3 Things You Need To Know About Sustainable Food Innovation by Jennifer Kaplan

Our food system is complicated. And, nowhere are the challenges starker than where food and sustainability intersect. Yet, despite all the talk about food sustainability, the term is hard to pin down. To be sustainable, according to the FAO, food and agriculture “must meet the needs of present and future generations, while ensuring profitability, environmental health, and social and economic equity.”

I like this definition because it follows the triple-bottom-line and its 3 P’s: People-Planet-Profits. In a People-Planet-Profits paradigm, sustainability is about more than protecting environmental and financial resources. Sustainability is premised on the idea that all three pieces be met, and enterprises also need to address the social/people aspects of operations. Big picture, the “people” piece can mean anything from educating the public to improving society. More narrowly, and of particular significance to the food system, the “people” piece of sustainability includes responsibilities such as managing nutrition, promoting public health, and stimulating responsible consumer behavior.

 On this site I welcome alternative views on food issues of the day. Last month Jennifer Kaplan commented on Adam Yee’s post on Fantastic Trends and How to Find Them. She asked him “what about corporate responsibility” and “the next phase of sustainability innovations focused on fostering nourishment and health.” Since my posts this month centered on sustainability and food distribution, I asked Jennifer to provide her perspective on the topic. Although I disagree with most of what she has written here, I think it is important to read what she has written. Her thoughts reflect the positions of the new food movement which are probably closer to general public opinion than the perspective usually found on this site. We welcome your comments.  

Let’s Talk About Profitability

A vital component of all sustainability models is profitability, and no marketplace can thrive without sound economics. However, at this moment, when many companies are struggling for survival, it might seem like innovators would abandon sustainability efforts. By most accounts, that has thankfully not happened, and there has been an acceleration of investment into food.

A robust interest in more food innovation during a black swan event shouldn’t be surprising. Every person on the planet needs to eat, and there is no other global market system so ripe for disruption. It is no surprise that our never-ending task to discover new and better foods will continue to yield examples of extraordinarily successful food launches driven by economics/profits. New superstar brands will continue to garner enviable sales and rising market shares. Their profitability metrics will prove decisively that these new products have tapped into something fantastic.

However, what is sometimes missing in these conversations is the inclusion of health, nutrition, and corporate social responsibility as essential ingredients in food innovation. I believe that consideration of triple-bottom-line sustainability factors will be the secret sauce in food innovation, and the fixation on profitability and yield above all will prove to be untenable in the future. Here are three things food innovators will want to think about to create a more sustainable food system.

#1: Popularity Is Not Enough

“There are few cases in which mere popularity should be considered a proper test of merit….” Although Edgar Allan Poe could not have imagined the complexities of our current industrial food system when he wrote this in 1839, it certainly rings true for many of today’s most well-received food brands. Written around the time of the invention of cornstarch, solid chocolate bars, and the “hasher” (the machine that gave rise to corned beef hash), Poe could not have imagined today’s most popular food innovations. It would have been difficult to envision a system that exalts new products like White Claw, Impossible burgers, and sour candy corn. These success stories, lauded for their hype and sales potential, have one thing in common. Like many of today’s most successful food innovations, they lack some critical elements that will yield a sustainable food system.

drawing of a stylized hamburger
drawing by Helena Busansky/stix4co.com

If we look at the current food landscape from a public health perspective, many new products will not meet the standard of “healthy food.” As mentioned, sustainability means more than embracing environmentally preferable production practices. Reduced use of water, energy, and land, and the resulting reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, which is, for example, undoubtedly true of plant-based meat, represent one piece of sustainability.

The food we make also needs to nourish the population and promote public health. Whether a food or drink is deemed “healthy” or what an individual needs to eat a “healthy diet” is complicated, and yet it seems clear that many promising new products, like low-calorie vodka popsicles and organic gummy worms, do not meet the standard for nourishing food. Delicious and marketable as they may be, it is questionable whether the mere popularity of hard seltzer, fake meat, alcoholic popsicles, and organic candy should be considered the proper test of their merit.

