Maybe the carbon footprint of an ultra-processed vegan burger rates really well, but the nutritional profile is poor. Perhaps I choose to eat a steak or burger this time, but I want the meat that fed on methane-reducing feed, that was processed in a meat packing plant where workers are treated well. Did the women who produced this get paid the same as the men?
These are the questions we want answered as we stand in the supermarket deciding what to put in our trolley, how to spend our hard-earned cash. And frankly we have a right to the answers.
How powerful is consumer power? Well, we don’t have vested interests. Where we go, business and policy follows. We can become loyal to a product overnight, and remain loyal for a lifetime, generating huge profits for a company and guaranteeing income to everyone in the supply chain. We are nimble with our money, and we want to be moral.
It’s time to sic consumer power on the food system. Hunger and malnutrition is still the biggest killer in the world and has been since measurements began. Most of these deaths are avoidable. Of the 700,000 people facing hunger now, 500,00 people shouldn’t be. They are not in a war zone, or a famine afflicted area. They simply don’t have enough money to buy the healthy food that is readily available. And lots of them are producing the food we’re buying.
Consumer power can make sure fair wages are paid, it can reduce food waste, it can address climate change. We can lead a race to the top in making the world of agriculture and food work properly. We just need to be armed with the right information.
“There is no other area where the human rights of so many people are violated as in the food system”
With hunger and malnutrition killing 30,000 people a day, even though there is enough healthy food for everyone being produced, even though the food and agriculture industry is worth more than US$8 trillion, and even though food-related humanitarian aid has risen to more than US$6.5 billion, clearly nobody who works in food systems, regardless of what they do, is particularly good at this. Consumers can make all the difference.
There are dozens, hundreds of rating labels on packs. They give us all sorts of nutritional information and we’re starting to see the carbon impact of food choices finding their way into labelling as well.
But we’re learning that organisations such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance, which are self-appointed, are only checking 30 per cent of cocoa beans in West Africa. Worse still slave labour is not a metric they or anyone else is monitoring. Dolphin Safe, for example, admits it cannot guarantee the truth behind its labelling programme, and there is no widely accepted metric for responsibly fished products.
Consumers want the full picture. If a product doesn’t meet the highest food safety standards, if it polluted the environment unnecessarily and caused biodiversity loss, if poor nutritional quality is being concealed, then my human rights are being breached.
But equally important: none of us wants to participate in breaching other people’s human rights around pay and wellbeing at work, or land sovereignty. We don’t want to reward companies that are doing the wrong thing.
“There is no other area where the human rights of so many people are violated as in the food system,” said Prof. Joachim von Braun, recently. He heads the Scientific Group for the UN Food Systems Summit.
By tipping that farmer direct, via an app, you side-step mind-bending complexity and expense
The metrics exist, the technology exists, the consumer demand is overwhelming. All that’s lacking is leadership. And when you hunt around for leadership there’s only one obvious place to turn – the United Nations.
The UN’s upcoming Food Systems Summit is dedicated to addressing the full impacts of agriculture and food production.
It’s the perfect opportunity to dream big and genuinely unify the concerns of everyone affected by the food system, for once and for all.
Imagine using your phone to scan a QR code on a food product in the supermarket, and receiving a full story about when the seeds were planted and harvested, about how the food was grown, introducing the farmers.
There’s loads of examples of this tech, here is just one.
You might like to tip the farmer directly, via the app. That simple function has the potential to eliminate multiple layers of complexity. Imagine picking up a mango in the supermarket, and, having learned where it was grown, you decide to pay 50 cents more for it. Perhaps it was grown in a regenerative agriculture project in sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps its grown by self-employed mothers on a small holding. By tipping that farmer direct, you have side-stepped mind-bending hours of policy briefing and debate, of charitable fundraising and campaign delivery, over-priced consultancy, and all sorts of redtape, to ensure that farmer gets every cent extra you wanted to pay.
Perhaps you’d like to tip a farmer in a high-income country, who has taken a risk and re-organised their methods around producing clean air and clean water. You want to reward them for their bravery and thank them for delivering something delicious.
The label can be voluntary but we know consumers will favour the brands that adopt it
You could do it for coffee beans, for chocolate, milk, eggs, you name it.
The QR code sits on a label that also rates the product you’re about to buy against food safety, nutrition, environmental impact, labour rights and land sovereignty.
Adopting the label can be voluntary. Food brands don’t need to be forced to apply it. But we know that consumers will favour the brands that do. It’s a great opportunity for brands. We also know that the rating scheme doesn’t have to lead to elitism in food choices. Already mainstream accessible shops like Aldi are selling high volumes of plant-based alternative product ranges, for example.
So how? We need three things. Firstly, we need a UN-backed committee with representatives from across all areas of the food system, we need Indigenous Peoples, young people, labour organisations, civil society, farmers of holdings big and small, business interests, finance interests, and scientists. This committee will approve and monitor the framework criteria.
This committee then endorses a set of traceability standards to be captured across agri-food chains. These are the supply chain inputs. Who is the farmer? Where is their land? What was the carbon footprint? How about the water scarcity impact? Was the chicken chlorine washed? Where was this fish caught and how? Were the crops GMO? What proportion of the sale was profit for the farmer, the transporter, the processor? This information is filled out at each step along the way.
Food brands can use any tech supplier they like, but they will all adopt the UN validated traceability framework.
