Be thankful for what you eat today; climate change can take that privilege away from you
Climate change is substantially threatening food security globally, and millions of lives are at stake. General Mills is playing an important role along with other food companies to minimize risks the world faces.
The impacts of climate change have become visible over the last century, prompting nations to start a dialogue to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions. While advances were made, emissions continue to increase. Specialists have been warning the global community that if this trend is not reversed, the world can face significant challenges that may cost us billions of dollars.
However, there is another “indirect” cost, often not in the epicenter of the climate change discussion: the millions of lives that may be affected or even lost because of the impact this phenomenon can have on food security. According to the World Food Programme, part of the United Nations system, “people are considered food secure when they have availability and adequate access at all times to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life” 1. Food security is still an issue today; the World Bank estimates that, in 2014-16, 795 million people were undernourished globally (10.9% of total population), of which 780 million were living in developing nations2.
While studies indicate that there are still uncertainties regarding the impact of climate change on some aspects of the food chain, it is widely acknowledged that depending on the level of global temperatures, the magnitude of CO2 in the atmosphere, as well as the frequency/intensity of extreme events, such as droughts and flooding, crop yields, livestock production and fishery can be significantly affected, consequently threatening food security3 and impacting millions of lives. In other words, climate change can affect global food supply, and consequently an important parcel of the world’s population, which is expected to reach 9.6 billion people by 20504.
Thankfully, the corporate world has not silenced on this matter. A good example is General Mills (“GM”), which has been firmly engaging in the theme. In a recent public letter, GM (global sales of US$16.6b in FY20167), along with other nine food and beverages companies, made three commitments: re-energize efforts to ensure a more sustainable supply chain; have more transparency on efforts and best practices’ sharing; advocate for governments to set clear targets for GHG emissions reductions8.
GM has been long committed to being part of the solution for climate change. In August 2015, it took even more concrete steps by announcing a reduction of GHG emission by 28% across its entire value chain by 20259.
As a food company, climate is key for the long-term viability of GM’s business, not only because it directly influences its ability to supply raw materials (i.e.: corn, oats and wheat), but also because it can interfere deeply on its ability to deliver quality food to consumers9. With presence in over 100 countries7, GM is engaged in playing a central role to help mitigate the human impact on climate change and the resulting challenges the company’s consumers and the environment can face in the future.
While several initiatives are already being implemented, I believe there are still a few steps the company could take. I cite below three specific examples:
- Higher influence on suppliers’ practices. GM currently has a Supplier Code of Conduct10, and has also committed to sustainably source its 10 priority ingredients by 202011. To attain this goal, the company is helping smaller farmers with agriculture investments. However, GM would be even more effective if it could also partner with these stakeholders to invest in technologies that increase their energy efficiency levels, as well as the use of renewable sources of power;
- Optimize logistics planning. GM could work on reducing the number of trips needed from suppliers to factories onto retailers, as well as reverse logistics, by investing in the optimization of logistics planning, as well as truck loading (making sure truck space is fully utilized before shipping, even if it means taking longer to reach the retailer).
- Educational role with consumers. GM could extend communication efforts through differentiated marketing campaigns to help consumers understand the importance of sustainable choices not only on their own lives, but also on the lives of other people around the world. It would also be extremely valuable if consumers could understand the impact of their behaviors on the environment (i.e.: not recycling packages, food waste).
By taking these steps in addition to the initiatives GM is already implementing, the company would multiply exponentially its impact on the entire food chain, therefore having a greater contribution to mitigate and/or adapt to climate change, consequently minimizing the risk of higher food insecurity globally. Undoubtedly these actions are not simple, nor easy to implement, and they may even cost money the company wouldn’t otherwise choose to spend. But if GM takes the lead, other companies may follow, and the joint effort can massively determine what – and how much food – ourselves and our children will have available in the decades to come. (798 words)
1 World Food Programme, “What is food security”. https://www.wfp.org/node/359289, accessed October 2016.
2 World Bank, “State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI)”. http://www.fao.org/3/a4ef2d16-70a7-460a-a9ac-2a65a533269a/i4646e.pdf, accessed October 2016.
3 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Food security and food production systems. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg2/WGIIAR5-Chap7_FINAL.pdf, accessed October 2016.
