Selling the taste of sustainability

Nobody likes being told what to eat, but changing diets could make or break climate action. The Eco-Business Podcast explores how best to convince people to choose food good for people and planet.

Our food system is in need of a reset. Many parts of the rich world are eating too much, while other regions do not get enough nutrients to support basic human health. Where there is rapid economic growth, chances are that the prevailing diet is shifting towards mass-produced, unsustainable foods. Feeding the world already causes a third of total carbon pollution today, and emissions are set to rise as the global population continues to climb.

The balance can be hard to find. Environmental group WWF mooted the idea of a “planet-based diet” in 2020, which calls for people to find out exactly what constitutes a sustainable and healthy diet where they live, based on factors like what is being produced locally and how much processing goes into the food. WWF called on governments to issue better advice via national diet guidelines.

How has that idea matured, amid two years of global uncertainty? What role can the US$8 trillion agrifood industry play in getting people to eat right? 

Joining the Eco-Business Podcast to explore what it takes to get people to shift to sustainable diets are Daniel Campion, sustainable nutrition lead for Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa at nutrition and taste firm Kerry, and Dr Brent Loken, global food lead scientist at WWF.

Countries are going through a rapid transformation from traditional to Western diets very quickly. We need to reverse engineer that thinking. How do we make traditional eating, or healthy eating sexy?

Dr Brent Loken, global food lead scientist, WWF

Tune in as we discuss: 

Podcast on changing diets

Dr Brent Loken, global food lead scientist, WWF (left), and Daniel Campion, APMEA sustainable nutrition lead, Kerry (right). Image: Dr Brent Loken, Daniel Campion.

  • The progress towards a planet-based diet
  • Are food businesses taste-takers or taste-setters?
  • How to persuade consumers to choose good food
  • The effects of conflict and Covid-19

Full transcript

Liang Lei  00:01

Changing what we eat can be terribly difficult, but it may also be the best way to sustainably feed the world. As climate change rages on, how can we make shifting diets more palatable, and how can the food industry help to sweeten the deal?

This is the Eco-Business podcast, I’m Liang Lei. As part of a series of podcasts in association with taste and nutrition firm Kerry Group, we’re taking a look at how to prod people towards eating both healthier, and better for the environment.

Environmental group WWF made a pretty catchy suggestion two years back, with what it calls a “planet-based diet”. It says that the best way to eat is not necessarily to go fully plant, or protein, or grain based, but for each person to figure out what are the most sustainable foods in their hood, and adapt accordingly. Governments can help by issuing better guidelines.

These efforts, if done well, can result in healthier populations and greater biodiversity. Farmlands can also be turned into carbon sinks to fight climate change.

How well has this suggestion sat with people across the world? How can agrifood businesses, a $8 trillion dollar industry, help to drive the needed change?

Joining the Eco-Business podcast to tackle these questions, are Daniel Campion, sustainable nutrition lead for Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa at Kerry Group, as well as Dr Brent Loken, global food lead scientist at WWF. Great to have you with us.

Daniel Campion  01:27

Thanks very much for having us.

Liang Lei  01:29

Brent, let’s start with you. How much progress has been made since WWF introduced the term planet-based diets back in 2020?

Brent Loken  01:37

I would say that it’s mixed. At the international level, the scaling and amplification of taking up food systems in various multilateral processes like the climate conventions, biodiversity conventions, land-use conventions have been quite high. Last year at COP26 that we had in Glasgow, there were more food events than we have ever seen at any other COP before this, you couldn’t turn around without seeing somebody talking about food, which is extremely good. And that was really wonderful to see. However, the focus on food systems approaches and certain aspects of the food systems, especially when we’re talking about dietary shifts, has still not made it into the final text. And it’s still difficult for some countries to want to talk about.

Ahead of COP27 this year, we are seeing even more action around food systems. There are a lot of pavilions that are focusing on food, people are talking about food, the IPCC Working Group III report, which came out last April, had food systems as one of the key things that we had to talk about. So this is all great at the global international level.

What we still need to do though, and where we need to really focus our work and action on is at the national level, in terms of trying to transform national level food systems, because it’s going to play out so differently in countries all over the world. It’s like this global jigsaw puzzle, and how we put that together, in terms of how food system transformation works in Singapore, versus Australia, versus Argentina, versus Sweden, versus the US, will look very different. And that’s where the focus needs to be at the moment.

