'Code red for humanity' climate change report warns of food security risk: is industry ahead or behind the game?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImges/Alistair Berg
GettyImges/Alistair Berg

Related tags Climate Nestlé Unilever

In a landmark report, the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) gave the first major review of the science of climate change since 2013.

The sobering assessment, which was approved by all 195 countries, concluded it is already too late to prevent the Earth’s average temperature from rising by more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by the middle of this century, the target set by the Paris Agreement in 2015. It included an “unequivocal” assessment for the first time that human activities are responsible for this global warming.

The key points in the IPCC report warned that the global surface temperature was 1.09C higher in the decade between 2011-2020 than between 1850-1900, with the past five years being the hottest on record since 1850. It added the recent rate of sea level rise has nearly tripled compared with 1901-1971, and said human influence is "very likely" (90%) the main driver of the global retreat of glaciers since the 1990s and the decrease in Arctic sea-ice levels. It said it is "virtually certain" that hot extremes including heatwaves have become more frequent and more intense since the 1950s, while cold events have become less frequent and less severe.

Food sector implications?

The report warned of climate-related risks to food security, food equality and food and water supply​. A rise in temperatures could result in reductions in yields of maize, rice, wheat, and potentially other cereal crops, in all parts of the world including the Mediterranean, central Europe. The report said that global warming could adversely affect livestock “depending on the extent of changes in feed quality, spread of diseases, and water resource availability”, ​adding: “For global warming from 1.5°C to 2°C, risks across energy, food, and water sectors could overlap spatially and temporally, creating new and exacerbating current hazards, exposures, and vulnerabilities that could affect increasing numbers of people and regions.”

Of 105,000 species studied, 6% of insects, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates are projected to lose over half of their climatically determined geographic range for global warming of 1.5°C, rising to 18% of insects, 16% of plants and 8% of vertebrates for global warming of 2°C.

Approximately 4% of the global terrestrial land area is projected to undergo a transformation of ecosystems from one type to another at 1°C of global warming, rising to 13% at 2°C. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C may reduce the proportion of the world population exposed to a climate change-induced increase in water stress by up to 50%.

Sealife is threatened too, with the report warning: “The risk of irreversible loss of many marine and coastal ecosystems increases with global warming, especially at 2°C or more.”

Catastrophe 'can be avoided'

On the brighter side, the scientists said deep cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases could stabilise rising temperatures and avoid a catastrophe.

Measures such as restoration of natural ecosystems and soil carbon sequestration could provide co-benefits such as improved biodiversity, soil quality, and local food security, it said.

Other options include sustainable diets and reduced food waste, livestock and manure management, reduced deforestation, afforestation and reforestation, and responsible sourcing.

Here, the food industry – which is responsible for about a third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the latest UN-backed study​ – is pledging to act, and in response to the report food giants claimed they were ahead of the game on the need to cut emissions.

Nestlé, for example, plans to invest 3.2 billion Swiss francs (€2.95 billion) to reduce its absolute scope 1,2 and 3 emissions by 20% by 2025 and cut emissions by 50% by 2030. A spokesperson told FoodNavigator: “The IPCC’s assessment shows that every kg of carbon saved now will benefit future generations. That’s why we are hard at work implementing Nestlé’s comprehensive net zero roadmap. This aligns with what science tells us is necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.”

Shifting towards sustainable agricultural methods

Nestlé also has a focus on shifting to more regenerative methods of agricultural production in its supply chain, and investment in natural climate solutions that draw down carbon from the atmosphere.

“Nestlé can only have a limited impact on its own, so we continue to advocate for bold action by policy makers to create the right conditions for rapid and sustained decarbonization,” ​the spokesperson said.

“Success relies on engaging hundreds of thousands of farmers, making this approach work for them. To help tackle climate change, we need a just transition to a more sustainable food system that puts people at the center.”

Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, which is targeting zero emissions from its operations by 2030, and net zero across its value chain by 2039, said: “We can clearly see the future we're creating, but lack the wisdom to take the urgent collective action needed. Investing in a 1.5 degree world is the best investment we can all make. That's exactly why we're adapting Unilever's value chain to be net zero by 2039.”

Consumers will likely have to be prepared to pay for the transition, though. Nestle expects its cost of goods sold to increase by around 4% for full-year 2021, it said in its half-year earnings in July, though much of that is down to rising commodity prices​.

In the UK, The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has warned that consumers will inevitably face higher food and drink prices if manufacturers are forced to absorb the cost of proposed Government policies – including during the next few years.

In the report​ the FDF has estimated that if the cost of forthcoming Government policies – relating to public health as well as sustainability -- were passed on directly to consumers, it would increase the price of food and drink shopping per household by more than £160 per year. The FDF has futher rejected calls for further taxes on the industry.

Ian Wright CBE, Chief Executive, Food and Drink Federation, said: "Food and drink manufacturers are close to breaking point. Through the last 16 months our workers have made truly heroic efforts to keep the country fed. Yet now they face a combination of challenges which threaten to deliver food price inflation to already hard-pressed households.
"We absolutely accept the need to address the pressing concerns around sustainability and obesity. Our members are doing so on an epic scale through active commitments to net zero and reformulation. The Government needs to understand the costs of the changes it is demanding and the impact it would have on the cost of household food and drink shopping.

"The suggestion that we should introduce further food taxes at this time is madness. It is an insult to the hardworking families of this country to be told what to do by those who can’t begin to imagine how tough the last year has been.
"The UK enjoys a fantastic range of food and drink at a range of price-points. Our industry has done an incredible job of keeping that cost low for the last three decades. But that period is now at an end. Double digit percentage increases in food expenditure for the poorest households are highly likely in the coming years unless the Government pauses to the consider the consequences of its plans."

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