The year began with predictions that sustainability would continue to rise up the corporate agenda this year, and so it has proved.

Environment

The food sector, with its long and complex agricultural supply chains reaching into the developing world, the direct influence its decisions have on people's health and diet and the sheer numbers it employs and its scale, not to mention the centrality of the industry, its major players and trade associations to the increasingly important question of food security, simply finds sustainability debates in everywhere it looks.

The question of the environmental sustainability of food production, and in particular its relationship to food security concerns and climate change, came to the fore in January with the publication of a report entitled, The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability, an extensive report from UK government think-tank Foresight. 

The lengthy document outlined 12 priorities for action, many with a direct bearing on the sustainability strategies of food companies.

A key aspect to the report was that it appeared to favour the technological solutions inherent in the idea of sustainable intensification, broadly characterised as the pursuit of science-based, large-scale solutions to rising demand. The global food industry would naturally be more in tune with these solutions than the counter-philosophy which places agro ecology and the role of farmers - including small-scale farmers - at the centre of the quest for sustainability. 

The stream of corporate sustainability reports published by food producers and retailers during the year bear witness to the importance companies are placing on improving environmental performance. One general trend that can be seen to have continued and arguably intensified this year is the increased emphasis being placed on supply chain sustainability, and accounting for the environmental impacts all the way through the sourcing of all raw materials.

In the early days, companies tended to emphasise improved environmental performance in their primary production sites, their packaging, their stores, and their logistics operations. Supply chain matters were addressed, but the key metrics were about lowering emissions and improving energy and water efficiency in core operations. As corporate sustainability strategies have matured, and concerns over global food security and agricultural sustainability have mounted, attracting ever more media and political attention, the attention devoted to work in supply chains has increased.

Collective efforts in supply chains have also been part of this trend, and June saw the first purchases of certified soy as sustainable under the terms of the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS), a multi-stakeholder initiative set up in 2006 to define and certify a more sustainable form of soy production. Unilever and Ahold were among the first companies to purchase certificates for sustainable soy.

The stuttering progress of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which has continued to court controversy during the year, shows that the path will not be easy for the RTRS. This is further underlined by the fact that it has taken five years from its launch to having certified soy on the market. The challenge for RTRS is exacerbated by the importance of GM to global soy production and the fact that RTRS allows for the certification of GM soy, drawing criticism from key environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth.

GM continued to be a huge debating point during 2011. Even in the US, where consumption of GM foods is more widespread than in Europe, the issue appears to be causing more public and political concern. This was highlighted by the decision by the California Assembly Health Committee in May to require labelling of genetically modified salmon if and when it goes on the market, and the attention this decision attracted.

On the other side of the debate, in January the UK organic sector launched a marketing drive to improve consumer understanding of the organic concept.

The year began and ended with discussion of the eco-labelling issue. In February, a report published by Defra in the UK cast further doubt on the viability of a comprehensive eco-label for food, concluding that the science was currently not sufficiently robust. It also said the costs of such a scheme could be "unacceptably high in relation to the potential benefits". 

In common with a considerable amount of other research in this area, the Defra report advocated a broader approach to fostering environmental sustainability in food in favour of an over-emphasis on labelling, which is generally considered to be effective at improving good practice rather than eliminating the worst practices. In Labelling schemes, particularly if voluntary, will be supported by those companies well motivated with regard to sustainability but ignored by the laggards.

As it stands, food is not included in the EU's Ecolabel scheme. However, this is under review. Moves towards the inclusion of food in this scheme are being opposed by industry and the publication of two reports brought the issue into the spotlight at the end of the year.

The European Commission published a feasibility study in October which, while acknowledging the challenges inherent in extending the scheme to food, suggested that a number of specific food products, namely yoghurt and cheese, bread, soft drinks and processed fish, might be included initially. This report drew immediate criticism from the industry and other stakeholders.

Earlier this month, the European Food Sustainable Consumption and Production Round Table (Food SCP RT) published a report on the communication of environmental performance, which included reference to labelling.

The Food SCP RT set out to examine the methods "best placed for environmental communication to the consumer", supporting informed choices "but not placing a disproportionate burden on food chain partners, particularly SMEs". It concluded that "communicating environmental information is best done by using a multi-pronged approach", showing considerable common ground with the Defra report at the beginning of the year.

The eco-labelling of food will continue to be a hotly debated issue in 2012. However, the general response to the EU's feasibility study and the findings of the Food SCP RT working group suggest that there will be no speedy resolution to these questions.

