4 sustainable food myths debunked

15 January 2024, 07:00 AM
  • What does biodegradable plastic really mean, and where does food waste come from? Separate the myths from the facts
4 sustainable food myths debunked

Today, most retailers and food producers in the fine food sector are looking for ways to boost their sustainable credentials. But as the latest science emerges and new issues come to light, the moving goal posts can be difficult to track. We’ve looked at four myths and grey areas around sustainability in the food and drink sector and discovered the facts that the industry really needs to know.

1. Food waste isn’t all about wonky veg

Everyone can agree that food waste is a problem in the food and drink sector, but how and where in the cycle food is actually wasted is key to understanding how businesses can tackle the issue. “The mantra on food waste remains doggedly, “Supermarkets only want perfect looking fruit and veg so anything that isn’t gets thrown away’,” says Paul Bendit, managing director and owner of Folkington’s. “It’s time we moved on from this romantic myth that fruit and veg get ‘saved’, ‘salvaged’ or ‘rescued’, not just because it’s misleading. It creates confusion and risks consumers making false decisions,” he told Speciality Food.

In commercial supply chains, food waste can appear in a number of ways, from food that is harvested by rejected due to size, shape and appearance to food that is never picked due to a lack of demand. ‘Wonky’ fruit and veg are “automatically sucked up by demand from the food processing industry for soups, stews, pies, juice, ice cream, flavourings, jam, etc,” Paul said. Meanwhile, fruit and veg that is not picked – for instance unloved varieties of apple that are needed to help pollination of more popular varieties – are typically allowed to go to waste. Businesses like Folkington’s step in to put these apples to good use instead.

There are other areas that are less visible to consumers, too. For instance, in factories with bad processing management. “Typically, a good factory will waste about 2% of the ingredients it uses but poor factory design and poor controls can often lead to wastage of 10% or more,” Paul said. “So a poorly managed apple juice factory that bottles 100 million litres per year could end up throwing away 10 million litres of juice. This is the equivalent of up to 150 million apples being wasted.

“Food waste comes in all different shapes and sizes. Perceptions of what food waste means among consumers vary, and there are multiple ways of mitigating food waste depending on how it occurs and the scale of the issue. But the overriding point is that few, if any, in the food and drink industry are deliberately wasting food through their commercial practices,” he explained. “The food industry is already doing a great job, but as ever there is always room to improve further through business tools that create better supply chain management and better forecasting as well as undertaking a closer review of best before and use by dates on packaged food and ingredients.”

2. Does biodegradable plastic really break down?

Biodegradable plastics were created to rein in the world’s reliance on single-use plastics. These materials can be broken down by microbes over a much shorter time than versus plastic – but are they really as sustainable as they seem? One study published in 2019 revealed that even after being buried in the soil or immersed in seawater for three years, biodegradable plastic bags can still carry a full load of groceries without breaking.

There is a difference between ‘biodegradable’ plastics – which are not necessarily bio-based and need the right environment to break down – and compostable. Even compostable plastics can be divided into those that need to be sent to an industrial composting facility to break down and those that are home compostable. Clearer labelling is needed to end confusion over which bin consumers should put their biodegradable or compostable plastics in – and in the meantime, cutting down on plastics is a good first step.

3. Carbon footprinting isn’t the ultimate answer

Understanding your business’s carbon emissions and how to offset them is an important way to get to grips with where and how you can reduce your negative impact on the environment, but it isn’t the only answer.

“Most people would encourage food retailers to look at their carbon footprints, and to measure their direct and indirect emissions,” said Adele Jones of the Sustainable Food Trust. “Whilst carbon footprinting is important, it can sometimes be too one-dimensional as a sustainability metric and can lead to shifting the environmental burden to another impact area, such as the water footprint or soil health,” she warns.

How then can retailers tackle their eco-impact? “Independent food retailers could encourage their primary producers to use holistic tools such as the Global Farm Metric to measure the sustainability of their produce,” Adele suggests. “The Global Farm Metric takes a snapshot of the big-picture and measures how the farm is managing the environment, nature and productivity. Benchmarking and transparency in sustainability progress reporting are key. It helps keep track and make room for improvement.”

4. Going vegan isn’t the only way to eat sustainably

The plant-based food sector is booming, and it’s proving to be an important way for consumers to cut down on their own carbon footprints. A recent study has put into perspective just how significant reducing meat intake could be: meat and dairy were found to account for over half (57%) of food-based greenhouse gas emissions, while 29% come from plant-based foods, according to the global study led by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor Atul Jain.

However, plant-based meat alternatives and vegetables flown in from far-flung places can still rack up high carbon footprints. Adopting a more sustainable diet could instead involve eating more veg-based meals as well as less but better-quality, locally sourced meat and dairy. “Natural wholefoods grown in the climate where we live is the right direction for us all to move in as the predominant food culture,” Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of plant-based restaurant Stem & Glory, told Speciality Food.

Do you have any more sustainability myths that you want debunked? Get in touch with courtney.goldsmith@aceville.co.uk

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