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From coffee to cosmetics, companies are looking for ways to protect the plants their products are made from

As crop varieties disappear, boosting biodiversity becomes smart business.

“The food system that we’ve built over the last century is a dead end for the future,” said Emmanuel Faber, CEO of French food and beverage corporation, Danone, at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September. He lambasted the current overreliance on technology and the fact that two-thirds of the global food supply depends on just nine kinds of plants. He then announced the One Planet Business for Biodiversity, a coalition of nearly 20 of the world’s largest food, beverage and personal care companies that together generate sales of US$500 billion across more than 120 countries and have pledged to build a more sustainable food system.

While they will focus on ways to rebuild soils and prevent deforestation, a third pillar — to “create a demand for a variety of crops, of species, of traditional seeds that are forgotten today and that are dying,” as Faber described it at the U.N. General Assembly — was arguably the most business-centric aim for companies that create products from plants.

Plant-based companies are all too aware that the number of plant species is declining. In June, researchers reported that at least 571 — and likely more — plant species have gone extinct in the past 250 years, a rate 500 times that naturally expected. A U.N. report predicts that up to 1 million plant and animal species could go extinct, many within decades. Deforestation, conversion of land to agriculture and overexploitation have taken a toll.

Climate change is poised to wreak further havoc on commodity crops. Citrus production in Florida has plummeted due to the dreaded huanglongbing, also known as citrus greening, disease. Increased drought is likely to reduce cocoa yields, particularly in Brazil, and may exacerbate pest outbreaks in coming years.

By 2050, climate change will halve the tropical areas in which existing coffee varieties can grow, currently in 70 different countries. As shrinking natural habitat decreases populations of pollinators and crop cousins, farmers age, and markets favor high-yielding varieties, vital diversity may be lost.

Yet crop diversity, including landraces and wild relatives, can serve as a vital source of climate resilience or pest resistance traits for crop breeders. Meanwhile, seed collections, especially those housed in resource-poor developing countries, strain to maintain funds.

As plant diversity continues to plummet, the US$8.7 trillion food and agricultural industry incurs significant risk — as well as lost opportunity. Faber’s comments acknowledge a long-overlooked facet of corporate sustainability: Shouldn’t companies help protect the plant diversity their businesses are built on? The biggest challenge is how.

With climate change, plants are struggling. When plants are struggling, the food industry will also struggle in the long run.

Marie Haga, executive director, Crop Trust

How to engage

The Crop Trust, a Bonn, Germany–based organisation that safeguards international crop diversity, is one place companies could look for an answer. Since 2006, the trust and partner organizations have developed 27 crop conservation strategies — including for apples, coffee, faba beans, wheat, coconuts and strawberries — to provide blueprints of the current and ideal conservation status of crop diversity collections.

The trust’s work has been funded overwhelmingly by governments, at 63.3 per cent; by contrast, corporations have donated 1.5 per cent. Foundations, including the nonprofit arms of some seed companies, have funded 6 per cent of the trust’s operations.

“In recent years, we have started to look to [the] food industry because it is dependent on crop diversity,” says Crop Trust executive director Marie Haga. “With climate change, plants are struggling. When plants are struggling, the food industry will also struggle in the long run.” Haga says the trust is delighted to see businesses stepping up to help secure crop biodiversity.

The food, beverage and personal care companies involved in One Planet Business for Biodiversity aren’t the only ones dipping a toe into plant conservation. In March, fragrance and flavor company Givaudan donated US$3.5 million to protect the University of California at Riverside (UCR)’s 1,000 different types of citrus from citrus greening disease. Meanwhile, Unilever funded a tea conservation strategy being developed by the Crop Trust. “We hope that they will inspire others to contribute as well,” says Haga. 

While companies increasingly express an interest in biodiversity conservation — particularly agrobiodiversity conservation — they are still trying to understand how to engage, says Michael Wironen, senior scientist for agriculture and food systems at The Nature Conservancy. Haga agrees. “The problem has been that there’s too big of a leap from seed to fork,” she says.

Facing a future crisis

Coffee is, in many ways, a poster child of an industry facing a future crisis. “If we don’t develop wide-ranging strategies and initiatives to fight [extreme weather events and pest outbreaks], millions of hectares of crops risk being lost in the space of a few decades and 25 million coffee growers risk losing their means of subsistence and being forced to migrate,” says Mario Cerutti, chief institutional relations and sustainability officer at Lavazza, an Italy-based coffee company that has been in business for over a century.

