by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Sustainability

Nov 10 2022

The British food industry needs to do better on sustainability

The Food Foundation in Great Britain has produced a report on the status of the British food industry.

The full report is here.

 

Here’s what the writers of the report would like the food industry to do:

Like American food companies, British food companies put profits to shareholders as their top priority.  Knowing this, the report calls on government to set mandatory standards.

We need to do this too.

Sep 14 2022

PepsiCo’ push into regenerative agriculture: real or greenwashing?

Thanks to Hugh Joseph for sending this piece on PepsiCo’s commitment to regenerative agriculture in its supply chains: From regenerative ag to reformulation: A deep-dive into how PepsiCo is ‘reimagining the way food is grown, made and enjoyed’

When PepsiCo launched Pep+ in October 2021, the company said it wanted to ‘fundamentally change’ how it does business for the betterment of people and planet​. From ingredient sourcing and production to supporting consumers make choices that are ‘better for themselves and the planet’, Pep+ outlined an ambitious agenda of business transformation.  The company wants to:

  •  Spur transition to regenerative practices across land that is equivalent to its entire agricultural footprint, approximately seven million acres.
  • Reduce reliance on chemical inputs (but does not rule out their use).
  • Secure the future of farming communities and farmer incomes.
  • Support farmers by helping them with high fuel and fertilizer costs.
  • Support rural communities – and female farmers in particular.
  • Transition towards more than 70% of the company’s global electricity needs in direct operations are met by renewables.
  • Reach net zero emissions by 2040.
  • Improved operational water-use efficiency by 18% in high water-risk areas.
  • Use 100% rPET by the end of this year, contributing to 87% of PepsiCo-owned drinks portfolio in the European Union being made using 100% recycled or renewable plastic.
  • Eliminate virgin fossil-based plastic in all crisp and chip bags..

And then there are Pepsi’s nutrition objectives [recall: Pepsi makes snack brands like Walkers and Dorito alongside its line-up of fizzy drinks].

Use more chickpeas, plant-based proteins and wholegrains.

Expand nuts and seeds category.

In Europe, cut added sugars in its soft drinks by 50% .

Improve the nutritional quality of snack products.

My questions:

  • Is this real or greenwashing and healthwashing?
  • Who is holding Pepsi accountable for achieving these objectives?

The larger question is whether Pepsi’s portfolio of snack foods and sugary drinks can ever be sustainable?

In 2011, I was quoted in a New Yorker article about Pepsi’s health initiatives.

As part of PepsiCo’s commitment to being “the good company,” the corporation wants to play a leading role in public-health issues, and particularly in the battle against obesity. Some people think this is ludicrous. Marion Nestle, the author of “Food Politics” and a professor of food studies at N.Y.U., told me, “The best thing Pepsi could do for worldwide obesity would be to go out of business.”

I probably wouldn’t use the word ludicrous (and I’m not sure I did then), but the effort was certainly unrealistic.

Like all publicly traded corporations, PepsiCo is heavily constrained by shareholder profit objectives.

A decade ago, its shareholders objected to a focus on public health when sales of Pepsi declined.

Has anything changed since then?

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Coming soon!  My memoir, October 4.

For 30% off, go to www.ucpress.edu/9780520384156.  Use code 21W2240 at checkout.

 

Sep 1 2022

Environmental impact of 57,000 food products!

If I wore a hat it would be off to the authors of this astonishing paper: “Estimating the environmental impacts of 57,000 food products.

They used public databases to rank food products by a combination of nutritional and four environmental factors: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, and eutrophication potential.

Their overall conclusion: more nutritious foods are more environmentally sustainable (whew), but with some caveats.

The paper has interesting illustrations.  Here’s one that correlates the nutritional value of sausages to their environmental impact.  Vegan sausages are the most nutritious and have the least environmental impact; beef sausages are least nutritious by the criteria used here and the greatest environmental impact.

We can argue about the criteria used to establish nutritional quality and environmental impact and the way the algorithm works, but what an ambitious project!

At the very least, it’s a useful starting point.

Lots of people are interested in the environmental implications of food production and consumption.  See the latest paper from the group at Deakin University in Australia: “A conceptual framework for understanding the environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods and implications for sustainable food systems.”

This review found that UPFs are responsible for significant diet-related environmental impacts. Included studies reported that UPFs accounted for between 17 and 39% of total diet-related energy use, 36–45% of total diet-related biodiversity loss, up to one-third of total diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, land use and food waste and up to one-quarter of total diet-related water-use among adults in a range of high-income countries.

