The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

A food chain declaration for climate action

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Virginia Ñuñonca Ccallo digs up potatoes that are being cooked underground on her farm in the highlands of Peru. Named for a Quechua word meaning “working together,” Q’emikuspa was an Oxfam America funded initiative from 2009-2013 designed to help rural indigenous people in the mountainous region of Espinar, Peru--where some communities perch as high as 13,000 feet above sea level--become more resilient in the face of rainfall shortages, extreme cold, and other life-threatening consequences of climate change. Photo: Percy Ramirez/Oxfam America

Oxfam welcomes a declaration on climate action by some of the most powerful companies in the “global food chain.”

This blog post was co-authored by Jon Jacoby, Special Advisor to the Executive Director of Private Sector Engagement at Oxfam International, and Irit Tamir, Special Advisor in the Private Sector Department at Oxfam America. 

This morning, Members of the U.S. Congress and White House officials are picking up The Washington Post (in hard or soft copy) to something intriguing. And government and business leaders in Brasilia, Beijing, and Brussels are picking upThe Financial Times to that same surprise.

They are looking at a full-page joint letter featuring the personal signatures of the chief executives of Mars, General Mills, Kellogg, Unilever, and Nestle USA calling for urgent action to tackle climate change. They are joined by the heads of Dannon USA, Stonyfield Farm (also a Danone subsidiary), Ben & Jerry’s (a Unilever subsidiary), and several other major food and beverage companies.

Oxfam welcomes this declaration on climate action by some of the most powerful companies in the “global food chain” as a potentially meaningful milestone on the road to and through Paris. It should be seen as an organizing vehicle to increase business mobilization toward climate action by national governments.

The statement’s primary intent is to issue a call to world leaders to reach an agreement at international climate change negotiations in Paris in December. It reads, “Now is the time to meaningfully address the reality of climate change…[and] fully embrace the opportunity presented to you [our political leaders] in Paris.”

The point made most simply and clearly by the statement is that “climate change is bad for farmers and for agriculture.” Indeed, Oxfam’s report on El Niño released today highlights the harrowing impacts of climate change on agricultural production.

The signatories of the statement “want the women and men who work to grow the food on our tables to have enough to eat themselves and to be able to provide properly for their families.”

The text could and should have been more ambitious and more specific. For example, these corporate leaders could have greater real-time impact on the political calculus of the Paris deal if they commit to:

  • Share the increased climatic and related economic risks borne by the millions of vulnerable smallholder farmers producing agricultural commodities in developing countries
  • Scale up their own investments in building the resilience of such farmers in a holistic manner
  • Set science-based targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions throughout their operations and supply chains

Of course, the statement was not necessarily meant as a vehicle to announce changes in the companies’ own policies and practices. But such commitments would certainly have bolstered their credibility in undertaking this high-profile public policy advocacy.

We would also like to see companies call on governments to commit to:

  • emissions cuts in line with their fair shares as soon as possible after Paris so as to keep the 2-degrees goal within reach
  • significant financing of adaptation efforts

Finally, the signatories could have enhanced the business case by sharing with policymakers what they have increasingly had to disclose to their shareholders: namely, that their profits are rendered increasingly vulnerable by erratic and often disastrous climatic patterns.

But just as the medium is often the message, the context of the statement could prove to be as important as the text itself. Here are some of the reasons that the declaration is a big deal:

  1. The CEOs have signed personally.
  2. The full-page ad featuring the statement in The Financial Times and The Washington Post will meet the eyeballs – and raise the eyebrows – of thousands of influential public and private sector decision-makers.
  3. Its roll-out on Capitol Hill this morning by executives from Mars, Unilever, and other global food giants – alongside a bipartisan group of U.S. Congressmen – sends a very powerful signal around the world of the growing political momentum toward a robust climate change deal in Paris. And this sort of transparent public policy advocacy is poised to accelerate throughout the fall.

A growing number of companies around the globe are on their respective roads to and through Paris, and their roads are now converging in the form of collective action, but more is needed to counter the weight of companies fighting these efforts. The food, beverage, agriculture, and retail sectors are among those getting off the sidelines – most recently with a beverage industry statement this week. Some companies are establishing (eg Kellogg) or solidifying (eg Unilever) their role as public champions of climate action at all levels.

For the signatories of this particular declaration, it is just the beginning of what must be a very active and assertive final stretch toward Paris. To make the most of the statement, they must now:

BE VOCAL…

…by recruiting the CEOs of other major “food chain” companies (food/beverage, agriculture, retail, etc) with U.S. operations to join the statement.

  • A year ago at the request and behest of Oxfam’s Behind the Brands initiative as well as many other forces, General Mills and Kellogg moved from climate “laggard-ship” to climate leadership. Their major announcements included joining Mars, Unilever, and Nestle as members of BICEP, the leading U.S. climate policy coalition for companies.
  • If the companies who do not yet appear on the statement had been members of BICEP, they would have had the opportunity to be on board in round 1. Since the statement will wisely remain open for a 2nd round of signatories, those companies should make good on the golden opportunity to sign on so that they too can serve as public champions for a message that policymakers will need to heed.

GO GLOBAL…

…by recruiting major food sector companies of all national origins to come aboard this statement.

In addition, they should spearhead their own national and regional statements toward national political leaders, especially in major emerging economies such as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa whose governments wield considerable influence over the scope and ambition of the Paris deal.

GO VIRAL…

…by reaching out to their billions of consumers around the globe.

These companies can seize the opportunity to multiply their climate action message many times over by mobilizing their consumers to take action. After all, these consumers also happen to be citizens of the countries whose voice is critical in ensuring that our political leaders get us the agreement in Paris that the planet and its people require.

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