When a trend is born that is all encompassing, ties in with many other trends, and has very little chance of ever diminishing or is the opposite – virtually unstoppable – we call it a Pandora's Box. A Pandora's Box, once opened, is extremely unlikely to close again. It behaves like a virus spreading into and influencing other trends thereby replicating its own influence and increasing its alliances. Pandora's Boxes also have the rare attribute of having few or no adversaries. There are no two sides of this coin – everyone is on board and moving it forward on one track or another but with the common purpose to keep it alive and growing.
Sustainability is one of very few Pandora's Boxes in the food industry.
Its very playground is so diverse some of its own branches are competitive with each other. At the simplest level sustainability can be broken into the branches of organic, local, seasonal, green and ethical.
Local and seasonal set themselves up to be competitors. To buy local is not always less expensive or better quality than seasonal. Local is also vastly more limiting in which foods are available to consumers. On the other hand, seasonal can be more healthful to consume as seeds are not being woken out of their dormancy to be grown out of season. Their nutrient density is higher when grown during their natural season.
When trying to define the branches, the picture becomes more complex. Regarding seasonal, whose season are we talking about? It speaks to obtaining foods grown in their natural setting and during their natural lifecycle. The question then becomes does the transportation cost play a factor and if so, does the cost override the nutritional benefits to that community? When speaking of the concept of "local", the issue is different. The term local may carry an economical benefit to the community, however, it wears an unearned and undeserved health and safety halo as there is no evidence that local items are healthier or safer. Every safety recall the industry has ever had comes from someone's "local" area. Local is also not defined. The Hartman Group was among the first to discover that consumers have a wide range of definitions including the concept of sourced within 150 miles. But the research also showed that some consumers, local is anything produced within the state limits and others claim if the product is made within the country it is local.
Organic is one of the original branches of sustainability. This branch actually has internal turmoil since there is more than one certification type and is confusing to consumers. Organic is less trustworthy and more expansive than local and seasonal. Also, most research from Stanford University reveals that organic is no healthier than conventionally grown crops.
The term green is what the media has promoted and is by far the least well defined. Instead it seems to be a catch all term with no clear meaning. Green captures re-commerce, packaging, growing practices and how manufacturing sites are created and maintained.
Ethical, the last branch, is the newest kid on the block. This encompasses hiring practices, animal welfare, fair trade, and defining what the embedded benefit is to the consumer.
Now consider the influencing factors surrounding sustainability in the U.S. These surrounding influencers include the consumer, schools, government, the food industry, technology and research. None of the influencers are linked to each other directly but are connected only through the central issue of sustainability.
Schools are now concerned with sourcing items and who best fits their sustainability model. This includes K-12 plus college and so deals with what motivates the adults in administration along with Gen Z and Y. Next, government's main focus is on having companies measure their sustainable efforts and product labeling. In other words, can you prove in a court of law what your labeling says is accurate?
The food industry then must align with all aspects of sustainability and is therefore focused on processing, packaging and sourcing. Research is currently focused on consumers, packaging, land use, global warming, health and safety. Technology has two major fronts including packaging and genetically modified organisms (GMO). Ironically GMO evolved at a solution to sustainability -- fewer pesticides, herbicides, higher vitamin, mineral, nutrient levels – yet they are being attacked now in the U.S.
Consumers are the last branch and while they fully support sustainability, they have a healthy distrust and want companies to "prove it" and are confused by the many definitions put forth by media. And so while sustainability is a Pandora's Box, it is fraught with obstacles. But since it is unstoppable, these obstacles must be overcome and companies not on board will simply be left behind.
Suzy Badaracco is a toxicologist, chef, and registered dietitian. She holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Criminalistics, an Associates degree in Culinary Arts, and a Masters of Science degree in Human Nutrition.