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Silk Launches Harvard Research Initiative to Examine Future Food Industry Challenges

Earlier this month, plant-based food and beverages brand Silk announced a year-long sponsored research initiative with the Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHGE) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, to investigate the perceptions of food industry challenges, including efforts to create a healthy and sustainable food supply for the estimated 9.6 billion people that will inhabit the planet by 2050.

The CHGE will conduct research focused on three key areas: environmental sustainability, transparency, and health and wellness. The differences in the perceptions of food companies, industry leaders, academics, and the general public are of particular interest. To further explore such gaps in perception, Silk will separately survey U.S. consumers about their attitudes and behaviors regarding plant-based diets and the impact that food choices have on the environment. The research initiatives will also examine perceptions of organic and GMO claims in terms of food labeling, agricultural yields and environmental impact.

I spoke with Rebekah Lyle, Director of Marketing at Silk, to learn more.

Why is Silk sponsoring this research?

It’s becoming abundantly clear that the way the world currently produces, distributes and eats food must change if we are going to meet the needs of a growing global population in an already fragile environment. And while we, as a brand, have made great strides over the last 20 years and have a bold vision for the future, we know we can’t get there alone. By engaging with the right groups who share our vision and commitment to making the world a more nutritious and sustainable place, we realize that we’re able to grow our impact both in our backyard and around the world.

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The Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHGE) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health was founded to study and promote a wider understanding of the human health consequences of global environmental change, which directly aligns with Silk’s values and the mission of this program. CHGE is one of the most trusted sources of information on this subject in the world, and we’re honored to be sponsoring this important work. We hope CHGE’s research will lead to a meaningful discourse about the future of food, both internally with our brand and also more broadly among key stakeholders in the food industry.

Will the research focus exclusively on plant-based diets?

CHGE’s research will examine trends across packaged food – not just plant-based products. Through this research, we’re hoping to gain an understanding about what’s working well about the current food system, and where we opportunities to improve or fundamental gaps in understanding that need to be addressed. To achieve this, experts will be interviewed from academia, the private sector, and NGOs that have expertise in agriculture policy, nutrition, packaging, supply chain, communications, water consumption, climate change and chemical inputs, to name a few.

As part of a separate, yet related effort, we also plan to survey U.S. consumers about their attitudes and behaviors regarding these same challenges. Plant-based diets and the impact that food choices have on the environment will be one, but not the only topic of discussion.

The research focus areas – environmental sustainability, transparency, and health and wellness – are all popular topics in the food industry right now. What is Silk hoping to learn about these areas?

We chose to examine environmental sustainability, transparency, and health and wellness because they are challenges that every food company faces – not just Silk. We consider water scarcity one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time and we’re especially aware of its impact on the Colorado River as well as on our supply chain. That’s why we work with great partners like the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to balance the water used in our manufacturing process and restore water to critically dewatered rivers and water systems.

However, as you’ve acknowledged, we know most other companies recognize that there’s more to be done in each of these areas. We hope CHGE’s research will examine:

  • To what extent companies are committed to ensuring their business operations and supply chains minimize environmental impact.
  • To what extent companies are communicating openly and clearly about the journey of food from farm to table and the ingredients in their products so consumers know what they are buying and eating.
  • How committed packaged food and beverage companies are to providing products that reflect public health concerns and to making these healthier options more desirable, affordable and accessible.

To what extent will the research include agriculture (and its environmental impacts)?

Building on the previous question, the research will look at perceptions/use of various agriculture/farming approaches, both in terms of their environmental impact and ability to meet the need to feed the world’s growing population by 2050, which many deem to be a critical tipping point for our planet.

Are there any concerns about perceived bias due to Silk’s financial support of the research?

The Center for Health and the Global Environment will independently conduct a series of interviews with experts across academia, the private sector and NGOs, on the broad areas of environmental sustainability, health and transparency. As part of a separate but related effort, Silk will work with another third party to conduct a survey of consumer perceptions of the same three topic areas to identify any gaps or areas of opportunity. The findings will be collected independently by third-party experts, with no influence from Silk.

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