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 into the lair of Charybdis.

Fortunately, today 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) ripples down supply chains, seemingly innocuous purchasing decisions multiplied thousands of times every day shape what is grown and produced -- and how -- around the world. 

And while there may not be any mythical monsters in this story, we know that some impacts of food production can be quite horrible. After all, food production is said to contribute almost 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

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), these days it feels that weighing the environmental pros and cons of different foods is becoming more art than science. 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?

But 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 are even worse. 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 in 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 travelled the globe to land on our plate. Unfortunately, things are not clear-cut 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. For those of us who have transitioned to vegetarian diets, there is another surprise: impacts of animal products made with the lowest impact typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes.

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 impacts.

Media and your fridge

Our beliefs are defined by values, but we often seek confirmation in them in the stories we choose to heed. These then go on to influence our behaviours. 74% of shoppers make buying decisions based on social media, and for environmentally attuned consumers, a drip-feed of environmental articles from major media outlets is quite likely to influence these even further. 

This means that how the media frames the role of major commodities in nature destruction most likely has a significant role in what people choose in supermarket aisles or when they shop online.

Could it be that in showing us the error of our ways, the media has pushed us into making a whole load of new mistakes?

And if the choices are indeed often wrong, what are so-called conscious eaters to do if they want to feed themselves without feeling eco-shamed into thinking they have contributed to the demise of orangutans or anteaters?

It's not all about what you buy 

Clearly, for the modern, environmentally-conscious shopper, choosing food is a treacherous strait. There are such information gaps when it comes to assessing the environmental merits of what we put on our plate that it is mostly impossible to make fully informed decisions backed by credible data. As Marc Lepere and Giana Eckhardt point out, as consumers we face impossible trade-offs when we try to assess the carbon footprint of our shopping basket for example. So maybe we have to look elsewhere in the meantime to maintain our sanity and do good.

One area where we can all agree that we have a clear problem and a solution 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 not right but also avoidable. And with its 6% contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, there is a very clear need for action, including for consumers. 

Chipping down at food waste may just be a small dent into the problem, but at least we can invest our energy in conserving food better without questioning the merits of doing so. Simply, it is inherently right to do it.  

We still need the media to blow the whistle by bringing us stories of environmental abuse connected to land use around the world. This is essential to hold the actors in food supply chains accountable, including governments. But consumers also need actionable solutions, not just red crosses for specific foods. And preventing food waste is one such example.

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, but it’s a prerequisite to transitioning people towards wasting less.

At the same time, there needs to be a shift when talking about agricultural 'fails'; from commodity-specific to systemic problems with how food is grown. While it potentially makes for less tantalizing media headlines (Palm Oil Giant Wreaks Havoc in Forest does tickle interest more than NGO Report Exposes Systematic Weaknesses of the Monoculture Model), such re-framing is essential to educate consumers about what the problems are with food production overall. Agree - that does not necessarily help the consumers make better informed choices, but it breaks the notion that some commodities are inherently bad, which is an unhelpful frame.

Like Odysseus, we will not make it unscathed in our quest for "sustainable" food choices from the Catch-22 offered by Charybdis and Scylla. But the hero's perseverance and imagination give us hope for making it through -- with a few scars.

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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