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How businesses can fix our broken food system

How businesses can fix our broken food system
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In 2020, society stopped taking food systems for granted.

Farm laborers, so often undervalued, were suddenly essential workers. Empty shelves came as a reminder that food supplies were not infinite and that even wealthy countries could be hit by food shortages. The closures of restaurants and cafés revealed how food underpins so much of the global economy, with shocks affecting not only production, but also distribution and consumption.

With each of these revelations, society as a whole has come to realize how complex and interdependent these systems are, and how governments and consumers rely on networks of agri-food businesses to deliver nutritious and affordable foods.

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Individuals, companies and governments rapidly adapted, from creating "green channels" in China to help suppliers deliver tons of fresh produce, to buying meat, dairy and vegetables directly from struggling farmers and opening borders to farmworkers. 

However, the crisis has revealed deeper issues for the resilience and sustainability of our food systems, particularly in the face of the next crisis looming: climate change.

Like COVID-19, climate change threatens to derail food systems from farm to fork. An increase in global temperatures is predicted to drive yields down, leading to a rise in hunger, while more frequent droughts and floods can disrupt transport and lead to food shortages.

What’s more, in a business-as-usual scenario, the climate crisis could last decades, affect millions of people and have unprecedented, long-term and devastating economic impacts.

Despite these dire signs, there is good news. Agriculture, while both a contributor and a victim of climate change, can be part of the solution, too. Improved climate action in food systems, such as reducing land-use change and cutting food waste, can deliver 20 percent of the emissions reductions needed to meet the Paris Agreement targets by 2050.

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With food and agriculture serving both public and private interests like few other sectors, agri-food businesses can reset the way in which we produce, distribute and consume food. But large-scale transformations will be needed, with the support of public policy and consumers.

While reeling from the double blow of a pandemic and a climate crisis, food companies have ramped up their efforts towards sustainability in recent months. Dozens of high-profile firms, such as Unilever or Danone, announced plans to become carbon-neutral. Increasingly, as the Barilla Foundation highlighted in its latest report, companies are turning to sustainability reporting frameworks in order to better understand the impact their supply chains have on societies and the planet, and vice versa.

These are all initial steps towards a more robust, resilient food system for all. Going one step further, some companies are shifting from promoting sustainability as part of corporate social responsibility (CSR) commitments to putting it at the heart of their business models. 

Much more needs to be done. More sustainable business and investment models need to be put in place and scaled-up. Food systems, which include everyone involved in growing, processing, distributing, consuming and disposing of our food, can only be fixed if businesses drive the change, and businesses can only survive if they introduce sustainable practices.

And while sustainability reporting in the food industry has increased, many firms struggle to monitor their entire supply chains, including environmental impacts and the effects of their products on the health and wellbeing of the final users. Current metrics do not set clear guidance for how companies can and should support sustainability. More comprehensive and harmonized reporting standards across the sector are needed to address this. 

The most progressive businesses have accepted that protecting human health and the planet makes economic sense. Yet investments towards sustainable agri-food systems are a fraction of what is needed to drive systemic change. Only eight percent of public climate finance is directed to the agri-food sector, exacerbating food security in many nations.

Sustainable investment models, which unite public and private partners, already exist. The Responsible Commodities Facility, for example, addresses the growing global demand for soy, which is linked to agricultural expansion and deforestation in Brazil. It provides attractive loan conditions to incentivize soy producers to use land that has already been cleared rather than farming virgin land.

Business will not be able to transform food systems without the support of investors, public policy and consumers. But the role of the private sector as a catalyst for change is indisputable. To help foster this, international dialogues between all actors of society, such as the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021 and the International Forum on Food and Nutrition hosted by the Barilla Foundation and Food Tank, will be crucial. 

The transformation required to achieve truly sustainable economic development will not happen overnight. But despite the challenges, the companies that have transformed their business models to contribute to healthier food systems have shown it ultimately makes economic sense. 

Barbara Buchner is the global managing director of Climate Policy Initiative. Follow the organization on Twitter @climatepolicy.