Earth Day 2020: A time to reimagine a sustainable future


    The first World Earth Day 50 years ago saw 20 million people protesting in cities around the world; launching the modern environmental movement. Today, it comes during a pandemic that has thrown the global economy into disarray, but in our ‘covid-ised’ state should remind us that greater threats to the planet – climate change and the global biodiversity crisis – have not gone away. This is surely time to reassess our priorities for the post-Covid world.

    COVID-19 lockdowns around the world have already had a huge human cost, but they have also had an immediate and visible environmental impact, clearing the air and water in places that were experiencing chronic pollution from industrial activity and dirty vehicles, and allowing wild creatures to roam in places once bustling with human activity. The crisis has virtually grounded the global fleet of commercial passenger planes, which contribute 3-4% of global warming effects, and there will be a noticeable blip in the global GHG emissions whilst the crisis lasts.

    But this brief break for our planet is just that — temporary. The pandemic is a life-changing experience for all of us as individuals, but small beans for humankind’s impact on the planet. The single biggest global challenge we all face is the climate crisis, which operates on a timescale of years and decades, and a few months of reduced activity won’t noticeably ‘flatten the curve’ of unsustainable greenhouse gas emissions post-Covid.

    Many scientists are saying the virus is a “warning shot” of the human cost of placing too many pressures on the natural world. Certainly, the parallels that can be drawn between the two disasters - the global impact, the deadly implications of delay, and vulnerable populations being hardest hit – should focus our attention on what’s at stake if we ignore the climate wake-up call.

    So at a time when a lot of human activity for the most part has either stopped or slowed down around the world, let’s use this virtual Earth Day to reimagine our impact on the planet and each other. Anyone living under lockdown will have become more aware of nature at this time; without the constant thrum of noise in our daily environments, we can tune in to the morning birdsong and seek solace in our gardens or local parks. The surprisingly rapid return of wild animals to our vacated human playgrounds should inspire us to remember than nature can heal itself, if given a chance – we need to create these opportunities to share our planet, before we push many more species to the point of extinction, from which there is no recovery.

    On a darker note, the COVID crisis paints our current global food systems in stark light. The UN warned only today that, on top of the desperate state of health services in the least developed countries, many millions of the world’s poorest people may suffer starvation if the economic situation continues to deteriorate – most seriously impacting the poorest farmers and rural communities left behind by our globalised food economy. How many of us, when we’re queuing outside the supermarket or online for a delivery slot, have given a second thought to where our food on these shelves comes from? Now more than ever consumers should be pushing companies in the food sector to take real action to safeguard the resilience of supply chains, not just to the shocks of pandemics, but the relentless effects of rural poverty, unsustainable land use change and the climate crisis.

    But first companies need to better understand how these effects are interconnected, which requires a deep understanding of food value chains all the way from the farm to the consumer. Olam has focused relentlessly on understanding the impact of food production in the places where we work, and our core purpose to re-imagine and rebalance global agricultural and food systems so that farmers can prosper in thriving communities, whilst re-generating the living world – the soils, water, natural habitats and species – creating the living landscapes on which we and our children all depend.

    This is where AtSource plays a key role, by allowing our customers to track the environmental footprint – broken down into carbon, waste, water and 33 other indicators, as well as the social and economic metrics that matter – for all their ingredients and raw materials, from the farms, right up to their door, and to choose where and how to make a positive impact.

    This insight means, a buyer supplying a café in the US can find out how the coffee beans it sources from Mexico is affecting water and land use, and can even calculate the emissions from the entire production process and its impact on climate change. The insight also shapes our sustainability programmes to affect change at a landscape level. So in Mexico, we’re working in partnership with USAID and Rainforest Alliance to reforest 4,000 hectares to enhance the connection between biosphere reserves in Chiapas, whilst supplying struggling coffee farmers with blight-resistant coffee seedlings to achieve dramatically higher yields and incomes from their existing land.

    Ultimately, if all the world’s companies, governments and experts are capable of rallying behind a multi trillion-dollar effort to tackle a health crisis within a few weeks, we should all be wondering why we cannot mobilise a proportionate effort to halt the collapse of natural ecosystems, and create sustainable food systems that can pay farmers and rural communities enough to feed their families and act as the natural stewards of the land.

    So as the virologists work around the clock to create a vaccine, let’s apply the same scale and urgency to build societies and a planet that is resilient to emergencies of all kinds.

    As part of the Alliance for Sustainable Landscapes & Markets, Olam is working to conserve biodiversity and provide sustainable livelihoods in the biological corridor of Chiapas, Mexico.


    Dr Christopher Stewart Global Head of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Olam International

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