Study results show that sustainability claims behind booming food technologies are not proven

Nachhaltigkeitsansprüche hinter boomenden Lebensmitteltechnologien sind nicht belegt

Conceptual framework of the included FSTs. Overview of the FSTs included in this review that are driving food system transformation at various entry points of the food supply chain. Photo credits: Icons,; health food (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s43016-022-00622-8

A new analysis reveals significant evidence gaps regarding the sustainability claims of new food technologies such as vertical farming, blockchain, food delivery and plant-based alternatives to animal products.

Money goes into food technology. But despite rosy claims, food innovations are rarely evaluated empirically from a broader sustainability perspective.

“Food system technologies are often surrounded by a sustainability halo. And many of them strive to reduce climate impacts, but they ignore other dimensions of sustainability,” says Anne Charlotte Bunge, a researcher at Stockholm University’s Stockholm Resilience Center and lead author of a recent study published in health food.

In the study, the research team compared the scientific evidence behind the sustainability claims of four food system technologies: plant-based substitutes for meat, dairy, eggs or seafood; vertical farming; food deliveries; and blockchain technology. All four are attracting significant interest from venture capital firms across Scandinavia, and all are often cited as new sustainable solutions. However, according to the new study, the scientific evidence to support these claims is limited.

For blockchain technology, no research has shown tangible sustainability improvements related to its use in the food industry. Studies published to date have only discussed the theoretical benefits.

Plant-based substitutes have been found to have lower environmental impacts than traditional animal products. But research on its nutritional aspects has not been studied long-term, and other socio-economic factors, such as B. the pricing, are rarely discussed.

“Plant-based alternatives are more expensive than traditional animal products, which could give the impression that a plant-based diet is more expensive and seen as a luxury, leading to social inequality,” warns first author Anne Charlotte Bunge.

Vertical farming has a mixed sustainability performance. Vertical farms outperform field cultivation and greenhouses in some aspects such as: B. Land and water consumption. However, they often require more energy and emit more greenhouse gases than field farming. And there is little research on other aspects of sustainability: “We found a distinct lack of evidence modeling the socio-economic impacts of scaling vertical farming,” says Anne Charlotte Bunge.

Grocery deliveries scored lower on most aspects of sustainability, except that delivered groceries are better than individual trips to the supermarket by car – but not walking or public transport. According to the analysis, home delivery of meals brought no benefits.

“Research shows that going to the restaurant and having the meal there instead of having it delivered could reduce the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions by 68% per meal,” says Anne Charlotte Bunge.

Here, too, there are significant research gaps on other environmental issues and social sustainability. In order to prevent bad investments in the future, the researchers call for a new sustainability assessment framework.

“Governing transformative investments requires a more rigorous, quantitative assessment of the sustainability impacts of food system technologies,” says co-author Line Gordon, professor at the Stockholm Resilience Center at Stockholm University.

What are the four food technologies?

  • Plant-based Alternatives: Vegan substitutes for meat, dairy, seafood, and eggs that mimic the texture, flavor, and sensory profile of traditional animal products.
  • Vertical Farming: Multi-layer vertical indoor crop production systems with controlled growing conditions and no sunlight.
  • Blockchain Technology: A decentralized distributed ledger technology that tracks the supply chain to provide transparency.
  • Grocery Deliveries: The delivery of food and groceries purchased online using a variety of modes of transport. Part of the broader digital food environment.

More information:
Anne Bunge, A systematic review of the scope of sustainability of vertical farming, plant-based alternatives, food delivery, and blockchain in food systems, health food (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s43016-022-00622-8.

Provided by Stockholm University

Citation: Sustainability Claims Behind Booming Food Technologies Lack Evidence, Study Findings (2022 November 3) Retrieved November 3, 2022 from

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