Peter Wortsman, EFFP Partner

After 28 COPs, global carbon emissions are still rising and it looks inevitable we will overshoot the legally binding 1.5°C target agreed by 196 countries in Paris in 2015.  Only if we make fundamental changes to how we live and rapidly cut our fossil fuel use can we keep the 2°C goal alive.

70% of 18-24 year olds in the UK feel eco-anxiety.  I can’t blame them – we “responsible adults” are sacrificing their future for an easier life today.  If we want the planet to be liveable for our children and grandchildren, we need action. Lots of it, and urgently.

Photo by Tobias Rademacher on Unsplash

In the darkest hours of WWII, after the grim reality of the Dunkirk retreat, Churchill both acknowledged the dire situation and gave one of the most inspirational rallying cries in history.   He instilled a sense of unity and purpose as he said, “We shall fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and streets, in the hills.  We shall never surrender.  Even if the British Isles were subjugated and starving, the Empire and its Commonwealth would carry on the struggle…”

Churchill inspired belief and motivated action to change the course of history.

Where is today’s Churchill in the Great Climate fight?  Political leaders of the G20?  Nope.  Business leaders?  Nope.  A Swedish teenager named Greta?  Maybe?

We’re making good progress with Clean Energy.  According to the IEA, for every dollar invested in fossil fuels in 2023, about 1.7 dollars are going into clean energy.   More needs to be done, but strong momentum is clearly there.   Compared to Energy, Transport, Buildings and Industry, Agriculture is the clear laggard when it comes to investment, and it remains the one sector of the EU Green deal without an agreed transition pathway.  With the majority of the food industry pushing their obligations upstream to farmers, and farmers pushing back hard on this, it is little wonder that limited progress has been made.  Food and farming is the sector where behaviour change is needed more than any other if we are to win the emissions battle.  Whether it’s changing what we eat, the relationships food businesses have with producers, or how farmers grow food, change is hard.  Precisely because our current ways are so ingrained in both food businesses and consumers alike, I’d argue the food system has similarities to Dunkirk in the battle against climate change.  And boy, do we need a Churchill.

Our energy intensive food system is responsible for about a third of global emissions, as well as the primary driver of biodiversity loss and deforestation.   Thanks to genetic discoveries driving skyrocketing yields, the food system has provided enough food for a global population which has more than trebled over the last 75 years.  These efficiencies are often produced with fossil fuel-powered mechanisation, fossil fuel-derived fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides, and monocrop fields displacing biodiversity and resulting in soil degradation, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere.  Working on the front line of climate change, farmers are facing an increasing frequency of extreme weather events, leading to crop failures and income loss.  The lack of resilience in our food system and its exposure to climate change is becoming increasingly obvious to both farmers and food executives alike.

If food businesses depend on a consistent supply of food from farmers, and the whole system is at risk, not to mention a major contributor to climate change, why aren’t food businesses doing more?

In our frequent conversations with food businesses, they tell us they are battling rising costs, finding it more challenging securing supply and overwhelmed with sustainability compliance.  Many have put sustainability on the backburner while they focus on the more immediate needs.  Meanwhile, farmers in the UK and across Europe are up in arms against regulators and food businesses who are not supporting them nearly enough in the transition.

When food businesses have tactical, short-term contracts for their food “commodities” with no relationship with farmers, not only is their supply more at risk, but farmers are less able to invest in regenerative practices (improving soil, environmental, human and animal health while producing food).  Now, many food businesses are feeling the pain of this model in terms of increasing price volatility and difficulties securing supply.

Alternatively, if food businesses develop strategic, longer-term relationships with farmers (potentially through a processor), trust is built along the supply chain, opening up more finance options, data sharing and larger systemic synergies, enabling a smoother transition to regenerative farming practices.   These practices enable farms to be more resilient to extreme weather, build soil health, use less chemical inputs and sequester more carbon than they emit.

The good news is that leading companies like Nestle, Kellogg’s, Molson-Coors and Tesco already have more strategic relationships with farmers to reduce risk and create a more sustainable, regenerative supply of food.  And this isn’t just for big companies.  Small companies like Hodmedods have created a market for ancient pulses and grains, encouraging biodiversity, soil health and resilience while ensuring farmers are paid a fair price.

Photo by Andrew Yurkiv on Unsplash

We often hear people talk about the cost of sustainability.  In our experience, when food businesses invest in more strategic relationships along their supply chain, their businesses almost always become more sustainable, resilient and profitable.  Price and supply volatility are reduced, trust enables more data sharing, unlocking synergies and experimentation in new ways of working.  The reality is that making a business more sustainable usually adds cost in the short term as investment and attention is needed to unlock opportunities.  Most of these investments pay off relatively quickly as input and operating costs can be reduced.

Changing supply chain relationships or making structural changes isn’t always easy or fast, especially with multiple intermediary processors or logistics providers.  There are winners and losers, not to mention loads of resistance.  But there is a clear path forward.  At EFFP, we have been working with food businesses and farmers for over 20 years to support a transition into more resilient, sustainable and profitable supply chains.  Whether it’s strategy, change management, food supply chain collaboration, structures, alignment or incentives, we’re here to support food businesses to truly lead.

If you are working in the food industry, you have the opportunity to make a real difference before it’s too late.  What can you do to be bolder and braver?   What will your grandchildren say you did during the great climate war as the clock was ticking down?