One fifth of the world’s largest corporates has set net zero targets. Yet according to the World Benchmarking Alliance, just 26 of the world’s largest food and beverage companies are working to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.
Where should food businesses begin net zero action? According to NGO Earthworm Foundation, which works with businesses to encourage more sustainable practices on the ground, greater attention needs to be paid to ‘keeping forests standing’.
“Forests are at the forefront of the climate emergency,” said Earthworm Foundation CEO Bastien Sachet.
“They maintain the climate, store carbon, regulate the water cycle, prevent floods and landslides, and clean the air; but they also provide food and prevent soil erosion, which robs the earth’s ability to grow crops.”
What is a ‘forest positive’ approach?
Some industry players have begun to focus efforts on protected the world’s forests.
In 2010, a growing number of food businesses followed Nestlé’s lead in committing to end deforestation in the supply chain, Sachet told this publication, “with a host of brands, retailers and agribusinesses mapping various commodity supply chains back to their source and taking action”.
According to recent Chain Reaction research, 11,500 hectares of deforestation have been detected inside known palm oil concessions in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.
“It is still a lot, but progress nonetheless compared to the figures of a decade earlier. While working inside concessions is good, working with smallholders to protect forests and allow some to regrow is key.”
Sachet, who refers to this approach as ‘forest positive’, lamented that not enough businesses are taking heed.
In August, it was reported only 38% of North America’s 50 largest food companies disclose their scope 3 carbon emissions – the indirect carbon emissions that take place within a business’s supply chain.
For those in the food industry, the production of key ingredients in many products will be associated with this category of emissions.
Action at the source
Oxford Martin Programme on Global Development output Our World in Data estimates food production is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, with crop production and land use representing more than 50% of that.
“To put simply, Scope 3 emissions, which is largely what happens in forests and agricultural soils, are a priority for businesses to tackle,” said Sachet.
“But disclosing them isn’t enough, what matters is the action taken to reduce them. The corporations that go on to thrive in the coming decades will be the ones who value the farmers who grow the raw materials in their products.
“The question is, are your suppliers following you in your emissions reduction forest positive journey or not? If not, can they be supported to become your ally?”
While Earthworm sees a critical need for effective forest governance and regulation, Sachet doesn’t believe certification alone is sufficient to slow down and stop forest loss.
“Businesses have to think beyond compliance and support innovation,” he said. "Leveraging satellite imagery to inform procurement decisions is an example of that.”
Private and public sector collaboration beyond individual supply chains
“While action in forest conservation can be taken within one company’s supply chain, it cannot be done in isolation. Positive change in a given supply chain does not necessarily achieve a net positive change in a sourcing region,” he added.
This is where Sachet says a landscapes approach is key. “It’s about collective action between the public and private sector, along with civil society organisations and communities within a clearly defined geographic area.”
He pointed to the needs of incentive for all involved to protect and restore forests. “It is not a problem of funding - as that is available,” we were told. “It’s about putting that money in the hands of those who actually own and manage the land.”
Giving forest people autonomy
For forest conservation to have lasting impact, Earthworm believes local people need to be empowered as custodians of the land.
A recent UN report highlighted how indigenous people can be the most effective forest protectors, with research in South America indicating deforestation rates in the Bolivian, Brazilian, and Colombian Amazon where local communities were patrolling the land were down compared to other areas.
“Communities with collective legal titles to their land can be effective forest protectors and local NGOs can help these communities get them,” said Sachet. “Promoting the voices of these organisations is beneficial. It encourages constructive dialogue between them and the private sector, and with state government playing such a big role in forest conservation this dialogue is imperative.”
Businesses with projects in the field can help communities map their land, he continued. “Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is the tool to begin this process.
“There are funds and initiatives that partner businesses with local civil society organisations to enable forests and communities and farmer to thrive together. Forest conservation is always evolving - businesses need to monitor and evaluate their progress. Satellite monitoring is another great tool, but it’s how they’re used that’s crucial.”
Whatever the tool or method, action from businesses is ‘best focused on protecting and regenerating forests’, as opposed to avoiding deforestation, the CEO stressed.
“Something no one in the food industry will be able to do, if we don’t have the ecosystems in place to grow the crops necessary to meet a growing demand for food.”