Toggle Nav

What I've Learned about Food and Sustainability

Jason Clay is the Senior Vice President of Markets and Food at WWF.

Where to start? My early market transformation wake-up call came after a Grateful Dead benefit for the rain forest, when I met a man named Ben—of Ben & Jerry’s fame. Ben asked what he could do to help, and I said: make an ice cream with ingredients from the rain forest. Use Brazil nuts from natural forests and cashew nuts from replanted ones. WWF research confirmed that the export of these nuts would not harm the forests. And when Ben & Jerry’s launched its Rainforest Crunch ice cream (sustainably harvested nuts included) the sales and accompanying flood of media raised the awareness of rain forests globally.

By 1993, I was working with WWF to compare the impacts of wild-caught and farmed shrimp. Some 250 pages and 1,900 external reviews later, we reached the conclusion that both wild-caught and farm-raised shrimp had tremendous environmental impacts, but farming (aquaculture) was growing rapidly and had greater potential to improve. We began to explore what sustainable shrimp farming would look like.

A three-year study resulted in some of the best data in the world on the impacts of shrimp aquaculture, as well as the best ways to reduce those impacts, from on-farm practices to trade regulations. From shrimp, we expanded our focus to the 12 most valuable global species produced by aquaculture.

Freshly caught cape yellowtail fish (Seriola lalandi) lying on the beach.

Seriola (also known as amberjack), one of the 12 most valuable global species produced by aquaculture. The others are shrimp, salmon, abalone, fresh-waster trout, mussels, scallops, clams, oysters, cobia, tilapia, and pangasius.

Why was this so important? Because aquaculture soon equaled all wild-caught fisheries as a source of seafood, and by 2012 aquaculture production surpassed beef production globally.

We were able to get ahead of the curve on aquaculture. We realized we could anticipate trends and develop sustainability standards early—before unsustainable practices took hold.

We also began working with potato farmers in Wisconsin to identify and quantify pesticides being used, and to compare toxicity. Over six years, we explored the problem, proposed a solution and worked with farmers to implement that plan. This resulted in a nearly 50% reduction in the toxicity of pesticides used across the state.

Another watershed moment came with our work tracking chemicals used by major agribusinesses in the land around the Mesoamerican Reef, the second-longest barrier reef in the world. We wanted to know what was flowing from land to sea—and what impact it was having on marine life.

To find out, we tested representative species for chemical residues and found that toxins—including unacceptable levels of the newest, supposedly safest chemicals—had accumulated in all of them. Even more concerning, we also found evidence of chemicals that hadn't been used in the region for 30 years. Turns out, the most worrying environmental impact in the Mesoamerican Reef wasn't from overfishing; it was from agriculture. And we needed to approach the problem by targeting soil erosion and chemical runoff.

Another lightbulb went on as we realized that the key to a solution was to work with the main agricultural industries associated with chemical use in the region. With support from the Summit Foundation, we put expert boots on the ground in Mexico, Belize and Honduras.

Banana plants

Bananas, one of the main agricultural industries associated with chemical use in the Mesoamerican region. The others are pineapple, palm oil, sugarcane, and citrus.

Over the following years, we signed agreements with Chiquita, Dole, Del Monte and other producers to collect information on the chemicals they applied and identify ways to reduce their use and overall runoff. After a decade of work, we discovered that our efforts had reduced the environmental impacts of chemical use and soil runoff to the Mesoamerican Reef by about 50%.

Those opening salvos taught us a critical lesson we can bring to the food fight: It takes a laser-like focus on measurable impacts, sufficient time and funding, and relationships with influential partners to make meaningful progress.

We realized we couldn't work everywhere and address every environmental issue on the planet. Saving individual species was a losing battle if we didn't go bigger and address their key threats. So we came up with a list of 35 priority places around the world and analyzed the threats to the biodiversity in those locations.

What we learned was eye-opening: the greatest pressure on those places, by far, was coming from the production of food and fiber. To get to the root cause of the threat from food and fiber production, we zeroed in a little further. It turns out that 15 globally traded commodities present the most significant threats across the board to the world's most ecologically important places.

Deforestation in Tesso Nilo, Sumatra

Deforestation from palm oll production, one 15 globally traded commodities that present the most significant threats. The others are beef, cotton, dairy, farmed salmon, farmed shrimp, fishmeal & oil, pulp & paper, biofuels, timber, sugarcane, wild-caught shrimp, tuna, whitefish, and soy.

