They may not be household names but collectively global food companies Cargill, Tyson and Yara have a bigger climate footprint than the Netherlands, Vietnam or Columbia, according to a new analysis.
The startling revelation from the NGO Global Justice Now comes at a time when fossil fuel companies such as Shell and BP continue to dominate discussions about climate change. Far less attention has been paid to the agri-food sector, despite as much as 29% of global emissions being associated with food production.
At present food companies only report their direct emissions, which include their own energy use but often exclude the vast majority of indirect emissions from their supply chains.
US animal feed manufacturer Cargill, for example, declares its official annual emissions as 15m tonnes. If it included the emissions arising from growing feed crops and their use by livestock then its climate impact, according to Global Justice Now’s new findings, would be an estimated 145m tonnes.
Likewise, Tyson, the largest beef producer in the US, declares its emissions at 5m tonnes but does not include emissions related to the rearing of livestock. If it did its climate emissions would be 34m tonnes, suggests the analysis. The report found Yara, one of the world’s fertiliser producers, has a climate impact of nearly 75m tonnes, when emissions relating to the use of its fertilisers are taken into account, rather than the 12.5m tonnes that it declares.
The result is millions of tonnes of climate emissions that are otherwise being hidden from public knowledge. In the case of Cargill, its undeclared climate emissions of 130m tonnes are comparable to the combined national emissions of Denmark, Bulgaria and Sweden.
“They shouldn’t be able to indulge themselves in the fiction that they are not culpable for these indirect climate impacts,” says Alex Scrivener, policy officer at Global Justice Now and co-author of the analysis, who adds that Yara, Tyson and Cargill are just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to evaluating the climate emissions produced by agri-food companies.
Campaigners have been particularly critical of Yara and Tyson for their membership of a two different climate-smart agriculture initiatives – the Global Alliance on Climate Smart Agriculture and World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The term itself – climate-smart agriculture – has been accused of being almost meaningless.
“We now know the big oil and coal companies are creating environmental havoc, but agribusiness still gets away with painting itself as the ‘solution to climate change’ despite causing huge damage to the climate,” says Scrivener.
Food and drink companies found to be ignoring biggest impact on climate
To be taken seriously food companies need to move away from headline-grabbing projects that only focus on one part of their supply chain, says environmental non-profit CDP.
“We prefer big targets that cover the true scope of their operations and supply chain rather than niche projects they market the heck out of to give the impression they are doing more than they are,” says CDP’s head of supply chains Dexter Galvin. “They talk about getting their own house in order but most have outsourced their emissions to their supply chain.”
In response to the analysis, the companies say they are not ignoring their indirect emissions but that it is unlikely that they will start reporting on it soon.
Cargill says it is working to reduce emissions across its supply chains but that “measuring that progress in a quantifiable way is a separate challenge; admittedly, it’s something we – and many others – are still trying to figure out.”
Tyson says the farmers raising its livestock operate independently and, as such, it would be a difficult to report these emissions. Yara says it is helping to reduce emissions through sharing knowledge on more efficient farming techniques and supporting research to reduce emissions from fertiliser application.
“Obviously companies aren’t as responsible for indirect emissions as they are for direct emissions. But I think most people would recognise that, at the very least, companies need to be aware of the impact of their supply chain and end use of their products, and make this information public,” says Scrivener.
While the focus of the findings were on global agri-food businesses, Tara Garnett, coordinator of the food climate research network at Oxford University, says the responsibility for climate emissions lies across the food chain with consumers who eat the food and supermarkets who sell it, as well as manufacturers like Cargill and Tyson who produce it.
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