Amsterdam summit highlights challenges

Some of the key challenges faced by the sustainable food industry were discussed in the European edition of the Sustainable Foods Summit. Hosted in Amsterdam a few weeks ago, the summit focused on protein alternatives, future of clean labels and impact of new technologies.

The summit brought together about 140 senior executives from the food industry, with representatives from sustainable and organic food firms, large food and beverage companies, ingredient firms, certification agencies and NGOs participating. There was a call for fresh ideas to meet the sustainability challenges.

In his keynote, Professor Harry Aiking from VU University said food security and prioritising environmental impacts were two crucial issues. According to Aiking, the food industry needs to raise food production by 60 per cent whilst reducing its environmental impacts by a quarter by 2050. Sustainable alternatives to proteins are urgently needed since rising meat production was having a high environmental toll. The prospects for plant proteins, synthetic meats and other meat alternatives were discussed.

Consumer behaviour was cited as the major obstacle for insects to become viable protein sources. Professor Dr Arnold Van Huis from Wageningen University believes insects can play an important role in preventing a proteins crisis. There are also many sustainability benefits since insect farming has a hundred times lower carbon footprint then livestock production. Van Huis says there are about 2,000 edible insect species, giving a diverse range of food applications. In the interim, he believes insects will play an important role in fishmeal and animal feed.

The clean labels session covered the growing number of free-from labels in the food industry. According to Michelle-Berriedale Johnson, the market has grown out of its niche to mainstream because of the rise in food sensitivity. Alex Smith of Alara Wholefoods cited intensive agriculture as a major cause, with a possible link between hybridised wheat and gluten sensitivity. With free-from food labels already established in retailers, foodservice was highlighted as the next growth area.

MMR Research showed there was still a lot of consumer confusion about such labels; its survey showed that 71 per cent of UK consumers did not know what clean label meant, whilst just five per cent gave a correct response. The research agency encouraged food companies to focus on ‘shorter labels’ on product packs to prevent confusion.

Panellists discussed the future direction of clean labels. With eco-labels and free-from labels becoming ubiquitous on food products, concerns were expressed about information overload on product packaging. To avoid this, some food companies were focusing on brands, rather then making free-from claims and brandishing symbols and logos. Innocence was cited as an example of a beverage brand following this route.

The impact of new technologies on food production and marketing were also covered. IRB (Croda) is using plant cell technology to harvest natural actives from plant materials. According to the company, sustainable processing of plant materials in biorefineries enables soil to be left for food production. A number of speakers highlighted the growing role of mobile technology; Noteo showed how mobile apps can be used to rate food products by environmental, social, economic and health indicators. Chainfood outlined the role of mobile communications to build sustainable supply chains. Another paper by Selerant showed advances in life-cycle analysis to measure environmental impacts.

Large food companies shared their experiences in meeting their sustainability challenges. Heineken stated water scarcity, food security and climate change were the key sustainability priorities of the global brewery. It has reduced its water footprint by 20 per cent since 2008. Nestle shared its plans for its European plants to have zero waste by 2020. Dansk Supermarked highlighted one of the major decisions faced by retailers: should it focus on responsible (sustainable) products or discounted core products? The Nordic retailer decided to ‘sit on two chairs’ by marketing sustainable foods at competitive prices under its private labels.

The Sustainable Foods Summit emphasised the growing complexity of sustainability in the food industry. Food companies and retailers are under pressure to address a growing range of environmental and social issues. The food industry is becoming more accountable, however consumers appear to be responding slowly; adoption rates of sustainable foods (and ingredients) remain low. There are also concerns about the growing number of eco-labels and related (free-from) labels in the industry. Such sustainability issues will be tackled in 2015 editions:

  • Sustainable Foods Summit North America – San Francisco, 21-22 January 2015
  • Sustainable Foods Summit Europe – Amsterdam, 4-5 June 2015
  • Sustainable Foods Summit Latin America – São Paulo, 25-26 June 2015.

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