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In semi-arid Africa, farmers are transforming the ‘underground forest’ into life-giving trees

This article was originally published on Ensia.Around the world, nearly 5 billion acres of land — an area larger than Russia — are degraded. Degradation can take many forms: clearing of forests; soil erosion; or the decline of nutrients in the soil, all of which result in less productive land. The loss …

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Sodexo doubles down on food recovery as clients shut doors amid pandemic

When the University of Massachusetts Boston decided to move classes online for the rest of the semester, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school’s dining service had roughly one to two pallets of fresh produce and dairy products on its hands. That food could go to waste, or it …

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Trend: Nutrient diversity goes beyond meatless meat

The following is adapted from State of Green Business 2020, published by GreenBiz in partnership with Trucost, part of financial information and analytics giant S&P Global.The alternative protein market is beefing up. That’s because it’s not just beef anymore.Imagine: Pigless pork. Chickenless chicken. Eggless eggs. Fishless …

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How Main Street Project creates healthier farms and stable economics for farmers

Food Fix book coverExcerpted from “Food Fix,” copyright 2019 by Mark Hyman M.D. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York.  All rights reserved.

In a room full of cowboy hats, Regi Haslett-Marroquin cuts a contrasting figure. As the native Guatemalan takes the stage to address the hundreds of farmers and ranchers who have gathered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the 2018 Regenerate conference, his humble brilliance electrifies the room. “We are not food producers,” he says, softly smiling at his paradoxical challenge. “We are energy managers.”

Regi is one of the architects of the Main Street Project (MSP), a poultry-centered regenerative agroforestry system that aims to equip farmers to solve our nation’s food crisis. It’s not enough to just blame Big Ag, he says; we need to create new ways of thinking and doing when it comes to food production.

MSP starts with a regenerative farming model that is built not on a nearsighted drive toward maximum profit, but on a triple bottom line. Agriculture must be ecologically, economically and socially viable.

Regi says their methods are informed by indigenous knowledge, supplemented by farmers’ own experiential learning and validated by scientific testing. When he tells the story of chicken, he speaks of their origin as jungle fowl, living under the canopies of forests. This origin is a long way from the cages of today’s factory farms. Regi and MSP are designing a system that mimics this origin by raising chickens in food forests that produce the food sources that the chickens eat. MSP’s free-range poultry are raised in paddocks planted with a “stacking function” combination. This type of farming is called “silvopasture,” or raising animals in forests or trees. Hazelnut trees provide shade, food for the chickens and an additional source of income from selling the nuts. And the trees protect the chickens from aerial predators such as hawks. Cover crops like legumes, along with the manure from the chickens, help to put nitrogen into the soil. A variety of grains grown on-site provide more chicken feed, which reduces the amount of money farmers have to spend on outside feed sources. The chickens also eat tons of insects. The farm is built as a living ecosystem, and Regi jokes that it’s easier to work with nature rather than fight it.

With their quick growth, chickens, whether for meat or eggs, provide a positive revenue stream at a low cost of entry. Think of this type of farming as a mutual fund versus an individual stock. There are multiple crops, livestock, and multiple streams of revenue, creating a healthier farm and more stable economics for the farmers. Chickens are at the center of MSP’s system because they work so well with the crops, farmers, and environment. They are a “one-stop weed-eating, bug-killing, soil-enhancing replacement for the counter-productive synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers destroying conventional farms and their communities.” This type of agriculture diversified, intensive, integrating animals, trees, and plants in a natural ecological restorative cycle is resilient and low impact, protects and builds soils, conserves water, and draws down carbon from the atmosphere, all while producing healthy, nutrient-dense food.

This is quite a contrast to the factory-farmed horror that is the majority of American chicken production: massive buildings where thousands of chickens are crammed into cages, are fed imported grain and antibiotics, and pollute the environment. Tyson Foods dumped 104 million pounds of pollutants into waterways, more than Exxon, and is the second-biggest industrial polluter after Big Steel. Which chicken would you prefer to feed your family? The antibiotic- and arsenic-laced industrial chickens? Eggs that are pale yellow, devoid of nutrients? Or forest- and bug-fed chickens, and eggs with deep orange yolks dense in phytochemicals and nutrients?

