The definition of sustainability is tied to the future of food production

by Keith Nunes
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As the focus on developing sustainable production, manufacturing and distribution practices gains momentum, it is important to note that the goal is preserving natural resources rather than serving specific market niches. This is an important distinction because sustainability efforts are often conflated with terms like natural, clean label or organic. These latter trends have more to do with the perception of quality rather than resource preservation.

On May 18, the National Restaurant Association stepped into this issue when it announced the launching of a campaign to reduce energy and water use in restaurants. While encouraging restaurant owners to develop benchmarks to measure and eventually to reduce their water and energy usage, the N.R.A. noted, "Research shows that environmentally sustainable practices are increasingly important to today’s consumers. Forty-four per cent say they are likely to make a restaurant choice based on a restaurant’s efforts to conserve energy and water, and 6 out of 10 say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers food that was grown in an organic or environmentally friendly way."

Relating sustainability to organic production undercuts the environmental benefits that technology, specifically bioengineering initiatives, may offer future sustainability efforts. Consider milk production, for example.

In June 2008, researchers at Cornell University published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that showed how cattle supplemented with recombinant bovine somatotropin (B.S.T.) would be able to produce more milk while easing pressure on natural resources. The research found, compared to a non-supplemented dairy cow population, that giving B.S.T. to one million cows would enable the same amount of milk to be produced using 157,000 fewer cows. The researchers estimated nutrient savings would be 491,000 tonnes of corn, 158,000 tonnes of soybeans and an aggregate potential reduction of 2,300,000 tonnes in total feedstuffs usage.

"Supplementing cows with B.S.T. on an industry-wide scale would improve sustainability and reduce the dairy industry’s contribution to water acidification, algae growth and global warming," said Judith L. Capper, a post-doctoral at the time the study was published and its lead author.

That B.S.T. has been extensively studied, tested and approved by the Food and Drug Administration is undeniable. Yet many milk processors, retailers and consumers reject the technology. It would be interesting to see how consumer perception of the technology would change if the knowledge of B.S.T.’s sustainable benefits were better known.

The sustainability initiatives being adopted today by the food and beverage industry represent the low-hanging fruit. Once those programs are in place, new technologies, whether related to crop or energy production, will have to be developed and implemented to further improve resource preservation efforts.

Bioengineering technologies that allow the production of crops requiring less water or that increase yield per acre most certainly will be the vanguard of future food production sustainability efforts. With such technologies in place, companies will be able to further refine and improve their sustainability efforts and meet the needs of a growing global population.

What is developing is a new niche within the food processing industry that is as distinct as the market for organic or clean label products may be. What must be communicated is a strong delineation between these very different types of programs.

As resource management becomes an increasingly important issue, the phrase environmentally friendly will take on a different meaning. The focus will be less on past agricultural production practices and more on improvements in methods of production that provide for a more sustainable environment.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, May 26, 2009, starting on Page 9. Click here to search that archive.

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