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Climate Change

How to ‘Fix the Business of Food’ and Save the Planet

From farm to fork, the global food industry needs to start aligning their operations with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. Pictured here, a farmer tends to vegetables in a greenhouse in Antigua, where a climate-smart agricultural initiative seeks to improve farm productivity. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 25 2019 (IPS) - With up to one billion undernourished people around the world, and agriculture and land use systems increasingly vulnerable to climate change and land degradation, more companies within the global food industry need to start aligning their operations with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.

As climate action remained a heightened focus at this year’s U.N. General Assembly, the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition held an event in New York where different parties came together to discuss how to fix food security and get different stakeholders from governments to private sector to come together to make an impact.

Guido Barilla, President of the Barilla Foundation, announced the launch of the report “Fixing the Business of Food, the Food Industry and the SDG challenges” at the event held on Tuesday, Sept. 24.

The report noted that the food industry is a key sector in achieving sustainable food, land, water, and oceans. But current agriculture and food systems “lead to widespread hunger, malnutrition, and obesity”, accounting for almost a “quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, over 90 percent of scarcity-weighted water use, most losses of biodiversity, overexploitation of fisheries, eutrophication through nutrient overload, and considerable pollution of water and air, for example through the burning of crop residues”.

The report found that while food industry leaders have already taken steps towards aligning with the SDGs, “more work is needed in terms of business action towards sustainable development, as well as to make sustainability reporting more systematic, detailed, and useful for all parties”.

“Our planet is crying out for us to make these changes,” said Barilla during his remarks. “Together with our partners we set ourselves the challenge of assessing the food industry progress…in aligning the sustainable development goals.”

Columbia University professor and Sustainable Development Solutions Network Director, Jeffrey Sachs, and Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Qu Dongyu, shared their thoughts among others at the event.

Qu called on the food industry to do more to support healthy foods and reduce food loss and waste.

“We know that agriculture is pushing against ecosystems all over the world to an absolutely shocking extent,” Sachs said at the workshop. “We’re losing the ecosystem…of course it’s complex, it requires good science to understand what are the drivers but agriculture is certainly the lead driver.”

Scarlett Benson, Associate at SYSTEMIQ Ltd, presented the report “Growing Better: Ten Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use”.

“If we continue as we’re going, we’re going to deforest 400 million more hectares of natural ecosystem for agricultural land,” Benson said. “But if we can implement this reform agenda, we’ll actually save 1.2 billion hectares of land that is currently used for agriculture and that land will be available for return to nature so that will allow us to…achieve all biodiversity agenda.”

She mentioned the part of the research that often garners a lot of attention is about freeing up land.

“Because freeing up land, by changing our diets, by reducing food loss and weight and including agriculture productivity through better use of technology, actually enables us to use land more efficiently,” Benson said.

“Land has an opportunity cost and it is an asset for us,” she said. 

When asked how many companies are actually adapting sustainable development practices with high priority, Charlotte Ersboll, U.N. Global Compact Senior Advisor, said “too few,” citing a recent study by the organisation.

“It’s very clear that despite all the excitement around SDGs it’s really very superficial what companies are doing,” she said.

During the event she said that only 27 percent of companies where carrying sustainability through their supply chain.

“We can see that companies are certainly trying to embed sustainability in their strategy, they’re embedding policies,” she added, “but when we look at what kind of impact they are having on the ground, it’s far from what we need to see.”

“We found that companies look at health as mainly a responsibility for their workplace health departments but they don’t think about the potential negative impacts they can have in the production, supply, market chain and so we really want to see is they view health as a leading indicator for their activities.”

Accountability a key

A key highlight of the workshop was the lack of accountability and the need for each sector to hold other sectors accountable.

Sachs shed light on the importance of the different sectors coming together.

“We will not get sustainability on the planet, unless there’s co-responsibility,” he said. “We’re going to lose the resilience of the food sector itself if climate change, loss of biodiversity, destruction of land, scarcity of water continues the direction we’re going.”

In terms of achieving the SDGs, while there’s an obvious role for governments to play, Gerbrand Haverkamp, executive director of World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA), says they stay focused on the private sector.

“That means we want to make sure that business is conducted – so the way that coffee is sourced, the way that we grow bananas…that is done in a way that it doesn’t undermine progress and also starts to contribute towards progress on the SDG,” Haverkamp told IPS in an exclusive interview.

“But to make sure companies do that, we need to make sure that we are able to articulate what that means [so] that we can measure how good they are doing, and then we make those results publicly available,” he said, adding that this allows both the consumers and investors a way to tell the company how they’re performing and what risks their under-performance can pose. 

Haverkamp added that while companies tend to be generally interested to engage in these practices, a bigger challenge remains the data collection.

“Companies do not adequately collect a lot of data or they fail to disclose it, so that’s a technical issue,” he added. “And to be able to hold someone accountable, you need to understand the issue.”

Others who spoke at the workshop include Emanuela Claudia Del Re, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Representative of the European Commission; Angelo Riccaboni, Full Professor Of Business Administration, University of Siena as well as Chair of the Prima Foundation; and Diane Holdorf, Managing Director of Food and Nature at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), based in Geneva, Switzerland.



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