Corporate leaders can curb gathering pace of climate change


‘Gleaning’ is a successful initiative that saves thousands of tonnes of UK fresh fruit and vegetables from being wasted each year. But the corporate giants have the power to do much more. Giles Crosse ponders what it takes to solve global food waste and related CO2.

Few examples of global corporate malpractice are more shameful than the immeasurable volumes of perfectly good food buried in the ground and left to rot. The UN said that in 2013, the waste of some 1.3 billion tonnes of food annually caused economic losses of US$750 billion and significant damage to the environment.

Such a vast sum of money illustrates one reason why the global agribusiness sector should act. Of course, the billions of starving people in the world provide another reason to do something. Using resources more efficiently could help alleviate the problems in the developing world.

Even more astonishing than the UN statistics, is the fact that in many countries it is down to volunteers, or the charitable sector, to find uses for the produce. ‘Use by’ and ‘sell by’ dates, irregularly shaped EU vegetables, and the litigation-obsessed US markets are among the excuses for throwing away so much edible food.

The situation remains shocking. The UN reckons food that is produced, but not eaten each year guzzles up a volume of water equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River and adds 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. “Similarly, 1.4 billion hectares of land, 28% of the world’s agricultural area, is used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted,” the UN report says.

One project seeking to tackle this has recently sprung up in the UK, the ‘Gleaning Network UK’.  Run by the ‘Feeding the 5000 (FT5),’ organization, it coordinates volunteers, farmers and local redistribution charities to direct otherwise wasted food to people in need.

It is a worthy effort, which last year redistributed 48 tonnes of produce, equal to over 200,000 meals, using 200 volunteers. But FT5 still estimates that 5.8 million people suffer from food poverty in the UK alone, while 48 tonnes cannot make a big hole in the UN’s 1.3 billion tonne wastage gap.

For this reason, corporate leadership is needed from the international food sector. Marks and Spencer (M&S), has previously estimated that UK households throw away around 5 million tonnes of usable food every year.

‘The Big 10 companies have enormous power to reshape their supply chains and the food system more broadly,’ Erinch Sahan, Oxfam’s Private Sector Adviser.

“We’re working to help our customers plan their shopping, store food efficiently and be confident about using leftovers in recipes. So far together we’ve helped to save over 1 million tonnes of food waste a year,” an M&S spokesperson said.

M&S is a good example of a corporate leader that at least recognises the issue, seeking to enact positive solutions to global problems and inspire systematic change. The firm is good at transforming previously ignored issues into global priorities and developing a Sustainable Agriculture Programme with its farmers and growers. It also maintains a number of worthy marine-sourcing policies.

Big 10 report

Yet wider issues exist in the global food supply chain and how it functions, both in food wastage and carbon terms. Burning Amazonian rainforest to make space for beef, which is then shipped across the world, before being wasted or spoiled has vast impacts and is a CO2-heavy activity.

Oxfam recently produced its Big 10 report, which assesses practice and greenhouse gas emissions within 10 multinational food firms: Associated British Foods, Coca-Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever.

‘Apart from a few leaders, the Big 10 has failed to use its power to ensure ambitious steps are taken by their suppliers and others, including governments, to avoid a climate catastrophe.’ Erinch Sahan

“The Big 10 companies have enormous power to reshape their supply chains and the food system more broadly,” Erinch Sahan, Oxfam’s Private Sector Adviser, told SALT. “Together, they emit more greenhouse gases than Scandinavia, making them the 25th worst in the world if they were a single country. This is why the Big 10 must take action to curb the gathering pace of climate change.

“Apart from a few leaders, the Big 10 has failed to use its power to ensure ambitious steps are taken by their suppliers and others, including governments, to avoid a climate catastrophe.”

Sahan said the Big 10 should measure and disclose their greenhouse gas emissions, including those from their supply chains, and commit to reduction targets that would avoid warming of more than 2°C. “The companies should also make sure that their suppliers do the same and speak out for more action among governments and businesses to better tackle climate change,” he added.

Kellogg, one of the Big 10, says it is committed to doing what is right for the environment and society. “As part of this commitment, we are working to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, along with energy use and water use, by 15 to 20% at our manufacturing facilities by 2015,” said a spokesman.

There is a strong link between CO2 emissions, the 1.3 billion tonnes of annual food waste and the US$750 billion economic losses. “Significant emissions reductions can be achieved by cutting out food waste and shifting diets,” says Oxfam’s report.

Role of the supermarkets

The Oxfam data says that around three gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year could be mitigated by 2030 through changes in diet and reductions in food waste compared to a business-as-usual scenario. It is a vastly complex situation, and one that cannot be altered by single means. But it is plain that supermarkets, the world’s agribusiness sector and food producers must find a solution. They are the leaders with the clout to change things, and save huge sums of money for themselves in the process.

The impacts could be huge. The environmental campaign group Grace Foundation reckons a 15% reduction in losses in US food supply would save enough food to feed 25 million Americans annually. Food waste is the single largest component of solid waste in US landfills. “The US Government should conduct a comprehensive study for food losses in our food system and establish national goals for food waste reduction,” the Foundation argues.

One key action will be to standardize and clarify the meaning of date labels on food so that consumers stop throwing out items due to misinterpretation. A waste reduction organization in the UK has estimated this type of clarification could prevent about 20% of wasted food in households.

The Natural Resources Defence Council estimates the total benefit to society of reducing food waste to be US$252 billion globally in 2030. “The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) forecasts that food production must increase by 70% by 2050 to feed an expected global population of 9.1 billion people with increasingly meat-dependent diets,” it says.

More food is needed at a lower CO2 cost. Yet half of what we produce today is not used. “Worldwide, we produce 4,600 kilocalories per person per day, and yet only 2,000 to 2,800 kilocalories are available for consumption. In the US alone, consumers waste 10 times more food per capita than those in Southeast Asia,” says NDRC.

With all this in mind, surely tackling waste in the global food supply and consumption chain must become a top corporate driver for the next decade.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Ruth Johnston on flickr

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Giles Crosse is a journalist with specialist interest in the developing world, corporate social responsibility, and technical solutions to environmental challenges. His career has taken him to exotic destinations, such as the Peruvian Amazon, and Shallow Waters in Cambodia. He is looking forward to an inclusive planet, where greener business, happier people and better managed resources co-exist.