Stephen Cadogan: Invitation to share costs of producing sustainable food

SUCCESSIVE generations of Irish farmers have sought to produce food sustainably, aware that cutting transport costs is good for the environment and farm profitability.

As the dust settles on COP21, the global charter to tackle climate change, serious thought is being focused on what the Paris agreement will mean for the food industry. 

In all, 196 countries pledged to keep a global temperature rise, this century, under 2°C above pre-industrial levels — the threshold scientists predict will result in irreversible warming and planetary change; and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

Many food companies made voluntary commitments to cut carbon footprints, and commitments to sustainable resource management, and to finance climate action.

These companies included Cargill, Carrefour, Coca-Cola, Danone, Delhaize, Diageo, General Mills, Grupo Bimbo, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, Mars, McDonald’s, Mondelez, Monsanto, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Sodexo, Starbucks, Tesco, Tyson Foods and Walmart.

In 2013, Bord Bia launched Origin Green, a sustainability pledge that mirrors the goals of COP21. 

Irish farmers are buying into its goals, participating in Bord Bia’s quality assurance programmes for beef and dairy, measuring all of the eco impacts linked to their part in the food production chain.

Interestingly, the ICSA is calling for enhanced supports for biofuel crops and forestry; such grants would encourage Irish farmers to reduce by 5% the numbers of livestock on Irish farmland. This is interesting on several fronts. 

It shows Irish farmers want to cut carbon emissions, want to share the costs of eco-action, and, at the same time, want to increase awareness of how these eco-actions will impact on the livelihoods of food producers.

Origin Green was created to echo the ambitions of food companies, like the global brands listed above. 

And those companies are echoing the global desire of consumers to minimise the environmental impacts of their consumption choices. 

Viewed in this context, the ICSA — in calling for better supports for low-profit biofuel crops, like miscanthus — is batting the ball back to the rest of society. If all of these eco-exercises are to be more than posturing, then all sides must share the cost.

Nobody expects big food firms to keep rolling out higher-cost, organic, low-emissions products, if the consumer keeps choosing the cheaper, longer-life, additive-laden, eco-unfriendly option every time. 

And nobody expects the farmer to pick up all of the costs relating to heightened social awareness.

The 196 signatories to COP21 have made pledges, and set targets to be reviewed every five years.

Developed countries have vowed to give at least US$100bn per year, from public and private sources, to help developing countries mitigate, and adapt to, climate change by 2020.

The food industry is responsible for a third of global GHG emissions — between agriculture, food production and food waste. 

But is there a risk that food companies will seek to kick the can, and the blame, onto the producer?

Already, some food groups have said their suppliers are responsible for two-thirds of their total-product carbon footprint. 

Their vow, to focus on “supplier sustainability and sustainable sourcing”, may not bring any comfort to farmers. But at least farmers are not taking all the blame.

A post-COP21 study, by Paula Savanti, senior analyst with Rabobank, cites food manufacturers committing to zero-net deforestation in sourcing their palm oil.

And they are not kicking the can into the developing countries where most palm oil is produced. This is where the $100bn annual fund comes in. It is to be spent helping developing countries mitigate, and adapt to, climate change.

“This will help companies to address climate-change risk in their agricultural supply chains and drive down their global carbon footprint,” states Paula Savanti. 

“But it is clear extra financing will be required in moving towards the sustainable sourcing of commodities, much of which is in developing countries.”

Savanti also expects food manufacturers and retailers to cut back on the 1.3bn tonnes of food which is lost, and wasted, annually, between farm and fork, producing the equivalent of 3.3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

“The carbon cost of food waste will become increasingly intolerable; the public and governments will look to food companies for solutions,” she says. 

“Many companies submitting voluntary commitments include objectives on food waste and increasing the number of plants that send zero waste to landfills.”

While the ICSA’s “biofuel crops vs livestock” suggestion is just one brushstroke in the evolving post-COP21 big picture, it will be interesting to see if any authority from here to Brussels picks up the challenge to share the real-world costs that come with pledging to reduce carbon emissions.


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