Can a burger joint be “green”?

Larkburger, a small but growing chain of “fast casual” restaurants in Colorado, calls itself eco-friendly. As it happens, the company has taken a thoughtful approach to limiting its environmental footprint. It generates almost no waste, using utensils made out of potatoes, and cups made of corn that can be composted along with its food waste. It uses recycled mesquite wood to decorate the walls. It buys wind energy to offset its electricity use.

These are not trivial gestures. They all cost money. Larkburger’s president, Adam Baker, recently told me: “The trash bags that we use are compostable. They’re a dollar apiece. I look at those and say, I wish that they would make it cheaper. But it’s part of our DNA. It’s part of what we do.”

One more thing to know about Larkburger: The  burger is really good. I set aside my mostly-vegetarian diet to try a Larkburger ($5.95) with Truffle & Parmesan Fries ($2.95). Yum! You don’t have to take my word for it. Judges at the Denver burger battle crowned the Larkburger the best in show, as it bested 11 other burgers at the competition last summer.

But–and you knew this was coming–the question is, can a restaurant that serves beef, and presumably wants to sell more of it all the time,  really be eco-friendly? By most accounts — here’s an overview from WWF — beef has negative environmental impacts, on greenhouse gas emissions, water and land use. It’s a very inefficient, albeit tasty, way to deliver the protein we need.

This isn’t just a question about beef. It’s the kind of thing that comes up all the time when we think about consuming more sustainably. Should we feel better about bottled water if the bottles are made from recycled content, or try to wean ourselves off bottled water altogether? How should we think about a 15,000 square foot “eco-mansion”? (Not well–that’s a pretty easy one.) What about “the world’s first and only full-size Luxury hybrid SUV“? [click to continue…]

How to “green” a hamburger

Plastic bags, SUVs and hamburgers: No right-thinking tree-hugger would endorse them, at least not in public. But here’s the thing: While we can replace plastic bags with reusable ones, and we can electrify our SUVs, the world’s consumers will almost surely demand more, not less, beef in the years ahead.

Which is why the World Wildlife Fund has begun a conversation about, of all things, sustainable beef.

The WWF, led by Jason Clay, its iconoclastic senior vice president for “market transformation,” last fall convened a Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, bringing together environmentalists, academics and industry giants including Walmart, McDonald’s, Cargill and JBS, a Brazilian company that calls itself “the largest animal protein processing company in the world” and owns U.S. brands Swift and Pilgrim’s Pride.

The goal? To improve sustainability within the beef industry. [click to continue…]

Can one person change a company? Discuss…

I’m giving a speech to the grocery and food manufacturing industry–and I’d like your help.

I’ll be the closing keynote speaker at a Sustainability Summit in December in Arlington, Va., organized by the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association of grocery retailers and wholesalers (Ahold, Kroger, Price Chopper, Publix, Wegman’s, Winn-Dixie,  etc.) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade association made up of the companies that produce much of what we eat (Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Dannon, DelMonte, General Mills, Kraft, H.J. Heinz, Kellogg, Kraft, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever and many more).

These folks, needless to say, can have a huge impact on the environment and on our health. So it’s a great opportunity for me.

Because I’ll be the last speaker that people hear before they go home, my plan is to give a talk called “The Power of One.” It’s about how one person can change the world–not by himself or herself, of course. But by mustering the right arguments, and enlisting the right allies, one person can change a company, an industry and eventually change the world. I’ve seen it happen, more than once. In my 2004 book, Faith and Fortune, I devoted a chapter called  “Can One Person Change a Company?” to a woman named Barbara Waugh and her impact on Hewlett Packard which was, then and now, an enormous global company.

Where do you come in? Well, I have some stories in mind of people who have had an impact on corporate America, but I’m eager to hear more. If you know of someone who, with their passion and commitment and smarts and strategic thinking, helped make a company, big or small, more sustainable, please let me know. (Post in the comments below or send an mail to marc.gunther@gmail.com) I’m going to write  about some of those people for this blog and tell their stories in the speech. They need not work in sustainability or corporate social responsibility–in fact, I’m interested in individuals or small groups of people  who broke through silos or made things happen without having institutional responsibility.