MSP helps farmers incubate their own enterprises with a goal of developing regional food systems. They are building a poultry-production system that can also help immigrant communities move from laboring in an exploitative system to owning a small business. At the same time, the community benefits from the increased access to local, healthy food and the economic boost of thriving local markets. After years proving their concept, MSP is expanding from their central farm into a regional cluster of farms in southeast Minnesota. Their blueprint is also being applied to partner farms in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and South Dakota. Everybody wins when the goal is regenerating human and environmental health rather than simply extracting a profit at any cost. If the true costs of food production were included in the price, these methods would provide much cheaper food.

Regi’s story is one thread in an expanding tapestry of regenerative agricultural innovation that is occurring across the world. Efforts are underway to convert millions of acres of land to these types of integrated regenerative farms and ranches. While this innovation has developed on the margins, it’s making its way to the mainstream. General Mills, one of the nation’s largest food companies, has pledged to “advance regenerative agricultural practices” on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. That’s a huge step in the right direction. Other companies such as Danone and Nestlé are also committing to shift their supply chain to regenerative agriculture. Purdue Farms has also responded to consumer demand by removing all antibiotics from their chicken farms, and shifting toward more organic, regenerative and pasture-raised animal farming.

Source: GreenBiz.com
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How Main Street Project creates healthier farms and stable economics for farmers

Food Fix book coverExcerpted from “Food Fix,” copyright 2019 by Mark Hyman M.D. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York.  All rights reserved.

In a room full of cowboy hats, Regi Haslett-Marroquin cuts a contrasting figure. As the native Guatemalan takes the stage to address the hundreds of farmers and ranchers who have gathered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the 2018 Regenerate conference, his humble brilliance electrifies the room. “We are not food producers,” he says, softly smiling at his paradoxical challenge. “We are energy managers.”

Regi is one of the architects of the Main Street Project (MSP), a poultry-centered regenerative agroforestry system that aims to equip farmers to solve our nation’s food crisis. It’s not enough to just blame Big Ag, he says; we need to create new ways of thinking and doing when it comes to food production.

MSP starts with a regenerative farming model that is built not on a nearsighted drive toward maximum profit, but on a triple bottom line. Agriculture must be ecologically, economically and socially viable.

Regi says their methods are informed by indigenous knowledge, supplemented by farmers’ own experiential learning and validated by scientific testing. When he tells the story of chicken, he speaks of their origin as jungle fowl, living under the canopies of forests. This origin is a long way from the cages of today’s factory farms. Regi and MSP are designing a system that mimics this origin by raising chickens in food forests that produce the food sources that the chickens eat. MSP’s free-range poultry are raised in paddocks planted with a “stacking function” combination. This type of farming is called “silvopasture,” or raising animals in forests or trees. Hazelnut trees provide shade, food for the chickens and an additional source of income from selling the nuts. And the trees protect the chickens from aerial predators such as hawks. Cover crops like legumes, along with the manure from the chickens, help to put nitrogen into the soil. A variety of grains grown on-site provide more chicken feed, which reduces the amount of money farmers have to spend on outside feed sources. The chickens also eat tons of insects. The farm is built as a living ecosystem, and Regi jokes that it’s easier to work with nature rather than fight it.

With their quick growth, chickens, whether for meat or eggs, provide a positive revenue stream at a low cost of entry. Think of this type of farming as a mutual fund versus an individual stock. There are multiple crops, livestock, and multiple streams of revenue, creating a healthier farm and more stable economics for the farmers. Chickens are at the center of MSP’s system because they work so well with the crops, farmers, and environment. They are a “one-stop weed-eating, bug-killing, soil-enhancing replacement for the counter-productive synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers destroying conventional farms and their communities.” This type of agriculture diversified, intensive, integrating animals, trees, and plants in a natural ecological restorative cycle is resilient and low impact, protects and builds soils, conserves water, and draws down carbon from the atmosphere, all while producing healthy, nutrient-dense food.

This is quite a contrast to the factory-farmed horror that is the majority of American chicken production: massive buildings where thousands of chickens are crammed into cages, are fed imported grain and antibiotics, and pollute the environment. Tyson Foods dumped 104 million pounds of pollutants into waterways, more than Exxon, and is the second-biggest industrial polluter after Big Steel. Which chicken would you prefer to feed your family? The antibiotic- and arsenic-laced industrial chickens? Eggs that are pale yellow, devoid of nutrients? Or forest- and bug-fed chickens, and eggs with deep orange yolks dense in phytochemicals and nutrients?

