The top 5 food and agriculture stories in 2017

From ambitious deforestation targets, meat alternatives to breakthroughs in palm oil, there were high hopes for the agriculture sector this year. But can it keep up with its commitments?

Agriculture, forestry and other land use activities emit more than 10 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases, based on a study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). As the world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, experts warn that if we continue to clear land to meet growing food demand, it could have a more disastrous impact on the climate. 

In a bid to break the link between agriculture and deforestation, 447 companies in March committed to curbing forest destruction in supply their chains. Palm oil giants also unveiled moves to make their crop more producive and sustainable, but despite these efforts, confidence is low that corporates will make their deforestation-free targets by 2020, as most seem to be ignoring big contribution areas to deforestation, according to the Forest 500 Report 2017.

Fortunately, this year has seen a rise in interest in dietary alternatives to meat such as plant-based food and insects, trends which could potentially reduce the food industry’s climate impact.

Here are this year’s top five headlines from the food and agriculture sector. 

1. Corporates set to miss zero-deforestation targets for 2020 

A new publication by UK-based environmental organisation Global Canopy has found that broadly speaking, business is not on track to achieve a deforestation-free supply chain by 2020, with most companies adopting a “piecemeal approach” that ignores deforestation drivers such as cattle raising. 

Only 18 companies, including Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Kellogg, L’Oréal, Marks & Spencer, Nestlé, P&G and Unilever, received full marks for their policies to tackle deforestation. However, most companies ignored supply chain impacts altogether, according to the report, which was published this month.

Slow progress on addressing deforestation is worrying because two-thirds of rainforest clearance today is for land to produce commodities that are traded globally and end up in half the products in our supermarkets, said the report. 

2. Palm oil makes mixed progress

Indonesia—the world’s biggest producer of palm oil—continued to struggle to find the balance between its palm oil industry and conservation interests this year. A case in point is the government’s ongoing struggle to collect fines from PT Kallista Alama palm oil company convicted of damaging the environment. 

Two years ago, the firm was ordered to pay more than US$27 million for burning 1,000 hectares of landbut has yet to pay its debt. It is delaying proceedings further by suing the government in July with objections that the coordinates for its concession were wrong.

On the bright side, palm oil giants are making noteworthy progress on sustainability. 

Just last month, Singaporean agribusiness giant Wilmar International became the first palm oil company to work with a financier to convert part of its loan into a sustainability performance-linked one.

In another breakthrough, Singapore palm oil company Golden Agri-Resources developed seeds that could increase yield more than three times the industry average, are more resistant to disease and drought, have not been genetically modified and were grown under sterile conditions before being cloned.

Already been approved for commercial cultivation by Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture, they will be grown at scale through tissue culture over the next five years.

3. Tucking into plant-based foods and insects

As meat consumption remains one of the biggest drivers of rising greenhouse gas emissionsplant-based food is starting to gain mainstream popularity as a healthier, not to mention climate-friendly option.

Food-based research firm Technomic found this year that there is a growing trend  in the United States where three fifths of Americans eat at least one meatless meal a week, while two thirds of millenials eat plant-based meat only.

US meat substitute producer Beyond Meat launched this month its plant-based sausage, as part of its growing line of plant-based meat products in a bid to make meat without having to impact the environment.

In addition to plant-based food, the edible insect movement also gained considerable momentum this year. 

Early this year, the Swiss government allowed grocery stores to stock mealworms, locusts and crickets, as long as they are within food safety regulations.

A London-based social enterprise called Eat Grub has also been advocating insect-eating as it includes crickets, grasshoppers, buffalo worms and meal worms in its restaurant menu.

4. Progress towards zero food waste

With one-third of food produced for human consumption lost or wasted globally each year, FAO director general José Graziano da Silva made a global call for a renewed global commitment to zero tolerance for food loss and waste in a UN General Assembly last September. 

Aligned to this is FAO’s move in September to partner with consumer goods giant Unilever to tackle food loss and waste in order to achieve SDG 2: Zero Hunger. 

This collaboration includes five key goals: digital innovation, land governance, resilience building for smallholder farmers, climate change and food loss and waste.

Some companies around the world have also stepped up efforts to eliminate food waste.

US giants Kellogg Co and Wal-Mart Stores Inc vowed last September to simplify food expiration labels, which cause confusion, contributing to food waste.

Meanwhile, Swedish furniture giant Ikea launched in May a food waste management system in the cafeterias at some of its stores, a move that reduced nearly 80,000 pounds of food waste.

5. Farmers feeling the heat

As the impact of global warming on agriculture was felt in earnest by Asian countries this year, the UN agriculture agency in August called on Asia-Pacific countries to prepare for changes in shifting trade patterns that will benefit smallholder farmers who produce our food.

Northern China alone has been struggling through its worst drought in 60 years this year, with farmers the hardest hit as they have already lost an estimated US$1.2 billion.

Chinese authorities are contracting a canal that will move trillions of gallons of water from the rivers of China’s south to its dry north but water experts are skeptical the will be able to help farmers in remote regions such as far western Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia where the drought has hit the hardest.

Unlike Chinese farmers who remain on their land despite deteriorating conditions, Sri Lankan farmers, are migrating elsewhere, as they suffer their worst drought in 40 years.

India also bears the brunt of global warming as farmer suicide rates have been on the rise as 70 per cent of their 1.3 billion population is linked to agriculture for livelihood.


This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene over the last 12 months. 


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