Health and diet

Staying with labelling, the issue of on-pack nutritional labelling was rarely far away from the headlines.

At the beginning of the year, it was revealed that Australian food producers were opposing the introduction of 'traffic lights' labelling. The relative merits of colour-coding versus GDAs continue to be debated in many markets.

In April, the news that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had rejected 80% of the health claims for foods and drinks that it had assessed as part of a major review brought the contentious issue of health claims on functional foods and drinks back into the media glare.

How healthy-eating advice is communicated was also in the news, with the launch in June of the US government's MyPlate healthy-eating education concept. Echoing a similar model introduced in the UK, the MyPlate icon is a graphic representing the percentage of the major food groups needed for a healthy diet in the form of a plate. The icon is the centrepiece of a new nutritional guidance platform designed to help consumers make healthier food choices. The plate graphic reflects the advice contained in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, launched in January. It replaced what was considered by many dieticians to be a less user-friendly pyramid graphic

The UK's Food Standards Agency lost its diet and health function last year as a result of a policy change by the incoming government, and this year saw the launch of the new government's flagship Responsibility Deals initiative, whereby it involves industry in policymaking in areas of public concern.

The government has attempted to establish what it sees as a constructive and consensual approach to its policy on food and health by establishing a Public Health Responsibility Deal on food. As had been widely expected, this has been viewed with extreme scepticism by medical and campaigning groups who see industry being given far too much influence over policies directly affecting public health.

The influence of food companies over government policy has also been a hotly debated topic on the other side of the Atlantic, in particular on the issue of marketing food to children.

There has been an ongoing debate in the US over the marketing of food to children for years and this was given renewed impetus when President Obama arrived in the White House. President Obama made tackling childhood obesity a key priority and the First Lady also became actively involved in the issue.

As part of this, moves were begun to introduce guidelines, issued by government but voluntary, on what foods can be marketed directly to children. This year saw the effective denouement of a process begun in 2009, with campaigners very much of the view that the industry had essentially got its way.

In response to the guidelines proposed by a working group comprised of four government agencies, major US food companies revamped their own self-regulatory guidelines substantially in July. By October, it was clear that the industry's move to tighten up its own controls had forestalled the imposition of government-imposed guidelines.

The issue of online marketing to children was in the news in the UK at the end of the year when snack manufacturers were accused by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and the Children's Food Campaign of "bombarding" children with marketing for products high in fat, salt and sugar, using online games, apps and social media. The organisations called for consistent advertising regulations across all forms of media. Among the companies cited were Kerry Group, Kraft Foods, Kellogg and Nestle.

People

How food companies influence people's health through their diet is arguably the primary social aspect in the sustainability field that the food industry has to address, and it has to address it fairly constantly. However, in their supply chains and in their operations food producers and retailers influence the lives of millions of people.

This facet of the sustainability field results in a quite understandable blurring of the distinctions between environmental and social sustainability. Many facets of environmental sustainability, such as water efficiency, have massive social implications. By the same token, social interventions have to take account of environmental factors.

This year saw the news that Fairtrade sales in the UK had passed the GBP1bn mark. Also in February, it had been reported that Fairtrade sales had tripled in Australia. The following month, there was positive news from the US on Fairtrade.

There was also substantial development for the Rainforest Alliance certification scheme, with high-profile link-ups with Dole and Mars Inc. These schemes have been particularly successful in chocolate but nevertheless still account for a small proportion of the global chocolate market.

In October, chocolate manufacturers united with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) to form the African Cocoa Initiative (ACI). A five-year, US$13.5m programme, the ACI will be working in Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Cameroon and Nigeria to develop co-operative investments in agriculture, improve quality and productivity and expand farmer education and training. Funding was provided by World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) members, which include Barry Callebaut, Cargill, Kraft Foods and Nestle.

However, the year closed with the issue of child labour in the cocoa supply chain once again hitting the headlines.

In one sense, the news can be said to have been positive, with Nestle engaging with the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to investigate and address the use of child labour in its supply chain. However, this story also brought to the fore the slow progress that collective moves to tackle this problem have made.

It seems poignant that this should be a subject of discussion so close to Christmas when children in the West will be enthusiastically enjoying a product that many children in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire have such a contrasting relationship with. Optimists might hope that this latest development may lead to renewed energy and meaningful progress on a sustainability issue where industry action has failed to match its rhetoric.