MSP helps farmers incubate their own enterprises with a goal of developing regional food systems. They are building a poultry-production system that can also help immigrant communities move from laboring in an exploitative system to owning a small business. At the same time, the community benefits from the increased access to local, healthy food and the economic boost of thriving local markets. After years proving their concept, MSP is expanding from their central farm into a regional cluster of farms in southeast Minnesota. Their blueprint is also being applied to partner farms in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and South Dakota. Everybody wins when the goal is regenerating human and environmental health rather than simply extracting a profit at any cost. If the true costs of food production were included in the price, these methods would provide much cheaper food.

Regi’s story is one thread in an expanding tapestry of regenerative agricultural innovation that is occurring across the world. Efforts are underway to convert millions of acres of land to these types of integrated regenerative farms and ranches. While this innovation has developed on the margins, it’s making its way to the mainstream. General Mills, one of the nation’s largest food companies, has pledged to “advance regenerative agricultural practices” on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. That’s a huge step in the right direction. Other companies such as Danone and Nestlé are also committing to shift their supply chain to regenerative agriculture. Purdue Farms has also responded to consumer demand by removing all antibiotics from their chicken farms, and shifting toward more organic, regenerative and pasture-raised animal farming.

Source: GreenBiz.com
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Episode 208: Humanizing supply chains, from food waste to household cleanser

Week in Review

Commentary on this week’s news highlights begins at 6:28.

  1. 6 ways companies can be a force for good in their supply chains
  2. General Mills, Danone dig deeper into regenerative agriculture with incentives, funding
  3. This company is turning food waste into a cleaning spray

Features

Why Portland General Electric Electric welcomes electric vehicles (20:32)

For one thing, it could make for a stronger, more dynamic grid. Highlights from GreenBiz Senior Writer Katie Fehrenbacher’s recent interview with Maria Pope, chief executive of Oregon utility Portland General Electric.

*Music in this episode by Lee Rosevere: “Here’s the Thing,” “Arcade Montage” and “As I Was Saying”

What’s new at GreenBiz?

What it will take to fix recycling. The role brands should play in reinvigorating consumer recycling is a matter of fierce debate. In this interactive webcast at 1 p.m. EST Feb. 25, our subject matter experts will investigate what companies doing and lessons learned along the way.

The State of Green Business 2020. Our 13th annual analysis of key metrics and trends for the year ahead published here.

Do we have a newsletter for you! We produce five weekly newsletters: GreenBuzz by Executive Editor Joel Makower (Monday), Transport Weekly by Senior Writer and Analyst Katie Fehrenbacher (Tuesday), VERGE Weekly by Executive Director Shana Rappaport and Editorial Director Heather Clancy (Wednesday), Energy Weekly by Senior Energy Analyst Sarah Golden (Thursday) and Circular Weekly by Director and Senior Analyst Lauren Phipps (Friday). You must subscribe to each newsletter in order to receive it. Please visit this page to choose the newsletters you want to receive.

The GreenBiz Intelligence Panel is the survey body we poll regularly throughout the year on key trends and developments in sustainability. To become part of the panel, click here. Enrolling is free and should take two minutes.

Stay connected

To make sure you don’t miss the newest episodes of GreenBiz 350, subscribe on iTunes. Have a question or suggestion for a future segment? E-mail us at [email protected].

Source: GreenBiz.com
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Episode 208: Humanizing supply chains, from food waste to household cleanser

Week in Review

Commentary on this week’s news highlights begins at 6:28.

  1. 6 ways companies can be a force for good in their supply chains
  2. General Mills, Danone dig deeper into regenerative agriculture with incentives, funding
  3. This company is turning food waste into a cleaning spray

Features

Why Portland General Electric Electric welcomes electric vehicles (20:32)

For one thing, it could make for a stronger, more dynamic grid. Highlights from GreenBiz Senior Writer Katie Fehrenbacher’s recent interview with Maria Pope, chief executive of Oregon utility Portland General Electric.