Liang Lei  03:25

Gotcha Brent. Just a quick follow up, are there certain geographies that are more challenging in terms of transforming diets at speed because of culture, or geography, or just where they are now in terms of what they eat?

Brent Loken  03:36

This is not a very satisfying answer maybe, but I’d say every single geography poses a particular challenge. It really depends on what aspect of the food system you’re talking about. I would say talking about dietary shifts might be one of the most challenging aspects of the food system, it isn’t talked about especially in some places, and I would say there’s certain parts of the world that are more receptive to talking about dietary shifts at the moment, for example, Europe.

In certain places in Europe, people are really starting to talk about reducing meat intake. There was a city in the Netherlands which is actually banning meat ads, which is a pretty radical thing that they’re taking on. Germany is actually reducing their overall meat consumption, which for Germany is a pretty big move. So I would say certain parts of the world are moving in some parts of the food system, but every single part of the world has certain challenges.

Daniel Campion  04:26

I think those are really good points from Brent, and just one thing I’d add is, the strength of the WWF report is the way it builds in that complexity around countries, and it has an overall view of the food system as well. I thought the “build your diet” tool you have in your website is really insightful in terms of being able to go in there, make changes to your diet and be able to see the impact on your carbon footprint and biodiversity, etc. I definitely recommend the listeners to check that out as well.

Liang Lei  04:59

Yeah the report was a great read for me too. Just to stay on you, Daniel, how does Kerry view the concept of the planet-based diet, and in a broader picture, how can food businesses contribute to such a drive?

Daniel Campion  05:13

Essentially, in Kerry, we have our ‘beyond the horizon‘ strategy. We see that as a farm-to-fork strategy across the food system. Because of that, it is aligned with the vision of the WWF in enabling a planet-based diet. For us, sustainable nutrition is food solutions that maintain health in a way that protects society and the planet for future generations.

The way we will deliver this is via two pillars. The first pillar will be us achieving our commitments. And we’ve set them up against our vision of being better for people, society and planet. We have a commitment to reach 2 billion people with sustainable nutrition solutions, we want to have a food system that works for everyone across health and safety, across responsible sourcing, across our partnerships and across our diversity, inclusion and belonging policies. Where the rubber hits the road then is the target on being better for the planet. Our commitments go back to farms, we’ll work with our suppliers on responsible sourcing, on reducing our scope three emissions. When it comes to our own factories, we have a 1.5 degree Celsius-aligned, science-based target of 55 per cent carbon reduction by 2030. We also look at our food waste – 50 per cent by 2030, and our packaging, that we want to be 100 per cent recyclable by 2025.

The second pillar is where it gets really exciting. That’s us working with our customers, co-creating their products. The scale that we can achieve by doing that, as a business-to-business player in the industry is quite significant.

To give you an example, we have a range of technologies we call our sustainable technology platforms. Our tastes and sweets technology, for instance, allows you to cut down sugar in our customers products. We worked with one customer to reduce sugar content by 14 to 18 per cent across two of their products. Because you’re taking out the sugar, you’re essentially taking out the carbon dioxide, the water that was needed to grow the sugar. In that example, we were able to save more water through the food system, reducing the sugar in our customer’s products, than what we use across all our Asia Pacific and Middle East and Africa factories in a year. That is what I really like about the role, that is what I really like about the strategy, that end-to-end connection. That’s very much what is intended from WWF’s planet-based diets as well.

Brent Loken  07:56

Going back to your first question about how much progress has been made, I would say that this is a great example in terms of how much progress has been made since 2020. We’ve got businesses such as Kerry group, jumping in and making these huge commitments. And we should not underestimate how significant this is, and how important it is that we work together with business to make this difficult transformation that we’re asking of them. We shouldn’t underestimate the level of ambition that it will take. We need leaders stepping forward and showing the world that there is a better path for us to take.

Liang Lei  08:40

The talk about sustainable technology platform, that is certainly very exciting. One quick follow up – in the WWF report, one major theme it advocates is for different countries, different geographies, to be aware of what is sustainable locally. Do you see the food industry doing enough of this?

Daniel Campion  08:58

I think different countries are at different places in terms of their sustainable nutrition journey, the way that we’re looking at it is that we have a massive opportunity to make an impact here, if we can help our customers understand how we can help them have a lower impact. Sometimes we’ll have to educate them, or work with them.

