At the beginning of the year fires were blazing in Australia and President Bolsonaro of Brazil was supporting the commercial development and large-scale deforestation of the Amazon. Starting a new decade seemed like a scary proposition – and that was before Covid-19 struck.
But we’ve seen how global lockdown reduced emissions, benefited wildlife and purified waters again. It’s also brought into sharp focus our food system, its vulnerability and its strengths.
So the question now is – will we take this moment, and act in time to halt further climate warming and protect our food system?
This article reflects on progress we have made so far in sustainable food production and looks at predicted trends and challenges for the coming decade.
PROGRESS MADE IN SUSTAINABLE FOOD AND AGRICULTURE SO FAR
Environmental degradation and the role of agriculture in causing it, have been the subject of academic research for most of the 20th century.
There were even some widely read books published such as The Living Soil in 1939, which prompted the formation of the Soil Association, and Silent Spring, which resulted in the US government banning DDT.
However, it has only been recently that environmental concerns have become mainstream with consumers, causing a dramatic shift in purchasing habits and demands on brands.
Ethical responsibility ranked only sixth on the Global Food Trends for 2010. In 2019 it was number one.
In 2010 Mintel saw ethical responsibility as a means for brands “to coax consumers out of their spending slumber and wean retailers off perpetual discounting”.
Environmental and ethical issues “still attract[ed] attention” with nearly half of UK adults viewing them as important and 90% of Americans buying green products at least sometimes.
In today’s climate that effort seems half-hearted at best. Ethical responsibility ranked only sixth on the Global Food Trends for 2010.
In 2019 it was number one, described as “evergreen consumption; a circular view of sustainability that spans the entire product lifecycle,” requiring action from suppliers to consumers.
The Blue Planet Effect
The public consciousness of environmental issues and the role of the individual in alleviating these has skyrocketed in the last few years, most notably following the 2017 release of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, in which the effect of our plastic waste on the oceans pulled at the heartstrings of all its international viewers.
The impact of this documentary, combined with a viral video of a turtle in pain as a plastic straw was removed from its nostril, was so widely felt by businesses globally that it was dubbed the “Blue Planet Effect”.
As consumers became more vocal with their ethical and environmental concerns, bars, pubs and restaurants were left scrambling to find alternatives to their plastic straws and responding with more sustainable menu options.
Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg have also further raised the alarm and established tackling environmental issues as a key concern in the political debate.
WHAT ARE THE TRENDS WE’VE SEEN SO FAR?
Communicating complex sustainability stories
Consumer understanding of sustainability has become more sophisticated. Popular documentaries like Blue Planet II, widely shared information on social media, a plethora of academic reports and engaging books, as well as education in schools, has led to a growing awareness of the more complex aspects of sustainability.
Many consumers now understand that simple restocking measures and reducing food miles isn’t necessarily enough for a sustainable product.
We recognise the interdependency of various sustainability factors including greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity and water usage. Media articles like the BBC’s Climate Change: which vegan milk is best? clearly show that these factors don’t always align and there isn’t always an obvious choice.
How restaurants train their staff to communicate these complex sustainability stories is becoming increasingly important. The menu is already crowded with allergen and other dietary information, so some restaurants are coming up with creative approaches.
Lussmanns sustainable fish restaurant took to using the bathroom walls to communicate their sourcing policy in Harpenden.
The war on plastic
If there’s one thing Blue Planet II clearly did, it was declare war on plastic, but the knee-jerk reaction has produced solutions that aren’t necessarily helpful.
Many places replaced plastic straws with compostable ones in areas where composting plastic isn’t an option. Similarly removing plastic food packaging that helps preserve food for longer needs to be weighed up against the goal of reducing food waste.
In times of crisis, time is naturally of the essence, but we still need to take time to assess the options available and have the knowledge to communicate our choices to customers.
Environmental veganism and the rise of the flexitarian
The Google Trends chart above shows the rapid increase in veganism over the last few years. This trend has been encouraged by a series of reports showing that meat production (especially beef and lamb) is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
EAT-Lancet published in January this year was one of the most widely distributed reports. You can read more about this report here.
In 2019 YouGov predicted that 7% of the population were likely to turn vegan and 35% of those cited environmental concerns as the primary reason for making the change.
Even if they haven’t fully turned vegan, Sainsbury’s revealed in the same year that 91% of the UK population were actively seeking more plant-based diets as “flexitarians”.
Plant-based meat alternatives have proliferated rapidly to fill the sudden demand and vegan takeaways grew 388% between 2016 and 2018, according to the British Takeaway campaign.
“Inclusive rather than specialised menus seem to be the way forward.”
Figures for the end of 2019 have yet to be published, but even if YouGov are correct, 7% is still only a relatively small percentage of the whole population.
Consequently, the astronomical interest in vegan products must be driven to some extent by non-vegans. This is an important factor for vegan restaurants to consider.
Surprisingly many of the newly opened vegan restaurants are now closing. Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive of UK Hospitality suggests this could be because exclusively vegan food doesn’t provide the choice the majority of customers are looking for.
It could even be that flexitarians reserve their meat eating for when they dine out. Restaurants that have been more successful are those that have adapted their historically meat and fish dominated menus to include more appetising plant-based alternatives.
In combination with environmental diets increasing numbers of people suffer from food allergies with the result that home cooking is becoming more complicated and consumers are looking to restaurants as the inclusive kitchens where friends of all dietary requirements can hang out together. Inclusive rather than specialised menus seem to be the way forward.
