First-class Sustainability Conference in Amsterdam

Author: Kai Kreuzer

30 stimulating presentations were delivered at the conference “Sustainable Food Summit” that was held in the Dutch capital on 23-24 June 2011. 130 participants from 16 countries attended the event in the elegant Mövenpick Hotel by the harbour in Amsterdam. The programme offered a commendable mixture of policy papers and company presentations, and what became clear in the process was that there are very different approaches to the complex issue of sustainability. The preparation of the event was excellent – among other things, at the beginning every participant received a conference folder and also a USB stick on which all the presentations were stored. (Picture: A reception with champagne, orange juice and cake to celebrate the tenth birthday of the conference organizers Organic Monitor)

 

The motives of retailers, manufacturers and representatives of organic, environmental and UN organizations for taking part in the conference were very varied. Whilst some discussed organics plus stratategies (fair trade, sustainability, etc.), the focus of the representatives of the conventional retail food trade and conventional manufacturers was on ways to make their sourcing of raw materials and production more ecological and more sustainable. In these considerations – depending on standpoint – the input of organic products, eco-social provenance, the water or CO2 footprint or the sustainable production of palm oil played an important role. The resulting exchange of information and experiences across the demarcation lines between industries and countries was regarded by the vast majority as very productive. (Picture: Mövenpick Hotel in Amsterdam)

Michael Braungart, the founder of the environmental institute Epea-Umweltinstitut got to the core of the issue and expressed the conviction of many participants when he said: “We mustn’t go on making the same thing more and more efficiently and with less and less consumption of raw materials. What we ought to be doing is producing the right things.” There are more and more silly products which it would be best not to have produced instead of investing a great deal of effort in making the packaging and the contents increasingly environmentally friendly. In his entertaining contribution under the well known title “Cradle to Cradle”, he explained that a global change in thinking is called for. “We’ve got to move from waste disposal to nutrient management in order to arrive at a circular economy.” In so doing, he said that even human excrement should not be ignored, since it had an important contribution to make in supplying soils with phosphate.

The conference began with a very committed statement by Ulrich Hoffmann (picture), the head of the section Trade and Sustainable Development at UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. He advocated unequivocally the expansion of organic agriculture in developing countries. He said the challenge was carrying on developing the methods of agricultural support from the green revolution to eco-intensification. He referred not only to the IASTAAD report but also to relevant publications of UNCTAD. For more than ten years he has been advocating giving more consideration to organic agriculture in economically underdeveloped regions. Hoffmann was appointed the coordinator of the UN forum for sustainability standards that will shortly be starting its work. He said that two of the main problems were the fact that 50 % of world grain production ended up in the fodder trough to produce meat and that the USA, the biggest grain producer in the world, was already using 40 % of its grain to produce biofuel. This was causing a shortage and driving up prices, so that there was no longer a buffer for feeding the poorest people. It is well known that hunger in the world is mainly the result of politics. “Food riots and kicking elites out of power” he sees as a consequence of years of the failure of politics in developing countries.

Ruth Mathews (picture), a former WWF employee, introduced the Water Footprint Network. 92 % of water consumption occurs in agriculture and only 1 % in households. The charitable organization would like to raise awareness of using rainwater, surface water and water that has already been used, so-called grey water.To produce one kilogramme of bread (including the production of grain) 1,600 litres of water are used; to produce one kilogramme of beef the input of water is 15,400 litres.
But, as someone asked, what use is it to consumers when they find on the packaging a footprint of carbon dioxide emissions in kilogrammes and are not told whether it is a lot or a little. For some time, the British retail chain Tesco has been printing this kind of footprint information on labels on the back of packaging. The water expert advised against introducing another label like the Tesco CO2 footprint. There was agreement among us in Amsterdam that it’s not a question of devising and disseminating more labels that present a single criterion. What is needed is a multi-logo or combi-logo, a single logo that encompasses organic, fair and sustainable (production, transport and packaging). Each with their own fair labels, Naturland and Ecocert, for example, are at least meeting the first two criteria already.