For example, if you take preservation and reducing food waste – not every company is noticing that they are really key parts of their footprint. Reducing waste will significantly reduce their footprint. Across the food industry maybe 30 per cent of all food goes to waste.

So I think it’ll be tailored by country, in terms of the [sustainable nutrition] journey. It’ll be tailored by customer as well. But we’re definitely here to support, we’re here to try and make the move across the industry as well, wherever our customers are.

Brent Loken  10:06

This is a complex puzzle to put together, when you’re talking about tailoring sustainable diets for countries all over the world. One of the things that we are working on within WWF is figuring out if there is a way of building a global food system typology, where we could classify certain types of food systems based upon a shared set of characteristics. Also, are there certain actions that will work within certain groups of countries? By doing that, we take that overall complexity and reduce it a bit, so companies like Kerry can then, instead of tailoring foods for every single country and every single context, do it for groups of countries. That’s really the next cutting-edge research that we are working on, and that we really need to start scaling on.

Liang Lei  11:04

Yeah and I can see why you say there are challenges when we try to group regions in the world. It really touches on cultures, identities, it’s not just the growing and eating of food, right? I guess that’s where some of the challenges lie.

Brent Loken  11:18

Yeah, some of them. And it’s not going to be perfect. But when we’re talking about transforming the food system between now and 2050, we’re talking about a scale and a pace of change that is hard to wrap our heads around. If we had started this 50 years ago, we would have a lot more time to make this journey and figure things out. Now, we are going to have to figure out every simplification that we can, so that we can do this in the very short time that we have.

If we had started this 50 years ago, we would have a lot more time to make this journey and figure things out. Now, we are going to have to figure out every simplification that we can.

Dr Brent Loken, global food lead scientist, WWF

Liang Lei  11:48

Gotcha. Brent can I stay with you for the next question, on the same topic essentially. When we talk about diets and individual preferences, they can be really difficult to change once they’re entrenched. What are some of the key solutions?

Brent Loken  12:06

That’s an interesting question, because you hear that a lot that it’s so hard to change diets. My perspective is that I don’t think it is that hard to change diets. A lot of businesses, through marketing, have been able to change diets in certain countries pretty quickly, within a single generation. When you have targeted advertising to teenagers, they can change diets pretty quickly. Countries are going through a rapid transformation from traditional to Western diets very quickly. We need to reverse engineer that thinking. How do we make traditional eating, or healthy eating sexy?

How do we make it interesting so that teens say, I want to eat this healthy food, I want to eat the salad or whatever it is, because it tastes good? I think if we can figure out how to do that, we will be able to very rapidly change diets. Not change them to something new. Often, it’s just changing it back to what people were traditionally eating before, or changing it back to what the generation before was eating.

Liang Lei  13:29

The idea of making traditional foods sexy, I love that. Daniel, what’s your thoughts on this? In a sense, drawing an analogy in financial markets, we talk about price takers and price setters. Many times in competitive markets, firms are price takers. What is it like in the food industry? Are firms in this space taste or diet takers? Or can you be diet setters?

Daniel Campion  13:53

It is a little bit nuanced. So normally, companies would be more price takers, they’d follow consumer sentiment. They’ll try and lead it in some places, but for the most part they are followers.

I think it’s about making it easier for consumers to make positive choices. The communication around that is quite important. We did a survey across the Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa with about 7,000 consumers. What we saw was that consumers are willing to act on sustainability, but two key barriers are trust and price.

Obviously you will not pay more for something that you don’t believe is going to deliver what it says will deliver. So having that framework where consumers can be really clear that they are making a positive choice is going to be quite important.

Consumers are willing to act on sustainability, but two key barriers are trust and price. Obviously you will not pay more for something that you don’t believe is going to deliver what it says will deliver.

Daniel Campion, APMEA sustainable nutrition lead, Kerry

What’s interesting about the food industry and sustainability, as Brent was saying, is a lot of companies are signing up for commitments themselves. I think it’s quite important we take that duty on and deliver them. In some places, we’re going to have to lead the consumers to be able to do this.

I don’t think any stakeholders should get off the hook when it comes to regulation, when it comes to taxes, when it comes to government pushes. I think it is quite important as well that it shouldn’t be easier to make a negative-impact choice than a positive one.

