What does COP21 mean for the food industry?

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

COP that: A consortium of some of the world's biggest food makers stated the food industry needs to produce 'more food on less land using fewer natural resources.'
COP that: A consortium of some of the world's biggest food makers stated the food industry needs to produce 'more food on less land using fewer natural resources.'

Related tags: Climate change, Global warming

Et voilà – we have a global deal on carbon emissions. But what will be the impact of COP21 on food?

After 14 days and three all-nighters ministers finally agreed on a global deal to limit the rise in global temperatures to less than two degrees.

The so-called 'Paris Agreement' runs to 32 pages and includes a number of measures with varying degrees of robustness. It doesn’t make for light reading but, in a nutshell, here’s what the 195 countries agreed:

“The universal agreement’s main aim is to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”

That’s the mitigation side. There were also commitments, partly through a $100bn fund for developing nations, in relation to adaptation. Again, in a nutshell: “The agreement aims to strengthen the ability to deal with the impacts of climate change.”    

Game-changing deal

This might not mean much to individual businesses right now, but for the food sector as a whole this is a game-changing deal. As The Guardian​ newspaper in the UK suggested in its post-Paris analysis the global food system is “both a villain and a victim of climate change”.

It’s a villain because food consumption accounts for about a fifth of global emissions. But the big players didn’t slink around in the shadows at COP21; instead they took the bull by the horns.

Fourteen of the world’s biggest food companies, for example, came together to push for a global deal on greenhouse gas emissions. Competition was set to one side as Unilever, General Mills, Mars International, Nestlé USA and 10 other firms signed a joint letter that highlighted how climate change is “bad for farmers and for agriculture”.

They wrote: “The challenge presented by climate change will require all of us – government, civil society and business – to do more with less. For companies like ours, that means producing more food on less land using fewer natural resources. If we don’t take action now, we risk not only today’s livelihoods, but also those of future generations.”

There was also a further commitment from Unilever to be carbon positive by 2030, with its Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream brand set to launch a new dairy-free range to cut emissions by up to 40%.

Reforestation drive

But the commitments didn’t stop at emissions. The impact of commodities like palm oil, soy and beef shot up the agenda in Paris with companies announcing a plan to first stabilise forest cover and then to increase it to 1990 levels by 2050. Deforestation is responsible for 10% to 15% of emissions.

UK retailer Marks and Spencer and Unilever, as joint chairs of the Consumer Goods Forum, pledged​ to a new 'produce and protect' approach in which they will bid to source some commodities only from regions with ambitious climate and forestry initiatives.

Unsustainable and irresponsible commodity production must be eliminated and commitments like this take a step towards getting us there,”​ said Dr Emma Keller, a commodities expert with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

There’s a long way to go before the food sector becomes hero rather than villain but the feeling, even amongst some of the major environmental NGOs, is that some of the big firms are beginning to wake up to what’s needed.

A cynic would argue that they have to. The Food Insecurity and Climate Change Vulnerability map, produced by the UN World Food Program and the Met Office Hadley Centre, paints a “stark picture”​ of the challenges ahead.

“Our joint research shows how climate change can affect the scale and geography of food insecurity, and how adaptation and mitigation can address the challenges of future food insecurity in developing and least-developed countries,”​ said Kirsty Lewis, climate security science manager at the Met Office.

Help please

But businesses can’t act alone. The big commitments made by food firms at COP21 sent “the right signal”​ to governments that things need to change, said WWF’s Keller.

Many of the pioneers who spoke out at COP21 have also been pushing for more legislation to help deliver sustainable food systems. Indeed, a report by WWF and the Food Ethics Council​ earlier this year found that businesses would welcome more legislation to help deliver more sustainable food systems. As one interviewee for that report alluded:

“[A] business operates in the environment in which it finds itself. In the current business environment, the optimum model is to maximise profit. A good business wouldn’t (readily) depart from the recipe that works within that environment.”

Whether COP21 will fuel this change in how the world eats, works, travels and lives won’t be known for some time. However, unlike other commitments on emissions that go for big but long-term targets, COP21 introduced a new review process that will allow change to be monitored.

Every five years there will be an assessment of progress towards the emissions cuts that have been agreed in Paris. This is legally binding and countries will need to stretch their targets at each review. This ratcheting mechanism will be make or break in keeping temperatures below two degrees. It will also bring consumption patterns to the table – and an agreement on, say, eating less meat will be much harder to reach.

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1 comment

Who's accountable?

Posted by Christophe Pelletier hfgfoodfuturist.com,

The agreement is built around countries. In my opinion, it is a mistake. It should be built around industries, too. Retailers, food manufacturers and farmers (best probably through country framework though) should present their targets, review them every 5 years and be legally bound to deliver. That certainly would change the PR and marketing talk around climate change and sustainability into real action because failure to deliver would hit them in the wallet. Right now, talk is cbeap.

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