World's biggest food companies accused of failing on climate action, human rights protections

Less than 10% of the world's largest food companies are aiming to reduce their emissions in line with climate science, while less than 13% are taking sufficient action to eliminate forced labour.

Globally, food and agriculture account for more than one-third of annual emissions

Globally, food and agriculture account for more than one-third of annual emissions

That is according to a new benchmark of food and agriculture majors from the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA). The benchmark assesses 350 large businesses, taking in all parts of the food value chain including agriculture, ingredient supply, manufacturing and processing, grocery retail and hospitality. Collectively, the businesses account for more than half of the global food and agriculture sector’s revenue.

Scores are awarded for companies’ efforts on environment, nutrition, social inclusion and overarching governance, based on publicly available information and information disclosed to the WBA on request.

Among the worst overall scorers are Subway, Sunkist Growers, Jollibee, Schreiber, JCB, Koch Foods and American casual dining chains Bloomin’ Brands and Darden Restaurants. In total, 110 companies scored less than 10 out of a possible 100.

No company scored more than 72 out of a possible 100. The highest score went to Unilever, with Nestle, Danone, OCP and Anheuser-Busch InBev rounding out the top five.

Across all issues assessed by the WBA, a significant lack of best practice was revealed.

On climate, while 227 of the 350 firms have targets to cut emissions, just 26 have set science-based targets to reduce emissions from their direct activities in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C pathway. This is the pathway widely regarded as necessary to avoid the worst physical impacts of the climate crisis. The Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) is in the process of making 1.5C the minimum target setting requirement, from ‘well-below 2C’ at present.

Moreover, more than half (57%) of the companies assessed do not publicly report on their indirect (Scope 3) emissions. This is despite the fact that the average company’s Scope 3 emissions are five-and-a-half times higher than their direct operations.

“The world is becoming ever-more conscious of the environmental destruction our food system is causing - yet, many companies are not feeling the need to adapt, and smallholder farmers are hit hardest by the climate crisis,” the WBA’s lead for food and agriculture transformation Viktoria de Bourbon de Parme said.

“Changing temperatures, unreliable rainfall and land degradation are reinforcing poverty and devastating the natural landscape. For the sake of people and our planet, food companies’ denial must end now.”

An equally damning picture is painted on social inclusion and human rights by the benchmark. 304 of the 350 companies – almost 87% - are not taking action to eliminate adult forced labour in their supply chains in a manner consistent with the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Additionally, 202 of the companies – 57% - do not explicitly prohibit child labour in their supply chains.

The launch of the benchmark comes ahead of the first day of the UN’s Food Systems Summit on Thursday (23 September).

Reacting to the benchmark, The Consumer Goods Forum's managing director Wai-Chan Chan said: "The food industry has played a key role in enhancing health, wellbeing and living standards across the world. But while it’s important to acknowledge and praise progress, this new research clearly shows the need for increased commitment, transparency, and, above all, measurable change. 

 "With the climate emergency pressing, and the 2030 SDG deadline less than a decade away, time is short. Businesses need to act decisively now....Collaboration and coordinated action are vital to accelerating progress and building trust – and this ethos is core to how we operate at The Consumer Goods Forum."

The big food redesign

Also published this week is a major new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, assessing the food sector’s historic role in environmental degradation and outlining the changes needed to transform food systems for the benefit of people and planet.

The report states that 90% of biodiversity loss to date is attributable to how we make and use products and food, with agriculture being a primary deriver. It adds that the food sector is now responsible for at least 33% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The Foundation is calling for a future in which food products are all designed with circular economy principles in mind, which will reduce waste, pollution, emissions and hunger.

Specifically, the report outlines four opportunities for redesigning the ingredient supply chain and, in turn, recipes and formulations used by manufacturers and processors, grocery retailers and hospitality. These are diversifying ingredients; sourcing lower-impact ingredients; upcycling ingredients and shifting to regenerative methods of food production.

On ingredient diversification, the report reiterates that just four crops – wheat, maize, rice and potatoes – provide 60% of the world’s calories. This does not make the food system resilient to climate shocks. The Foundation calls for the planting of more varieties within these crops and for the expansion of alternatives.

On low-impact ingredients, the report urges more action to shift away from animal products to lower-impact alternatives, while continuing to consider biodiversity, nutirition, resource intensity and human rights. It also states that there are lower-impact alternatives to the four major crops, such as peas.

On upcycling ingredients, research from WWF this year revealed that some 40% of food produced globally is wasted. Most other analyses have put the proportion at 30-33%. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is calling for government and industry support to grow the global upcycled food market.

Lastly, the new report emphasises the importance of regenerative farming – practices that deliver a net-positive impact on a farm’s biodiversity and soil quality. This approach, the report states, “can lead to greater yields and compelling increases in farmer profitability”. The report continues: “There is no one-size-fits-all approach and practices used will need to be reviewed over time. However, for all the ingredients modelled, a set of context-dependent practices have been identified that, on average and after a transition period, increase total food output and provide additional profitability for farmers, while generating significant climate and biodiversity benefits.”


Sustainable Business Covered podcast: How can we change food systems for the better?

Readers interested in this article are encouraged to stream episode 105 of edie's Sustainable Business Covered podcast, which was first broadcasted in July and explores how food systems can be transformed for better outcomes for planet and people.

This episode includes exclusive interviews with investor coalition the FAIRR Initiative, agricultural machinery manufacturer AGC and Bayer Crop Sciences. 

Stream it by clicking here.


Sarah George



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