerative and low input produce would have a big impact. Buying this kind of produce in season isn’t necessarily more expensive and voting with your cash helps encourage more producers and wholesalers to switch.
There is a lot of talk about reducing meat consumption and we do need to do that especially meat produced on intensive farms where the animals have no opportunity to be part of the natural ecosystem, or where land is deforested to make space for grazing animals. When well integrated into the natural environment and allowed to spend their lives outdoors eating a natural diet from the land they graze, grazing animals can be very helpful in regenerating our soils, but we simply couldn’t produce the volume of meat we consume today in that way, so reducing our meat consumption is essential. Regenerative, organic and free-range are all better forms of meat we can buy.
Currently we are too reliant on just a few species of fish known as the Big 5 (cod, haddock, salmon, tuna and prawns). 65-70% of all seafood eaten in the UK comes from these five fish. This puts immense pressure on those species when there is a huge variety of fish we could eat. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has put together the Good Fish Guide to highlight the sustainability of different species in terms of how resilient their populations. It isn’t just a straightforward choice of species, though. The population resilience varies within species depending on the area and the fishing methods used. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sets and tracks the standards for sustainable fishing practices, while the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) does the same for sustainable fish farming practices. Both are good sustainable labels to look out for, but working with local fishermen using sustainable fishing methods to understand what is abundant in your local area is also a good option if you aren’t concerned about ensuring you have certified sustainable seafood on your menu.
Sustainable labels and ESG impact reporting
Increasingly investors and even employees and customers are expecting businesses to have some form of ESG impact reporting. It will soon become standard to consider your ESG impact alongside your profit in what is being called triple bottom line accounting (one line for profit, one line for people and one line for planet). Companies like Dishoom are leading the way in this respect as they incorporate their ESG impact into their internal reporting dashboards alongside their profit lines.
Whether you’re working towards Net Zero by reducing your Scope 3 emissions, looking to achieve BCorp membership, or gain a three star rating with the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), we can help. We collect the raw sustainability data from suppliers that will feed into any sustainability accreditation or scheme you are working towards and enable you to provide your customers, employees and investors with instant ESG impact reporting based on your real purchasing data. We can even help you display carbon footprint information on your menus via QR codes.