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Guest article

What's the future direction for sustainable sourcing?

By Amarjit Sahota, director of Organic Monitor , 22-Apr-2016

Women picking fairtrade tea in India. Photo: iStock
Women picking fairtrade tea in India. Photo: iStock

Sustainable sourcing has become fashionable in the food industry, with a growing number of companies making such commitments. However, the increasing number of sustainability schemes raises questions about long-term developments.

Coffee, the most traded agricultural commodity, has the highest market share. It is estimated that almost 20% of all coffee is now sourced according to some sustainability scheme.

Apart from adopting third party labelling schemes, companies like Nestlé and Starbucks have developed their own sourcing programmes. Almost all of Starbucks coffee is now ethically sourced, most according to its CAFÉ (Coffee and Farm Equity) scheme, totalling over 0.2 million tonnes of coffee beans per year.

The market share of sustainable cocoa and tea is also rising. The Fairtrade mark is highly visible on confectionery products containing fairtrade cocoa, whilst the ’green frog’ displays Rainforest Alliance-certified tea. New initiatives, such as the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT) standard for sustainable herbal teas, are also becoming popular.

Amarjit Sahota

As will be shown at the Sustainable Foods Summit, which brings together representatives from leading sustainability labels and organisations as well as international food companies, other sustainable sourcing programmes are gaining traction because of traceability.

The Non-GMO Project Verified scheme is the fastest growing in North America because of consumer opposition to genetically modified crops. The market for certified products has grown from nothing to US $16 billion (€14.2bn) within 7 years. In Europe, sustainability schemes such as Danube Soya and ProTerra are being adopted by companies wanting to verify their supply chains as GMO-free.

A recent development is the increasing number of sustainability schemes for single ingredients. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was initially launched to halt deforestation in South-East Asia.

By highlighting the opaqueness of global supply chains, the RSPO has encouraged related schemes for sustainable soya and beef. Backed by the United Nations, the Sustainable Rice Platform was launched in October 2015 as the first sustainability standard for rice. Similar standards now exist for sustainable sugar, vanilla, and related ingredients.

In-house certification

A counter trend is the growing number of companies developing their own sustainable sourcing programmes.

The international pasta company Barilla introduced its sustainable durum wheat programme in 2009. Mondelez Foods has launched a similar initiative for sustainable wheat under its Harmony programme. Over 75% of the company’s biscuits in Western Europe are now made from sustainable wheat.

Sustainable sourcing is also becoming common for other food sectors; for instance, Friesland Campina has implemented sustainable dairy farming to reduce the environmental impact of livestock products.

Such developments raise questions about the way forward for sustainable sourcing. Will we see an ever-rising number of sustainability labels for agricultural commodities? Or, will we see more in-house sustainable sourcing programmes like those introduced by Starbucks and Barilla? The former gives greater credibility to sustainability programmes, whilst the latter maybe more pragmatic for companies.

Whatever the way forward, sustainable sourcing will become a permanent fixture in the food industry.

The Sustainable Foods Summit will be held in Amsterdam on 9-10th June 2016. 

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