WHAT ARE THE SUSTAINABLE FOOD TRENDS FOR THE NEXT DECADE?
The continued rise of the conscious consumer and the environmental diet with a reduction in meat intake from vegan and flexitarian diets is already clear, but there are a few less evident trends that I think will have a radical impact on the next decade.
Trust and transparency
Our growing knowledge of the complexity of conventional and sustainable food systems creates a need for greater transparency. Greenwashing can no longer be an option. Finding a scalable means of verifying sustainability claims, will be a focus of the next decade.
Already there are multiple independent accreditation schemes, but making these financially viable for smaller producers and enabling automatic verification for consumers via apps that show provenance will be the next step.
Menu QR codes are already providing diners with a tailored version of the menu specific to their dietary requirements. This could grow to include digital information about the supply chain and nutritional value.
For example, Tried and Supplied has recently sourced suppliers for a new opening café in Camden, Glass Coffee, that will be providing supply chain information to its customers via a QR code.
Blockchain is often discussed as a means of verifying the source and production methods of food and drink as well as its safety en-route to the consumer, but it is currently prohibitively expensive and it’s not clear how we can be sure that the inputs (often made my humans) are correct.
For restaurants today, sourcing locally is a good way of ensuring transparency and reducing the length and complexity of the supply chain. Chefs can build long-term relationships with suppliers and visit them directly to see production with their own eyes.
Biodiversity as an integral part of sustainability
Global supply chains encourage areas to specialise in particular products and genetically optimise species for optimum yield. Even perceived solutions, like planting more trees, could backfire if done badly.
As HRH the Prince of Wales explained recently in Country Life: “I hope we will resist the temptation to return to the bad old days of blanket afforestation, using a single species of tree to cover vast acres with dark, forbidding forests.
“We need to think very carefully indeed about the mix of species we plant and be clear about the full range of benefits we should be seeking.
“For instance, our native trees have a wide range of biodiversity attached to them. Over 300 insect species are associated with oak trees. The horse chestnut, lovely though it is, has only four. And the invasive, non-native rhododendron has none.”
Prince Charles’ comments relate just as much to the crops we choose to grow and how we plant them together with other crops, as they do to trees.
It isn’t just about protecting the biodiversity of specific crops like potatoes, bananas and chickpeas. Particular crops such as buckwheat can harbour natural pest control for other crops such as vines, while also improving insect biodiversity.
“The challenge for the next decade will be achieving diversity at scale and chefs will play an important role in this.”
The challenge for the next decade will be achieving diversity at scale and chefs will play an important role in this through the development of bespoke growing plans like Pale Green Dot.
They may even be responsible for the development of more flavoursome varieties like the Honeynut Squash created in partnership with Chef Dan Barber.
The closer chefs can work with farmers to inform and drive demand for more unusual varieties, the easier it will be for farmers to adopt regenerative farming methods like agroforestry and companion cropping.
We need the combined efforts of chefs and farmers as experts in food production and consumption to define consumer diets rather than over-simplified media messages.
The scary thing about our hyper-connected world is that we can now change our behaviour at scale and very fast without time for consideration. The role of a chef has never been so critical as it is now.
Zero waste and the circular economy
Plastic may have stolen much of the limelight in terms of waste reduction efforts so far, but it is by no means the only area where people are looking to reduce waste.
WRAP has launched a major food waste campaign. While it still shows as a relatively tiny percentage of interest on Google Trends compared to other topics such as veganism or organic food, it has grown 750% since 2004.
Consumers have realised that they aren’t the end-user, but part of the chain in a circular economy and that they have a responsibility alongside businesses and governments to eliminate waste and put whatever they can back into the system.
We are now prepared to use reusable takeaway boxes and restaurants like No. 1 Pimlico Road can now proudly serve wonky vegetables on their menu. I discussed how the very word “consumer” is now an outdated term with Ollie Hunter of The Wheatsheaf Chilton Foliat, winner of the Sustainable Restaurant Association Sustainable Business of the Year Award, in our recent podcast.
This is a complete change of philosophy and the most exciting part is that it has reached even financial investors in the form of impact investing.
This change, along with movements like B corp, has the potential to completely alter the structure of business putting sustainability at the core of the business supported by profit.
Companies like The Vegetarian Express and Toast Ale are B corps, which means they have a legal requirement at board level to consider the environment, employees and society equally to shareholder value when making decisions.
It may be a scary decade, but it is also an exciting one full of positive change. I have been encouraged to see, through my work with Tried and Supplied, that there is a real feeling of support and togetherness connected with sustainability.
It could even be said to be replacing a lost sense of community that used to be provided across most countries by religion. In many ways this new-found concern for nature is not very different in effect to some of the earliest religions that centred around nature, such as animism.
Let us hope that our desire for sustainability as a common global cause, will have the power to cross borders and encourage global collaboration. Already initiatives like the Chef’s Manifesto for sustainable food has engaged over 500 chefs from more than 70 countries.
Domini interviews passionate producers and carries out in-depth research into sustainable practices for food and drink to help consumers make sustainable decisions.
She’s also founder of Tried and Supplied, an open platform that helps food service buyers find more sustainable, local produce, and member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
Listen to more of Domini’s podcast, and read her interviews and articles here.