#2: Health + Nutrition Will Be Increasingly Important

Although seemingly obvious, the basis of a sustainable food system is to provide stable access to nourishing food. How did our food get so disconnected from nourishment? We can blame an industrial food system beleaguered by unsustainable production practices, urbanization, food industry marketing, and climate change. The slow march of these cultural trends, along with profit-driven priorities, have led to a system rife with food far lower in mineral, vitamin, and protein content than a few decades ago. Moreover, when faced with facts, such as 70% of the sodium Americans eat comes from packaged, store-bought and restaurant foods, most of the food we eat at home is highly or moderately processed, and half of adults drink a sugary drink every day, we can see that the current system is complicit in keeping the Western diet unbalanced and high in added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats.

The silver lining for food creators is that the time is ripe for invention. For example, it is heartening to see the trend toward biofortification and functional ingredients. Although it’s hard to argue in favor of utility patents on seeds, it’s also hard to argue that the planet would be better off without HarvestPlus’ iron beans, THG’s BARLEYmax™, and Dan Barber’s Row 7 Seed Company’s non-patented butternut 661. Tomorrow’s superstar beverage introduction may well be a nutraceutical-enhanced fruit peel juice. And, I’m optimistic that for every vegan air-popped birthday cake-flavored rice cake, there will be a Green Super Rice discovery. Although most biofortified crops have not yet reached global consumer markets, there are promising efforts to introduce biofortified foods into Western diets. These innovations have the potential to improve the nutrition of hundreds of millions of people, reduce global malnutrition, and ensure the food system does what it’s supposed to do: nourish the population.

#3: “Doing Good = Doing Well” Will Be Increasingly Important

While the connection between health and nutrition is possibly quite obvious, corporate social responsibility, the deliberate and voluntary inclusion of public interest into corporate decision-making, will also become an essential component of a sustainable food future. In a vivid instance of how doing good leads to doing well, we’ve recently seen several large food producers not put sufficient emphasis on the people piece of sustainability. Take the industrial meatpacking industry, which has not prioritized employee safety in the time of COVID-19. Many of the country’s largest meat producers, including JBS, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and Cargill, have seen tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases and dozens of deaths among workers. Nevermind the humanitarian toll this has had, these companies have had to suspend operations to the tune of $20 billion in losses.

In contrast, Civil Eats reports that many small and mid-size slaughterhouses, packers, and butchers, which generally embrace sustainable production practices, have not suffered the same fate. They cite one such business, Cypress Valley Meat Company, that quickly implemented worker safety procedures and sanitation requirements that went above and beyond those required by the USDA. Unlike the meat industry giants, Cypress Valley never shut down and has continued to operate profitably at maximum capacity during the pandemic.

Or take the fast-casual salad chain, Sweetgreen, which is known for its support of local food producers. in a recent interview, CEO Jonathan Neman noted that when COVID-19 began shuttering restaurants around the country, the chain did what a market-driven company is supposed to do. The chain applied for a $10 million Paycheck Protection Program loan and furloughed nearly 2,000 employees. It didn’t take long for Sweetgreen to pivot, however, and use the pandemic to analyze and retool their operations. Sweetgreen returned the PPP loan, hired back 70% of their workforce, and Neman says he’s confident they will be able to bring the rest back soon. At the same time, Sweetgreen implemented extra safety and sanitation protocols that exceed health department standards and enhanced employee benefits, like additional paid wellness leave. Finally, the chain preserved their commitment to local food growers, which proved to be a boon by giving them a diversified and resilient supply chain at a time when others were struggling with their pipelines. Neuman noted that they’ve “been able to get back a lot of our business and, I think, in a weird way, we’re very well-positioned for the other side of this.”

Cypress Valley Meat and Sweetgreen are real-time examples of companies that have minimized operations disruptions by embracing the triple bottom line when their less mindful competitors have been forced to shut down. Their businesses are doing well at a time when others are hurting. They are vivid examples of doing good=doing well.

The Next Phase of Sustainability

Any discussion of food innovation begs the issue of whether sustainable consumption is even possible. That’s a question Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the Ross School of Business/School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, posed in his article “The Next Phase of Business Sustainability.” Hoffman suggests that the future calls for a transformation of marketplaces. In the current business environment, most sustainability efforts focus on an attempt to be less unsustainable or “integrating sustainability into preexisting business considerations.” The next phase of sustainability, Hoffman suggests, is based on a paradigm shift. Successful companies will create sustainability by baking it into their operations: “Instead of waiting for a market shift to create incentives for sustainable practices, companies are creating those shifts to enable new forms of business sustainability.”

