People are passionate about good food. While the definition of good food has always been about taste, it has expanded over the last few decades to include nutritional quality.
Now, growing concerns about the environment and climate change are prompting food manufacturers to expand the definition of good food and market more products as sustainable. Between 2008 and 2018, new food product claims related to the environment grew by 1,175 percent to over 40,000 new products introduced with environmental claims.
The focus on food and the environment has moved beyond the food sector. Earlier this fall, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, weighed in on the need for climate risk management and sustainable investing to go mainstream. And a recent trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur countries included a clause on climate conference commitments, opening the opportunity for the EU to link trade and access to climate impacts. The future of food is being shaped by many hands.
The reality is that many of the words we use to describe food tells us little about the quality of our food. Terms like local, seasonal, organic, non-GMO and natural don’t tell us a lot about the nutritional quality or environmental impact of that food.
Nutritional quality is based on different nutrients, which are measured according to standard methods. Defining how sustainable a food is will not be as simple as telling someone that it was grown or raised in a “good” way or that the manufacturer cares about the environment. There is a need to measure the environmental impacts of putting food on our plate.
For the markets that value sustainability, and the brands being developed to capitalize on consumer interest in environmental quality, objective measures of outcomes are needed in key areas such as carbon balance, biodiversity and water-use impacts. The challenge is that the current measures of environmental impact, and the data being used to drive these measures, need to be modernized and expanded.
To understand the impact that the food system has on the environment, an approach to choosing good food will require the development of data that reflects the specific eco-system and management practices by all crop and livestock sectors, as well as the processing required to have food ready for the plate. This work has already begun as numerous organizations are building inventories of data for food and agricultural products. It isn’t about good or bad food — it is about choosing products and a dietary approach that reduces the environmental “food print” while meeting nutritional requirements with food that tastes good.
A global approach that uses farm level and eco-system specific information will provide incentives for all segments of the food supply chain to work toward making sustainability improvements. Most importantly, it will provide consumers with the information they need to make educated food choices based on an understanding of measuring what matters to the environment.
Ultimately, the person pushing the grocery cart has the most power to drive change. Given enough information, food companies and consumers will make the ingredient and food choices that are right for them. Good information will also be key to good government policy for food and the environment.
The food sector has made significant strides to provide information on the nutritional quality of foods to consumers. Now it’s time we consider how we do the same for sustainability and food. Let’s ensure that Canada’s agri-food system is ready to compete in the future of good food.
Gordon Bacon is chief executive officer of Pulse Canada.