A handful of graduates have delivered a solution which eluded business and policy for decades – a consumer-facing carbon label for food. It only took them two years. And that’s just the start. Next up – metrics addressing the broader environmental and human impact of food production.
Having just completed its first funding round, Foodsteps is looking ahead to projects outside the UK, urging all the world’s food companies to “undergo quite dramatic shifts in a short amount of time,” in the words of founder Anya Doherty.
The company has moved so fast, it is outpacing policy. But this pace is a reflection of consumer demand. “The acceleration is really compounding,” Anya Doherty explains.
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“We did pitches a year ago where prospects were like ‘okay I could see why maybe people would want that information, but basically not yet’.
“It’s really exciting to see a lot of those people taking a 180-degree turn, seeing the world around them is changing.
“Carbon labelling is a great way for food companies to show they are taking sustainability seriously.
“Our platform makes labelling scalable and accessible to food companies”
“Within the next two years we’re aiming for thousands of new products with our labels on them, and hundreds of food companies actively tracking their impact, seeing it as fundamental to their operations.”
And the economic impact should ripple back down the food chain. She explains, “Food brands are the gate keepers.
“When they adopt the label, everyone else, wholesalers and farmers, are encouraged to follow suit. Once the end cog in the supply chain is measuring carbon footprint, it encourages, or requires those in their supply chain to do the same.”
Anya Doherty’s journey began as an undergraduate studying biochemistry at Cambridge University.
“I took a course in ecology and sustainability. I was a bit overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge on our hands, with climate change and biodiversity loss,” she explains.
“I got particularly interested in food, which is right at the very centre of this environmental problem. I ended up specialising in food sustainability science.”
In a short space of time, the Foodsteps platform was developed with support won from Innovate UK’s Sustainability Innovation Fund.
“Customers will choose Foodsteps-labelled products in favour of others”
“It makes labelling scalable and accessible to food companies,” Anya Doherty explains. “If you’re a restaurant, catering company, food manufacturer, you put in information about your ingredients, your products, how you’re making them, and where you’re sourcing ingredients from, and the platform tells you the carbon footprint and other environmental impacts.
“It’s very much a plug and play solution. We make it really easy to download our carbon label, which the food brands can showcase on their packaging.
“We also built an app called Food Story, which is delivered by a QR code on the label. This allows consumers to go behind the scenes, via the app, on their mobile device – showing them the whole food journey from farm to fork.”
Although not every customer can yet be announced, already the company’s work with tempeh food brand Better Nature has been widely feted. Foodsteps calculated the carbon footprint for all five of Better Nature’s retail products.
The products received Foodsteps’ highest A rating, meaning they scored “very low” carbon emissions. Foodsteps then showed the company how to further reduce that footprint, working with Climate Care to double offset emissions, giving Better Nature a carbon negative status.
“What’s interesting is brands want to market that type of information to their consumers,” says Lila Mehta, the third person to join the company, who focuses on business development.
“If it’s too hard and you steer away, that’s just kicking the can down the road”
“It signals a real shift in what brands believe will help customers choose their products, in favour of others.”
Further Foodsteps customers include catering company CH&Co and its sister company Gather and Gather, along with University College London.
“We’ve chosen to focus our proof of concept on carbon, keeping things straightforward,” explains Anya Doherty. “But we see food sustainability as a holistic concept. It’s about so much more than carbon. It’s about biodiversity, soil health, animal health, human health.
“So, after we’ve gone through the process of proving that there is a market for carbon analysis, we want to bring in other metrics.”
Clearly the job isn’t easy, or carbon labelling would be have been widely available before now, but as Anya Doherty says, “If you’re saying it’s too hard and steering away, that’s just kicking the can down the road.
“With the biggest problems come the biggest opportunities for the people who are going to put the time and the sweat into it.
“We’ve stuck to the integrity of our work. It’s really easy to cut corners, but we believe that quality and integrity always shine through at the end of the day.
“The problem is the opportunity: the food system isn’t set up to capture this data”
“You’re ever trying to get closer to the truest impact. Doing bespoke calculations from farm to fork is really the future.
“The problem with that, but also the opportunity, is that the whole food system isn’t really set up to capture this data at each stage of the food life cycle, what fertilisers were used, what processing was done, and what packaging was used.
“There are thousands of fantastic published studies out there, but as you get further into it you do hit a wall where no one has actually looked at the thing that you are trying to calculate. So, we’ve had to build those models.
“Luckily for us we’re living in an age where technology is improving the efficiency of this work. We’ve got such an opportunity now with machine learning, artificial intelligence. So much more will be automated.”
Lila Mehta adds, “What’s great about the team is that we’re all really interested in food. We keep persisting because we are fundamentally really interested in knowing the different carbon impact between a tomato that comes from Britain and one from Spain, for example.”
The team’s concern reflects consumer interest in the real world, the pair say. Anya Doherty was able to demonstrate consumer demand for carbon labelling while still at university.
“Our research proved informed consumers significantly reduce carbon impact”
“I worked as a post grad researcher at Cambridge, I was lucky to work with Cambridge chefs and caterers doing environmental impact assessments for their food,” she says.
“We showed that measuring carbon and offering lower carbon menus significantly reduced the carbon footprint of food being purchased.
“It highlighted that there is a knowledge and information gap. As consumers, our decisions would be different if we had impact information. We are making decisions based on ignorance and a lack of information.
“Labels won’t necessarily be the silver bullet, but they have to be part of the language around food, because it has such a vast impact on the planet.
“Universities are fantastic places because there’s lot of different but similar canteens, so you can run the experiment at the same time at four, five different locations. That’s how you build up the data.
“There have been experiments but most of them look at dry labs or web-based experiments asking people to sit at a computer and simulate what they would choose in a restaurant.
“It can feel quite overwhelming. But that’s not a reason not to try”
“It’s very hard to do these experiments in person because you need to create controls. You need to be able to see what the effect was before and after labelling and also to repeat that across different locations. If you just did it across one site it might be an anomaly.
“We led the largest experimental trials to date, the paper’s currently under review.”
Foodsteps’ work has so far been tailored to the UK market. Its British database covers food grown in the UK and consumed in the UK, showing the impact of all imported food.
Anya Doherty says, “We have some exciting projects on the horizon with companies in the Middle East, Hong Kong, the US. That’s a great opportunity for us in the next phase, to expand our data base to cover different areas.
“With the funds raised we’ll be able to double the team, so we’re hoping to be as many as 15 or 20 by the end of next year. That’s a lot of data crunching, but that’s what we love.
“There’s so much to be done in such a short amount of time. It can feel quite overwhelming. But that’s not a reason not to try.”