Lifefair: What is Sustainable Food?
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Lifefair: What is Sustainable Food?

Food is not only vital for our bodies but also for the economy and our cultural habits. In light of global developments such as climate change, increasing economic competition and a decrease in water and land resources, the issue of sustainable food becomes even more important. But what is sustainable food? The 25th Lifefair Forum is dedicated to this question and sheds light on the responsibilities of the society, the economy and politics.

Let's start with a basic question: what is sustainable food?

Adrian Wiedmer, Gebana: Sustainable food sustains our lives as consumers without compromising the lives of food producers or future generations. In other words, it is cultivated on a sustainable basis and traded fairly. Because food conjures up a whole range of emotions in people, the subject of sustainable food is ideologically more heavily loaded than other sustainability issues. However, there are objective, measurable approaches to evaluating sustainable food – such as lifecycle assessments.

André Waltisberg, Migros Zurich: Sustainable food must meet certain criteria. First, production of the food should not result in any lasting damage to the natural world and should be based on renewable resources/energy. Second, people who were involved in the production process must be treated fairly, compensated properly, and given a secure job. Third, the product must be accepted by consumers at a price that enables all stakeholders involved to at least cover their costs. In short, sustainable food is environment-friendly (and animal-friendly in the case of animal products), socially responsible, fair, and competitive.

Patrick Camele, SV Group: Sustainable food is cultivated, transported, and processed in a way that conserves resources. This all takes place on the basis of fair working conditions and a business case that is attractive and respectful for all parties concerned: farmers, producers, traders, and consumers. For instance, we believe it is important to reduce our carbon footprint by purchasing more than 80 percent of our products from Switzerland and by not choosing goods that were brought in by plane. Also, it seems to me that the consumer and the supplier sometimes have too little awareness of how wasteful it is to heat greenhouses using fossil fuel and of the negative impact they therefore have on the environment.

Dionys Forster, Nestlé: Sustainable agriculture must be economically worthwhile and socially responsible. Equally, however, it needs to preserve natural resources. In addition, it is important that it promotes entrepreneurial activity and is therefore able to respond dynamically and constantly to changing market conditions.

What are the factors favoring production in Switzerland, and what are the factors favoring production abroad?

Urs Schneider, Swiss Farmers' Association: Domestic products are known for their high quality, and are also guaranteed to meet our strict standards. Short transportation routes are another plus point. Additional positive effects include land management and decentralized communities, for example.

Adrian Wiedmer: In terms of production in Switzerland, the emotional factor and more direct connection are always important factors. Depending on the product, other important factors include ecology (transportation) and quality/security thanks to Swiss legislation. As for production abroad, on the other hand, price is almost always the key factor. Ecology is frequently a factor too, particularly in regions where the production of a particular type of food is less energy-intensive than in Switzerland. Sometimes quality can be better on account of the climate. However, the focus is also on the positive economic effects for (mostly poorer) producing countries – this is particularly pertinent in the case of fair trade.

André Waltisberg: Products that are suited to Switzerland by virtue of its natural and economic locational advantages are produced domestically. With its high precipitation as well as a large number of hills and mountains, Switzerland offers classic pastureland. Consequently, dairy and meat products are particularly suitable for domestic production. We also have lots of areas for cultivating fruit and vegetables. That's very important too, since these products need to be as fresh as possible – hence the importance of short transportation routes. Other products such as exotic fruits, cocoa, and coffee cannot be produced in Switzerland due to the climate. Here it makes more sense to produce them in warmer hemispheres, rather than heating costly greenhouses in Switzerland.

What role does business play, e.g. the food industry and the catering sector?

Urs Schneider: Business – and the food industry in particular – has a tremendous responsibility. We need to do all we can to be successful right across the value chain, and ensure all those involved – at all levels – get some sort of reward. The catering sector has tremendous potential to exploit if it showcases its use of local produce to a greater extent.

Patrick Camele: The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into effect on January 1, 2016. These are the UN objectives of ensuring sustainable development in the economic, social, and ecological spheres. The 17 SDGs are an ideal compass for governments, companies, and society to gear their behavior toward that end and integrate this into their objectives. Since every business has a responsibility, we too are seeking to align our partnerships accordingly; for example, we work closely with the World Wildlife Fund and Swiss Animal Protection.

Information technology is increasingly deployed in agriculture too. This is resulting in "digital fields" and smart greenhouses in Africa, for example, but also in Japan. What does sustainable food production mean nowadays? Can digital solutions make food more sustainable?

Dionys Forster: Consumers increasingly want information about the content, production, and origin of food. Digital technologies can improve the transparency and traceability of products. Giving consumers access to such solutions enables their confidence in the products and forms of agricultural production to be strengthened. Technology can also be used to deliver important additional information to farmers about crop production, animal husbandry, as well as business management. This knowledge can lead to more efficient use of production resources (pesticides and fertilizers). Digital solutions have the potential to make not just agriculture but also the entire food value chain more sustainable. Yet many of these developments are still in their infancy: specialized applications do enable improved recording and analysis of cultivation, animal husbandry, and business data, but most technologies are not sufficiently networked.

Urs Schneider: Absolutely, yes they can. Agriculture uses modern technologies, and indeed has often played a lead role in the past. For example, the Swiss Farmers' Union played a pioneering role with Agri in the 1990s. Agriculture 4.0 is a highly topical issue, because information technology can certainly help to optimize processes and therefore costs.

Will price ultimately guide the use of resources and eating habits? Or what other factors can help make food more sustainable?

André Waltisberg: Hopefully not, because in most cases sustainability doesn't come free. Fair working conditions demand just wages, and that ultimately means additional costs. But food is more than just a cost factor: the culture, enjoyment, variety, and social dimension of food also play an important role. Sustainable development will therefore require awareness and knowledge about circumstances right along the value chain, for instance. Every single supplier can contribute to this. For example, we have awareness campaigns and in-store recycling. But in the end gearing your product range to as much sustainability as possible always needs to pay off economically.

Patrick Camele: It's true that price is a decisive incentivizing factor for ensuring food is cultivated on a sustainable basis. I'm pleased to see that more and more consumers are finding out about sustainable food and are willing to spend more money on it. We think we can offer consumers (and also the environment) clear added value through greater enjoyment, for example in the form of exciting vegetarian recipes.

What role does politics play in the sustainable production and consumption of food?

Dionys Forster: Politics defines the framework for sustainable agricultural production. Part of the political debate must be about reflecting on current forms of production in a constantly changing environment and about anticipating future developments. This debate needs to be open and transparent, and to involve the consumer. Fact is, it is ultimately the consumer who decides based on their purchase behavior. Thus laws and regulations that do not meet the requirements of consumers will not achieve their objectives and will also be of little help to farmers.