New food project tracks sustainability from farm to supermarket shelf

New food project tracks sustainability from farm to supermarket shelf

Jack Hamilton, chief executive of Co. Down-based vegetable producer Mash Direct, pictured with his mother Tracy. Mash Direct has already adopted the Foundation Earth scoring system. File Photo Pacemaker Press

What if, the next time you checked the calories, sugar, or fat content on a food label in the supermarket, you could also see how sustainable its journey to the shelf was?

Foundation Earth is an independent, non-profit organisation established to issue front-of-pack environmental scores on food products. The brainchild of late Northern Irish food entrepreneur Denis Lynn, Foundation Earth already has its labels on pilot products here in Ireland.

Foundation Earth assesses the entire journey of a food product to the shelf, based on four key measures: carbon, water usage, water pollution and biodiversity. The product then gets a final overall grade, A+ (great) to G (not good), and a corresponding colour from green to red, which are displayed on the front of the packet.

You can then search the product online to view its Foundation Earth certificate in full, and see the exact details of its environmental impact.

CEO of Foundation Earth, Cliona Howie, believes that their grading system for sustainability of food products could be “transformative” for global food supply chains, as it would allow consumers to make informed choices, and allow producers and retailers to make informed investments in improving sustainability of their products.

“There isn’t really any way right now that we can confidently choose what food we eat based on what environmental impact it has. We want to bring a universal standard to how sustainability labelling is done, raising the bar by using science-based evidence that’s independently verified, and in a way that's easy to communicate to the consumer,” she said.

Foundation Earth is financed by yearly membership subscriptions and fees for scoring products. Ms Howie said that independence of supply chain assessment is crucial to its success.

“We are an independent not-for-profit, and an independent scientific committee verifies the science behind our assessments. We do have an industry advisory group, as you have to be able to hear their voice in order to develop the right solutions, but it is only that, an advisory group,” she said.

As the agri-food sector is one of Ireland’s largest industries, Ms Howie emphasised how the labelling system could benefit Irish farmers in particular.

“We should be able to reward farmers for the efforts they put into regenerative agricultural principles, and it’s very difficult for them right now to get that recognition in the supply chain. This label could recognise those efforts, and build education and awareness of how it can be done better,” she said.

Jack Hamilton is a sixth-generation farmer from Co. Down, and his family business, Mash Direct, provides fresh food to supermarkets and restaurants, specialising in potato and vegetable side dishes.

Mash Direct already uses Foundation Earth’s traffic light labelling system, not only because they have noticed increased consumer demand for sustainability information, but because they have been able to use the supply chain assessments to make their business more sustainable, and get “ahead of the game” in terms of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030.

“We’re hugely excited by it. We put five of our products through the process, and we got four A’s and one B. It turns out that the farmer who was growing the onions for our colcannon was using a lot of water, which we wouldn’t have known without the Foundation Earth assessment. 

"We looked at alternatives and now we buy our onions from a lovely family in Cork who use less water. We found out where the challenge was, and next year we’ll improve on that score,” he said.

Ms Howie said that Foundation Earth is currently working on automating how they assess individual supply chains, so that the labelling system could be rolled out on a much larger scale.

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