How are we going to change the way those 15 commodities are produced? We can't touch 7 billion people directly, or even 1.5 billion producers. But we can touch the companies that reach them.

Our research showed that 300 to 500 companies buy 70-80% of each of those 15 commodities. And 100 companies touch about 25% of that group. We can get our arms around 100 companies. We can find places to leverage our influence.

Best of all, that level of influence means producers will compete to sell to those 100 companies. So we can actually impact 40-50% of global production by working with a carefully selected group. That is a strategy that changes the game. Feeling like we'd cracked an important code, we sat down to hammer out an action plan. We decided to help those 100 companies realize that they all face similar problems with sustainability—and that the solutions will come faster if they work together on a shared strategy.

And we've seen a few major wins.

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, speaks at the Opening Conference Symposium panel discussion at the WWF Annual Conference in St Gallen, Switzerland

Unilever, the world’s largest buyer of palm oil, was the first company to agree to buy only certified palm oil and has since stated that all the raw materials it buys will be sustainable by 2020

The Global Salmon Initiative, created by 15 of the largest salmon producers representing 70% of global production, committed that all their production would be certified by 2020

The Consumer Goods Forum, which represents 400 major businesses around the world, made the commitment to help its members achieve zero net deforestation by 2020 Ireland became the first country to commit to third-party verified, 100% sustainable food exports by 2016

Ireland became the first country to commit to third-party verified, 100% sustainable food exports by 2016

Even with those commitments in hand, we were still left wondering: Which of these gives the world more food over the long term: recognizing the best producers and certifying them, or helping the worst actors clean up their acts?

Turns out, the 25% of food producers whose practices are least sustainable produce only 10% of the product. But they cause about 50% of the environmental impacts. Yet all of our previous work focused on the best performers. That’s an upside-down equation.

It became abundantly clear. To produce more with less, we need to start moving the least sustainable actors, right now. To do that, we take the lessons learned by better producers—ones that increase productivity while reducing environmental impacts—and turn those into blueprints for action. Then we can show farmers on the low-performing end of the spectrum exactly how sustainable decisions are good for the bottom line. Moving the bottom also means we have to work with governments to create policies that reduce waste and are aligned with productivity, efficiency and continuous improvement.

What exactly is WWF’s role in all this? Well, we’re not entrepreneurs, building our own businesses. We’re not intrapreneurs, creating innovation inside the companies. We’re extrapreneurs. We help companies connect to the right people, identify risks and efficiencies, solve problems earlier, and share information between institutions which might not talk to each other without our help. Like honeybees pollinating an increasingly abundant field.

We pull together the best science and industry know-how, the latest thinking on trends and issues, and use that to inspire better practices across sectors. Still, nobody has fully solved this riddle. Yet that is how we can shift the entire performance curve.

Simply put, sustainability is a pre-competitive issue. It has to be dealt with apart from issues of standard business competition. When entire sectors, platforms or even countries tackle critical sustainability issues together, that’s when we can start to drive progress that is swift and dramatic—exactly what we need to freeze the footprint of food.

The message is plain: Food is precious. Don’t waste it. Producing food takes a lot of human effort and gifts from the Earth. If we don’t get food right, we might as well turn out the lights and go home.

Lessons Learned Consensus, patience, focus

Lesson one: If you want to change companies, work with them. The first step is to create awareness, with partners and others and then build consensus. From this, partners can each choose their own strategic focus and the best way forward. The work is up to the companies, but we can help. We talk to and learn from companies that don’t talk to each other. We can share those lessons learned in order to accelerate change.

Lesson two: The present took centuries to make, it will take time to change it. In Wisconsin, our work took six years. In the Mesoamerican Reef, it took 12 years (and is still going on today). In aquaculture, it took eight years to get standards in place and another seven years to get them implemented by two thirds of the industry. While you can’t rush a good thing, if we learn from all our efforts, we can cut the time it takes to achieve results in half and the cost even more. To work at the speed of life, we need to do more with less—less time and less money.

Lesson three: Be strategic, measure performance. We can shift the needle faster when we focus on what's most important. Our approach has been to be extremely targeted: to help our partners measure what matters and then manage what they measure.

Explore More

World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

View all issues