Sustainability has become a major goal for not just industry, but for nations, and indeed the entire world
Three articles ago, I laid out my view of a possible strategic plan for “Canada Food Inc.” It included a mission, vision, objectives and some possible strategies to pursue. Two articles ago I expanded my view on Strategy 1, becoming the most innovative food sector in the world. In my last article I expanded my view on Strategy 2, becoming the most productive food sector in the world. Now I would like to move on to Strategy 3.
Strategy 3: Focus on becoming the most sustainable food sector in the world
Sustainability has become a major goal for not just industry, but for nations, and indeed the entire world. It can be interpreted as being adherence to those actions that are environmentally sustainable, like reducing the amount of resources that we utilize and waste that is generated, as well as reducing the amount of energy used. All of those things are keys to being able to sustain ongoing operations over time. We must meet society’s expectations.
More and more, however, several other areas fall within the scope of “sustainability” like, for example, food safety and food chain security (risk management generally). Many companies have gone out of business as a result of a major food safety problem in their products. Food safety has become a key to sustainability for the food industry. Consumers are also seeing “safe foods” as being free from ingredients that may cause them harm in the long term and other aspects of “healthy” food.
Also, the whole area of social responsibility has become a similar issue. Companies cannot easily endure the bad publicity that comes with unsafe working conditions, poor treatment of workers, or in the food industry, the lack of ethical practices regarding animals destined for use as food. These too can lead to the lack of long-term sustainability as a business.
Let’s look at each of these areas.
Food safety is being fairly well addressed using the HACCP-based food safety systems that have evolved over the past two decades, and are beginning to have some global harmonization applied via the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) which benchmarks various HACCP-based systems and either finds them GFSI-recognized or not equivalent. Most retailers around the world have now arrived at the point where they require GFSI-recognized standards to be in place with their suppliers. The GFSI-recognized food safety systems include ISO 22000. This is beginning to have full system application from on-farm production to the consumer. GFSI has the Global GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) system and also the Canada GAP system, developed here in Canada. And they also recognize the PAC Secure system for safe production of food packaging that was, again, developed here in Canada. We need to continue to be recognized as a leader in this area, and in general, we seem to be doing well in this regard.
Social responsibility is a little less well thought out and applied. There are international standards related to occupational health and safety (OHSAS 18001) and social accountability (SA 8000), but they have not been as widespread in adoption as, say, food safety programs. More recenty, ISO has designed two standards in this area. The first is ISO 26000 on Social Responsibility published in late 2010 addressing socially responsible behaviour. They are also in the process of developing ISO 45001 on occupational health and safety, but it has not been published yet. And I am aware of another global standard that is often used as a requirement for suppliers to food processors. It is the Fairtrade Alliance, which is focused most on corporate social responsibility broadly. In addition, there is a U.S.-originated standard for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Finally, in the area of environment and energy, there are standards out there such as the ISO 14000 standard on environmental management. I am also aware of another standard used by buyers of tropical products, such as coffee beans. It is the Rainforest Alliance standard. The Rainforest Alliance is a non-governmental organization (NGO) working to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behaviour. There is also Marine Stewardship Council certification for use by ocean fishing operations.
Are these environment standards sufficient to ensure our environment is preserved? This is becoming one of the biggest global challenges we face in total, and particularly as it applies to the production of food. How will we feed nine billion people if our environment is severely impacted? We won’t be able to. However, if we focus on it, not just at a company level but across the entire industry working collaboratively, we in Canada at least can preserve and grow our food production capabilities.
As an industry, it would be in our best interests to be seen by customers and consumers around the world as a leading example of how an industry can and should operate in these areas. Canada has a fairly strong global image as a pristine country with clean fresh air, lots of clean water, a safe and secure place where people and animals are well-respected and responsibly dealt with. We need to make sure we maintain and build on that image. It will help us from a business standpoint as well. And I must say there is work going on in the sector on these areas, and it is becoming more collaborative.
Addressing all of these issues could bring Canada Food Inc. into a position of being the most sustainable food sector in the world.
For me, there are two actions that need to be taken as first steps.
Best Practices Research: We need to study and develop best practices for our industry in the areas of food safety, environment and corporate social responsibility. This means making a national commitment to all of these areas and ensuring that all of our operations are aware of and adhering to the global best practices in all of these areas. This needs to be done on a total food industry basis with, of course, some variation by sector as appropriate.
Improve Value Chain Collaboration on Sustainability: We can accomplish more working the entire value chain in each sector of the industry, all the way from farm suppliers like fertilizer and crop protection suppliers to name just two, all the way to processors and their suppliers (for example, packaging or equipment manufacturers), and on to retailers and foodservice operators. And of course energy usage needs to be a key point of focus as well so we reduce the amount of energy used, find alternatives, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And of course it cannot be forgotten that about 40 per cent of the food produced goes to waste with a huge amount of that at the consumer household level. What can we do about it?
The topic of sustainability is complex and will be a challenge to make strong progress quickly due to that complexity. But I believe it can be done. We can do it. Let’s do it.
Gary Fread is president of Fread & Associates Ltd., consultants to the food industry. He has spent more than 25 years in management positions in the food processing industry, with a background in sales, logistics, purchasing and technical areas. He has worked with Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup and Morrison Lamothe, and is the past president and CEO of the Guelph Food Technology Centre. He is active in many food industry associations and organizations, serving on the boards of several. Contact him at [email protected]