Vang Vieng, Lao PDR

Rethinking Sustainable Food Systems in Tourism

Food and gastronomy reflect the culture and heritage of a destination. Food experiences are a key element when visitors make a travel decision. According to the World Food Travel Association (WFTA), 53% of leisure travelers choose their next destination based on food and drink, while food-loving visitors spend on average 25% of their travel budgets on food and drink. Moreover, the widespread popularity of food television programs and social media platforms has increased demand for culinary experiences that offer authentic tastes of a place as well as opportunities to connect with local communities. 

Currently, the global food supply chain accounts for 34% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Food production is linked to 70% of biodiversity loss on land. As demand for healthier food options grows along with the rise of conscious consumption, there is a pressing need for sustainable food systems worldwide. Particularly in low- and middle-income countries such as the GMS, food systems are undergoing profound transformations as a result of socioeconomic and demographic shifts. Increasing incomes, rapid urbanization, and rising middle classes spur significant changes in dietary habits and consumer behavior, necessitating public and private investments in better food systems. Global food systems are also under increasing pressure due to climate change and unsustainable agricultural practices. 

Food stall in Hua Hin, Thailand (Photo by jittawit.21 / Skift)

When it comes to tourism, the high demand for local food by visitors can bring negative effects. In communities with limited resources, fresh water and food may be prioritized to sustain tourism demand, affecting the local quality of life. At the same time, as local economies transition to supporting the needs of tourists, some communities may face the loss of cultural identity through food. Many restaurants begin to stop offering local cuisine and alter their menus to meet the culinary needs of tourists, giving visitors a false impression of local food while pushing traditions away. Thus, creating a sustainable food system can help maximize resource efficiency and foster food traditions and cultural identity. In the long run, sustainable food systems also contribute to biodiversity conservation, optimize supply chains with a focus on smaller-scale suppliers, reduce food waste and water consumption, and minimize greenhouse gas emissions caused by production, transportation, and food preparation.

Overconsumption and food waste place further pressure on local food systems. It is estimated that unavoidable food waste accounts for around 25% of all food waste generated by the hospitality, food service, and food retail sectors in the United Kingdom. This means that the remaining 75% of food waste is avoidable. It is critical for tourism stakeholders to understand the key role of the tourism sector and develop initiatives to reduce food waste. The Pacific Asia Travel Association provided detailed food waste reduction guidelines and standards through the “BUFFET Toolkit” in 2019 and the “Food and Plastic Waste Reduction Standards for Tourism Businesses” under the EU’s SWITCH-ASIA TourLink project in 2022 to help all tourism businesses, professionals, and communities reduce food waste in their operations. 

In a convenient society where food is easily accessible, many people have neglected good nutrition sources. Revitalizing healthy eating habits is valuable. Tourism experiences can transform tourist habits; thus, tourists who opt for healthy and sustainable food during their holiday may be inspired to continue doing so upon returning home. One simple way to spur change is shifting to locally grown organic products or choosing local substitutes over imports. This ensures local communities directly benefit from tourism revenue while reducing the depletion of natural resources. Laos Buffalo Dairy, based in Luang Prabang, and Kashew Cheese in Vietnam are local producers that offer artisanal cheese and dairy products, which used to be mainly imported. Many restaurants in the GMS region also adopt a “farm-to-table” approach which maximizes the use of in-season local ingredients, supports local farmers, minimizes delivery distance, and reduces packing waste.

Plant-based protein products (Photo by Thai Union Alternative Protein)

Technology is also critical in developing new solutions to replace unsustainable food production methods, enhance food quality and safety, and connect consumers with the food system.  One promising emerging technology is 3D food printing, which can produce food materials in a paste or gel form, allowing for food to be personalized to the nutritional needs and preferences of consumers. Production of alternative and plant-based proteins is also on the rise, and their production processes are less resource-intensive than traditional livestock production. The Vietnamese start-up Cricket One has deployed an advanced cricket manufacturing system that can process crickets into protein-rich ingredients for food manufacturers. Meanwhile, Thai Union Alternative Protein specializes in offering alternative seafood and meats while exploring emerging areas such as insect proteins and lab-grown meats through collaboration and investments in startups. For new solutions to succeed, it is important for governments and businesses to communicate the sustainability aspects of food products to consumers while fostering an enabling environment to facilitate both demand and supply of sustainable food. Innovations in the way food is produced and consumed are critical to building resilient and sustainable food systems.

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