Sustainable Food Comes of Age

It's hard to pinpoint an exact definition or an exact beginning of the sustainable food movement. No doubt human beings everywhere have always sought a sustainable food supply. But I'd argue that the various definitions converge on the same set ideas, and that the movement is forty or so years old.

Its origins post-date and reacted against the misnomer "green revolution" of the 1950s, which converted America's World War II chemical weapons factories into a peacetime pesticide industry. That created a new chemical-intensive farming regime which rapidly came to dominate the world, and still does, though not for much longer. It has vastly increased yields, but also spread toxins, depleted soils, and initiated a global pattern of unsustainable land use and negative health and environmental impacts.

There was a backlash -- small and marginal at first. It coincided with the back-to-the-land counterculture of the 1960s, but it was a deep, global impulse cutting across diverse cultures, driven by a combination of emerging awareness of environmental issues and desire for an alternative to the conventional food system. In the mid 1960s the first community supported agriculture coop, or tekei , was established in Japan. By the early 1970s organic farming had emerged as a recognizable global movement. Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971 and spent the last 40 years demonstrating the joys and benefits of cooking and eating locally, sustainably grown food, and highlighting the direct connection between the food on her tables and "the farmers who are taking care of the land, the farmers who are really thinking about our nourishment."

The inheritors of pioneers like Waters and the tekei are legion today. In one generation, millions of us have gone from obliviousness to daily awareness of our connection to the land and farms that feed us. CSA subscribers and farmers' market regulars today not only understand how to share in the benefits of farming, but as severe weather events like the Texas drought or Hurricane Irene become more frequent and impact yields, they are learning to appreciate the need to share in the risks as well.

But the sustainable food movement today is by no means limited to CSAs and farmer's markets -- elective niches for those who can afford it. It is global and diverse, cutting across social and income strata, as sustainably grown foods penetrate the global food system, and increasingly show up in mainstream consumer brands and outlets at mainstream prices, from Kraft coffees to Chiquita bananas to Lipton teas to Mars chocolates.

Today, global food companies and brands once synonymous with unsustainable industrial agriculture are converting their supply chains (the thousands of farms worldwide that grow the produce they process into consumer products) to sustainable production. Signs of this transformation are everywhere. For example, global giant Unilever has made a game-changing commitment to getting 100% of its agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources by 2020.

Companies gravitate to sustainability for business reasons, which in itself shows how much the food business has changed. They want to assure future supply and meet demonstrated consumer demand. Study after study shows that given availability and similar price points, about a third of consumers prefer sustainably grown products to non-sustainable ones. Markets for sustainable food have undergone rapid, sustained growth since the early 2000s, which has been uninterrupted by economic downturn and may even be accelerating. In the UK, a new survey found that 58% of shoppers are more environmentally conscious today than just five years ago, and that 73% say that given affordable choices, they will choose products that are environmentally friendly.

It's remarkable that consumer demand has driven the sustainable food impulse to the brink of transforming the global food industry and turning its negative impacts into positive ones, in just a few decades. My organization, the Rainforest Alliance, started working to encourage and certify sustainable agriculture in 1990. Today there are over 89,000 Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms in 30 countries, producing over 100 kinds of crops, benefiting more than two million workers and protecting habitats and wildlife -- even as climate change, population growth and spiking food demand put more pressure on the environment.

These are pretty complex connections to get across. You can't exactly fit the reasons why the foods we choose impact people and environments worldwide in an advertising slogan or a sound bite. Yet consumers still appreciate and act on them, and even accord them a kind of brand loyalty. The recent proliferation of ecolabels and sustainability certification regimes further complicates the picture. It takes attention and time - both scarce resources in the marketplace -- to discern what each seal represents. Yet unlike the characters in this social media video, consumers aren't confused or daunted; they confidently and increasingly choose sustainability.

The explanation has to be that consumers are much more sophisticated and nuanced in their understanding of sustainabilty and their connection to these global issues than many marketers would have believed even a few years ago. They are the ones who are leading global industries and markets to new norms and practices, rather than being led by them. It's taken four decades for the sustainable food movement to reach this point of integration. But now that it has, there is no turning back.