Food and drink companies found to be ignoring biggest impact on climate

The Guardian – Thursday 3rd September

With a growing realisation of the impact of climate change on agriculture, the food and drink industry would be wise to start paying closer attention to their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and that of their suppliers. A recent analysis by CDP, a research organisation that holds the largest collection of self-reported data on climate change by businesses, has revealed that less than a quarter of food, drink and tobacco brands are registering their emissions. Whichever way you look at this – as companies not admitting their emissions or not knowing what they are – it’s not good news. Climate change will have significant and undeniable effects on companies that have agriculture at the centre of production, so it would be better for them to sit up and take stock rather than continue with business as usual.

Companies such as those in the food and drink industry should be future fitting their businesses by looking hard at both their own practices and those in their supply chain, with a view to cutting GHG emissions throughout the production process. Climate change is going to cost them: one major drinks firm, Diageo, has projected that changes in temperature due to climate change could cost it some $77 million in increased commodity expenditure and production disruption. This calls for some forward planning, but most companies aren’t connecting this significant rise in costs with the need to lower emissions; rather they are focused on how they might mitigate the impacts of climate change. It’s a classic case of treating the symptom, not the cause.

There have been some maverick moves within the industry. General Mills, for example, has committed to cutting its GHG emissions from both its operations and its agricultural suppliers. It’s a bold, statement-making action that also aims at gaining a competitive advantage over other companies. It’s not just good business, it’s wise business. In this day and age being ecologically sound is unquestionably the way forward for a strong, long-term business model.

EU loses a billion tonnes of soil to erosion each year

Farming Online – Friday 4th September

New research points out that the EU is dangerously vulnerable to soil erosion. It loses nearly a billion tonnes of soil a year by water. Our soils are a vital natural resource and this figure highlights the importance of protecting them. This is especially so because it’s much easier to lose soil than to replace it; the oft-cited figure is that it takes approximately 100 years to replace 1cm of topsoil. Although there is some debate about this statistic – see our profile of the radical biologist Elaine Ingham, who appears to be something of a miracle worker in this process – we should assume it’s never going to be easy.

One thing critical to preserving healthy soils is sound land management, which is not something we’ve seen a lot of in the past century. However, as soil erosion reaches crisis point in agriculture, there is growing impetus from governments to encourage more sustainable practices – witness, for example, the greening measures of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, a small but potentially meaningful move towards caring for the environment. The size of the problem is enormous, both in Europe and globally, and with the pressures of population growth and climate change on food production, it is likely to intensify in coming decades. The failure of the EU’s Soil Framework Directive in 2014, which would have given soil greater protection as a non-renewable resource, shows how blind we have been to this issue. Action is needed now.

The bitter story behind the UK’s national drink

BBC News – Tuesday 8th September

A recent BBC investigation into India’s tea industry has revealed the unacceptably poor working conditions of labourers, who are not far from indentured servitude. Tea estates are required by law to provide adequate housing and sanitation for tea workers, who are paid below India’s minimum wage because of this provision. Workers make just over £1 a day and the housing and sanitation provided is anything but adequate. The BBC found squalid housing, overflowing cesspools and blocked toilets across the plantations that they investigated. Interviewing local doctors, they were told that 9 out of 10 patients from tea plantations were malnourished – a testament to the lack of a living wage. They also found many cases of child labour and workers spraying pesticides without appropriate protective gear. Before you pour your next cup of tea, listen to the report on Radio 4’s File on Four.

What is also notable in this piece is that all the plantations visited for the BBC were certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which claims to “protects workers, their families and local communities”. Their failure to detect the appalling living conditions that are clearly visible on the plantations, calls into question the rigour of their certification process and will surely erode consumer trust in the seal.

This BBC report follows numerous recent stories on the on-going exploitation of agricultural and food industry labourers. These include the plight of tomato workers in Florida, covered in the film Food Chains, The Guardian’s 2014 report on slavery in the Thai prawn industry and the Channel 4 exposé on agricultural labour practices in Spain. With labour abuses rife in agriculture, it’s hard not to think that a lot of people in power are simply looking the other way.

Five things to know about the congressional battle over school lunch

Civil Eats – Tuesday 1st September

Guidelines for school lunches are back on the agenda for the US Congress, which is soon to debate the Child Nutrition Reauthorization – a five-year review of nutrition guidelines. In 2010 Congress managed to pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), which was widely acknowledged as an important step forward in better school meals, despite a later amendment that allowed the tomato paste on pizza to count as a vegetable.

Civil Eats gives a good run down of what to look out for in the current debate. Most notably, the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which is heavily funded by the food industry, is lobbying hard for a reduction in fresh fruit and vegetables, along with cutting back the requirement on whole grains. The SNA also stresses the difficulties that the HHFKA regulations are causing school districts, drawing on a study (commissioned by the SNA) that found that 70% of the districts surveyed were suffering financial hardship. But with childhood obesity figures soaring, isn’t it time we prioritised healthy food, hardship or not?

The biggest threat to school nutrition standards, however, could be Republican opposition – generated by the fact that Obama, a Democrat, had a lot to do with drafting them. For Republicans, the standards are classic Democratic ‘overreach’ into people’s daily lives. It is sad that child nutrition is merely a politics-as-usual issue marked by corporate lobbying and political rivalry. Civil Eats reminds us that of the 31 million kids who eat school meals, 21 million are on subsidised or free meals because they’re close enough to the poverty line. We shouldn’t feed the country’s poorest kids bad food.

Could some farming practices benefit tropical birds?

The Guardian – Thursday 3rd September

Tropical bird life in South America, as in many places, has been hard hit by deforestation and the spread of agricultural land. In an attempt to lessen the impact, a type of ‘land-sharing’ conservation measure has often been implemented on agricultural land, whereby islands of habitat are set aside for the birds. A new study, however, indicates that this is less effective than ‘land-sparing’, in which no conservation measures are taken actually on agricultural land, but forests and natural habitats are maintained adjacent or near to it.

This seems to support traditional environmental conservation policy, which seeks to set aside habitat to conserve biodiversity, particularly in relation to bird life, rather than attempting to lessen intensive farming methods. The study finds that biodiversity remains greater when there is no integration of conservation and farming.

However, the devil is in the detail and the problem lies in whether we create islands of agriculture within vast areas of conservation, or islands of conservation in vast areas of agriculture. The latter has proved profoundly ineffective in preserving biodiversity. For land-sparing practices to work, then, there must be significant amounts of remaining natural habitat.

The study points to an impending double bind: the coming decades will see a need for more agricultural land as climate change begins to impact yields. New land for growing food is likely to come from sub-Saharan Africa and South America where land is cheap, the growing season is longer and, most notably, there are extensive forests, which can be cleared. But clearing forests is devastating to biodiversity, especially birds. Given these pressures, will we be able to preserve the natural habitat required to make land-sparing work? As a way forward for conservation, it doesn’t look promising.

Photographs by Patty McGann and Doc Budie

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