What all of this says is that basic dietary advice to eat a largely (not necessarily exclusively) plant-based diet, balanced in calories. and avoiding much in the way of ultra-processed foods is not only best for health, but also for the environment.

 

Jan 14 2022

Weekend reading: Agroecology, Regenerative Ag, Indigenous Foodways

Check out this new report from the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, an alliance of foundations devoted to using “our resources and networks to get sustainable food systems on the poltical, economic, and social agenda.”

The Politics of Knowledge: Understanding the Evidence for Agroecology, Regenerative Approaches, and Indigenous Foodways

Working with 17 contributing teams representing geographic, institutional, sectoral, gender, and racial diversity, the compendium is anchored in debunking the most common narratives about the future of food, addressing questions about yield, scaling potential, and economic viability….For an overview of this work, featuring case studies, stories, video, and audio from around the world, check out this multimedia interactive. Discover powerful and compelling evidence that food systems transformation is possible — and already happening.

Other resources on this site include an interview with me: EVIDENCE, POLITICS AND THE FUTURE OF FOOD, for example:

LB: In your opinion, what’s the role of philanthropic funders and donors in transforming food systems and how can they best activate a research and action agenda that is focused on political and social justice, the right to food, and food sovereignty? 

MN: The goals of food system transformation have to be to eliminate hunger, reduce the effects of obesity, and greatly reduce the impact of agriculture and food consumption on climate change.  The best way to do that is to begin by asking the people who are most affected by these problems about the kinds of changes they would like to see, and then fund programs to effect those changes.  That may sound obvious, but hardly anyone actually works that way with communities.

Oct 27 2021

The European Green New Deal: Farm to Fork Strategy

The European Parliament has just ratified the European Commission’s Farm-to-Fork Draft Action Plan for a “For a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system.”  This was based on previous reports and research.

On 11 December 2019, the European Commission presented ‘The European Green Deal‘, a roadmap for sustainability that envisaged a ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy on sustainable food, to address priorities and challenges related to every step in the food chain. Many citizens and stakeholders contributed to the Commission’s consultation on a sustainable food strategy in February/March 2020. Initially planned for the end of March, the launch of the strategy was delayed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. This change of plans raised lively debate among stakeholders and policy-makers on whether the strategy should be further delayed or not…On 20 May 2020, the Commission adopted its communication on ‘A Farm to Fork Strategy for a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system‘, accompanied by an action plan that put forward 27 legislative and non-legislative measures over a timespan running from 2020 to 2024 (with a review by mid-2023).

The European Commission’s Green Deal and Farm to Fork strategy are summarized here.

The European Parliament approved the action plan despite having do deal with a lobbying blitz from meat producers.

This has triggered an unexpectedly hostile lobbying frenzy both inside and outside the EU, particularly among critics who argue the European approach will reduce crop yields and drive up food prices. The U.S. is signing countries up to a rival agricultural plan based on keeping production high, while Europe’s national farming ministers are battling to ensure that these new green targets will be kept legally separate from the EU’s €270 billion farm subsidies policy.

Another industry body objects to the scapegoating of ultra-processed foods in the action plan.

Comment: As is almost always the case with such plans, there are so many proposals in the just-approved action plan that it is hard to sort out what is important.  There is plenty here to challenge food companies, for example:

  • Directive to significantly reduce use and risk and dependency on pesticides and enhance Integrated Pest Management
  • Evaluation and revision of the existing animal welfare legislation, including on animal transport and slaughter of animals
  • Proposal for a revision of the feed additives Regulation to reduce the environmental impact of livestock farming
  • Initiative to improve the corporate governance framework, including a requirement for the food industry to integrate sustainability into corporate strategies
  • Set nutrient profiles to restrict promotion of food high in salt, sugars and/or fat
  • Proposal for a harmonised mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling to enable consumers to make health conscious food choices
  • Proposal for a sustainable food labelling framework to empower consumers to make sustainable food choices
  • Review of the EU school scheme legal framework with a view to refocus the scheme on healthy and sustainable food

Could we do something like this, please.

 

Sep 3 2021

Weekend reading: food and climate change

I recently ran across this useful website: Climate Change Resources, with live links to each of these sections.

But it also has a general section on the impact of food production and consumption, with ideas about what to think about:

It also links to the World Resources Institute’s How to sustainably feed 10 billion people by 2050, in 21 charts.

This, in turn comes from a WRI report, Creating a Sustainable Food Future: A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050.

