The top 5 food and agriculture stories in 2016

The good news: Companies and governments are committed to reducing the environmental impact of food production and consumption. The bad news: The climate may be changing too fast for crops to cope, and there are too few safe solutions.

farmer sprays pesticide
A farmer in China spreads pesticides on her crops. Image: IFPRI, CC BY-NC 2.0

Efforts by companies, policymakers, scientists and activists to make the global food and agriculture system more sustainable, equitable and climate resilient gained momentum this year.

From a flurry of new corporate alliances to encourage the use of certified sustainable palm oil and clean up agricultural supply chains to the agribusiness industry finally agreeing on a set definition of deforestation, there were encouraging signs that a sector that has traditionally been linked to environmental destruction and rights abuses could be cleaning up its act. 

However, many challenges remain. Some 240 million people this year lived in ‘food stress’ thanks to climate factors and conflict, with scientists issuing urgent warnings that crops were unable to cope with how fast the climate is changing. While genetically modifying organisms could offer some solutions to help the global food system adapt, concerns about safety, and tightening corporate control over GM technologies has left farmers, environmentalists, and consumers worried.  

Here are the top 5 food and agriculture stories from 2016. 

1. Defining deforestation

November brought with it greater clarity for the agribusiness sector on when it is acceptable to convert undeveloped land, and when it should be left intact because it is considered “high carbon stock”. 

This was because two competing groups that had for years been working on different definitions of high carbon stock landscape—which is unsuitable for development—finally agreed on a set of rules that will help companies differentiate between forest and non-forest areas, and ensure they stay on the right side of their “no deforestation” commitments. 

One approach, known as the High Carbon Stock Study, was backed, among others, by palm oil giants like Cargill, Musim Mas and consumer giant Unilever. The group agreed that land with 75 tonnes of carbon per hectare or more shouldn’t be cleared. 

Another, known as the HCS Approach, backed by environmental groups such as Greenpeace and The Forest Trust (TFT), declared that anything with more than 35 tonnes of carbon per hectare was off limits.  

Now, representatives from both factions have formed the HCS Convergence Working Group, and announced in November that they would launch a “single, coherent set of principles” for which they would issue a new implementation toolkit in early 2017. 

Greenpeace hailed the move as a “huge step forward for the palm oil sector and the environment” while TFT called it a “historic day for forests, communities, and for businesses”. 

2. Sustainable agribusiness alliances abound

This year saw some of the world’s biggest food growing, processing, and manufacturing companies band together to launch alliances for sustainable agribusiness, after last year’s haze crisis in Southeast Asia shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the sector’s environmental impact. 

First, there was the Singapore Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil, launched in July by the World Wide Fund for Nature. This aimed to connect retailers and manufacturers with producers of certified sustainable palm oil. The five founding members of the alliance are consumer goods giant Unilever, manufacturer Ayam Brand, food and beverage specialist Danone, home furnishing retailer IKEA, and Wildlife Reserves Singapore.

The Global Agri-Business Alliance, launched in September, is an international, CEO-led, private sector alliance committed to harnessing the collective strengths of the sector to tackle environmental, social and sustainability challenges to improve the resilience of farmers across the world. Its 36 members include agribusiness giants such as Olam, Golden Agri-Resources, Musim Mas, and Wilmar, among others.

Between them, the member companies of both alliances trade millions of tonnes of commodities such as palm oil, have supply chains that crisscross the globe, and operate in various international markets. Observers such as special advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General David Nabarro noted that the partnerships are “excellent news” for the Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 2 which seeks to end hunger by 2030.

3. Indonesia gets serious about deforestation 

A year after uncontrollable forest fires made Indonesia the world’s fourth largest carbon emitter in 2015; and caused its daily emissions in September and October to exceed those of the United States economy, the archipelagic nation spent 2016 unveiling measure after measure to neutralise one of the biggest sources of emissions globally.

