UC Davis, one the world’s leading agricultural universities, on the global food system

UC Davis, one the world’s leading agricultural universities, on the global food system

© Jay Erker
UC Davis, one the world’s leading agricultural universities, on the global food system

Founding Director

Communications Manager

Sustainable Sourcing of Global Agricultural Raw Materials

Defining and measuring sustainability through the food lens

The definition of sustainability used by many seems simple enough: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This familiar quote from the 1986 Brundtland report, Our Common Future, is useful as a visionary statement, but provides little guidance on how to assess sustainability, much less how to achieve sustainable development. And since sustainable development is multi-dimensional – comprising complex combinations and interactions across economic, social, and environmental issues – the operational challenges become apparent:

What is the minimum list of issues that have to be addressed to back up a comprehensive claim of sustainability?  Is there just one list?  If so, what are the issues that must be on the list?  How can those issues be measured to benchmark progress so that sustainable development is recognizable when it is achieved?  How can we identify, build consensus, and balance tough tradeoffs?  And how can we adapt strategies and practices in a rapidly changing world?  Such a comprehensive, practical, and universally-accepted sustainability framework is an urgent need – let us hope its realization is only a few years away.

In the meantime, the global food system is one of many lenses through which one can usefully view the practical challenges of sustainable development; specifically how to enable our growing human population to feed itself. The social footprint of the food system is indisputable: food is fundamental for human wellbeing, economic prosperity, social stability, and cultural interaction.  Over the past 15-20 years, advances in remote sensing and other data sources also have established beyond doubt that the food system has a huge and growing environmental footprint.  Major roles in land cover change and biodiversity, climate forcing, energy, and freshwater, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, to name a few, place the food system in the center of debates about potential impacts on planetary boundaries and vulnerabilities as boundaries are exceeded.

Why food challenges extend beyond factory walls

Food manufacturers and processors – and commodity traders, financiers, risk managers, and other agribusiness enterprises — operate within this intersection of impacts and vulnerabilities.  Data still are limited, but food companies undertaking evidence-based sustainability efforts are likely to find that their challenges extend far beyond factory walls. An internal assessment by Mars, Incorporated, for example, showed on-site greenhouse gas emissions were only 6% of the total emissions over the complete product life cycle, while well over half of emissions arose upstream in the supply chain. This result is daunting: even perfection in attaining sustainability targets on-site (for example, retrofitting for greater efficiency in energy or water use) may have only a small effect overall.

Moreover, supply chain vulnerabilities also remain unaddressed if focus remains within factory walls.  Droughts and floods, pests and diseases, and economic and political upheavals threaten the livelihoods of agricultural producers and access to raw materials that keep global food businesses humming.

Following this trail in the search for sustainability solutions necessarily takes firms far from familiar home turf of managerial controls and engineering solutions into a chaotic realm.  Self-organizing social and ecological systems interact to produce “rules” of their own, and can adapt in perverse ways to even the best intentions. This holds implications not just for procurement and manufacturing, but also for corporate strategy, capital investment, organizational design, branding, and even the viability of existing business models. Rather than trying to “administer” or “engineer”  the food system, efforts to advance sustainability require what our colleague Howard Shapiro calls “uncommon collaborations” involving businesses, governments and other public institutions, civil society organizations, and farming communities across our planet.

 Why information technology matters

Fortunately, there is good news from the information technology sector, which is undergoing a revolution in availability of huge datasets of heretofore unimagined timeliness and complexity. Ongoing work at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute and the Information Center for the Environment at the University of California at Davis is but one of many contrasting efforts underway to develop informatics applications for food system sustainability.  In collaboration with food companies and other partners, our approach seeks to provide coherence through an integrated, open-source platform. Rather than a single fixed list of sustainability issues and indicators, our computable prototypes can be viewed as a “sustainability checklist generator” that can be used for any agricultural commodity produced anywhere on land.  While three or four indicators will not be sufficient, our prototypes suggest that frameworks can be quite tractable: 15-20 indicators may be suitable for food system sustainability assessment in specific contexts.

We believe these information technology applications can help food companies clarify impact mitigation priorities, identify supply chain vulnerabilities, and benchmark progress toward sustainability goals that matter for everyone.  Moreover, the intersection of sustainability impacts and vulnerabilities also may hold tangible opportunities for firms to enhance competitive advantage, from recruiting and retaining leaders who are motivated by sustainability concerns to enhancing brand loyalty among consumers through verifiable sustainability claims.  For centuries, business models in the food sector have guarded proprietary information to secure profits from thin margins. Perhaps a transparent new “open source” food business model will emerge – mashing up food manufacturing, marketing, risk management, and information technology — to  harness “big data” to inform sustainability strategies and enhance consumer appeal through evidence-based sustainability branding.

* The authors are members of a large team working on sustainable sourcing at UC Davis.  Their work has been funded by a major grant from Mars, Incorporated.  Project information and results can be viewed at www.asi.ucdavis.edu.  Opinions expressed here are those of the authors alone, not the University of California or Mars Incorporated.

About the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis
The Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis works to ensure access to healthy food and to promote the vitality of agriculture today and for future generations. We do this through integrative research, education, communication, and early action on big, emerging issues. ASI is part of the University of California at Davis, ranked as the No. 1 school in the world for teaching and research in agriculture and forestry.


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