For us in Kerry, taste and functionality are absolutely key. Nobody is going to choose, for instance, a reduced sugar, salt and fat product, if the functionality of the product, the texture of it, or the taste of it is less than what they’re used to getting. That’s why we take an integrated solutions approach. Being able to balance the total product is key to us being able to deliver that world of sustainable nutrition.

Brent Loken  16:32

That’s an important point, on making it easy for consumers. Besides the marketing aspect, consumers also need to be surrounded by healthy food options. And it needs to be cheap and accessible for them, because we’re all busy. We walk into the supermarket, we’ve got our kids in tow, they want to get home, they’re tired from school, and we tend to just grab things, right? We don’t have time to sit there and figure what’s healthy, what’s not healthy, is this sustainable, what’s the carbon footprint of this particular food.

We just need to make it simple. When people pick something off the shelf, the easier that we made these choices of busy individuals living in cities that don’t have much time, the more rapid adoption we’re going to see of these sorts of foods. I mean, there’s something idealistic about us all sitting down and putting our hands into vegetables and cooking food together. I think that’s great, but in reality, a lot of us don’t have time to do that every day.

Daniel Campion  17:36

Yeah, I definitely agree with that. Some sort of measurement, some easy way of being able to tell how sustainable a product is, how healthy it is, I think that could be a key driver of building momentum.

Liang Lei  17:50

Convenience remains a big factor, I hear from both of you. I think it leads really well into the next question. Brent was talking about convenience, and Daniel earlier mentioned that with Kerry’s tech platforms, it tries to reduce sugar levels and improve the health and climate credentials of the food products, while keeping the same taste.

In a sense there are two ways we can look at how we change the way people eat. One is starting from individual diets. But there are also solutions from the opposite approach, for example, plant-based proteins, which mimics what people already enjoy, and makes it convenient for them to accept and still enjoy the health and climate benefits. What’s your take on both approaches? Daniel, can I start with you?

Daniel Campion  18:38

I think this issue is so broad, essentially we need action across all parts of the industry, we need action across all product groups, if that makes sense. If you were to break that down into pillars, we can definitely reduce the footprint and impact of the products that we supply in the way that we supply them. The second pillar is whether we can provide similar products, give more choices to consumers, that might have a lower impact. Another pillar that we have, that we shouldn’t forget as well, is that we can provide solutions that taste as good or better than what people are currently consuming. We can essentially move consumers into substitutes.

If we are looking at reducing the overall footprint of the industry, we can’t forget food waste, whatever that product solution is, we have to address the waste issue.

Daniel Campion, APMEA sustainable nutrition lead, Kerry

I will bring up here again, if we are looking at reducing the overall footprint of the industry, we can’t forget food waste, whatever that product solution is, we have to address the waste issue.

Liang Lei  19:49

Brent, what are your thoughts on this?

Brent Loken  19:52

I think at the end of the day, people just want to eat good food, tasty food, they don’t necessarily care if it’s completely plant-based or completely meat-based. Maybe some do. But I would say that a large segment of the population just wants to eat really good food. If we can get to the point where we’re able to develop healthy alternatives that’s not just eating a salad, that mimic maybe some of the animal-sourced foods, and taste good, if we can get to that point, I think we’re in a really good place. I think we’re trending in that direction, but we’re still in the very early stages with some of the plant-based burgers that you see on the market. It is a good first step, it has raised awareness of where we need to go.

Some of them are not what I would call healthy yet. They might have lower environmental impacts, but if they’re just as unhealthy as alternatives, that’s not where we need to go. Or, if you take a plant-based burger and you slather it with high-fat mayonnaise and everything else, well, you’re kind of defeating the purpose of it. I would say [plant-based burgers] is a good intermediary, it’s still early stages and more work needs to be done to make sure that they’re not only environmentally friendly, but also they’re healthy.

Liang Lei  21:16

Sounds like a challenge for Daniel to overcome.

Daniel Campion  21:19

Thanks very much.

Liang Lei  21:23

I want to put the discussion into the current context, but before we do that, I’d like to jump in with another quick, fun one. For both of you, what’s your diet like, and how far is it from a planet-based diet? Brent?