In January, Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo set up the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), which has been tasked with protecting the country’s peatlands, and restoring 2 million hectares of the most severely damaged peat by 2020. 

A month later, the government of Norway offered US$50 million in support to BRG. In March, the government offered US$1 million in prize money for the best way to map the country’s peat landscape. 

In April, Jokowi declared a five-year moratorium on new licenses for oil palm plantations and mining activity; this was followed by a decision by the Environment and Forestry Ministry in May to reject all outstanding permits to grow oil palm in areas classified as forest. 

Because of these efforts, as well as the fact that last year’s unusually hot and dry weather brought about by the El Nino weather phenomenon was replaced by an unusually wet summer thanks to the La Nina circulation, Indonesia’s haze was much less severe this year. By August, for example, only 401 hotspots were recorded in Sumatra this year, compared to 7,188 in 2015.  

Jokowi closed out the year by enshrining the peat moratorium into law, a move that was welcomed by some observers such as the Norwegian government, but left others concerned that the law did not go far enough to protect ecologically fragile peat domes.

4. Too hot for crops to handle 

Expected to be the hottest year on record, 2016 saw the global food system come under more stress than ever, as soaring temperatures and carbon dioxide levels saw the productivity and nutritional value of crops decline worldwide.  

While short-term projections by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for wheat and rice harvests looked positive, a May report by the FAO and Joint Research Centre in May revealed that 240 million people lived in food stress this year thanks to drought and armed conflict; about 80 million were in a state of “acute food crisis”.

An El Nino-induced drought left 1 million in Vietnam in urgent need of food assistance in June; while floods threatened the food security of some 21 million people in Sri Lanka in August. 

Scientists in October also warned that essential food crops such as wheat, rice, and corn were not adapting fast enough to a warming planet. In addition to rising temperatures, researchers in June also found that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were resulting in less nutritious crops, with lower levels of zinc, magnesium, calcium, and other minerals. 

It wasn’t just food on land that was threatened by climate change; scientists also found that rising temperatures, combined with overfishing, would lead to decreased catches in the world’s fisheries.  

5. Genetically engineered food: Good, bad, ugly

Controversy around genetically modified (GM) crops raged on this year, with Chinese agrochemical giant Chechen making a US$43 billion bid to acquire Swiss firm Syngenta in February. The deal, which would be the largest ever foreign acquisition by a Chinese company, has environmentalists concerned because it represents a further concentration of power in the food system.  

A series of open letters penned to US and Chinese authorities warned that the takeover would transfer patented seed and agrochemical technologies into Chinese hands, and have negative impacts on Chinese farmers and consumers.  

Though the deal looks set to miss its 2016 deadline due to regulatory hurdles, Syngenta in an October statement said that “ChemChina and Syngenta remain fully committed to the transaction and are confident of its closure.” 

Concerns over China’s ability to ensure a safe GM ecosystem were further validated when a Greenpeace investigation in January found that farmers in northeast China were growing GM corn illegally—the Chinese government has not yet approved commercial GM cultivation.  

The campaigning group also clashed with more than 100 Nobel Laureates in June over its anti-GM campaigns. The laureates, in an open letter, urged Greenpeace to “abandon their campaign against GMOs in general, and Golden Rice in particular”. This a genetically modified rice variety that its developers say can reduce vitamin A deficiencies in poor countries.

Greenpeace quickly rebutted this, saying that corporations were seeking Golden Rice approval as a way to fast-track the entry of other GM crops into the market, and arguing that a more diverse diet, equitable access to food and eco-agriculture was a better solution to food insecurity and hunger than Golden Rice.

Meanwhile, scientists around the world continued to echo the potential of GM crops to help solve food security issues as climate change threatens crop yields. In April, a study by researchers from the University of Illinois in the US unveiled an enzyme that can help plants photosynthesize more efficiently in higher temperatures and carbon concentrations; while papers published in Nature journal later in the year showed similar results

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

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