The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Room to improve: Why food and beverage companies need to push for better sourcing

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chocolate bar white agribusinesses oxfam Image by Bruno Glätsch from Pixabay.

From makers of candy bars to cereal, the biggest brands are poised to help solve the world’s most pressing challenges. But can their suppliers deliver?

If you’re anything like me, your New Year’s resolution to eat healthy might just be looking a bit more “aspirational” as spring approaches. Choosing a more balanced diet is a challenge for many of us—especially if you have my kind of sweet tooth.

While we might feel guilty about the odd candy bar, we shouldn’t only care about the additional calories that await us. From the effects of climate change to the displacement of people from land grabs, global food systems that deliver some of our favorite foods present serious ethical challenges at each stage of the value chain.

And as consumers increasingly think more consciously about how their purchases affect the world around us, a new Oxfam report shows how far food and beverage companies and their suppliers have to go to improve the way they do business.

The Big 10 can change the sustainability game

In 2013, Oxfam started mobilizing thousands of consumers to call on 10 of the most influential food and beverage companies (aka the Big 10) to do more.

These companies—think Mars, Kellogg, and Nestlé—purchase ingredients in ways that have a huge impact on global food systems. Many buy commodities like sugar, cocoa, and palm oil from just a handful of powerful agribusinesses that dominate trade in these goods. So if you’ve eaten a Snickers bar or a bowl of Frosted Flakes recently, there’s a high chance you’ve consumed ingredients that passed through these influential intermediaries.

Big 10 companies have committed to make changes to tackle issues like climate change, land rights, and gender equality. And because they have significant influence over how these ingredients are bought and produced, their agribusiness suppliers—who they choose to buy from—can help them answer fundamental questions that affect our work with you to end the injustice of poverty.

Is food produced in a way that empowers women and small-scale food producers? Or does it rely on exploitive labor practices, land grabs, and deforestation?

A failing grade

In a report published this month, Oxfam assessed the social and environmental sustainability policies of seven of the largest agribusinesses in the world—Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Barry Callebaut, Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus Company, Olam International, and Wilmar International.

All have sourcing relationships with at least several Big 10 companies. This matters because the Big 10 have a responsibility to ensure these agribusinesses live up to their expectations about how they want their ingredients sourced and produced.

Similar to our Behind the Brands campaign methodology, the report examined key themes—the treatment of small-scale farmers and women producers; land rights; climate; and transparency and accountability. We created a scorecard analyzing how agribusinesses manage human rights risks and impacts across their supply chains as well as how the sector is helping to improve the ability of these producers to earn a living income. The indicators are based on the commitments leading Behind the Brands companies have made on women, land, and climate, as well as on standards for best practice.

Looking at the results, it’s clear there are gaps that must be filled if agribusinesses want to credibly improve their sustainability policies.

  • More than 90 percent of the agribusinesses’ scores are below 50 percent, with the lowest scores on the themes of transparency and accountability and small-scale producers. Some companies scored 0 percent.
  • On the land theme, only four of the seven agribusinesses received scores for integrating the principle of free, prior, and informed consent into their supplier codes, requirements, or guidance to respect the rights of indigenous peoples.
  • On the climate theme, only two agribusinesses have adopted science-based targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across their value chains.

Women and small-scale farmers deserve better

When more and more of their customers demanded better practices, the Big 10 food and beverage companies chose to listen. Now it’s time for the Big 10 to increase their focus on whether their agribusiness suppliers are doing enough to put women’s economic empowerment at the heart of business operations, respect land rights, and improve transparency.

Agribusinesses play a crucial role in delivering meaningful change and have both a responsibility and opportunity to improve. Sustainable food systems that respect workers and the environment remain a global imperative. That’s why Oxfam will continue to engage agribusinesses and help foster a race to the top among the seven companies identified in the report.

Download our new report.

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  1. piet.vanasten@olamnet.com'Piet van Asten

    This is a great Oxfam report and very insightful. I take pride in the fact that Olam is ahead of the pack but agree we need to continue innovating and investing to improve. One critical question: why do you say that the food and beverage companies should PUSH their suppliers. Should you not ask how they can PULL their suppliers through the right incentives? For example, in coffee certification is increasingly becoming the norm but hardly attracts a premium from the roasters to support suppliers and farmers to invest in sustainable practices … so where is the PULL?

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