*Music in this episode by Lee Rosevere: “Here’s the Thing,” “Arcade Montage” and “As I Was Saying”

What’s new at GreenBiz?

What it will take to fix recycling. The role brands should play in reinvigorating consumer recycling is a matter of fierce debate. In this interactive webcast at 1 p.m. EST Feb. 25, our subject matter experts will investigate what companies doing and lessons learned along the way.

The State of Green Business 2020. Our 13th annual analysis of key metrics and trends for the year ahead published here.

Do we have a newsletter for you! We produce five weekly newsletters: GreenBuzz by Executive Editor Joel Makower (Monday), Transport Weekly by Senior Writer and Analyst Katie Fehrenbacher (Tuesday), VERGE Weekly by Executive Director Shana Rappaport and Editorial Director Heather Clancy (Wednesday), Energy Weekly by Senior Energy Analyst Sarah Golden (Thursday) and Circular Weekly by Director and Senior Analyst Lauren Phipps (Friday). You must subscribe to each newsletter in order to receive it. Please visit this page to choose the newsletters you want to receive.

The GreenBiz Intelligence Panel is the survey body we poll regularly throughout the year on key trends and developments in sustainability. To become part of the panel, click here. Enrolling is free and should take two minutes.

Stay connected

To make sure you don’t miss the newest episodes of GreenBiz 350, subscribe on iTunes. Have a question or suggestion for a future segment? E-mail us at [email protected].

Source: GreenBiz.com
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The premiere of the GreenBiz weekly newsletter about sustainable food systems

Hello and welcome to Food Weekly. I’m Jim Giles, senior analyst for carbon and food systems here at GreenBiz. Thanks for signing up. (If this was forwarded to you, sign up here to receive your own free subscription.)

We’re launching Food Weekly because we’re in a crisis that is also an opportunity. The crisis is that we’ve built an unsustainable food system that is degrading soils, polluting waterways and damaging our climate. It’s a system that somehow manages to waste literal mountains of food while simultaneously leaving hundreds of millions of people hungry or malnourished. 

And the opportunity? Over the past few years, as the scale of the problem has become clear, more sustainable solutions have emerged for profitably producing and distributing food. If we can scale these solutions, we will create a new kind of food system — one that can feed a growing global population, protect biodiversity and help roll back climate change.

I’m going to track the progress of these solutions here at Food Weekly. Sometimes that’s going to mean shining a light on unsustainable ways of working. Other times it will involve something that the mainstream media is bad at: celebrating success. Over the past year, for example, I’ve been buoyed by news about peak pasture and a pledge by General Mills to move 1 million acres of farmland over to regenerative agriculture by 2030. 

Commitments like that can seem insignificant given the scale of the challenge. Take climate change. According to the World Resources Institute, worldwide greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land use need to be limited to 4 gigatons (Gt) per year by 2050 (PDF) if global temperatures are to rise by no more than 2 degrees Celsius. Yet the sector’s annual emissions are on course to hit 15 Gt by the same date.

The WRI analysis, however, also presents a menu of steps for holding emissions to that lower figure. There are 22 of them, all of which need attention from executives, entrepreneurs, activists and policymakers. Some are already attracting investment. Plant-based meat startups raised more than half a billion dollars in 2018, for instance. Other areas, like regenerative agriculture, are poised for significant growth.

So, yes, the challenge is daunting. But I suspect that when we look back to this moment 10 or 20 years from now, we’ll realize that we also had an unusual opportunity to act. 

I hope you’ll join me as I track the transition of our food system. I’d love to know — starting now — about the ideas, people, companies and technologies that we should be writing about. I’m also interested in your ideas about what we should feature at VERGE Food, our new conference on sustainable food systems, which will take place Oct. 27-29 in San Jose, California, as part of the larger VERGE conference and expo.

Here are a few nuggets of news and analysis that caught my attention this week:

I look forward to hearing your stories, questions, feedback, rants and tips. Please email me at [email protected]

Source: GreenBiz.com
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How climate change has altered cocoa farming in Ivory Coast

This is an excerpt from “Rainforest: Dispatches From Earth’s Most Vital Frontlines” by Tony Juniper. Copyright 2019 by Tony Juniper. Reproduced here with permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Conservation of the rainforests is far more likely to succeed when smallholders are empowered to do sustainable farming.