We have plenty of work to do.  And here are plenty of ideas about where to start.

Aug 24 2021

How much do cattle contribute to greenhouse gases?  It depends on who’s counting, and what.

A couple of weeks ago I did a post about a beef industry ad promoting the idea that eating beef promotes sustainability.  The ad claimed that beef contribute only 2% of greenhouse gases.  In rebuttal, I cited the widely quoted figure of 14.5%.

Two readers argued for a correction.

The first, Stephen Zwick, describes himself as a “regenetarianist,” a “huge soil nerd,” and independent of industry interests.  He sent lengthy and highly technical notes.  These, in my interpretation, boil down to:

He says:

Enteric methane is a distraction. Poor land management destroying soil sinks and reducing photosynthesis via desertification, deforestation and ocean acidification are also a huge problem. And yes, cattle and palm oil are part of the problem in tropical regions (see The Deforestation Process... )…Cattle is a very conspicuous driver, though it’s not really the primary driver. Human greed is…So, in other words, we need better regional and system data, and we can’t really make universal claims.

The second set of comments comes from Greg Miller, the chief science officer of the National Dairy Council.

While FAO estimates livestock emissions at 14.5% based on LCA [life cycle assessment], the emissions from transportation are only from the tailpipes (not LCA), so comparing apples and bananas – FAO did this, but later retracted because it is an inappropriate comparison, that now keeps getting repeated, thought you should know.

He cites this source on greenhouse gas emissions from the dairy sector:

And he cites this reference:  Recht, L. 2021 An Inclusive Transition to a Sustainable and Resilient Meat Sector, which talks about how to raise cattle sustainably.

How to make sense of this?

The percentage of greenhouse gases due to animal agriculture depends on who is doing the counting, and what factors and assumptions go into the estimations.  Low estimates predictably come from the beef and dairy industries (Stephen Zwick does not, which is why I am quoting him).  The Environmental Protection Agency also produces low estimates: 1.3% of total emissions for dairies.

In contrast, the Humane Society uses 18% (referring to carbon dioxide equivalents), as does Cowspiracy.

A new paper in Sustainability argues that the correct estimate is 16.5%.

It matters whether we are talking about carbon dioxide or methane.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends “strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CH4 [methane] emissions” and notes that the growth in atmospheric methane is “largely driven by emissions from the fossil fuels and agriculture (dominated by livestock) sectors.”

I was interested to see yesterday’s Politico, which had a report about the current politics of methane emissions. (behind a paywall).  It notes:

While oil and gas production is the main reason methane emissions have boomed since 2007, agriculture (namely livestock operations) remains a massive source of the potent greenhouse gas, accounting for 40 percent of methane emissions worldwide. ..Senate Democrats plan to include a “methane polluter fee” in their $3.5 trillion budget resolution that would hit energy producers that vent or burn off excess methane and compressors used to pressurize and transport natural gas.

The precise percentage contributed by animal agriculture?  I’m not sure it matters.  Everyone agrees that cattle produce more greenhouse gases than produced by any other food (as a result of burps, deforestation, feed production, manure, etc).

Raising cattle more sustainably and regeneratively is a really good idea.

That’s where policy needs to be directed.

Mar 5 2021

Weekend reading: Sustainability

Paul B. Thompson and Patricia E. Norris.  Sustainability: What Everyone Needs to Know.  Oxford University Press, 2020.

 

“Sustainability” is one of those terms that everyone uses but if you ask people to define it, you get a million different answers.  This book addresses that precise point, and I thought it was worth a blurb:

Sustainability is the hot buzzword these days.  Does it take a whole book to explain what it means?  Yes and how lucky we are to have it.  This is a book about how to think about what it takes to keep systems going.  The Q and A format makes difficult and contested concepts especially easy to follow.

As an example, here is an excerpt from the authors’ answer to the question, “Is sustainability just a passing fad?”

The solution to this problem [of thinking that sustainability goals are morally mandatory] is to recall the complexity created by interacting systems.  While an action can increase sustainability by making for efficient use of some resource, that action can have rebound effects that do just the opposite.  Sometimes the rebound is in systems (like the global climate system) that most of us do not understand in the first place.  Seeking sustainability requires you to remain faithful to the objective, even while you remain open to the possibility that any particular strategies might provide to be less effective than you originally thought, and sometimes they are just wrong altogether….”Sustainability is about being nimble, not being right”.  Put another way, we all, every one of us, still have a lot to learn.