Sustainability. Oh, that again…

David Read, Prestige Purchasing’s Founder and Chairman makes the case for positivity about the planet’s future, and the role that food has to play in securing it.

“I don’t connect with knitted muesli and lentil stew. All you people ever do is tell me how awful everything is, how my behaviour is bad for the planet, and that together we are all going to hell in a handcart.”

As someone who has been trying to get the food system to become less damaging to the environment for around 15-years now, I have become used to this kind of response. I claim no credit for the improvements we have seen in that period, but it is really encouraging to see how much has been achieved and how much further improvement is in the pipeline. And just like the current existential crisis of Covid-19, the exit door from the climate crisis is being widened greatly by science and technology.

Industrialised farming has become an unwelcome bedrock of our food system. Of the 70 billion livestock that ended up on the world’s plates during 2018, two-thirds were factory-farmed (in the US this was 99%) where animals are crowded together and fed on grain and/or soy to bring them to slaughter weight as fast as possible. Of all the mammals now on the planet 60% are farm animals, 36% are humans, and the remaining 4% are wild. One-third of the world’s annual grain harvest is now fed to animals, a sum which if we ate it ourselves would feed ten times as many. Our supermarket shelves are full of food, but our food system has delivered outcomes that include the removal of half the world’s tropical rainforests and placed over half the world’s fertile land into the hands of farmers.
But we need not go to hell in a handcart. Food production standards have been rising in many parts of the world, especially the UK and the EU. There are still over 1500 intensive farms in the UK, of which around a half are viewed as mega-farms which utilise concentrated feeding operations. But there are increasing numbers of farmers who have chosen to operate to very high standards of environmental and animal welfare. Recent farming reforms are adding further incentive to these changes.

And consumers are increasingly interested in ways to improve their taste experience, whilst also reducing their impact on the planet. Organisations like the Open Food Network are using technology to connect these consumers with small producers, and the pandemic has caused an explosion of home delivery product direct from farms. Supply businesses like Collectiv Food are replicating this with professional kitchens in major cities. In our work at Prestige Purchasing we are seeing increasing interest from foodservice operators in local-supply playing a part in the supply chain mix.

Another strong consumer trend in recent times has been the move towards plant-based diets. A survey by finder.com claims that the number of people now eating a vegan diet in the UK reached 1.5m, up 40% on 2019. It suggests that there are a further c1.5m vegetarians, and various other surveys indicate that around one-third of the remainder are to some extent switching to a part plant-based diet.
Set against this background of changing consumer sentiment is a significant raft of investment in science and technology projects aimed at monetising increasing consumer demand for more sustainable products. For example, in 2013 Bill Gates started investing in three start-ups – Nu-Tek Salt (replacing edible sodium with potassium chloride), Hampton Creek Foods – now JUST (using plant proteins to mimic eggs), and Beyond Meat (did the same for chicken and beef). These have been followed since by an army of other new businesses, including the now highly successful Impossible Foods.

We are still at the starting gate. The technology behind Plant-based meats clearly has some distance to travel if they are to seriously rival the real thing. And lab-grown meat (grown from cells in laboratory conditions) remains expensive and largely unlicensed. But in the coming decade, I believe the gap in both these areas will narrow considerably. What is particularly comforting is that their impact will be felt most acutely by the parts of the meat industry that are the least environmentally friendly. There will surely always be a place for grass-fed Aberdeen Angus.

There are also some encouraging signs for vertical farming. This is the practice of growing crops in stacked layers, which can be housed in buildings, shipping containers, underground tunnels and even abandoned mine shafts. Vertical farms use soil-free growing techniques and stack crops in specially designed beds and trays, making use of artificial lighting and climate control to get the desired results. The vision of locally grown, quick-to-market fruit and vegetables, produced in the neighbourhood where they are consumed, with the traceability and integrity that food supply chains demand is now rapidly coming to life.
Technology is also playing an increasing role in the area of traceability and provenance. This is critical in many areas, but the most important is within categories where unsustainable products like Palm Oil and Soy have, until recently, been completely untraceable. For example, one can buy British reared Pork that has been fed on Brazilian grown Soy from deforested land. Or one can buy a cake that contains Palm Oil from Indonesia with a similar poor set of credentials. The availability of Blockchain technology and Cloud computing puts real transparency on these products within reach.

All of this (and much more) is a long way from the image portrayed by lentil stew. These are just a few examples of systemic improvements in our food system that give us the key to something that we can surely all subscribe to – a genuinely sustainable food system. In Foodservice, we are the custodians of our part of the food system – with both our own buying, our menu planning and with our customer communications it must be in our best interests to grab these innovations and make them a success.
David established supply chain consultancy Prestige Purchasing in 1998, since when it has become recognised as the thought leader on procurement and distribution within Foodservice sector. David has spoken at World Travel Market, Food Ethics Council Business Forum, and several Propel M&C Report events.