Money is pouring into food tech but the “rosy” sustainability claims behind these “lack evidence”, according to research by the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
Experts compared the scientific evidence behind the sustainability claims of four food system technologies, including home deliveries of meals and groceries, plant-based foods, blockchain and vertical farming. They found the scientific evidence to back claims up is limited.
Food deliveries performed worse in most aspects of sustainability, for example. Delivered groceries are better than making individual trips to the supermarket by car – but not by foot or public transport.
Home delivery of meals did not have any benefits, they said. “Research demonstrates that walking to the restaurant and consuming the meal there instead of having it delivered could reduce the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions by 68% per meal,” explained lead author of the study Anne Charlotte Bunge. This was mainly attributed to plastic food packaging waste generated by delivered meals.
The team also looked at plant-based substitutes for meat, dairy, eggs and seafood. The alternatives tend to have lower environmental impacts than conventional animal-based products, but research on their nutritional aspects has not been studied over the long term; other socioeconomic factors, such as pricing, are also rarely discussed.
“Food system technologies are often surrounded by a sustainability halo,” Bunge said. “Many of them strive to reduce climate impact, but they disregard other dimensions of sustainability.”
Vertical farming has a “mixed” sustainability performance. The farms outperform on-field cultivation and greenhouses in some aspects, such as land and water use, yet they often require more energy and emit more greenhouse gases than field agriculture.
No research has shown any tangible sustainability improvements related to blockchain’s use in the food industry, the authors said, with studies to date only discussing “theoretical benefits”.
The researchers found considerably more evidence on the sustainability performance of plant-based alternatives than for the other technologies. In general, these innovations have the potential to support parts of the transformation towards a sustainable food system and enhance human health, they wrote, but the unintended consequences were rarely considered.
The researchers called for a new ‘sustainability assessment framework’ to help guide investments towards truly sustainable options. What’s needed is “a more rigorous, quantitative assessment of the sustainability implications of food system technologies”, said co-author Line Gordon, professor at the centre, which is based at Stockholm University.