14 Oct 2019


Joshua Bishop Head of Sustainable Food

I spend a lot of my time thinking about food, and not just because it’s in my job title. 

My work mainly focuses on reducing the environmental impacts of food in Australia. WWF works hard to reduce deforestation and water pollution from agriculture, as well as overfishing and impacts on marine species from industrial fishing and aquaculture. 

The way I think about food in my personal life is different. As the main food shopper and cook for my (small) family, I spend a lot of time trying to plan appetising and healthy meals, looking for deals in the supermarket, trying new ingredients or restaurants, and thinking of creative ways to use leftovers or food in the fridge or pantry. Not to mention the time I spend cooking. I get a kick out of this, which I guess makes me a bit of a foodie. 

Thanks to my job, I know a bit about which foods have more or less impact on the planet. When I go shopping or eat out, I look for foods that are certified sustainable while avoiding heavily processed foods and synthetic ingredients. But like most people, I really don’t want to do a lot of research before going shopping. 

I confess that I take a lot for granted when buying food. At the supermarket, I assume the weights and ingredients are what it says on the pack. When eating out at a restaurant, I assume the kitchen is clean, the ingredients are fresh, staff are fairly paid, and the chefs practice good hygiene.

I could be wrong, of course. But like most people in this country, I rely on government to make sure businesses don’t cheat on weight, don’t lie about ingredients, don’t underpay or mistreat their staff, and don’t sell spoiled or adulterated food that will make me sick.

But what about the environmental and social impacts of our food? Especially food imported from other countries, where government standards may be lower or poorly enforced. For example, around 70% of the seafood we eat in Australia is imported – who makes sure it comes from well-managed fisheries, where wild fish stocks are not over-exploited, harm to wildlife is minimised, and crews are well-treated? And in Australia, if we want to buy organic, grass-fed or ‘carbon-neutral’ beef, who guarantees that the vendor’s claims stack up? 

MSC certified yellowfin tuna processed at SeaQuest processing plant. Walu Bay, Suva, Fiji
MSC certified yellowfin tuna processed at SeaQuest processing plant. Walu Bay, Suva, Fiji (1000px) © WWF-Aus / Shiri Ram

These days a lot of shoppers, myself included, are looking for more information and greater assurance about the food we buy. Often our interests go beyond government requirements. So, who can we trust?

WWF doesn’t have the capacity to monitor every farm and fishery, or every food processing plant, supermarket or restaurant, everywhere in the world. Like most people, we rely on governments, in the first instance, to ensure the food we buy is safe and sustainable, wherever it comes from. But when governments are unwilling or unable to monitor and enforce sustainable practices, we have to look for information from other organisations. 

The challenge is that there are so many different food claims and labels out there - which ones are meaningful? Who can be trusted? It’s not an exact science, but there are some tell-tale signs to help us distinguish trustworthy claims from doubtful ones.

To start with, we should ask if the claim or label is supported by facts or is simply wishful thinking. Some marketing claims, for example, don’t withstand scientific scrutiny. Another important criterion is whether the claim or label is regularly verified through independent audits. One should also ask if the auditor is accredited and by whom; this is known as ‘third party’ auditing, as opposed to self-certification or audits carried out by consultants who have no one looking over their shoulder. 

A key criterion, from WWF’s perspective, is whether a claim about the sustainability of food is based on an independent standard or certification. This provides a common reference point that can be used by anyone to assess whether or how well they meet the conditions required to support a claim. For example, if WWF needs to assess a business claim about deforestation in supply chains, we can use the Accountability Framework, developed by several environmental NGOs. Similarly, for farmed seafood, WWF relies on the standards developed by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (or ASC) to assess whether and how well a farm or a product conforms to best practice across a range of criteria.

In general, the most reliable food sustainability standards and certification systems are developed and jointly governed by NGOs and businesses, including producers. They are holistic, covering a range of social, environmental and economic impacts. This ensures that all-important perspectives and concerns are considered and that no single issue or interest group dominates. Good standards are transparent, so anyone can see what they require and how a particular producer stacks up against different criteria. Good standards are regularly updated, based on experience and the latest science. Importantly, this includes taking advantage of new technologies such as those offered by OpenSC, a joint venture between WWF and BCG Digital Ventures that uses cutting edge sensors and software to verify production practices, trace products from the ocean or from paddock-to-plate, and provide in-depth information to consumers.

Local food (market) for sale at a shop in Cley Next the Sea, Norfolk, UK. Buying local produce helps to cut down massively on food miles.
Local food (market) for sale at a shop in Cley Next the Sea, Norfolk, United Kingdom. © Global Warming Images / WWF

There are many other criteria to consider when assessing the validity of food claims and labels or the standards and certifications on which they’re based. Only true enthusiasts will take the time to look into the detail. For the rest of us, there is the ISEAL Alliance, which is like the certifier of certification schemes. Membership of ISEAL is usually a good indicator of whether a social or environmental claim or sustainability standard stacks up.

In summary, if you want to buy food that is safe and sustainable or have questions about how your food was produced, you don’t need to rely on governments alone. Look for labels on the packaging or menu, then check who stands behind the claim. For more information, visit the website of the manufacturer, or see if the label represents a member of ISEAL. It may take a bit more time but could help give you some peace of mind.