Biodiversity loss may finally begin to receive something like the attention the gravity of its consequences demands. Ben Cooper looks at how food companies can engage with consumers about the topic and the degree to which consumers are likely to be tuning in.
As crucial as this year undeniably is for the Paris climate accord, 2021 arguably needs to be the year the even more neglected issue of biodiversity loss begins to receive the attention it warrants.
The next few years could see addressing biodiversity loss become a top sustainability priority for food companies, on a par with reducing carbon emissions and water stewardship. The practical challenges this creates for food companies in their agricultural supply chains are daunting enough but the need to bring biodiversity into their dialogue with consumers would present food brands with further challenges.
It is hard to overstate how exposed major food manufacturers are on the issue of biodiversity loss. Agriculture accounts for around 11% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and, on that basis, food companies are under ever more intense pressure to lower the carbon impact of their agricultural supply chains. The intensification of agriculture, on the other hand, along with the globalisation of food production, have been consistently identified as the principal cause of biodiversity loss across the world, notably in studies such as the WWF’s biennial Living Planet report.
According to WWF, wildlife populations have fallen by almost 70% over the last 50 years. "What many people might not realise," says WWF-UK head of food transformation Sarah Wakefield, "is that the single biggest reason for this shocking decline is the global food system, the combination of what we're eating, how we produce it and how it reaches our plates."
Meanwhile, the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, published by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) predicts around 1m species of plants and animals face extinction over the next few decades as a result of human activity.
A trusted name
WWF is thankfully more than a conveyor of harsh truths about the food industry's impact on biodiversity. It is willing to partner with the industry to address sustainability challenges and is doing so in relation to biodiversity loss.
"WWF is working with the food industry to find solutions to this systemic issue," Wakefield says. It is working with major food manufacturers and retailers, to "protect and restore nature in their food production chains", she continues, and sees partnership as a means of fostering consumer interest in more sustainable food choices. "NGOs like us and the food industry cannot tackle this issue without consumer buy-in, so it's essential we educate consumers about the vital part they're playing in these issues."
The latest food company to team up with WWF is European frozen-foods business Nomad Foods. Their initiative, unveiled last month, aims to find agricultural solutions to the "triple challenge" of feeding a growing global population, tackling the climate crisis and reversing biodiversity loss, and will see WWF supporting Nomad's consumer engagement on sustainability.
Ine Lubbers, Nomad's European category marketing director for vegetables, says the company and WWF are working on consumer information and education campaigns surrounding "our key message of protecting bees, butterflies and plant species".
On-pack communication detailing the partnership with WWF will roll out initially for the Iglo brand in Belgium and Portugal, then for the Findus brand in Spain, followed finally by Birds Eye in the UK in June.
At the farm level, two initial projects will focus on biodiversity and boosting pollinator populations, and ways "nature-positive" farming approaches can boost productivity.
WWF was also an external partner for Unilever-owned brand Knorr on its Future 50 Foods concept, launched in 2019. The programme has a strong biodiversity protection component, as the 50 ingredients featured are selected on the basis of nutritional value and environmental impact and consequently include some that are little known or used.
"Consuming, farming and planting the same foods again and again poses a threat to food security"
"Through our products, promotions and programmes, Knorr plans to make these 50 foods more accessible for people all over the world," says Knorr global vice president April Redmond. "Consuming, farming and planting the same foods again and again poses a threat to food security, so our food system is less resilient to pests or the impacts of climate change."
Growing consumer awareness
The extent to which companies are going to include biodiversity in consumer communication depends to a significant degree on their expectations about how aware and concerned consumers are. However, even if awareness among mainstream consumers is relatively limited, in comparison with issues such as carbon, water and plastic, their understanding of biodiversity is increasing.
Annual surveys of consumers about biodiversity by Netherlands-based trade organisation the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT) between 2009 and 2020 show consumer awareness has been growing in Europe and the US.
In 2020, 78% of some 6,000 respondents in Brazil, France, Germany, the UK and the US said they had heard about biodiversity versus 67% in 2010. The biggest increases were seen in Germany (+32 percentage points to 61%), the UK (+20 to 79%) and the US (+16 to 64%). Consumer awareness of biodiversity is significantly higher in Latin America and Asia than in Europe, where it is higher than in the US.
"While awareness of biodiversity as a term is on the rise, more needs to be done to help consumers understand what it means and the connection between the vegetables they eat and its environmental impact," Lubbers says.
As has been seen with numerous other issues from Fairtrade to sustainable seafood, third-party certification can play a role in building consumer awareness and confidence. Last month saw General Mills-owned US snack brand Epic launch its latest product bearing the Land to Market Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV) Seal, a sustainability certification programme administered by the Colorado-based NGO the Savory Institute.
Rather than attesting to biodiversity credentials alone, the seal certifies the beef in the Epic EOV Beef Barbacoa-Inspired Bar was raised using regenerative farming practices, which improve soil health, biodiversity and ecosystem function. Because of the strong emphasis regenerative agriculture places on biodiversity, the seal can provide a high level of assurance to consumers about biodiversity, as to varying degrees sustainable agriculture certification schemes elsewhere could do.
Moreover, there is a compelling reason why it would be less effective if biodiversity were the sole criterion on which the seal depended, Kate Herbert, senior manager, brand experience at Epic, explains. "As a part of our regenerative agriculture missions, biodiversity loss is only a fraction of the whole picture," Herbert tells just-food. "Regenerative agriculture works best when the farming or ranching operation is viewed as an ecosystem, including but not limited to focusing on biodiversity loss on its own."
Biodiversity loss is a complex, multi-factorial issue, which mainstream consumers will generally know less about than they do about issues like carbon or plastic pollution. Indeed, finding the word "biodiversity" to be impenetrable, companies are often substituting it with "nature" as a much more relatable option.
This is being mirrored in the development of reporting metrics related to biodiversity with the formation of the Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures and the Science-Based Targets for Nature initiative.
Associated British Foods' UK cereals brand Jordans has recently unveiled a campaign, encompassing online, print and social media (the advert can be found here), that specifically aims to champion its commitment to protecting biodiversity, with the tagline "Created by Nature, Crafted by Jordans".
Tess Lomax, brand controller for Jordans, says the commitment to nature and wildlife has been a key part of the brand's positioning for decades rather than being a response to current trends. However, she suggests consumer interest in biodiversity has been on the rise.
"Biodiversity has always been a focus for Jordans, right back to 1985 when we launched our Conservation Grade farming practices, so this is very much our heartland rather than just a specific focus for this campaign," Lomax explains. "I do, however, think its urgency has been heightened of late, and that consumers are more aware and interested than before."
Announcing the campaign to the trade press, Jordans says the marketing push "highlights" the brand's "biodiversity credentials". Whether the tagline and the print ad, in particular, makes obvious to consumers the subject of biodiversity loss is debatable.
Given their position at the epicentre of the biodiversity crisis, food companies arguably should be talking with consumers about biodiversity loss already but they will have to do so if more of their consumers begin demanding it. And, as was seen with plastic use only a few years ago, in today's connected world, consumer interest can be sparked and spread at an unimaginably fast pace.