Full report and presentations: Agriculture Abroad Footprint Forum

Footprint Forum 23 November 2011  (For Video at the Forum click here)

Foodservice Footprint IMG_4496-300x199 Full report and presentations: Agriculture Abroad Footprint Forum Event Reports  Wealmoor Two Tomorrows Richard Reed NFU Innocent Drinks Footprint Forum Fairtrade agriculture AB Sustain

The foodservice industry faces many headaches when it comes to international sourcing of raw materials. But October’s forum provided a clarity and vision that ensured it was only the ‘not-so-Innocent’ cocktails that had attendees reaching for the Aspirin.

IT WAS always going to be an experience. But expectations of Fruit Towers, home to Innocent Drinks, had been raised by a television documentary screened the previous week focusing on the co-founder, Richard Reed. Viewers had been treated to an office replete with table tennis tables, over-sized bean bags and artificial grass flooring.

Perhaps the latter is in homage to Reed’s first ever business venture, cutting lawns, for which he made £2.50 an hour? In today’s world, that would buy you one of his company’s smoothies. How things have changed. And change was very much the focus of this, the fifth and final forum of 2011 – right down to the format of the event. Not only were there presentations and an interactive discussion, as is the norm, but also a ‘part two’ with a talk by Richard Reed, followed by a Q&A and, of course, those cocktails.

Foodservice Footprint IMG_4448-300x199 Full report and presentations: Agriculture Abroad Footprint Forum Event Reports  Wealmoor Two Tomorrows Richard Reed NFU Innocent Drinks Footprint Forum Fairtrade agriculture AB Sustain

But let’s start at the beginning. Barbara Crowther, director of communications and policy for the Fairtrade Foundation, showed just how reliant the UK’s food industry has become on international agriculture. “We import £1.3bn of goods from Africa,” she explained, “including products that we can grow here, but can’t grow enough of. On the flipside, that means that there are millions of people reliant on agriculture – the irony being that half of the world’s hungriest people are from farming families.”

This is often the ‘great debate’ when it comes to UK sourcing: is it more sustainable to buy UK produce? As many agreed at the discussion, there is no ‘silver bullet’. However, there seemed to be a growing realisation of how to increase value for the poorest farmers in the world, and in turn how agriculture can then be what Crowther sees as a “springboard to wider economic development”.

Indeed, if prior to the Forum, anyone in the audience underestimated the reliance of UK foodservice on international, often small farmers, they were left in no doubt at its conclusion. The climate is right to do more, rallied Crowther. And there are companies doing just that.

Companies like Wealmoor, a primary import, production and marketing company with a focus on speciality produce. Wealmoor’s procurement stretches far and wide, and Jayesh Dodhia, head of vegetable procurement at the company explained how important it was for Wealmoor to work with farmers large and small. Once again, Africa was singled out as a “huge source”, with Wealmoor having worked closely with the production end of the chain through its ‘Small Grower Scheme’. “Not only have standards and yields improved, but there has been a social uplift,” Dodhia explained, “with one group of farmers match-funding investment for a health centre in the community.”

This idea of providing more than just a fair price, more than just agronomy expertise, more thanjust a market for products, shone through during the event. It was, in fact, according to Reed, the very principle on which Innocent was founded: to give something back. In order to ensure its business is sustainable, Innocent has a 5-point strategy covering sustainable nutrition, sustainable ingredients, sustainable production, sustainable packaging and sustainable legacy.

In terms of the ingredients, the business has clearly learned a lot. From the complicated decisions involved in setting a sustainable strategy to individual sourcing issues like the one Innocent is facing in Spain with strawberries. There, explained ingredients manager Rozanne Davis, the company had encountered a water conflict, with the demands from farmers and an adjacent national park putting strain on a vast underground aquifer. “We faced a decision,” she explained. “Do we change our sourcing, or do we face the challenge?”

They faced the challenge. In other words, they took responsibility. It’s something more and more companies who rely so heavily on food are realising. Look at Cadbury’s cocoa plan and its work with Fairtrade, or Nestlé’s work with the Rainforest Alliance. This isn’t so their PR agency can write a self-congratulatory press release, but because they realise the important link between sustainable sourcing and future-proofing their supply. Where would Cadbury be without cocoa, or Nestlé without coffee?

As such, it was fascinating to hear what consumers felt about ethical sourcing. Two Tomorrows executive chairman, Mark Line, presented a wealth of data and reports which showed that making the world a better place remains important to people, but that isn’t reflected in their purchases. “There’s a real disconnect between people’s concerns and the choices they make,” he concluded, highlighting that in 2009 people spent on average just $11 each year on fair-trade products. Evidence suggests this disconnect could be even more severe in foodservice, with consumers often admitting to leaving their ethics behind when they eat out. So what can be done?

This is where the discussion panel took up the challenge. Communication – valuable, clear communication – was what it all boiled down to. Nine out of 10 people want more information when they are eating out of home so they can make more sustainable choices, highlighted Line. The consistency in some of the language out there already was also causing confusion, for instance, the difference between responsible sourcing and sustainable procurement. “A lot of companies have got comfortable with their own definitions of ‘sustainable’ and ‘responsible’,” added Line.

This is where certification schemes were felt to have a valuable role – offering that third party, independent accreditation that consumers trust. However, there was frustration over what many saw as a battle between different schemes to get the upper hand. The idea of a pooling of resources among “similar schemes” was suggested or, perhaps more realistically, the use of one audit process at the production end.

The role of certification schemes going forward is currently a hot topic (see page 6), but Innocent has proved that it’s unlikely that businesses will find just one scheme that ticks all the boxes. That’s why it created its 5-point strategy, which includes its own initiatives as well as working with the likes of the Rainforest Alliance on its sourcing of bananas and pineapples. But the question still begs: from where did it source the artificial grass?

Read what Jellybean had to say about the Forum