Ready access to an affordable food supply is no longer enough to satisfy the American appetite. Increasingly, consumers are seeking greater context for the food they eat, particularly as it relates to health and the environment.
Sustainability is both the question and the answer. Consumers want to know that sustainable practices are employed in food production, even though the definition of those practices may be unknown. Likewise, food companies document sustainable practices as a way to assuage consumer concerns about production methods.
In the eyes of the consumer, food companies are the gatekeepers of food and all that affects it – and therefore are obligated to supply answers. Problem is: Food companies can’t effectively answer all of the questions. A healthy number of questions relating to the environment, food safety and animal welfare need to be answered with information that comes from farmers.
This puts food companies in the sometimes-uncomfortable position of speaking for others in the supply chain, and many times that means speaking for or about farmers. But as anyone who has been on the receiving end of a grass roots or activist campaign will tell you, consumers not only want to know, they need to know.
In fact, the Food & Health Survey 2015, published by the International Food Information Council Foundation, explores how consumers think about sustainability and food production.
The report shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans have reported thinking about how their food is produced, with one in five indicating they think about it a lot. With a total U.S. population of 320 million, that equates to 64 million people putting a lot of thought into how their food is produced.
For food companies, the goal is no longer to simply produce food but to produce food with a story.
Food companies: Packaging sustainability for a demanding consumer
Telling a story about sustainability that resonates is the challenge. The Food & Health Survey 2015 shows how little agreement exists among consumers about the meaning of a sustainable diet: Some see it representing a “balanced, nutritious diet,” others say it means foods are “affordable and readily available” and a third group says it means both – that the foods you eat “have a smaller impact on the environment” and that they are produced in a socially responsible way.
Not exactly a consensus, making the telling of a sustainability story all the more difficult.
Even defining something as simple as “a smaller impact on the environment” requires answers that are more complicated than most consumers are prepared to digest.
Add to that a lack of trust in our food supply and our declining understanding of science, and food companies face a formidable challenge: Reduce complex answers to simple stories that are fully accurate and thoroughly transparent.
While most companies have the data to do so within their own organizations, many consumers are asking questions about what happens on the farm, challenging food companies to speak for the entire supply chain.
Third-party organizations such as Field to Market are working to bring all links within the supply chain to the table to work together on “defining, measuring and advancing the sustainability of food, fiber and fuel production.”
Membership includes farmers as well as food companies in an attempt to understand the complexities and provide a unified effort in addressing sustainability in food production. Providing insights on sustainability trends over three decades, The Field to Market 2012 Environmental and Socioeconomic Indicators Report shows environmental improvements and promising socioeconomic indicators.
Why the struggle to connect the dots on the food supply? Because the dynamics of farm-level sustainability take a different focus. Often, the sustainability efforts of farmers stand in stark contrast to other aspects of the food system supply chain. While many producers speak to the economic, environmental and social aspects of sustainability, how they prioritize and define efforts may differ significantly.
Farmers: Sustainability from the ground up
For farmers, sustainability success is not a simple infographic in a report or a logo on food packaging. It comes in the form of keeping a business viable and leaving it to the next generation with better soils, clean water, healthy animals, a better community and a stronger balance sheet.
For example, a family farmer may define economic sustainability in terms of building a solid business to pass along to the next generation. Environmental sustainability often connects to productive soils and clean air and water.
Social sustainability involves serving on the school or town board or being active in other civic organizations in rural communities, usually to keep those institutions alive in the face of a dwindling local population.
Another disconnect involves what farmers can’t control. Weather has long been a dominant variable. Farmers can’t predict temperature variability or rainfall, both of which can have a significant impact on their success. This makes it problematic to manage concerns like preventing crop nutrients from washing into nearby waterways.
While farmers can build capacity to reduce this concern, excessively heavy rainfall or a moderate rain at the wrong time can foil even the best conservation efforts and cause downstream water quality effects.
That’s not to say they don’t try. Farmers – by the very nature of the work they do – are systems thinkers. In fact, their success relies on their ability to manage risk through many variables: seed, nutrients, pest control, moisture, sunlight, input costs, commodity market prices and others.
However, this often makes it difficult to measure and document a specific variable, such as water use or greenhouse gas emissions, in isolation.
Even indicators of sustainability success are different. Off the farm, sustainability is usually about less: using less energy or less water or producing less waste. But successful farming operations manage the variables to control the limiting factor, which means less of any input results in less productivity and less profit.
In addition, some suggest the solution to measuring agricultural sustainability is not to view it in absolute terms but to employ yield-scale environmental metrics that measure yield improvements and environmental consequences and identify the practices that offer the lowest environmental impact per unit of yield. PD
Mike Opperman is director of account planning at Charleston|Orwig, a company focusing on food industry communications.