What are supermarkets doing to promote plant-based and sustainably produced food, and to combat deforestation and food waste? That is the question addressed by a study launched this week called Superlist, conducted by the Questionmark Foundation and supported by Rikolto and Test Aankoop, in cooperation with BOS+, Canopea, écoconso, FoodWIN and Bond Beter Leefmilieu.
The research was carried out on the supermarkets Colruyt, Delhaize, Carrefour, Aldi and Lidl, which together account for more than 80% of the market share in Belgium. According to the study, their impact on Belgium's ecological footprint is significant. Yet it appears that the supermarkets are missing opportunities to put their commitments into practice. They place the responsibility for sustainable food choices mainly on the public.
Eating less meat and more plant-based food is a crucial step towards reducing the environmental impact of our diet. But supermarkets are still not doing enough to make this easy for their customers. Two out of three ready-made meals contain meat or fish. In the promotional leaflets, seven out of ten protein-rich offers have meat or fish as the main ingredient, and ready-made meat products such as schnitzel, burgers and sausages are mainly sold in (extra) large portions of more than 100 (or 150) grams. There are interesting initiatives and policies, but concrete targets are lacking.
Supermarkets do not guarantee that their entire offering is sustainably produced. Consumers therefore have to actively look for sustainable products within the available offering themselves. At Aldi and Lidl, there is not one sustainable option available in half of the product groups surveyed. Also, in their reporting policies, there is little or no transparency on the origin, transport or cultivation methods of the products. Some supermarkets do, however, offer transparency about the certification of fish products.
I don't want to unknowingly contribute to deforestation.
A participant in the citizen panels
The production of palm oil and cocoa, and of soy for animal feed, is responsible for much of the global deforestation. In general, there is a lack of transparency on the origin of these ingredients.
Supermarkets also have few action plans for reducing the risk of deforestation. The action plans in place often focus solely on their own brands, and often do not provide the best guarantees for deforestation-free produce.
Supermarkets are starting to take action to combat food waste and food loss, but clear definitions, measurable targets and reporting on those targets are mostly lacking. Delhaize was the only supermarket to publish an action plan containing these three elements. With a more ambitious approach and clear targets, the other supermarkets could do better at reporting the impact of their actions against food waste.
If we pooled the best practices of all the Belgian supermarkets, we would immediately take a big step forward.
"Supermarkets recognise their responsibility to make the food system more sustainable – we can see this in some promising initiatives," says Jelle Goossens, spokesperson for Rikolto in Belgium. "If we pooled the best practices of all the Belgian supermarkets, we would immediately take a big step forward."
Charlotte Linnebank, director of Questionmark, agrees: "The world is crying out for more sustainable food production and consumption. Supermarkets have the opportunity and responsibility to play a major role in this. With Superlist, we offer supermarkets insight into which best practices they can adopt from each other and also where they are lagging behind and therefore need to step up."
We also presented these results to citizens in different 'citizen panels' for adults and young people in the cities of Leuven, Antwerp and Ghent. For some, the results were an eye-opener, resulting in some strong reactions; for others they were as expected, and a feeling of disappointment prevailed. However, the participants did agree on one thing: supermarkets need to do more work on sustainability. Or, as one participant put it: "Small adjustments and achievements can have a big impact."