New Metrics Framework for Sustainable Foods

A new project by the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) is looking to provide a framework to harmonise sustainability metrics.  

There is growing pressure for the food industry to become more sustainable, however there is currently no universal system which accurately and effectively measures how sustainable a food product is.

In addition, about £116 billion (EUR 133 billion) of environmental and health-related costs are not included in the retail price of food, according to SFT.

These two factors mean consumers cannot accurately compare products on sustainability; not just in a range, but across brands, food types, countries and individual farms. At the other end of the chain, farmers who work at being as sustainable as possible do not often get proper recognition and reward, while there is little incentive for the biggest polluters to change.

To help resolve this issue, the SFT and a group of farmers and land managers have been developing a framework which would allow the sustainability of individual farms (and therefore products) to be measured. If retailers and food companies get on board, it is hoped a standardised labelling system would communicate the metrics to consumers. And if governments become involved, it could reshape how food is traded.

According to Patrick Holden, SFT director: “In order to get an accurate assessment of the impact of farm level externalities, you have to have a way of measuring it through a harmonised or common framework, not just in the UK but throughout the world. At the moment, there are more than 100 sustainability assessment tools out there globally. It is very confusing.”

“What we have been working on assesses farm sustainability impacts, both positive and negative.[Imagine it were a balance sheet], the balance sheet is the net impact of the farm practice in a year on the stocks of natural and human capital.”

If adopted, Mr Holden said it could also encourage more farmers to adopt sustainability practices.

The basis of the framework is to get a set of metrics, indicators and data collection for products. Such metrics will be for soil, water, air, biodiversity, social capital, etc. The aim is to converge the system to form a template applicable to any farm, whether in the UK, Australia or Africa. Farmers would collect data themselves and be assessed externally according to requirements by their own authorities or certification bodies.

Various stakeholders are interested in the new harmonised framework of sustainability metrics. The UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is trialling the framework on 25 farms while it develops the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. The SFT is also in discussion with certification bodies and food manufacturers.

Ecovia Intelligence Comment
There is growing interest in sustainability metrics in the food industry. It is often said, you cannot reduce what you cannot measure; metrics play an important role in measuring and reducing environmental & related impacts. They are a vital part of the sustainability programmes of food companies and retailers. However as shown at the Sustainable Foods Summit, standardisation and sharing metrics are major issues. Gathering metrics can be an expensive process and there is no incentive to share data. The success of the new SFT framework hinges on adoption rates…if it develops wings, it could fly!

Sustainability metrics are regularly featured at the Sustainable Foods Summit. Upcoming editions will be in an Francisco (20-21 January), Singapore (15-16 March), and Amsterdam (9-11 June). More details are on the website.

Source: Farmers Guardian, Ecovia Intelligence (04/04)