The large-scale loss of tropical rainforest can have dire impacts for local farmers — including the hundreds of millions of smallholders who, despite their poverty, produce more than half of the world’s food calories. This was brought home to me in 2016, when I visited Ivory Coast and traveled to the village of Asabliko, about 20 kilometers down a dusty mud track from Méagui. I had gone there to speak with farmers who, as well as food crops, produced the country’s biggest export commodity, cocoa. Tens of thousands of Ivory Coast farmers are employed in cocoa production and the country as a whole produces some 1.65 million tonnes per year — about a third of global supply.

Asabliko was surrounded by little plantations of cocoa trees, as was the rest of the landscape for miles around. The squat trees, cultivated to about 5 meters tall, were tended by farmers with just a couple of hectares each. The big pods bearing cocoa beans don’t grow on twigs like most other fruits on trees, but directly from the trunks and large branches. As we walked between the trees one of the farmers explained that when the pods turn yellow they are ready for harvest and that each yields about 40 beans, enough to make 50 grams of dark chocolate. Between the village huts, grass mats lay all about in the hot midday sun, covered with the reddish-brown beans being dried ready for bagging and shipping. Meantime, smoldering heaps of pods were being converted into charcoal to cook with.

As Ivory Coast’s population grew, so demand for land upon which to produce this vital cash crop intensified. Asabliko lay about 5 kilometers from the border of the Tai Forest National Park and the community is one of several hundred that will determine whether that last large area of intact rainforest will survive. Cocoa trees are tropical rainforest plants and their natural habitat is in the understory beneath a canopy of taller trees. Planting in the last areas of rainforest was thus quite an attractive prospect for land-hungry farmers.

Today cocoa is grown right around the world in the wet tropical regions close to the equator, with conditions in the rainforest belt of West Africa being particularly suitable — at least until quite recently. For over the past couple of decades the climate has been changing, with hot, bone-dry winds coming from the Sahara, unlike those which normally came from the sea bringing rains that are recycled back into the atmosphere by the dense coastal rainforests. This is not good for cocoa production.

I sat beneath the shade of a small wooden communal building with a group of 20 farmers. Coucals, hornbills and weaver birds chirped, cooed and chinked from nearby scrubby forest and big shady trees in the village. But the sense of rural tranquility was lost as soon as the farmers told me their stories. The area had been hit by drought of unprecedented severity and the soil fertility had seriously declined. Yields had been poor and had been hampered, one of the farmers added, by varieties of cocoa trees that were susceptible to disease. The farmers were all in agreement, though, that the main problem was the erratic rainfall. For the first time it hadn’t rained for four months. No one had seen that before, including the village chief, who was by far the oldest person there. Not only had this hit the cocoa harvest, but also the food the people grew to eat in their gardens around the village.

The farmers lived in a highly vulnerable situation. There was no river nearby from which to draw water for irrigation, and even if there was there wouldn’t be money to build the canals and pumps needed to harness it. Like hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers across the tropics, and especially in Africa, they relied on rain. The more erratic that became, as it was becoming across so much of the continent, the more precarious became their position.

I asked why they thought it had become so dry and they answered almost as one: “Because the forests have been cut down.” They knew, too, that it was the expansion of farming that had caused the deforestation. I asked what could be done.

“Plant more trees,” came one reply; “put the forests back,” added another. The farmers said that if they didn’t see improvements they wouldn’t be able to make a living and they’d have to leave, to seek work in Abidjan and other cities. Some of the younger ones might be tempted to head north and risk the journey across the Sahara toward Libya and from there to Europe across the Mediterranean.

One of the cocoa growers, Amani Kwasi Unzui, a man in his mid-50s, told me that he’d been in the cocoa business for 39 years. He said that he could once make a reasonable living, but now it was a real struggle. He had an unusually large holding, a third of a square kilometer of cocoa trees, but even with such a comparatively large farm he’d struggled to survive. He explained that when he’d started out as a cocoa farmer there was much more forest and it often rained three times a day. No longer. I asked why the forest had gone. “It’s because there is more farming, because there are more people.” As the cocoa farmers talked of the dry winds coming from the north and landward direction, how droughts were the result, and the impact of that on their livelihoods, it was hard not to reflect on how their local wisdom was being corroborated by new science on the role of rainforests in generating rain.