And, if you work in the grocery or food business, by all means come to the summit. Ken Powell, the chairman and CEO of General Mills, will give the opening talk–it’s always an encouraging sign when a CEO is willing to give a speech on sustainability. Other speakers include Matt Arnold of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Gwen Ruta of Environmental Defense, Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, Jon Johnson from the University of Arkansas (who is leading the Sustainability Consortium), writer Andrew Winston, Dave Stangis of Campbell Soup, chef Barton Seaver, Aron Cramer of Business for Social Responsibility–and those are just people I’ve met or interviewed. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with then, as well as meeting new people. As my friend Joel Makower likes to say, networking is great–and not just because it’s only one letter away from being not working!

Biotech crops: growing like weeds

Corntassel_7095The people who are designing, marketing and selling biotech crops must be doing something right.

Despite fierce opposition to so-called Frankenfoods in Europe, which in turn has discouraged farmers in Africa from planting genetically-modified seeds, biotech acreage under cultivation around the world grew to 134 million hectares last year, up 7% over 2008.

Roughly 14 million farmers planted biotech crops, up from about 13.3 million a year ago, and nearly 90% were small, resource-poor farmers from developing countries, according to a pro-biotech nonprofit group called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agro-Biotech Applications or ISAAA.

Growth is especially robust in poor countries, as the chart below shows.

biotechgrowth,jpeg

What this says is that farmers, when given a choice between biotech and conventional crops, are opting for biotech. And after listening to a presentation the other day from Clive James, the chairman and founder of ISAAA, it’s clear to me that the growth is going to continue.

In a landmark decision last fall, China issued biosafety certificates for biotech insect-resistant rice and phytase corn. Phytase is an additive, widely used in animal feed, that increases phosphorus absorption and helps animals grow faster. Origin Agritech (NASDAQ: SEED), a Beijing-based company that developed the phytase corn, says it will save farmers money and reduce phosphate pollution caused by animal waste and excessive fertiliser use. While commercial use of these biotech crops is several years away, these three facts–rice is the world’s most important food crop, corn is the most important feed crop and China is the biggest market–leave little doubt biotech crop acreage will continue to grow.

Few topics in the world of business and sustainability are more controversial than biotech foods. I’m reluctant to wade into the debate for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not an expert on farming nor on the human health issues raised by biotech’s critics. Second, I’m conducting a series of interviews about sustainable agriculture for Monsanto’s website, Produce More Conserve More, for which I’m being paid. I agreed to do so only after talking about biotech with people I respect–among them, Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, Glenn Prickett of The Nature Conservancy and Stewart Brand–all of whom say that they think biotech foods are essential if we are going to feed the world’s growing population while limiting the environmental footprint of farming. In his book, Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart wrote:

I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about. We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.

Strong words, no? In response, GM Watch, an anti-biotech website, called Stewart an “ageing hippie technophile” who “has never been short on hubris.” That’s name-calling, not argument. Others whose work I respect, including Andrew Kimbrell and Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety, argue that genetically-engineered foods should not be commercialized until “they have been thoroughly tested and found safe for human health and the environment.” Of course, it’s not easy to prove that something is safe. The Center for Food Safety also wants foods containing biotech ingredients to be labeled. Still another critic of biotech who has my ear is my  daughter Sarah, who funds grassroots organizations in Africa as a senior program officer for the American Jewish World Service. Maybe I’ll invite her to do a guest post.

This posting isn’t about the controversy. It’s about what’s happening on the ground, literally. Farmers are voting for biotech, and they are doing so with their livelihoods at stake. This suggests that, at the very least, biotech crops deliver meaningful benefits to farmers–they enable them to save money, or work less, or improve their productivity.

The U.S. remains by far the No. 1 producer of biotech crops, followed by Brazil and Argentina, with every other country lagging well behind. (The top 15 countries are listed below. Yes, I know the chart is hard to read but you can also find the list in this press release.) China was one of 16 developing countries that grew biotech crops in 2009, according to ISAAA, and nearly half the biotech acreage is in the developing world.