All the metrics can be locally relevant and they should be dynamic, with ratings updated regularly
And lastly, we need UN endorsed independent monitoring systems. There are many experts and examples that would inform this element of the proposal, such as Rugmark.
All the metrics can be localised, measuring, say, the carbon impact of transporting a product depending on where you are, or whether a crop was grown in a water scarce area.
And the metrics should be dynamic, never final. As production systems improve, as brands switch to more ethical suppliers, as more data becomes available, ratings can change very rapidly.
This label would create a practical application leading to genuine change for all the great science and research that already exists.
Yes, this is Quota, we live and breathe the complexity of the food system. We don’t need to be reminded of all the reasons this idea is difficult. We have probably reported on them already.
What we also know is how real the possibility is. We report on disparate food systems solutions, week in and week out, that never make their way into consumer choices. Enough already.
If it’s something you’d like to get behind please say so across your networks
We already have a World Benchmarking Alliance report on the 350 most influential food and agriculture companies able to drive the sustainable development agenda forward, a UN Eco accounting framework, a UK Eco accounting framework, the Dasgupta Review, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s, Vision 2050. Unilever is developing monitoring processes to ensure a living wage is paid throughout its entire supply chain, Oxfam is measuring progress on labour rights, the impact of food choices on water scarcity is being measured, you can track greenhouse gas emissions from food systems and carbon impact, food waste, and nutritional metrics in supermarket provision. You can track which commodities are causing deforestation. And this is just scratching the surface.
Why isn’t all this knowledge brought together so the consumer can use it?
Quota has submitted a proposal for this to the UN Food Systems Summit. A people friendly, planet friendly, and animal welfare friendly set of standards.
If it’s something you’d like to get behind please say so across your social media networks, and make sure the Food Systems Summit decision makers know about it. We are @GlobalQuota if you want to loop us in. The Food Systems Summit on twitter is @FoodSystems and @unfoodsystems on Instagram.
We believe the label should rate the five following categories:
- Food safety
- Nutritional profile
- Quality of labour
- Environmental impact
- Land sovereignty
Metric to measure, examples
|Food safety||Addressing animal welfare standards and food quality standards|
|Nutrition||Improving metrics to address obesity|
|Labour||Judging living wages throughout a supply chain, gender equality, health and welfare standards|
|Environmental impact||Water scarcity, food waste, GHG emissions and other pollutions (inc, ie, plastic packaging), biodiversity loss, soil impact to be measured against possible positives, ie regenerative agriculture, carbon off-setting. Opportunity to introduce UN’s Eco Accounting mechanism, applying the true cost of the product to nature|
|Land sovereignty||Judging the origin of the product against land displacement and land rights. Also water rights inc in particular those of Indigenous People. And the impact of pollution on traditional food systems.|
Matrix showing how this labelling system will drive adoption of UN Sustainable Development Goals:
Label metric impact
Significance for diet and food
|1||No poverty||Labour||Inequalities determine access to diet; c. 80% of the world’s poor are rural, many working on food|
|2||Zero hunger||Labour, nutrition, land sovereignty||c. 800 million are hungry; c. 2 billion overweight or obese|
|3||Good health and wellbeing||Food safety, nutrition, labour, environmental impact, land sovereignty||Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages|
|4||Quality education||Labour + the label itself||80% of the world’s poor are rural, many working on food|
|5||Gender equality||Labour||Women are concentrated in the lowest paid, least secure roles across agrifood, providing a reserve of cheap, flexible labour on which modern food supply chains are built, according to Oxfam|
|6||Clean water||Environmental impact, land sovereignty||Crops and livestock account for 70% of all water withdrawals|
|7||Affordable clean energy||Environmental impact, land sovereignty||Food systems use 30% of global energy resources|
|8||Decent work and economic growth||Labour, environmental impact||80% of the world’s poor are rural, many working on food|
|9||Industry, innovation and infrastructure||Labour, environmental impact, food safety, nutrition,||60% of the economy is driven by consumption – directing consumer choices toward improved choices will create rapid positive innovation|
|10||Reducing inequality||Food safety, nutrition, labour, environmental impact, land sovereignty||80% of the world’s poor are rural, many working on food.|
|11||Sustainable cities and communities||Nutrition, labour, environmental impact, land sovereignty||Directing consumer choices toward improved choices will create rapid positive innovation|
|12||Responsible consumption and production||Food safety, nutrition, labour, environmental impact, land sovereignty||An estimated 30% of food is wasted; changing dietary patterns increase food’s footprint|
|13||Climate action||Environmental impact||Diet is a major contributor to climate change, accelerating with the nutrition transition. Agri-food production contributes 30% of GHG emissions|
|14||Life below water||Environmental impact, land sovereignty||c.29% of commercially important
assessed marine fish stocks
are overfished; c.61% are fully fished
|15||Life on land||Environmental impact, land sovereignty||A third of land is degraded; up to 75% of crop genetic diversity is lost|
|16||Peace, justice and strong institutions||Food safety, labour, environmental impact, land sovereignty, the label itself||The Aarhus Convention confirms that access to the information in an omni-label is a human right|
|17||Partnerships for goals||Food safety, nutrition, labour, environmental impact, land sovereignty, the label||Working with all FSS constituencies|
|Reach the community furthest behind||Reach the community furthest behind||Labour, environmental impact, land sovereignty, the label||Delivering change to those the lowest paid and most exploited in agri-food production|