Thursday, 19 June 2014

Food and beverage industry must act on climate change

By Sarah Meads, Senior Policy Advisor, Oxfam New Zealand

The world is dangerously unprepared for climate impacts on food - yet food companies are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. Here Sarah Meads explains why food and beverage companies need to clean up their act. 

What has climate change got to do with food and beverage companies? In brief, agriculture and deforestation (largely driven by the expansion of agricultural land) are responsible for around 25% of global emissions. At the same time, climate change presents a major risk to food supply chains and ultimately to the profitability of the 10 biggest food and beverage companies and to the food industry worldwide. 

Oxfam’s new report, Standing on the Sidelines: Why the food and beverage companies must do more to tackle climate change, calls on food and beverage companies to dramatically step up action on climate change by using their influence to reduce agricultural emissions and to emerge as leaders by speaking out on the need for climate action from other industries and governments.

The “Big 10” global food and beverage companies (Associated British Foods, Coca-Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever) are both highly vulnerable to climate change and major contributors to the problem. If the ‘Big 10’ was a single country, their combined greenhouse gas emissions would make them the 25th most polluting in the world – and yet they’re not doing nearly enough to tackle it.

The report is part of Oxfam’s “Behind the Brands” campaign looking at the social and environmental policies of the world’s biggest ten food and beverage companies. Previous “Behind the Brands” campaigns have convinced some of the biggest food companies on the planet to adopt stronger policies against land grabs and to improve women’s rights.

Climate change is damaging food production

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently warned that climate change will lead to declines in global agricultural yields of up to 2 per cent each decade. At the same time demand for food is expected to rise by 14% percent over the same period – hitting harder and sooner on global hunger than previously thought. It also warns of higher and more volatile food prices - Oxfam estimates world cereal prices could double by 2030, with half of this rise driven by climate change.

The IPCC also warned of reaching a global temperature threshold of three to four degrees, beyond which there will be little we can do to avoid severe damage to food production in many areas of our world. Above this threshold we could face runaway food crises. We are currently on track to cross this threshold in the second half of this century. 

Food price volatility not only hits poor households in developed countries, it can lead to riots in poorer countries, triggering insecurity and more volatile markets that affect us all. The global food industry, including in New Zealand, cannot afford to be complacent on tackling climate change by assuming global markets will be business-as-usual by 2030 in its analysis of global climate change impacts on food production.  

The cost of inaction is now greater than action

In April 2014, Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, spoke out about the need for action on climate change, stating that, "the cost of inaction is now greater than the cost of action: in the last decade, the world spent $2.7 trillion [NZD$3.21 trillion] more on natural disasters than usual; the same disasters are costing Unilever around €300 million [NZD$485 million] a year." Climate change is already costing these companies vast sums of money. Oxfam’s report is a call to reason; a demonstration that tackling climate change is in everyone’s interest.

There is still time to fix the problem. What companies and governments do today to prepare for climate change – and the degree to which the poorest countries are supported – will, to a large extent, determine the sustainability and profitability of the food industry as well as how many people go hungry over the next two decades. And how far and fast companies and governments cut their emissions will determine whether our food systems can continue to support us in the second half of the century.

Read the full report here:

Note: This blog was also published on Motu's blog "New Zealand's Low-Emission Future."


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