Basket of vegetables
Basket of vegetables

Businesses of all kinds must be prepared to help re-imagine the world’s food system, which is not fit for purpose

Are you reading this with a cup of coffee, a piece of chocolate or maybe even a protein bar with nuts and puffed rice?  There is a good chance that the coffee beans, cocoa, nuts or rice were bought or grown, and then processed, by my company, Olam.

We may not be a household name, but we supply manufacturers with the ingredients to make the brands you know. 

Before reaching for your cup or plate, every coffee or cocoa bean, nut and grain of rice, carries a whole backstory – which, in many cases, needs to change. The Earth’s resource boundaries are already being breached, exacerbated by poor farming practices, and we are due to add another two billion people by 2050. The world’s global commons that sustain us all are in peril.

Meanwhile, many farmers on low incomes are at the mercy of supply-and-demand economics. Although two billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every day, and the price of a cappuccino can now approach £3, millions of small-scale coffee farmers are not making a living.

Of course, a huge proportion of the responsibility lies with companies such as Olam, and our peers and manufacturing and retail customers, to drive better environmental practices and improve livelihoods across our supply chains. But business leaders beyond our sector must realise that they too can help reimagine global food systems.

Much of the food and ingredients that Olam supplies to multinational brands are grown by an estimated 4.8 million smallholder farmers from whom we buy either directly or via intermediaries. 

Many live in tiny rural villages in countries such as Ivory Coast and Uganda, often with no electricity or running water – and are sometimes even unable to count properly because of lack of schooling.

Low knowledge of good agricultural practices impacts yields and the environment. Despite Olam being based in these regions, we simply do not have the resources to reach every single farmer with sustainability practices and income support programmes.

However, we have made headway over the years. Along with partners and certifiers, we now directly support about 446,000 smallholders with economic and environmental training, better seedlings and social infrastructure such as schools and clinics. 

We have invested heavily in putting structures in place under our innovative initiative AtSource, which provides our customers with the social and environmental footprints of the products that they source from us. 

All of us in the chain thus have the information we need to make more informed decisions about the social and environmental changes required. But we, and the rest of the sector, need to go much further and more quickly. To do so, we also need the help of others.

Even chief executives are consumers first. More people need to start asking questions about the food they eat. The more they ask for sustainably produced food, the more companies across the world will be galvanised to deliver it. 

It is also important to remember to savour food – not just for its taste but for the memory of the farmers who have worked so hard to produce it. It is a travesty that a third of the food we produce is lost or wasted when 821 million people go hungry every day. 

Picturing farmers may make it harder to throw their hard work in the bin, along with the invisible balloon of greenhouse gases that is emitted as it rots.

Second, all businesses need to see their role in food security and climate change.

Despite the emergence of underground farms and giant hi-tech, temperature-controlled greenhouses, the vast bulk of the world’s food is grown under the sun and is thus exposed to not just warming temperatures but also the disease, pests, floods and drought that the extra heat can bring.

This is compounded by the fact that keeping global temperatures to a 2C (3.6F) increase above pre-industrial levels is no longer enough: it needs to be 1.5C. Agriculture must get its own house in order – it accounts for 11 per cent of all man-made emissions – and other sectors must also reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Third, business must do what it does well: see opportunities and identify solutions and innovations. Tech companies, for example, are producing remarkable software to ensure that agriculture uses the precise amount of water, fertiliser and pesticide required. 

Meanwhile, Accenture found last year that 53 per cent of UK consumers “prefer to buy goods and services from companies that stand for a shared purpose that reflects their personal values and beliefs, and are ditching those that don’t”. Sustainable business is profitable.

Fourth, businesses can accelerate their progress through guidance and support.

I chair the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a CEO-led organisation of more than 200 leading businesses such as Nestlé, Unilever, Santander, Toyota and Microsoft that are working together on the transition to a more sustainable world and helping sustainable companies become more successful. Much of their combined experience is available as free guides on the WBCSD website. 

Finally, companies do not have to do everything alone. Olam has benefited from many collaborations, and these can open up opportunities for public sector funding.

The Sustainable Rice Landscapes Initiative, for example, involves WBCSD companies, rice research and standards experts, multilateral agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, and development agencies. 

The Global Environment Facility is providing $50 million in funding to support programmes that help rice farmers reduce emissions of methane, a gas far more potent than carbon dioxide in climate change. 

There has been much debate about whether business should only focus on creating value for shareholders or whether it also has a responsibility to preserve our planet and ensure progress for the wider society to which it belongs. 

Please do think about how your activities may directly or indirectly affect the farmers growing the food we eat – and help us reimagine our shared future.

This piece was originally published for the GEF-Telegraph Partnership.