The Big Ten food companies must join the climate fight

| 20th June 2014
A palm oil plantation in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo: Rainforest Action Network.
A palm oil plantation in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo: Rainforest Action Network.
Oxfam's report 'Standing on the Sidelines' lays down a challenge to the 'Big 10' of the global food industry, writes Julia Wright. They must cut their huge carbon emissions, campaign to protect global climate, and rethink their entire mission to encompass health and wellbeing.
In the fight for zero hunger in a safer climate, the silence of the food and beverage industry is not a virtue.

The world's 'Big 10' food companies are taking insufficient action over tackling climate change. So says Oxfam's excellent report 'Standing on the Sidelines'.

If together they were a single country, these 10 famous companies would be the 25th most polluting country in the world, emitting more GHGs  - 263.7 million tons per annum - than Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway combined.

The report recommends that the companies - Associated British Foods (ABF), Coca-Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever - not only act to reduce their own emissions footprints, but also use their influence to call for climate action from governments and other industries.

"In the intensive corporate lobbying on the 2009 US climate change legislation in Congress, the Big 10 were all but absent in a debate dominated by players from energy and biofuel industries", states the report. "It is time they lent their weight to the broader fight over climate policy."

It wouldn't be too cynical to suggest that that these companies are not doing the latter for fear of calls of hypocrisy - for not doing the former. And that they're not doing the former because, well, why should they?

The world is an 'externality'

The modern western world view, reiterated by education and the media, encourages us to 'succeed' in monetary terms as individuals, to compete, and to view the natural world as an externality, only to be bothered with as a charitable act.

So why should we be surprised at the manifestation of this world view in the form of the behaviour of food companies? If we want permanent change we need to identify and resolve the cause, as well as remediating the effect.

As Arne Naess pointed out, the environmental movement only exists as long as we see nature as being external to ourselves. In fact, the natural world is our life support system and we are intimately connected to it.

We 'know' this, not as scientific knowledge, but as intuition or inner knowing, the type of knowing that used to prevail when people were more viscerally and experientially connected with nature and her cycles, before the age of rationality and reason.

Traditional elders laugh at us for our goal-oriented action and our seeking for intellectual understanding, as in the lyrics from Vultures of Culture by Nakho and Medicine for the People - "Why Western man destroys things he doesn't understand ..." Yet it's difficult for us to step out of the goldfish bowl that we are in.

New ways of thinking, and of being

To escape from the bowl requires proactive effort to encounter different ways of thinking, of viewing the world, and to acknowledge the right for different knowledge systems to exist. This need for cognitive justice matches Einstein's comment that problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.

In the fight for zero hunger in a safer climate, the silence of the food and beverage industry is not a virtue.

Yet, in my work over three decades in agricultural development, I rarely encounter anyone from the industrial, agricultural or food sector actively seeking to experience different mindsets.

Interaction with people holding radically different world views happens only when 'doing business' with them - and sadly, that's often not a context conducive to the discussion of other matters.

At the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR), our research addresses these issues. Some of our work focuses on remediating the effects of the current system, but chiefly we are concerned with the root causes, and with proposing new, more workable models.

The Emperor's new banquet?

With regard to the food system, and as long as environment is seen as external, a more workable model would also emerge if we simply realigned food production, processing and retail with its primary goal.

For isn't the primary goal of a food system simply to feed people with an abundant supply of nutritious foods? Or to put it in a more empowering way, for people to feed themselves, abundantly and nutritiously?

This simple realignment, which we are also researching in CAWR, would turn the existing farming and food system on its head. In this model, the natural resource base - soil, water, biodiversity - would be managed for optimum nutrition and health, to enable plants and livestock and hence humans to also attain optimum health.

A diverse range of foods would be consumed fresh and local, and any post-harvest processing would focus on enhancing, rather than detracting from, nutritional quality.

'Health' is more than absence of sickness

As far back as 1948, the World Health Organisation defined health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity".

If we were to also consider humans' physical, mental and emotional health, then enabling mass, meaningful work and interaction in the natural environment would also be incorporated into the new food model.

This realignment to prioritise human health would have similar outcomes to those if we prioritised environmental health, because, as you see, everything is interconnected.

Technically impossible? Not at all - we already have the know-how. Culturally impossible? From the traditional elders' perspective, the more culturally implausible scenario is the one we have at the moment, where we are bombarded by subliminal messages to consume food that causes ill-health.

This could even be an opportunity to use marketing concepts for some common good.

Planetary Health

But while the 'Big 10' must realign their mission to contribute to human nutrition, health and wellbeing, they must also, as Oxfam's report makes clear, make their positive contribution to the health of our planet, which sustains us all. 

"The Big 10 are uniquely placed to reveal the risks of climate change to their investors and to our global food chain. Kellogg and General Mills in particular must reverse their position as climate laggards."

They must thereore ensure that their supply chains produce ingredients more equitably and sustainably, moving towards production and land-use methods that diminish GHG emissions and replenish carbon sinks.

Recent moves to 'zero-deforestation' policies are welcome - but the priocess needs to be implemented more transparently, and extended to all commodities, not just palm oil. But most critically, as the report makes clear,

"they need to step off the sidelines and lead the call on other industries and world leaders for more progressive, more equitable, and cleaner energy and food policies.

"In the fight for zero hunger in a safer climate, the silence of the food and beverage industry is not a virtue."



The report:  'Standing on the Sidelines'.

Julia Wright is Deputy Director of the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University, in association with Garden Organic. She has worked for four decades in sustainable agricultural development in the UK and internationally, including for the UN, the UK Government, the CGIAR network, and the private and third sectors.

Supported by an EU Marie Curie Award, Julia undertook doctoral research on the coping strategies of the farming and food system in Cuba when petroleum and food imports ran out at the end of the 1990s. This led to a book that both dispels and corroborates the myths surrounding that country: 'Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in an Era of Oil Scarcity, Lessons from Cuba' (Earthscan, 2009).

Julia sits on the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Cuban Studies, the Governing Board of Writtle College, the Research Advisory Board of the Permaculture Association, and is External Examiner for the MSc Sustainable Horticulture and Food Production at Schumacher College.


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