July 30, 2020
By Marc-Antoine Dunais

Navigating the consumer swamp of "sustainable"​ food choices

By choosing not to buy certain products because of their environmental impact, we have sometimes unknowingly switched to alternatives that may be just as hazardous to ecosystems. It just goes to show that, even with the best intentions, our attempts at buying and eating sustainably can be dashed on the rocks.

In Greek mythology, any ships navigating the strait between Sicily and the Italian mainland had to contend with two unusual hazards: a six-headed sea monster named Scylla, which stalked the shallows; and a deadly collection of whirlpools, which dragged sailors to their doom in the lair of Charybdis.

Fortunately, choosing between different foods is not a life-or-death matter for most of us as consumers. But because every transaction we make at the counter (or through online gateways from the confines of our homes) reverberates down supply chains, seemingly innocuous purchasing decisions multiplied thousands of times every day shape what is produced -- and how -- around the world.

Impossible trade-offs

The problem is that for the growing number of people who want to keep on eating (a legitimate aspiration) while doing good for the planet (laudable), it feels that weighing the environmental pros and cons of different foods is becoming more art than science. There are such information gaps when it comes to assessing the environmental merits of what we put on our plate that we are stumped to make fully-informed decisions backed by credible data. As Marc Lepere and Giana Eckhardt point out, we face impossible trade-offs when we try to assess the carbon footprint of our shopping basket.

In fact, at times it feels like getting hammered by Scylla before being sent reeling into the whirlpools of Charybdis.

For the longest time, the poster child for food infamy was palm oil. Over the last decade, we have been exposed to a steady beat of news on the devastating impacts of palm oil production in the tropics, often with an incitement to avoid this oil like the plague. The hallmark of consumer environmental righteousness was staying clear of anything that might include palm oil or any of its derivatives, prompting an enthusiastic roll-out of products emblazoned with "Palm Oil Free!".

Wrong at every turn?

What is interesting here is that by choosing not to buy certain products because of their environmental impact, we have sometimes unknowingly switched to alternatives that may be just as hazardous to ecosystems. It just goes to show that, even with the best intentions, our attempts at buying and eating sustainably can be dashed on the rocks.

Take soy for example. To get the same amount of palm oil from another commodity like the soybean, you would need between 4 and 10 times more land -- which would mean substantially more natural areas cleared for monocultures. Then you have the avocado, the mainstay of many a health-conscious consumer. In Mexico, this “green gold” has caused deforestation and degradation, contributing to the agricultural frontier accounting for 98 percent of deforestation in the country.

If you thought you were safe with 'superfoods' – a growing fad for middle‐ and high‐income consumers in the wealthier parts of the planet – you're in for a surprise. ‘Superfoods’ are mostly consumed far from where they were grown. If demand for these crops was to follow the course of other popular global commodities, they could cause increasingly large environmental impacts and carbon footprints (e.g. land clearing, use of agrochemicals and transportation). In fact, according to research, 'superfoods' are starting to follow the same path due to their increase in demand.

In despair, we fall back on 'local foods', another trend growing in popularity. Surely, we can't possibly go wrong with food items that have not necessarily travelled the globe to land on our plate? Unfortunately, things are not too clear here either. Research does not appear to offer any support for claims that local food is universally superior to non-local food in terms of its impact on the climate or the health of consumers.

So as we are consciously (or not) forced away from some foods or ingredients, we pivot our eating habits towards others that can be just as nasty in terms of their environmental impacts.

What are so-called conscious eaters to do if they want to feed themselves without feeling eco-shamed into thinking they have accelerated the demise of orangutans or anteaters?

Taking the pain out of the shopping and consumption journey

The priority is to make food purchasing decisions a little less painful. Here are two examples.

Going vegan or vegetarian is often mentioned as a solution to tread more lightly on Earth's natural systems. But asking people to forego the pleasures of chowing down on a juicy steak or fried chicken disregards the fact that many of us would consider that an unacceptable trade-off. There is a more realistic way -- going 'flexitarian', e.g. eating much less meat for people who consume it excessively. According to a paper in Nature, if the world moved to this type of diet, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture would be reduced by more than half. By adjusting our diet in stages, rather than trying to abandon meat in one go, we are more likely to be able to commit and sustain this new habit (remember your New Year resolutions by the way?).

Another area where we can all agree that we have a problem is food waste. We may debate on the relative environmental merits of cereal bars made in the tropics and sold in Moscow, but surely we can all agree that binning food is both wrong and avoidable. With a 6% contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, there is a very clear need for action on food waste, especially what is thrown away by consumers. 

Chipping away at food waste may only make a small dent in the problem, but at least we can invest our energy to keep food more effectively without questioning the merits of doing so. Simply, it is inherently right to do it.

At Catalyze, we have created a simple guide that explains to environment-savvy consumers the benefits of reducing food waste. Of course, making such behaviours possible requires more than information being dished out across the internet -- it’s a prerequisite to transitioning people towards wasting less.

Like Odysseus, we will not make it unscathed in our quest for "sustainable" food choices. The above examples obviously do no constitute a silver bullet to fundamentally resolve the environmental footprint of food. In fact, there may be better examples of consumer behaviours we can advocate that I am not aware of. But the same way that the goddess Athena saved the hero from many tight spots during his adventures, as consumers we also need help. This will allow us to make practical, marginally better purchasing decisions, as opposed to elusive, 'truly' environment-friendly choices in absolute terms that seem so hard to achieve.

That is perhaps the best we can expect until a time when food products come with full, credible and easy-to-understand information on their environmental costs and benefits.

About the author

Marc-Antoine Dunais,
Founder and Managing Director

Inveterate jack-of-all-trades with one foot in sustainability, another in communications and marketing, and a more recent appendage in behaviour change design.

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