If you’ve been looking at food and beverage as an area where you can make your meetings more sustainable, the long-awaited APEX/ASTM Sustainable Meeting Standards were supposed to make your life a bit easier.

But the standards still haven’t been published and, meanwhile, the search for the right foods and suppliers is turning out to be complicated. A recent item in the New York Times pointed to confusing, sometimes misleading supply chains and an avalanche of shifting standards and certifications that make the market hard to understand.

“Even as more Americans buy foods with the organic label, the products are increasingly removed from the traditional organic ideal: produce that is not only free of chemicals and pesticides but also grown locally on small farms in a way that protects the environment,” the Times reported. In contrast to that ideal, the story cites the example of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, which has seen “explosive growth” in organic tomato farming. The commercial operations are putting stress on the water table to the point that some wells have run dry this year, which means small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops. On top of that, “the organic tomatoes end up in an energy-intensive global distribution chain that takes them as far as New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, producing significant emissions that contribute to global warming.”

As Michael Bomford of Kentucky State University commented in the article, “Organic agriculture used to be sustainable agriculture, but now that is not always the case.”

If misleading organic claims are a problem for consumers, they’re tougher still for meetings and facilities that represent a high-volume market for products that might have a questionable pedigree. That creates a challenge for planners who might have the inclination, but almost certainly lack the time, to become experts on the supply chains that bring ostensibly sustainable food and beverage from farm to table.

The APEX/ASTM standards are supposed give planners and suppliers a common guidepost that reflects the best experience the industry has to offer. Eight of the nine APEX standards were approved in mid-autumn. As of early January, they hadn’t been released. While it’s still within the 60 to 90 days that ASTM needs to publish a new standard after it’s been approved, the wait seems long if you’re champing at the bit to put the standards to use.

In the meantime, planners and suppliers alike will have to fall back on the combination of personal experience, one-off training, reliable sources, and informed hunches that have guided their sustainability choices until now. It’s far from a perfect solution, but here are some questions that can guide your choices:

  • To the extent possible, does your menu include items that are in season nearby, to reduce carbon emissions associated with long-haul travel?
  • Even if an item is certified organic, can you verify that the producers have addressed larger sustainability problems like the water shortages on the Baja Peninsula?
  • Has the kitchen followed the good example of the Portland DoubleTree hotel, which cut its costs from $21 to $6 per pound by switching from frozen Atlantic to fresh Pacific salmon?
  • If any seafood is on the menu, has it earned a sustainability certification from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program or an equivalent source?

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content, and founding chair of the GMIC Sustainable Meetings Foundation. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.