All the major rainforest regions are different in how their progressive clearance might affect regional and wider rainfall regimes, but climate modeling suggests that deforesting West Africa (a process largely complete in Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria) could reduce regional rainfall by 40 to 50 percent. With that in mind, one might expect that at the center of discussions about how to sustain food supply in face of rapid global change might be strategies to stop deforestation. As famines, drought-driven shortages and higher food prices have during the last decade led to more widespread hunger for the poorest people, the question of how to feed the 9-billion-plus global population expected by 2050 has been increasingly on the agenda. But, while the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that food output needs to rise by an estimated 70 percent by 2050 (PDF), compared with 2005 to 2007, little attention has been devoted to how such a vast increase in output must embrace a strategy that conserves and restores forests. It’s a strategy that would be wise to pursue in relation to energy security too.

Helping the cocoa communities

When I talked to officials at the Tai Forest National Park in Ivory Coast they told me that its successful preservation was not so much about enforcing that boundary that I’d walked along with armed security, but more livelihoods and education. These, they felt, were key to holding the rainforest front line. I recalled research on the relationship between female literacy and family size, and how data showed that when women were educated, they tended to have fewer children and better incomes. Out there by the forest, where people lived in grinding poverty and whose large families led to increasing demand for farmland, it seemed like a very logical priority. I was encouraged to find that this was the aspiration not just of the man responsible for a National Park but for the world’s largest chocolate company: Mondelēz, whose many brands include Cadbury’s, Côte d’Or and Toblerone.

In 2012 Mondelēz launched an initiative called Cocoa Life, through which it would invest some $400 million in supporting 200,000 of its cocoa farmers across the tropical rainforest countries of Ghana, Indonesia, India, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Ivory Coast. In Ivory Coast $100 million was allocated to assist 75,000 people in cocoa-growing communities. In addition to support for education, farmers were helped to improve yields and earn higher incomes, while at the same time sustaining the landscape in which the cocoa was grown, including the remaining rainforests. The idea was to strengthen communities and thus make cocoa a more attractive business for young people. It was an attempt to implement a truly integrated agenda and there was a clear business case for doing it, even for a profit-driven multinational.

The company had realized that if in the years ahead there were fewer farmers wanting to grow cocoa, then the company’s chocolate business would be at risk. It would also face uncertainty and rising costs if deforestation led to the kind of long droughts that had recently caused yields to fall.

As well as major companies, the Ivory Coast government had an interest, for if cocoa declined as an export crop and a source of employment, then civil unrest could follow. Adoulaye told me that he was confident that the deeper and more fundamental pressures on the forests could be brought under control if only he could succeed in showing people the Park was for them, and not against them. He told me how, when he asked communities to join in with the conservation of the Park, they asked him, “What do we get?” One of the things he tells them they get, and which I found the cocoa farmers agreed with, was that the Park produces rain, and thus cocoa and income.

As I listened to Adoulaye, it was clear how the multinational company and National Park were actually trying to do the same thing: improve the well-being of the farmers. The Park gets its forest better protected and the company gets a more secure cocoa supply chain that is dependent on not only motivated and skillful growers, but also rain. Economy, people and forest all at once.

Source: GreenBiz.com
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How Thai Union rapidly pivoted to a greener business strategy

Back in 2015, Thai Union had run into choppy waters. The multi-billion dollar seafood giant behind global tinned fish brands John West in the United Kingdom, Chicken of the Sea in the United States and King Oscar in Norway, among many others, had a PR shipwreck in its sights, and needed to shift coordinates swiftly.

Exposés in the New York Times, Associated Press and The Guardian had laid bare human rights abuses, forced labor and environmentally destructive fishing methods in Asian supply chains for canned seafood and prawns that ended up in U.K. supermarkets, placing Thai Union — one of the biggest producers in the world — firmly in the media and campaigner firing line.

Greenpeace didn’t mince its words, calling on consumers and investors to boycott the company, accusing it of “sacrificing the world’s oceans” and “destructive, wasteful fishing practices from its supply chains.”