Koert Jansen from the Dutch Triodos Bank, that finances many projects in the sustainability sector, reported on, among other things, the activities of the bank in providing bridging loans to finance the harvests of organic and fair trade farmers in developing countries. (Picture/David Finato: Kai Kreuzer congratulating Amarjit Sahota on the the tenth anniversary of Organic Monitor and wishing him every success in the future)

How can sustainability be measured, corroborated and compared? This was one of the main issues at this extremely interesting event in Amsterdam. Is it a question of food miles, CO2 emissions, the consumption of water involved in production, or is it a question of social criteria? The devil is in the detail and clever experts, given a particular interest or conviction, can prove everything and nothing with figures and calculations. For example, it is supposed to be much more ecological to produce lamb in New Zealand and to transport it 17,000 km to England than to source lamb from farmers in Wales or Scotland. According to the calculations of Diederik Brasser from the juice equipment manufacturer Trilobes, highly efficient production of juice in Brazil makes it economically and ecologically much better by a long way than producing the juice in Spain. It possibly is the case when you learn that one juice tanker can transport a hardly conceivable load of 35,000 litres of juice (15 million kg). But might there not be another issue, namely sustaining jobs in organic farming in Spain or Italy?

The last part of the conference was taken up with presentations that illustrated the different approaches to the issue of sustainability. Whilst some representatives of associations like Brian Lindsay from the SAI Platform (initiative for sustainable agriculture)  or the association Green Palm prefered a broad brush approach to involve all member associations and firms at a minimum level, for others such as the eco-social logo EcoSocial it was a question of the highest possible standard of organic and fair trade criteria. Alexandre Harkaly (picture) from the Brazilian certification organisation IBD (Instituto Biodinâmico) explained in detail the many positive aspects accruing to the local population from implementing the criteria. In contrast to the FLO criteria, that are aimed principally at maintaining working conditions, EcoSocial’s guidelines are concerned with improving the living conditions of village communities (see the comparison in the graphic above).

Amarjit Sahota (picture), the owner and managing director of Organic Monitor, presented current data on the the worldwide organic market. His estimate of the global turnover of organic food in 2010 was 59 billion US dollars. Despite the economic crisis, that is now receding, average growth of 7-8 % was achieved. His calculations showed the organic share in the total food market across the world to be approximately 2 %. 96 % of organic sales occurred in North America and Europe, with 4 % distributed across Asia, Australia, South America and Africa. However, only 32 % of organically managed land is found in the main consumer countries.

The participants in the conference were very pleased with the quality and delivery of the presentations. People had the opportunity to argue about the contents – and that’s as it should be. People have to weigh up and argue in public for what they consider to be the right way and the right small steps forward. All those taking part were left in no doubt: there is no single road to success. Rebekka Majcen from the Centre for Organic Farming in Visselhövede in Lower Saxony summed up the views of many people present when she said: “Overall, it was an interesting conference with a wide variety of contributions from different sectors.” And Fran Rosario, an employee of the firm Lovechock, that supplies artisan organic chocolate in raw food quality to the specialist trade in the Netherlands and now in Germany, said: “A very interesting meeting of very different firms concerned with the issue of sustainablility. I found the information was top quality and it’s good to know that there are already so many initiatives in place but also that there’s still a great deal to be done in this area. Whether you’re a small firm or a big one, everybody can get stuck in. I have to say though that we’re still on a learning curve, and that’s why a forum like this one is important for communicating with each other. You couldn’t fail to notice good will on all sides!”



Comment:

The conference in Amsterdam took place without the German specialist trade taking part. That’s a pity, because there was a lot to learn and to discuss. Why was this? Isn’t sustainability an issue for wholefood retailers and wholesalers? Is it that we scarcely think about things and discuss issues beyond our immediate practical concerns? The reason seems to be twofold: first, the organizer was an Englishman who is known only in certain specialist circles in Germany. Secondly the specialist trade is not keen on attending a joint event and discussing principles. But the times have changed. The time is has now arrived when you can discuss things with the conventional retail trade on an equal footing and argue about whose concepts are better. And what still gives the conventional trade a head start over the specialist trade is the fact that it reaches far more people than the specialist trade. If you want to implement sustainability ideas rapidly and effectively, you need all the actors in the market and these people should not just be talking about each other but to each other!

01.07.2011

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