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Foundation Earth to give consumers power to build a more sustainable food industry

Posted: 30 June 2021 | | No comments yet

As Chair of the Foundation Earth’s scientific advisory committee, Professor Chris Elliott offers New Food exclusive insight into the role of this think tank.

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We all know many things have to change if we are to tackle the climate crisis. Our planet’s resources are finite, and we must become much more sustainable in how we source and utilise the invaluable resources we have at our disposal.

Probably more than any other topic, the food we eat has become central to the sustainability debate. Even now ‘experts’ cannot agree the scale of the impact that food production has on changes to our climate, but what is widely agreed is that food is one of the major contributing factors.

Quite simply, we cannot keep producing food in the way that we are without having a majorly detrimental impact on our planetary health. Over recent years an ugly war has broken out between meat producers and plant-based advocates. There are those who believe that all things linked to meat production are responsible for the death of our planet, and others who argue that there is a commercial agenda behind alternatives peddled by those who are doing severe damage to the planet themselves. In reality, the argument is incredibly complex – and the polarised debate between meat and plant seldom, if ever, takes account of these complexities.

With the arguments roaring and swathes of misinformation reverberating, how can those of us who want to make more sustainable food choices navigate our way through the spin and ascertain the absolute reality?

This is a topic I discussed at great length with the late and great food entrepreneur, Denis Lynn. Using his razor-sharp analytical approach, he knew we could not wait for governments to decide what was sustainable – or how more sustainable food production should be incentivised. What Denis realised was that the decision to purchase food based on its sustainability credentials should be left to the consumer. But to do this there had to be a robust, evidence based, yet easily understood system to inform all of us about how sustainable (or not) our food is.

Thus, the concept of Foundation Earth was born; a new, non-profit, independent organisation that aims to develop a science-based, front-of-pack environmental scoring system that will enable consumers to make more informed purchasing choices – and also further opportunity for producers to innovate in a more sustainable way.

How Foundation Earth plans to measure sustainability 

Measuring sustainability of food is not straightforward and many models of how to calculate this are already in existence. They range in terms of the different types of metrics that are incorporated into the algorithm and the weighting for each of the measured factors.

After a lengthy search, two models have been selected by Foundation Earth. One of these methods was born out of Oxford University and developed by life cycle assessor Mondra, whilst the other was created by a team of EU-funded researchers from Leuven University in Belgium and the Spanish research institute AZTI. The models have many similarities, but also some significant differences, and Foundation Earth is now setting about bringing them together into one optimum method for roll out across the continent in 2022.

In the meantime, pilot programmes will launch with a range of food products this Autumn, testing how the methods perform and how consumers respond to the scores.

Measuring sustainability of food is not straightforward and many models of how to calculate this are already in existence.

An industry advisory group, comprising food producers large and small, retailers, and other expert figures, will help the Foundation hone the system and ensure it is fit for roll-out internationally and at scale.

The research and development, which starts now with the support of Nestlé, will be fundamental to this concept’s long-term success. And while it might seem appropriate to wait until this optimum ‘new child’ is born, Foundation Earth believes there isn’t time to wait. We must not let the pursuit of ‘perfection’ be the enemy of doing what is possible now to drive positive and sustainable change.

To be part of Foundation Earth is one of my proudest moments as a scientist, and we will welcome all criticism and scepticism over the coming months. While there inevitably will be some vested interests trying to undermine what we are trying to achieve, we know we will be playing a crucial role in building a future food industry that doesn’t cost the Earth.

The sustainability revolution driven by consumers’ choices has begun.

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