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Growing food in a resource scarce world, by Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever

Blog

The world is changing. And those changes bring with them new structural challenges. Rapid population growth, increasingly scarce resources, food lost or wasted and climate change are putting enormous pressure on agricultural productivity which is vital for food security and livelihoods.   No one will be immune from the effects of climate change. But it will be the poor – the majority of whom earn their living from the land – that are disproportionately affected. Agriculture and land use change account for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that 500 million small farms produce 80 per cent of the food consumed in emerging markets, therefore, action on climate is as much a development challenge.

We are at a cross roads. In 2015 governments will agree a new global development agenda, with the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in September and the Climate deal in December.  This is a unique opportunity to put in place the frameworks for sustainable growth that will benefit the planet and all of its people.

I see sustainable agriculture at the very heart of these efforts.

At Unilever, we are embracing these big systemic challenges, integrating them into our business model and trying to do things differently.

Unilever is among the largest purchasers of crops such as tea, palm oil and vegetables. Over half of our raw materials coming from farms or forests. We have a diverse supplier base from smallholder farmers to larger commercial operations. A food system under pressure will impact on our ability to access reliable, cost-effective, and consumer-preferred agricultural ingredients – ultimately, limiting our ability to compete and grow. We have already committed to source all our agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020 and are more than halfway towards this goal.

Of course, we can’t do this alone. We want to go further, working with others, to ensure all the major commodities on which we depend – notably palm oil, soy, paper and pulp, and tea – are produced sustainably for mainstream consumer markets.

The consumer goods sector, for example, is already at work on cleaning up our supply chains on the commodities that drive most tropical deforestation – which alone contributes the equivalent of the entire global transport sector to net emissions.  And tackling deforestation is not just a win for the climate, it is a win for human development too. Supporting smallholder farmers to improve their yields and therefore their livelihoods has huge potential to also protect forests, operating at the very nexus of climate and development. This can develop the resilience of smallholder farmer communities, making them economically stronger and more stable, and so help safeguard a secure supply chain for the future.

Yet neither can we wait for governments to act alone. Our voice, and our leadership, in persuading them to take decisive action on climate, development and therefore economic growth is paramount.

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate – on which I have the honour to serve as Commissioner – sets out a route map for world leaders as part of the Climate Deal. It comes as no surprise that they place their bet on the poorest farmer, as investing in agriculture has the potential to transform livelihoods. The Commission has shown that restoring just 12% of degraded agricultural land could boost smallholders’ incomes by US$35–40 billion per year and feed 200 million people per year within 15 years increasing resilience to weather shocks and reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially.

At the Business and Climate Summit in May and subsequent negotiations in Bonn last week – both milestones on the Road to Paris – we were reminded that whilst we need urgent political action on climate change, we can’t afford to leave it all to the politicians.

There are some specific things we can all do, easily, that will ensure our voice is heard and that we leverage our influence to the maximum on both of these agendas.

So, as businesses we need to create additional momentum and ambition on top of what our countries agree themselves. This will add further confidence to the global effort and to ensure that we tackle this challenge in the spirit of partnership. There are three things in particular that can be done:

  • Support the New York Declaration on Forests, committing to end deforestation in commodity supply chains by 2020 and go both broader and deeper in sustainable sourcing commitments, working in partnership with others.
  • Engage with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development – who are working with the French Government on the business contribution to COP21, in particular their Low Carbon Technology Partnership Initiatives that cover issues from deforestation to Climate Smart Agriculture. These initiatives seek to improve the incomes and climate resilience of smallholder farmers and climate mitigation.
  • Support transformational cross-sector initiatives like Grow Africa, which have already helped mobilise investment pledges of more than $10 billion by over 160 companies. And, within the supply chain, Unilever and Olam are helping smallholder cashew nut farmers in Ghana increase their income by adopting better agricultural practices, as well as gaining access to responsible sources of credit. This is the way forward. Smallholder development mustn’t stall.

Almost a billion people suffer food insecurity while we waste a third of the food produced, about 1.3 billion tonnes each year, and at the same time contributes to climate change. If food waste was a country it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases globally after the US and China. So, I call on business to contribute to the development of a Food Waste commitment co-ordinated by the Consumer Goods Forum and working with the World Resources Institute

And lastly, once the SDGs are adopted leverage the work of international business organisations like the UN Global Compact and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to implement the SDGs and assess your impacts.

As we determine the course of the next 15 years for sustainable development, we need to acknowledge that those most often living in extreme poverty are those living on small farms; they are also most disproportionately affected by climate change.  Regardless of what approaches we take, I see private sector leading the way.

There is a lot to do, but this is the year when it really matters; we might not get a second chance.  The world is counting on our support.

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