Big Food endures the slow harvest of supply chain initiatives

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Sustainability targets adopted by stakeholders in the food industry range from fully traceable, deforestation-free palm oil by the end of 2016 to a 28% reduction in farm-through-landfill greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. ©iStock
Sustainability targets adopted by stakeholders in the food industry range from fully traceable, deforestation-free palm oil by the end of 2016 to a 28% reduction in farm-through-landfill greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. ©iStock
“Big Food” sustainability claims may fall short of expectations, a Dartmouth researcher claims, as food firm’s supply of corn, wheat and soy come from commodity traders and not from farmers. 

This link in the supply chain, according to study author Dr Susanne Freidberg, reduces the knowledge food makers have about the farmers who supply their raw materials.

In the study's findings, published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers​, Dr Freidberg makes a case of big food’s waning influence over environmental issues.

The study cites conflicting priorities that make the use of commodity trading companies like Cargill or Archer Daniels Midlands, as the preferred approach.

"A lot of the people who work on sustainability for these companies are really committed to changing things for the better,"​ says Dr Freidberg, a professor of geography at Dartmouth University in the US.

"But they don't always have the resources and buy-in that they need to push the industry as far and as fast as it needs to go."

As the Dartmouth study shows, the commodity traders also know little about the farms they buy from, despite their unparalleled access to other forms of market intelligence.

Over the past several years, Big Food have become involved in a range of programs designed to assess and improve the sustainability of their raw material supply chains.

FoodNavigator recently reported on Cargill’s commitment​ to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s (WBCSD) Food Reform for Sustainability and Health (FReSH) program that aims to address environmental, food production and formulation issues.

One of the founding members of the FReSH initiative, set up at the start of this year, was Archer Daniels Midlands.

Despite the ambitious goals to reduce emissions, energy and water use across their supply chains, Dr Freidburg argues that the commodities sourced through long, complex, and traditionally nontransparent supply chains, means even the biggest food companies exercise little clout over producers.

“In short, they face increasing pressure to show progress toward agricultural sustainability, yet possess neither the knowledge nor leverage needed to demand it,” ​she said.

From field to market

Reducing on-farm impact is considered a high priority in efforts to achieve sustainability.

This is because these factors generally account for a larger share of food's environmental footprint than transport or processing. 

In a similar vein to commodity companies, food companies have also signed up to agricultural sustainability initiatives such as the Walmart-backed Sustainability Consortium and Field to Market.

In collaboration with nongovernmental organisations such as WWF and The Nature Conservancy, such calls to action include the creation of tools to collect data about on-farm emissions, energy and natural resource use.

“The challenge is getting farmers to cooperate,”​ said Dr Freidburg. “Few companies offer to pay farmers for this information, despite the time required to compile it.”

“Guarantees of confidentiality have also not reassured farmers about how companies might use their data.”

Uncharted territory

The study also highlights the challenge of conflicting priorities inside Big Food companies that can also slow progress toward more sustainable supply chains.

Dr Freidburg highlighted that companies’ progress toward sustainability targets hinged on many other actors cooperating, despite minimal and uncertain incentives.

“As many Corporate Sustainability managers will readily admit, they are working in uncharted terrain, often with limited expertise, authority, and resources.”

In moving forwards, the study acknowledged company efforts to respond to environmental and reputational risks, although different companies might weigh these risks differently.

“To take the inquiry inside corporations and supply chains does not close the door on critical political economy,”​ the study concluded.

“If anything, it offers valuable insights into the bigger picture (i.e., the assemblage) of corporate food supply chain sustainability initiatives, provided in part by the individuals who work in it every day.

“These insights in turn hint at how even the most ostensibly powerful corporations, faced with limited visibility and influence inside their supply chains, might be pushed to change in unexpected ways.”

Source: Annals of the American Association of Geographers

Published online ahead of print: DOI: 10.1080/24694452.2017.1309967

“Big Food and Little Data: The Slow Harvest of Corporate Food Supply Chain Sustainability Initiatives.”

Authors: Susanne Freidberg

Related topics: Policy, Sustainability

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