4 United Nations, “World population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050”. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/un-report-world-population-projected-to-reach-9-6-billion-by-2050.html, accessed October 2016.
5 Nourishing the planet, “U.S. Government Raises Estimates for Corn and Soybean Harvest, But Lasting Effects of Drought Still Loom”. http://blogs.worldwatch.org/nourishingtheplanet/tag/maize/, accessed October 2016.
6 Cornell University, “Cornell Climate Change”, Photo by George Shinn. http://climatechange.cornell.edu/tools-resources/agriculture-resources/, accessed on October 2016.
7 General Mills. 2016 Annual Report. http://investors.generalmills.com/2016-interactive-annual-report/images/General_Mills-AR2016.pdf, accessed October 2016.
8 Ceres, Mobilizing Business Leadership for a Sustainable World, “Accelerating Change: Food and Beverage Leaders”. http://www.ceres.org/files/global-food-and-beverage-leadership-statement-on-climate-change, accessed October 2016.
9 General Mills, “General Mills makes new commitment on climate change”. http://blog.generalmills.com/2015/08/general-mills-makes-new-commitment-on-climate-change/, accessed October 2016.
10 General Mills, “Supplier Code of Conduct”. http://www.generalmills.com/en/Responsibility/ethics-and-integrity/supplier-code-of-conduct, accessed October 2016.
11 General Mills. 2016 Global Responsibility Report [https://globalresponsibility.generalmills.com/images/General_Mills-Global_Responsibility_2016.pdf], accessed October 2016.
12 Picture opening blog: Food Navigator, “Interconnected diets: Two thirds of crops we consume are result of ‘food globalisation’”. http://www.foodnavigator.com/Science/Interconnected-diets-Two-thirds-of-crops-we-consume-are-result-of-food-globalisation, accessed October 2016.
Student comments on Be thankful for what you eat today; climate change can take that privilege away from you
I largely agree with your suggestions on how General Mills could strengthen its set of initiatives to address climate change.
However, having written about a similar subject (i.e., coffee) and having researched other food companies, I would like to add one additional dimension that could be explored: food innovation. Much has been done recently to identify more efficient sources (e.g., animals, plants) of basic nutrients (e.g., vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates) – sources that could yield similar amounts of nutrients with reduced impact on environment. Many start-ups are active on this space. Two examples:
1. Exo, a New York based company that identified crickets as a very promising source of proteins. According to their research, insects require less feed, less water and emit less gas and ammonia per gram of protein produced.
2. Similarly, ENERGYBits is a company trying to leverage algae to produce tabs that are nourishing, but also environmentally safe. Their production is much less harmful to the environment than similar types of food.
Clearly, these examples might not be applicable to a mainstream company such as General Mills (unlikely that they could start producing cricket-based or algae-based cereal), but given their size and reach, I think they should also consider food innovation as a relevant lever to minimize their environmental footprint. Coming up with innovative solutions to accomplish their mission of “making food people love” could be a smart alternative to help stop climate change.
The suggestions you made are very interesting and I think could have a huge impact on the food industry. I think that GM’s policies have two major implications in the global economy:
1- As large corporation, any policy implemented by them could become market norm in a short period of time
2- Given its scale and global operations, GM decisions impacts directly on some of the poorest countries in the world
I think your provided some interesting facts on how unbalanced food security is between developed and developing countries. For developing markets, global warming is not a simple problem because they are the first impacted by climate change. Any sudden change in climate conditions could cause a huge disaster in these countries and their ability to overcome any challenge is very limited. GM, as any other large food manufacturer, has a huge responsibility on how they or any supplier implements sustainable practices.
Thanks for this post! I respect that General Mills is using its size and strength within the food industry to drive sustainability efforts across the entire value chain, but I agree with you that GM could do even more to exert its influence on suppliers’ practices.
In addition to incentivizing and supporting the supply side of their business model, I was intrigued by your idea of impacting the demand side through a consumer education campaign. I wonder if GM has enough brand equity to authentically promote sustainability? I’m worried consumers may see this as an inauthentic attempt by a big corporation to “be good” – I would encourage them to maximize their internal and supply chain sustainability efforts, then actively promote these efforts to consumers, then use the positive brand equity to launch the consumer education campaign you suggest.