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Here’s the point: June 2014

What is sustainable food?


May 13, 2014
By Leslie Ballentine

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I haven’t met a serious farmer who didn’t consider himself or herself to be sustainable minded. In fact, history tells us that farmers and hunters were the first to recognize the notion when it was defined in the 1987 Bruntland Commission report. Originally limited to environmental considerations, today “sustainable” has become a value-laden buzzword. And now, with dozens of interpretations of what is (and is not) sustainable, the term is showing up beyond niche markets. According to one marketing guru, sustainability is one of the 10 most used business words today. It has also reached the point where producers can no longer ignore it, even if they still don’t know what it exactly means.

Anyone looking to buy and sell sustainable food faces a slew of confusing concepts, opinions and terms that make it difficult to identify the qualities that make one food item more sustainable than another. The fact that the term “sustainable food” has been co-opted by nearly every special interest group with their own agendas only adds to the confusion.  

Today, the so-called “pillars of sustainable food” embrace environmental, economic and social dimensions. A growing number of issues related to food safety, animal use, and products of new technologies are also being put under the sustainability microscope. The problem in defining sustainability is that it depends on your perspective, while determining what makes something unsustainable is subject to manipulation. If food makers can be convinced that they will lose social licence, business, or reputation — companies are apt to demand their suppliers change methods simply to sustain themselves.

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I like to believe that most food companies are well-intentioned opportunists. Unlike in the past, they now typically have entire departments devoted to sustainability, managed with the staff to define the terms and set the targets. In this way, many food companies are setting themselves up as arbitrators of “sustainable” health, welfare and safety by introducing their own regulations, procedures and standards —often exceeding those we entrust to our governments.

The mantra in Canada has long been “better to self-regulate than have the government do it for us,” yet even when company policies are negotiated with farmers and suppliers, outcomes still vary. Despite collective agreement within the food industry to not compete on the basis of sustainability, it is plausible that a privatized regulatory strategy is an attempt to differentiate products from those of competitors. Leveraging varying attributes not only allows marketers to charge more for products based on the affluence and insecurities of their clientele, but to gain goodwill as well. The end result of course is no standard set of standards.

The announcement by McDonald’s earlier this year to begin buying “verified sustainable beef” globally by 2016 and the adoption of “sustainable seafood” by restaurants and grocery stores alike are a sign of things to come for the poultry industry too.

The many conflicting consumer studies indicate that even marketers don’t have a clear handle on sustainability marketing. If you trust such things, one new consumer study by U.S. research firm Technomic found the number of restaurants offering “sustainable” menu items has grown by more than 34 per cent since 2011; sustainable menu items are up more than 74 per cent in that same period. “Operators have a tremendous opportunity to gain share of stomach by taking credit for the socially responsible food they menu,” Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, said in a news release announcing the study results. In his opinion, providing more information on where food was grown, where these products are used or how they’re sourced “can help create the sense of healthy and sustainable.”  

As farmers well know, a “sense” of healthy and sustainable is not necessarily reality but as a marketing approach that “sense” certainly helps sustain Canadian agriculture.

Here’s the point: Not only are most poultry producers concerned about the health of the environment, they are also trying to adapt to the wider and vaguer concept of sustainability. Put your own spin on it, but it always comes back to the same basic approach of not environmentally, economically or morally bankrupting the farm.


Leslie Ballentine is a veteran farm and food commentator and communications consultant at Ballentine Communication Group.