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The top 5 food and agriculture stories in 2014

Year in Review: Climate change continued to pose a threat to food security, but companies and governments rallied to make progress towards a secure and sustainable global food system. Here's a look at the ups and downs of the food and agriculture industry in 2014.

Feeding a growing global population in a sustainable manner remained a key challenge in 2014, with climate change continuing to threaten crop yields in many parts of the world. But the year also saw efforts by  players all along the supply chain to boost food security while minimising the industry’s adverse impact on the environment.

Top-level guidelines on sustainable food and agriculture practices issued by the United Nations Global Compact set the tone for the industry at large, while various commitments from palm oil companies to stop deforestation pointed to more sustainable trends in global agriculture. New urban farming innovations, led by hi-tech electronic companies, gave the world a glimpse into a future where fast-growing fresh vegetables, cultivated in cities, could help ensure affordable and safe food for a burgeoning population.

Here’s our pick of the top 5 developments this year: 

1. Zero-deforestation commitments from world’s largest companies

Global cosmetics firm L’Oreal in February pledged to end all deforestation from its supply chains by 2020. The company committed to ensuring that all the palm oil, soya oil and wood fibre-based products in its supply chain were sustainably sourced, marking a key step in the global effort to break the link between industrial agriculture and deforestation. Other consumer-facing companies that made similar pledges this year are Japan-based Kao Corporation, Procter and Gamble, and doughnut companies Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Forest protection campaigners also celebrated commitments by palm oil companies to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. After facing heavy criticism for links to palm oil grown in Indonesia’s fragile and biodiverse Leuser Ecosystem, Singapore’s Musim Mas released a sustainability policy in December pledging to eliminate deforestation, peatlands conversion, and social conflict from its palm oil supply chain.

Dutch edible oil giant IOI Loders Croklaan, American food giant Cargill, and Singapore-listed Golden Agri Resources were among the firms who this year committed to ensuring that all the palm oil they traded, including from third-party suppliers, would not be from illegally deforested land. These company pledges followed similar zero-deforestation commitments made by palm oil traders Wilmar and Asia Pulp and Paper last year.

2. Governments take strong legal action 

In addition to bottom-up commitments by palm oil and consumer product companies, governments around the world also introduced laws that would help break the link between agricultural expansion and deforestation.

In August, Singapore’s government passed a new bill on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which would impose fines of up to S$2 million on companies found to be responsible for contributing to haze pollution in Singapore, whether or not these businesses had a presence in Singapore.

A month later, Indonesia also ratified a regional treaty on haze, a move that will legally require the country to work with its neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) bloc to prevent, monitor, and mitigate the haze. Indonesia’s ratification of the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution comes 12 years after the document was first signed. The country had been under renewed pressure to formally commit to regional cooperation on haze after a severe haze crisis, caused largely by forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, swept Southeast Asia in mid-2013. This was hailed as a ‘timely move’ by Singapore.

A new food labelling law passed in Europe in December, which requires ingredients such as palm oil to be clearly indicated on ingredient lists, is also an important step towards a sustainable global palm oil industry. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil reported that the transparent labelling laws led to an increased sale of certified sustainable palm oil this year.

3. Climate change threatens food security worldwide

The increasing frequency and intensity of droughts, floods, and rising sea levels compromised crop yields all over the world, underscoring the looming threat to food security posed by climate change. A report released in December showed that in Bangladesh, rising sea levels caused groundwater and soils in coastal areas to become too saline for even salt-tolerant varieties of rice to thrive.  In Australia, a blistering heatwave in January, which brought temperatures close to 50 degrees Celsius, caused concerns about the country’s wheat and sugar crop, and cattle populations.

In addition to changes in water levels and temperature, climate change was also linked to the spread of crop diseases such as leaf rust, which compromised coffee production in Latin America, threatening the livelihoods of farmers and driving up the price of Arabica beans in global markets. Cocoa yields in Cameroon took a similar hit due to persistent rains during the harvesting season, forcing local farmers to accept lower prices for their beans.

Such pressures on food security were compounded by a rapidly growing world population and soil degradation due to over-cultivation and deforestation, prompting experts to call for urgent improvements to food production and consumption practices.  

4. New sustainability guidelines for food and agriculture industry

In a bid to help food and agricultural businesses operate in a more sustainable manner, the United Nations Global Compact in May announced a set of six voluntary principles to guide the industry towards better operations, more collaboration, and more consistent sustainability reporting. This set of principles, the first of its kind for the industry, included waste minimization, maintaining livestock, fisheries and forests responsibly, and respecting the human rights of farmers and workers.

5. The rise of hi-tech food farms

Electronics manufacturers such as Panasonic, Toshiba, and Fujitsu recently expanded their businesses to include hi-tech vertical farms which produce vegetables such as lettuce, radish, spinach and sprouts. Panasonic set up a farm in Singapore in August which uses special LED lights to cultivate vegetables in as little as 35 days, a move that meets the government’s food security goals. Toshiba also started cultivating greens like spinach, lettuce and greens in a factory in Japan earlier this year.

These initiatives by electronics companies, along with innovative urban farming projects from around the world, are expected to increase access to locally grown food, yield more energy and resource efficient farming methods, and allow food to be grown faster than conventional farming, outcomes which are likely to make valuable contributions to global food security efforts.

This story is the first in our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene in each of our 11 categories.

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