Most coffee is grown from two different species — arabica and robusta — but there are 122 other wild species that could provide much-needed climate resilience traits. Coffee’s already limited range of tropical growing region will likely dwindle, and 60 per cent of wild coffee species face extinction, which puts the crop at increased risk, explains Sarada Krishnan, director of horticulture and the Center for Global Initiatives at the Denver Botanic Garden and one of the authors of the Crop Trust’s coffee conservation strategy. Krishnan has owned coffee farms in Jamaica since 2010, which have weathered several extreme events. “If it’s not a hurricane, it’s a drought,” she says.

Yet, there is a disconnect between the numerous high-profile coffee roasters who depend on a sustainable coffee supply and the breeders who could turn crop diversity into new varieties able to, for example, withstand a drought or resist the latest pest outbreak.

“One of the challenges in coffee compared with other crops is that there are effectively no companies involved in breeding. In other crops, there are seed companies that drive breeding; those companies often care a lot about conserving genetic diversity,” explains Jennifer “Vern” Long, CEO of World Coffee Research, an agricultural research nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon. “In coffee, that doesn’t exist. So who would be the logical champion of a conservation strategy?” she asks.

Another hurdle is that it’s impossible to make the short-term business case for supporting crop conservation, says Haga. But if a business aims to be around for a long time, then it’s extremely relevant. “Any sensible person understands that Starbucks is nothing without coffee,” says Haga. And if many companies have the same long-term goals, it makes the most sense that they jointly safeguard the basis of their business, she adds.

When the Swiss pruning shear company FELCO approached the Crop Trust in search of a project to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its signature shears, it opted to donate US$50,000 to identify how best to upgrade the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Turrialba, Costa Rica. CATIE is home to 12,000 trees representing 11 coffee species — and the only international collection that is accessible to plant breeders. But the collection is at risk from a variety of threats, including aging trees and crumbling infrastructure.

“Coffee is one of most widely grown crops in world. Most people start the day with coffee, so we jumped at the chance to ensure the future of this collection,” says Stephan Kopietzki, FELCO sales and marketing director. He hopes that the initial investment from their small, 200-person company can make an impact — and help the coffee conservation strategy gain momentum.

Cerutti hopes the coffee industry will come together to protect coffee biodiversity. “My fear is that businesses have different ideas about frontline commitment and don’t always step up to the challenge,” he adds. Haga, too, remains hopeful that the coffee industry, which is estimated to be somewhere between a US$100 billion and a US$200 billion global industry, will find a way to help fund the full US$25 million Crop Trust coffee conservation strategy.

Companies respond to consumers

“These [types of] initiatives are a new evolution in the way companies are thinking. Historically, conservation has been about protecting land from conversion and deforestation,” says Wironen. Now, he adds, companies see that their activities will have material impact on biodiversity and want to understand what to do to manage that impact. Further, he says, companies respond to “consumers and a public deeply concerned about biodiversity.” 

The recently released 2019 U.N. Global Compact–Accenture study of 1,000 CEOs found that business leaders recognize they could — and should — be making a far greater contribution to achieving a sustainable global economy by 2030. While 94 per cent of the CEOs said sustainability is critical to their business’ future success, only 48 per cent said they are integrating sustainability into business operations.

“A lot of companies struggle to figure out how they can support biodiversity,” says Wironen. “The challenge is translating that willingness and interest to do something into tangible action that companies can take.” One option for companies that produce a large diversity of food products is to create demand for ecologically important crops that are at risk, undervalued or underutilised.

For Danone, a company that makes plant-based dairy alternatives and health drinks, incorporating greater biodiversity into products is a win-win. “Consumers want to explore; they want diversity,” says Chris Adamo, vice president of federal and industry affairs at Danone North America. “We have an opportunity to value new crops.”

Since 2007, Givaudan has partnered with Conservation International to preserve tonka beans in Venezuela — an extract of which is a key natural ingredient in many of their customers’ most popular and well-known fragrances. Similarly, Givaudan’s collaboration with UCR is essentially funding the care of a vested interest.

“The Givaudan–UCR collaboration has led to the discovery of new citrus ingredients and tastes that have never before been applied in flavor creation,” says Dawn Streich, global product manager for citrus at Givaudan. “Sustainability is everyone’s responsibility, and corporations are increasingly stepping up on this front.”

It’s still early, but perhaps not surprisingly the companies that are stepping up first have developed a case for why biodiversity conservation is important to their bottom line.

This story was written by Virginia Gewin and published with permission from Ensia.com

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