“This puts to rest the idea that biotech crops can only benefits larger farms in developed countries,” James said during a conference call with reporters.

South Africa and Burkina Faso, where cotton is a major export, led African countries in adoption of biotech. Burkina Fason’s biotech cotton now accounts for 29% of the country’s cotton-growing land. Of course, there’s less controversy surrounding biotech cotton since it is a fiber and not a food crop. Japan, meanwhile, is growing biotech roses and carnations. Who knew?

Now, without knowing the context in which farmers are turning to biotech, it would be a mistake to read too much into this data. Individual farmers are influenced by government policy, the inducements of NGOs (like the pro-biotech Gates Foundation) and the information they have (or don’t have) available.

I’m looking forward to learning more about biotech agriculture.  It’s possible that we may regret this global-scale experiment that we embarked upon less than 15 years ago. But the market seems to be telling us that biotech crops are a good idea. Then again, we’ve all learned lately that markets are not infallible.

Figure 4a in COLOR

The anatomy of a latte

Have you ever wondered how much water it takes to make a Starbucks grande latte? I hadn’t until I met Jason Clay.

Jason is a Missouri farm boy who earned a Phd in anthropology from Cornell, wrote a definitive book on agriculture and the environment and is now senior vice president for market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund. (I wrote this column about him last year for fortune.com.) He’s one of those people who is always bursting with both facts and ideas, so I was pleased to run into him today in Atlanta, where we had both been invited to speak to senior executives of Coca Cola Enterprises, the big bottler of Coke products and a FORTUNE 500 company in its own right. CCE is doing great work on sustainability, but that’s another story.

Jason’s presentation was mind-expanding, as usual, but my favorite part came when he analyzed the “embedded water” in a Starbucks latte. There’s a terrific video about this at the WWF website; view it by clicking on the coffee cup.

Here’s the breakdown, by liters, of the water needed to make that latte:

0.1 for the water itself
2.5 to make the plastic lid
5.5 to make the paper cup and sleeve
7.5 to grow the sugar
49.5 to feed the cows that make the milk
143 to grow the coffee

That adds up to more than 200 liters of water to make a latte.

Now, this doesn’t mean we should stop drinking lattes. The water to grow coffee, after all, comes in the form of tropical rainstorms, which are abundant. And a bowl of Rice Krispies with milk has a much bigger water footprint: According to Jason, roughly 58% of all the water on the planet used by people for any purpose—farming, manufacturing, cooling nuclear power plants, swimming pools, showers—is used to grow rice. His point is that we, collectively, need to better understand the full environmental impacts of all that we consume. Then we need to make and grow things more efficiently, and consume less of them.

That not as simple as it may sound. One common mistake in the world of business and sustainability is to optimize for a single outcome—sell more organic cotton, say, or wild-caught fish, or fair trade tea—without understanding the overall impact of  products on water, energy, soil, land use, even poverty alleviation. Favoring organics might, for example, limit the development of genetically modified foods that require less water and fewer fertilizers. Clay’s open to the idea of GMOs as tools to grow more calories on less land. “Let’s be a little more neutral on the technology,” he says, “and a little more focused on the results.”

The need for clear thinking about such matters is urgent because population and, more important, consumption are growing fast.

“We’re beginning to wake up to the fact that we live in a finite world,” Clay says. “Business as usual is not going to set things right.”

“The average cat in Europe has a larger environmental footprint than the average African over a lifetime because of the fish it eats,” he says. [I’m going ask Jason for the data to back up that claim next time we meet.]

So what’s he doing to provoke change? He’s working with big companies like Coca-Cola, Mars, Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart, urging them to take a thorough, science-driven approach to their supply chains, so they use less water, produce fewer greenhouse gases, make less waste and protecting forests. That’s because these companies have scale and clout.

“Working with 300 to 500 companies is easier than working with 6.7 billion consumers,” he says.

Of course, consumers should be urged to reduce, reuse and recycle, but Clay argues that it’s unrealistic to expect even committed and well-informed consumers to drink their coffee black or switch from Rice Krispies to oatmeal.

“Consumers shouldn’t be asked to make those choices,” Clay says. “We think they ought to have only good choices on the shelves.”