Under Hoffman’s paradigm, we can no longer afford to focus on old conceptions of consumption, including “ever-increasing sales and profitability.” Instead, innovators need to develop new business models, ones not based on “unbridled consumption” and “perpetual economic growth.” We are entering an era wherein a company’s health will be tied to its stakeholders’ health and where “concerns for public health and the environment drive operations.”

Who will lead the charge? Corporate decision-makers will have a pivotal role in facilitating this transition, and the executives responsible for product innovation will be well served to take heed. Triple-bottom-line sustainability will be essential to transform consumer markets in the future, and this is nowhere more urgent than in the food system. As a cautionary tale, look at what has happened to the largest, most powerful food trade association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association. About a year ago, Nestlé, Unlilever, Mars, and Danone North America left the GMA mainly over their anti-GMO labeling stance. The four food industry giants then launched a new trade association, the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, which promotes, as the name suggests, many sustainability-focused policies on issues ranging from GMO- and added-sugars labeling to climate change. These companies understand that the data support a more sustainable food system. Corporate Social Responsibility programs continue to grow in importance, and it has been shown that purpose-driven businesses outperform the market by 5%–7% per year. Food innovators who fail to embrace these ideals risk getting left behind.

Enhancing the Food System

These market forces suggest that sustainable food opportunities can and will be found at big and entrepreneurial food companies alike. And while many progressive food types, the media, and celebrities are comfortable bashing Big Food and their products, they are missing the point. Many of the most notable new products are coming from within Big Food. Recent launches from Nestlé and Kellogg reflect an encouraging move toward more nutritious foods. These “better-for-you” foods will continue to drive food innovation toward greater sustainability. As Richard Wrangham noted, we would never have evolved had it not been for processed food considering that “eating raw food would never have supported our large, calorie-hungry brains.” Ever since our ancestors began cooking, the OG food processing, we’ve been transforming our food for the better. What is needed now is a holistic and purpose-focused approach to food innovation and we must embrace whatever means we can to achieve a more sustainable food system.

stylized hamburger
drawing by Helena Busansky/stix4co.com

Sustainability, including health, nutrition, and CSR, cannot be overlooked when discussing food innovation. Let’s hope future food innovators do not continue to take profit- and yield-driven approaches to “enhancing” the food system. Let’s hope consumers demand, and manufacturers create, food innovations that possess genuine, next-phase-of-sustainability innovations that will foster the nourishing and health-promoting food that we will need to thrive in the long term. It is easy to see how the “healthier” choice claims about spiked seltzer and faux burgers have helped manufacturers make a bundle. The question is, will these types of food innovations sustain us into the 21st century?

Jennifer Kaplan is a food writer, author of Greening Your Small Business (Random House Penguin) and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, CA . You can follow her at @jenikaplan.

Next Week: Anti-Diet: Why Obsessing About What You Eat Is Bad for Your Health 

5 thoughts on “3 Things You Need To Know About Sustainable Food Innovation by Jennifer Kaplan

  1. Our medical system is complicated

    Our transportation system is complicated.

    Our education system is complicated

    Our governments are complicated

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    1. And our patience is limited. These are not really systems as that implies that they are monoliths. They are not. Viewing them as monolithic systems also implies that single solutions can fix them across the board.

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  2. Might the population of this country (and planet) be better served if the communicators and “leaders” messages did not simply comment on the most recent headlines and rather incorporated fundamentals of food science and technology in their overt ramblings. Return with us now a decade and sustainability and kale were not issues. Flash forward ten years and I predict that these two (and so many more) concepts will be ancient history – having been replaced by then current spectacular sparks. And food safety, quality and nutrition will still be the foundations of food innovations

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    1. I agree that there are many communicators who ignore the principles of food science at their peril and possibly the peril of the general public. I do not agree that sustainability will cease to be an issue a decade from now. I believe that sustainability will be of even greater importance in years to come, but the issue will focus more, however, on environmental concerns than implied in this post.

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      1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that environmental concerns will continue to be a tremendous focus in the future. My point was that sustainability is more than just environmental concerns. It goes without saying (although I could have said it more explicitly) that the Planet piece is and will continue to be a key pillar of sustainability efforts. Jennifer

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