Friday, February 27, 2009

Sustainability is a journey, not a destination…

Wayne Roberts gave an engaging presentation to the Post Carbon Toronto Meet Up last night on the social and environmental implications of diet, eating and food in a post peak world. As a long time environmental activist and current head of the Toronto Food Policy Council, Dr. Roberts is uniquely qualified to address this multidimensional topic.

He began by telling us that since the population of the world is about 6 billion, and on average people eat 3 meals a day (maybe only one in some places but often the equivalent of 4 or 5 in North America), anything related to food will have a big impact. Imagine we do something small but problematic, and then imagine that multiplied by 18 billion. Despite this effect, food is generally marginalized in environmental discussions.

This is of interest to socially responsible investors as many of our concerns are impacted by food, but we don’t tend to focus on food companies as the cause of these problems. For example, Dr. Roberts stated that the largest cause of deforestation in the world is agriculture. And that the highest rate of child labour is in the food industry, particularly chocolate. He also discussed the negative impacts of chemical fertilizers, which was quite disturbing given that Potash appears in some SRI mutual fund portfolios.

Dr. Roberts cautioned us to beware of the quick fix. He used as an example The 100 Mile Diet, which has brought issues around what we eat to the forefront and created a new category of foodies, the locavores. While many good things have sprung from this, it has also oversimplified the debate. Rather than looking at the embodied energy in the food, we now focus on transportation, which accounts for only 14% of that energy. So while ‘food miles’ is easy and catchy, it’s not the only factor to consider. Addressing the more complex and interconnected issues is demanding, and a challenge faced by SRI professionals as well.

Other points he raised were very appealing to me as they showed further parallels between the food movement and SRI. That the food movement is an area where we as individuals can make a difference with our dollars, that food activists work on creating bridges between various sectors in their community, and that we both look for continuous improvement. In Dr. Robert’s words “we must move forward relentlessly, but incrementally”. And finally, that sustainability is a journey, not a destination.

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