The baby steps in pushing sustainable food to scale

12 October 2017

Cargill sustainable cocoa programme
Photo: Cargill

Last night I attended an interesting food industry / local business event in the Norwich IP Centre at the library. It was championing the role of small local businesses, with speakers from three Norfolk firms - one restaurant (Benedicts - see my review here), and two product businesses. It was fine. If you’ve attended similar small business events in the past, these were the tales of passionate small entrepreneurs putting in the hard work against the odds to make their business work.

And because they were small scale artisan producers, there was a certain amount of talk of commitment to sustainable production. It’s easy to think that it’s only the small producers that have this commitment, and that when the big corporates talk about what they’re doing, they must be dealing with greenwash. Because, after all, we know these big corps are just about profit, aren’t they?

Well, they are. But then it doesn’t take a genius to see that profits will dry up in a devastated environment with collapsing ecosystems. And the keen interest showed by younger consumers is another driving factor. It actually does just make good business sense - at least in a number of industries. Not everyone gets it, because not every business is well-led. But it’s important that a lot of them begin to, because it’s only as they do that we will truly push sustainability to scale.

Fortunately, there’s a steady drip-feed of news every day that shows how change is gradually, step-by-step reaching into all sorts of places.

Singapore Airlines meal
Singapore Airlines standard meal (Photo: Jonom1)

This week, there was the news that Singapore Airlines has committed to using more sustainable ingredients for its in-flight meals. It announced a new Farm-to-Plane initiative, promising more local produce and more ‘meatless’ ingredients. It already uses fish that has been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. One of the drivers has been growing demand from passengers, which has to be a good sign.

In the US, Ben & Jerry’s has said it will introduce an ‘organic dairy’ line next year in response to studies showing that traces of the weed killer glyphosate are showing up in a wide range of foodstuffs. Part of the problem is that some crops have glyphosate sprayed onto them as a chemical drying agent. The company has said it will aim to avoid such sources in the future, and that is likely to raise awareness of the issue and bring pressure to bear on others.

One of the food industry giants, Cargill, has said it’s targeting zero deforestation as part of its aligning its cocoa sourcing with the UN sustainable development goals. So far, its Cocoa Promise Initiative has provided more than 145,000 farmers globally with training to build more sustainable and resilient operations. That’s the sort of scale it takes the big corporates to achieve. And given the industry is affected by the impacts of climate change, as well as often hiding endemic child labour, it’s absolutely needed that the biggest cocoa buyers take such proactive steps.

That’s just a few examples, and of course there are many places where practices still fall short and where companies that have made some good progress are still less than perfect. None of that invalidates the fact that progress is being made.