Why business should prepare for a chokehold on food security

A report detailing how vulnerable "chokepoints" could threaten global food supply has heightened the need for food retailers to map and promote sustainable food production, with companies like McDonalds applying a "total supply chain approach" to food security.

WWF’s “Eating for 2 degrees” report was released earlier this week, showcasing how dietary tweaks could deliver a 30% emissions reduction and place the UK on the pathway to limit global warming to well below 2°C, putting the country on course to meet its contribution to the Paris Agreement.

The report placed an emphasis on eating more plants, wasting less food, moderating meat consumption, buying certified standards and eating less salt and sugar. In fact, research from GoCompare Energy claims that diets involving eating meat every day produce 2.6 million grams of CO2 annually, compared to 1.4m grams for vegetarians, and just 1m grams for vegans.

The switch away from meat could take a step-forward in the UK in August. The Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) is running its own campaign calling on the industry to “inspire” diners with more plant-based dishes. The campaign is built on the fact that half of the UK population now identify as ‘flexitarian’, and that number expected to rise by a further 10% this year.

Separate research shows that farming contributes to 10% of the total EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, mainly by producing methane from livestock digestion.

Greater consumption of plant-based products could generate noticeable emissions reductions. However, an increase in international trade could generate supply shortfalls and price spikes, according to analysts from Chatham House.

The thinktank released a new report this week, outlining that 14 maritime, coastal and inland “chokepoints” – including the Panama Canal, US waterways and rail networks and Strait of Malacca – are under increased pressure to transport “exceptional volumes” of food.

According to the report, trade of selected crops and fertilizers dominate global food security. Maize, wheat and rice already account for 60% of global food energy intake, while soybean – the world’s largest source of animal protein feed – accounts for nearly two-thirds of global protein supply.

Each year, the transportation systems move enough of these crops to feed 2.8bn people, and 180m tonnes of fertilizer is used on farmlands to enable the growth of the crops to sustain expanding populations.

The report notes that the 14 “chokepoints” are exposed to a broad range of “disruptive hazards”, that can limit the amount of trade and transportation. Issues range from weather and climate hazards, conflict hazards arising from war or piracy and institutional decisions to impose export controls. Notably, all but one of the chokepoints examined in the report had been closed or interrupted at least once in the past 15 years.

Chatham House warns that the risks could extend beyond the food market to transport and infrastructure systems, and has called on global bodies to incorporate chokepoints in their analysis to give nations and businesses a greater understanding of the threats.

Total approach

But even if trade routes for crops are managed, the food production system is in a precarious position. A whitepaper, launched last month at edie Live by agricultural consultants Promar International, reports that 80% of the food and drink supply chain hasn’t committed to some form of sustainable production.

The whitepaper, which features contributions from the Carbon Trust and McDonald’s, notes that agricultural outputs will need to increase 20% every decade for the next 40 years to meet demand, adding more pressure on the listed chokeholds in the process.

According to Promar International, industry efforts to meet demand look set to have an adverse impact on the environment, with 23% of carbon emissions derived from the sector currently. The firm’s head of environment Tom Gill, has called on companies to implement a “total supply change approach” that caters for sustainable practices as consumer attitudes begin to lean towards ethical food production.

Steps have already been taken by some major brands. McDonald’s UK agriculture manager Peter Garbutt explained to edie how long-term relationships with suppliers was enabling the company to switch to certified standards without disrupting the working life of farmers in the supply chain.

“At McDonald’s we pride ourselves on our long-term relationships with our suppliers which enable us to make big sustainable moves such as moving to British RSPCA Assured pork across our entire menu or becoming the second biggest customer of UK organic milk,” Garbutt said.

“We now have sustainability working groups within each major food category. These help us to identify and understand the issues our farmers’ face, and what we as a business can do to mitigate these challenges.”

McDonald’s launched its Farm Forward programme in 2012, bringing together a plethora of sourcing activities that promote skills and knowledge uptake amongst staff and suppliers. A range enrichment study found that planting trees on free range egg farms improved the quality of the product while enhancing the environment. Based on the findings, McDonald’s has since planted more than 500,000 trees.

Through direct investments into the beef supply chain, McDonald’s UK has reduced on-farm emissions by 23%. The company also has a commitment to ending deforestation across its global commodities supply chain, and has extended sourcing practices to packaging – all of its European-sourced packaging is now sourced from chain-of-custody certified wood fibre.

The Chatham House report calls on nations to ensure that sufficient domestic food stocks are available during disruption, with arrangements to outsource stockholding to the private sector listed as a potential solution.

Businesses that can de-risk disruption caused by shortages and prices hikes, potentially through local sourcing, have the opportunity to bypass some chokepoint disruptions to keep supply levels steady, while sustainable sourcing practices can be used a selling point to consumers.

Matt Mace

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