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Postcard from Planet Under Pressure: A difficult business – climate change mitigation and adaptation in food supply chains


Naomi Oates, CDKN Research Assistant, reports on a session exploring food security and the role of the private sector in supporting adaptation and mitigation. The session was chaired by Alice Bows (University of Manchester) and Stephanie Daniels (Sustainable Food Lab), and was part of the Planet Under Pressure conference, London, 26-29th March.

Attending the ‘Climate change mitigation and adaptation in food supply chains’ session at Planet Under Pressure, I was struck by the difficult balancing act that policy-makers much achieve, if they are to ensure sufficient global food supplies and adapt agricultural systems to a changing climate. Adaptation of agricultural systems and food supply chains will be essential if we are to meet future demands in the face of a growing global population, shifting dietary preferences and predicted negative impacts of a changing climate. At the same time, food production has significant implications for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Some necessary trade-offs between mitigation, adaptation and development objectives will have to be made. Is climate compatible agriculture really achievable?

What the researchers say

Reductions in agricultural sector output are not an option. In fact there is a need to reduce emissions while massively increasing future output. Yet the agricultural scenarios that have the biggest chance of meeting food demands by 2050 are those associated with increased emissions, for example through land-use change and the loss of carbon sinks, as well as having other negative environmental impacts such as biodiversity loss.

All is not completely lost, however. There are some opportunities for win-wins. For example, at the farm-level intercropping systems have been shown to benefit coffee farmers by increasing food security, whilst reducing their carbon footprint. Energy efficiency in irrigation systems is also a means to reduce carbon emissions whilst saving on costs.

Action in the private sector

In addition to farm-level activities, large multi-national companies such as Tesco’s and Unilever are looking at how they can reduce emissions further up the supply chain, whilst maintaining profitable operations.

Andy Hill, Head of Tesco’s Consumer Climate Change Team, was keen to stress that for many private sector companies sustainability has become a core part of doing business, presenting opportunities as well as challenges.  I tend to be fairly sceptical about what companies claim to be achieving in the name of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and their real impacts, which can often be little more than greenwash. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see that large and powerful companies such as this are taking an interest, and more importantly action on sustainability issues.

In fact a recent study by CCAFS finds that “the most innovative CSR and supply chain activities hold potential to shift entire supply chains and value chains”. Being the third largest retailer in the world, with an annual turn-over of around £70 billion, Tesco has considerable political and economic clout. However, the researchers’ also stress that governments need to play a strong role in regulating commitments to reduce emissions, to increase transparency and accountability.

Adaptation – the missing piece

Like Tesco, Unilever is another multi-national company with significant global influence, with 50% of sales in developing and emerging markets. Emma Keller, a representative, described Unilever’s efforts to address adaptation and mitigation at a more local level, working closely with producers to calculate their carbon footprint as well as to identify climate change risks and consider adaptation options. However, whilst the company’s sustainability plan appears to include concrete measure for mitigation, I was less convinced by their claim to be supporting adaptation. Adaptation does not appear to feature strongly in this plan, although measures to improve health and well-being and enhance livelihoods are certainly relevant.

A way forward

While there are many incentives to develop and adapt our agricultural systems, we need to carefully consider the consequences, particularly for future climate change. Retail companies are taking noticeable action on reducing carbon emissions across food supply chains, but the private sector’s role in adaptation is less clear.

In contrast to mitigation, adaptation tends to occur on an ad-hoc basis, is less regulated, and often autonomous. What is more, those that would benefit most from adaptation actions are poor small-holder farmers, who are not always the main suppliers of commercial agricultural products.

I would argue that companies should integrate the vulnerabilities of their stakeholders, from producers to consumers into their CSR plans, and have a more concrete strategy for building adaptive capacity along the supply chain. Measuring success is a challenge for adaptation, so let’s throw some multi-national money at this.

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