How businesses can – and must – step up to create just and regenerative food systems

By Lesley Mitchell, Associate Director, Sustainable Nutrition, Forum for the Future

As the global Food Systems Summit arrives, Lesley Mitchell, international non-profit Forum for the Future’s Associate Director for Sustainable Nutrition, explores what it will take to transform how we produce and consume food – and the role of business in stepping up to the challenge.

The United Nations Food Systems Summit heralds a season of landmark global decision-making, from the Committee on World Food security and climate COP 26 to the Nutrition for Growth Summit and next year’s delayed UN Biodiversity summit. What we all commit to in the coming months will set the change agenda for decades, and determine our potential to create a thriving and liveable future – but what role can business play?

If you are working in this space you already know the scale of the challenges we face: rapidly accelerating climate change; deepening health and malnutrition crises; environmental and biodiversity collapse; mounting inequality to name a few.

There’s no denying the unnerving nature of the far-reaching implications these challenges have – and the consequences of not tackling them are dire for agriculture and food security; reduced crop yields, total crop failures, water scarcity and extreme events from wildfires to floods are all expected as our planet reaches its tipping points.

The urgency to build resilience cannot be understated.

There is hope ahead of the climate COP 26, with emitters responsible for more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions now working towards Net Zero commitments. But is this feasible? Oxfam has called out the reality we face: if these commitments come to fruition they would require space for carbon sequestration equivalent to all agricultural land on the planet, fundamentally threatening food security and pushing those at the margins beyond the brink.

Businesses will be key to tackling these challenges

Businesses have the potential for genuinely pioneering practice in reshaping the food and agriculture system, but there is a long way to go.

The World Benchmarking Alliance’s (WBA) latest 2021 food and agriculture benchmark, launched this week, reveals that of 350 major international food companies, more than one in four assessed had no published sustainability strategy, while a further half had a strategy but no time-bound targets. Less than 10% had climate targets aligned with the Paris Agreement, and just 8% had human rights due diligence mechanisms in place to identify and manage risks such as child and forced labour in their supply chains.

It’s clearly time for business to up its game

We have the opportunity to course-correct a failing food and agriculture system to deliver for climate, while enabling environment and biodiversity restoration and simultaneously tackling human health crises. But simply tweaking business as usual just will not cut it. Integrated net zero strategies capable of delivering co-benefits for people and planet are urgently needed – and possible.

If there’s one thing to note right now, it’s this: the future of food is regenerative.

Regenerative agriculture builds the health of natural systems and social systems – but our transition must be just and avoid abandoning those who need to develop new skills and different markets to adapt. Our approach must intentionally include diverse voices, while recognising the deep legacy of colonialism and racism that have shaped the food system.

So if a business wants to succeed in the turbulence we face, it will urgently need a powerful just and regenerative vision, underpinned by a transformative business strategy that builds in equity, restoration and resilience and leaving no-one behind.

We will need to address the whole food chain, from production to consumption. But more than that, action on food needs to be intertwined with how we manage land, carbon mitigation, climate adaptation, equitable value chains and the circular economy. ‘Solutions’ that ignore inter-linkages don’t exist.

Daunting, but possible: transformational business in action

As highlighted in WBA’s benchmark, there are many examples of this thinking in action. For example, dairy and protein giant Danone’s 2030 strategy, ‘One Planet. One Health’, sets clear goals across financial, health, environmental and social performance. The business will contribute to achieving healthy outputs, with 90% of its products listed in ‘healthy’ categories and aligned with the Global Access to Nutrition Initiative. Regenerative agriculture is core to their production approach and Danone has offered its farmers in the US access to slow loans with lower interest rates. It has also extended timelines in recognition of the time it takes to both transition to – and realise profit from – new farming practices.

UK food retailer The Coop has set ambitious Net Zero targets but emphasises the need for a just transition in its Net Zero strategy. Barry Clavin, Coop’s senior ethics and sustainability manager notes that “…of course it is about carbon mitigation but it is about the social impacts as well… A fair transition, and how we help individuals, producers and communities transition, is the only way we are going to achieve this.

Elsewhere, Unilever has embedded its sustainable development strategy at board level, with key performance targets for executive remuneration linked to outcomes. On the ground, the company is working with smallholders in priority crops of cocoa, palm oil, coconut and tea to build capability to deliver regenerative agriculture and improve farmer resilience. They are involving farmers in project design and also building supplier skills.

With the vast majority of emissions impacts in food companies’ supply chains, the need to collaborate with producers is growing. Companies like Nespresso and Patagonia are working with their suppliers to build regenerative practices on the ground, which build soil carbon and restore soil health. Insetting emissions within the supply chain will not only ensure authentic responsibility for climate outcomes, but potentially enable growers to gain value from the ecosystem and carbon services they create.

Examples abound if only we look for them – from Colombia cattle ranchers restoring the Amazon while building lush, verdant, resilient and productive silvopastural cattle farms, through to the International Ecological Movement for Africa bringing together growers to build a ‘Great Green Wall’.

It’s inspiring work, but not easy. Forum for the Future has identified six key design principles for food system transformation that we see emerging from the Food Systems Summit. From shifting away from extractive practices that externalise environmental impacts to creating innovative business models, these principles are key to creating the just and regenerative food system we need – and something we should all take note of.

The Food Systems Summit will come and go, and it will raise as many questions as it answers: among them, just how can we reframe what we think about land and farming? How do we enable those who work the land to achieve resilient livelihoods? How can we convince people that reducing overconsumption is the most desired option?

But one thing is sure – wherever we sit in the food system, it’s on each of us to meet the challenge of building a sustainable, regenerative, just future. So what role will you play?


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