Brent Loken  21:40

It’s pretty close. I am a firm believer of, you have to practice what you preach. It would be hypocritical for me to say that we should be eating this way and not eat this way myself. I would classify my diet more as flexitarian, where my main protein sources come from fish. I eat a little bit of chicken. I would say if you’re looking at the planet-based diet, I follow it pretty closely.

Liang Lei  22:12

Cool. And you’re in Stockholm, right? Yes. And Daniel, you’re in Singapore. How about you?

Daniel Campion  22:17

Similar answer, I would describe myself as flexitarian as well. What I am kind of targeting is six days of either vegetarian or vegan diets, and then one day meat-based. I come originally from the southwest of Ireland, and in my opinion, it has some of the best beef and lamb in the world. I think being able to have the balance of having some red meat, but not having red meat every day is important to me. At the same time, I am clear that my diet does have a lower footprint, because I’m balancing it all with more vegetables, and it gives me comfort to sleep at night as well, if that makes sense.

Brent Loken  23:08

Yeah, I don’t think it helps to shame people for what they eat. I think that whenever we’re talking about diets and what people eat, you have to have a very large tent. And we have to bring people along the journey with us. Last summer I had a steak, the first steak I’ve had in probably two years, and it was really good. I think we have to leave the door open for that type of enjoyment of food. If we don’t, we’re going to lose this battle.

Daniel Campion  23:39

I think that’s a key point. I definitely agree with that.

Liang Lei  23:43

And it’s not just food, right? I guess it’s a common principle across all types of behavioural changes. I would love to end this conversation on a lighter note, but we are talking about something pretty serious and important. So I am going to jump back to that for our last question.

What are the biggest challenges to achieving a planet-based diet and food security now? These two years, we’ve seen a lot of disruptions, right? There was Covid-19, there is the Russia-Ukraine conflict that got a lot of grain locked up. There were climate-induced bad crop yields in India and now Pakistan, as well as an economic crisis in Sri Lanka. Through all this, are there any learning points, or is there a need to relook at any top priorities? Brent, do you want to take a lead on this?

Brent Loken  24:30

I’m happy that there is more emphasis on food systems now. The last couple of years has definitely put an emphasis on food systems. But the problems were there before these crises happened, and those of us that have been working on food systems have been talking about it for a really long time.

So there’s nothing new that have come out of these crises, that we should look at and say, “Oh, we didn’t know this, because we didn’t know this was coming”.

What we needed was huge global shocks, such as the whole world shutting down due to Covid-19, or a lot of grain getting locked up and not being able to be sent to the places that needs it, for us to shed some light onto these problems. We know what needs to be done, we just need to do it.

The concern that I have, and I think one of the things that should worry all of us, is that as the world rapidly changes due to climate change, we’re going to see more and more disruptions like this, more and more global chaos in the food system. What we have seen the last couple of years, unfortunately, if we do not change paths, is going to be more of the norm than anything else.

We’re going to have to figure out how to not only live with that, how to adapt, but how to rapidly transform our food systems in this new world. Just a recent skim of the headlines will tell you the state of the planet at the moment, we are potentially crossing some thresholds, some huge global tipping points that could have disastrous consequences. And that’s unfortunately looming on the horizon.

Maybe Daniel, you should lighten it up a little bit.

Daniel Campion  26:23

I definitely agree with your point, Brent. There are some things happening in the last couple of years. But I suppose the underlying issues with the food industry have been there for a while. I think it’s key that we don’t take the focus off them. We know, for instance, that about 2 billion people are obese, almost 1 billion are malnourished, we know there is 30 per cent food waste, we know about the biodiversity loss, we know about the increase in climate change events.

The key piece for me is that we shouldn’t get distracted from the actions that we can take. When I’m talking to my teams, I always focus on the opportunities, because there are some pieces still within our control here. What we should focus on is building actions, building momentum. And that’s one reason I’m so happy with my role and the impact that we can have across the food system.

Because if we do work together, the scale of what we can achieve is really significant. There will be certain areas that will be more affected in the future than they are today. But we still shouldn’t lose sight of what can we do today to make things better. If we can continue the focus on action, continue to focus on the opportunity rather than the doom and gloom, I definitely think we can make a significant change in the future.

Liang Lei  28:02

Don’t get distracted from the actions we can take. I think that’s a great place to leave the conversation. Brent Loken and Daniel Campion that was a great conversation. Thank you.

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