Food Companies, Listen Up! Consumers & Investors Are Demanding Higher Standards

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The IPCC has published a new major report on the critical importance of land use – especially agriculture – in contributing to climate change. The report outlines how alterations of agriculture and forest systems could affect current ecosystems and their services and potentially threaten food, water, and livelihood security. Decreasing food loss and waste and changing dietary behaviors, the authors say, could happen through mitigation and adaptation — by reducing both emissions and pressure on land, with significant co-benefits for food security, human health, and sustainable development.

Evidence at this point of successful policies to modify dietary choices remains limited, however.

After learning about the IPCC findings on the importance of agricultural use, we at CleanTechnica reached out to Maria Lettini, director of the $16 trillion FAIRR investor network. We wanted to hear more about the critical importance of land use – especially agriculture – in contributing to climate change.

FAIRR argues that recent developments challenge the long-held thesis that the only way for the food sector to grow (and feed a world of 10 billion people by 2050) is through the expansion of an intensive animal production system that prioritizes cost efficiency over ethical, health, and environmental concerns.

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Interview with FAIRR Investor Network Director

Maria Lettini photo courtesy of FAIRR

What should people know about industrial production and excessive consumption of meat and dairy products and their impacts on our climate, environment, and health?

Rising consumption of meat and dairy has led to more intensive, ‘factory farming’ methods, with farms comprising tens or even hundreds of thousands of animals. This industry has several damaging effects.

The livestock industry produces 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than every car, train, boat and plane in the world – so meat and dairy are a major contributor to climate change.

Then there’s the issue of deforestation. We’re destroying forests at an alarming rate to grow crops, most of which are used to feed farm animals. Globally, around 80% of deforestation is due to agriculture, and 80% of agricultural land is used for feeding animals. So more meat means fewer forests, which absorb carbon out the air and provide a habitat for thousands of species.

And finally there’s the issue of antimicrobial resistance. Industrial farms give antibiotics to animals to make them grow faster. This is a problem because the more we use antibiotics, the more diseases evolve to be resistant to those antibiotics. In the US, 70% of medically-important antibiotics are used on farm animals, not humans. This is increasing the risk of dangerous infections that are impossible to treat.

How are 21st century consumers starting to drive change in food habits? How do meals today differ from 20th century western meals that featured meat prominently?

In some rich countries, some (mostly young) people are recognizing these problems and reducing their meat and dairy intake. In the US, two-thirds of people say they are reducing their consumption of at least one type of meat. We’re also seeing growing demand for plant-based alternatives to meat.

But globally, demand for meat and dairy is still rising fast. That’s because of population growth and the fact that millions of people are being lifted out of poverty and can now afford Western-style diets.

More and more people are demanding that the meat and dairy industry play a greater role in climate action. How quickly is the industry responding?

Plant-based start-ups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are growing fast, but the big meat and dairy producers are not responding as quickly as we’d like.

Last year our Index of the 60 largest meat and dairy producers found that only 32% had set a target to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Most don’t even measure their emissions. Less than a third of companies have a policy to end routine use of antibiotics, and only 3 companies have committed to ending deforestation in their supply chains.

Graphic used with permission from FAIRR

Many food companies that focus on meat and dairy are failing to address their responsibilities to report their greenhouse gas emissions. Why is this? What do they fear — reputation, bottom line fragility, loss of brand recognition dominance, reduced market share? All of these? Something else?

Generally speaking, the reason companies resist change is that it’s expensive – at least in the short term.

What we’re doing through our work with investors is trying to show companies that the long-term risks of not changing are even greater – as consumers and investors start to demand higher standards, and as regulations change to punish unsustainable practices.

Zooming in on the IPCC Report Findings

If you’re in for some close and sometimes arduous reading, go to section 4.3.2 of the IPCC report. There you’ll find discussions about how adaptation options can help ensure access to sufficient, quality food. The authors outline how such options include conservation agriculture, improved livestock management, increasing irrigation efficiency, agroforestry, and management of food loss and waste.

They describe how complementary adaptation and mitigation options, for example, the use of climate services (Section 4.3.5), bioenergy (Section 4.3.1) and biotechnology (Section 4.4.4) can also serve to reduce emissions intensity and the carbon footprint of food production. So, too, can sustainable intensification of agriculture, which consists of agricultural systems with increased production per unit area but with management of the range of potentially adverse impacts on the environment. Sustainable intensification can increase the efficiency of inputs and enhance health and food security.

FAIRR Investor Network

Established by the Jeremy Coller Foundation, the FAIRR Initiative is a collaborative investor network that raises awareness of the material ESG risks and opportunities caused by intensive animal production.

There is extensive evidence that ESG issues can impact the performance of companies involved in animal factory farming. The most visible financial impacts come from short-term events, but the financial performance of companies in this sector is also contingent on longer-term environmental, social and regulatory trends and the ability for companies to successfully anticipate and navigate these changes.

As early as 2015, FAIRR identified 28 ESG issues that affect production and pricing, market access, corporate reputation, and legal and regulatory action for companies across the food and agriculture value chain. Applying initial research to global food companies, in 2018 it published the inaugural Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index – the world’s first assessment of 60 meat, dairy, and fish producers on critical sustainability risks.

Photo courtesy of FAIRR

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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