“For far too long Thai Union Group has passed the blame onto others and hidden behind ineffective policies,” Greenpeace campaigner Graham Forbes said at the time. “Until this industry giant takes responsibility and demonstrates real leadership, we will work to ensure that every single customer knows it’s not just tuna that comes with buying one of its tainted brands.”

Yet fast-forward five years, and the company is top-ranked in both the latest Dow Jones Sustainability Index for food products, as well as the inaugural Seafood Stewardship Index of the 30 largest seafood companies globally, with particular commendations for its supply chain traceability, sourcing policies, and environmental footprint. Even Greenpeace is on board (PDF), striking an agreement in 2017 that will see the campaign group monitor Thai Union’s progress towards mutually agreed targets on human rights and sustainable fishing.

The firm is navigating a turnaround towards more sustainable practices — albeit with some way to go — that many, many corporates may have to chart in the coming years, or face increasingly angry regulators, investors and consumers, not to mention fierce competition from greener challengers and widespread market disruption. It is a binary choice between seeking change or being changed; sinking or swimming.

And Thai Union, according to CEO Thiraphong Chansiri, chose to swim. “We are one of the leading seafood companies in Thailand,” he said in a 2018 interview. “It is our responsibility to correct the situation and make it right.”

So how did a pariah of corporate sustainability pivot to a greener business strategy so rapidly?

One of its first steps was the appointment of Darian McBain, hired as global director of corporate affairs and sustainability in 2015 to spearhead the firm’s SeaChange sustainability strategy. Armed with a Ph.D. in global supply chain analysis and experience from a string of top-level sustainability roles at the United Nations, WWF and even the NHS, she was deemed the ideal candidate — if an ambitious hire for a firm that was at the time facing the ire of environmentalists. But perhaps most interesting of all, McBain is a vegetarian.

“They did find out eventually — I didn’t declare it in the interview,” she tells BusinessGreen of her fishless diet. “To me, I joined the company because I really love the oceans.”

Still, a company boasting $4.1 billion in seafood sales that has been linked to unsustainable fishing practices and dogged by human rights concerns hardly looks like an obvious career move for an environmentalist plant-eater. But having spent much of her career in academia, NGOs and as managing director of business consultancy Blue Sky Green in her native Sydney, McBain was ready for a change.

“I just thought this was a great opportunity to put my environmental and social skills together with a supply chain to make a real difference,” she explains. “It was interesting when I was going through the interview process, because I was interviewing them as much as they were interviewing me. I wanted to make sure they genuinely wanted to make a change.”

McBain admits Thai Union was “nowhere” on sustainability when she joined, but stresses the firm has been genuinely committed to becoming a greener and more ethical entity throughout its core business and supply chain. And she relishes being able to affect change at a global corporate, which in comparison to working in governments or NGOs enables her to “actually get things done.”

“You are not just working by influence and suggesting policy change, or campaigning against change, you are the agent of change,” she explains. “You don’t need to wait for others to do it for you — you have the power to change the way we do business. And if it makes sense then you can do it really quickly.”

And the pace of change at the company she joined less than five years ago has been “pretty dramatic,” McBain claims.

In 2015 the firm set a series of sustainability targets to be met by the end of 2020, including sourcing a minimum of 75 percent of its branded tuna and aquaculture products from certified sustainable fisheries and farms, backed by a pledge that it would be able to trace each product back to source. From a 2016 baseline, it is also targeting a 30 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions, a 20 percent cut in water consumption and a 20 percent cut in waste to landfill at its factories globally. It will publish its scorecard detailing its progress on these goals towards the end of this year, while also developing its next set of targets in a new 2025 SeaChange strategy. However, the company is confident it is on track with its goals.

Thai Union also joined the Global Ghost Gear Initiative in 2018, an alliance of industry, academia, NGOs and governments dedicated to tackling at scale the problem of lost fishing equipment damaging ocean environments. The Alliance estimates lost, discarded or abandoned fishing gear account for 70 percent of macro plastics in the ocean by weight, presenting a huge threat to marine wildlife.

From a standing start, Thai Union has set off at a blistering pace on its sustainability journey. But it still has some distance to travel, and consumers and campaigners inevitably will be unconvinced of the authenticity of the firm’s efforts given its past form. It is after all a major cog in a global seafood chain many argue is inherently unsustainable, with the U.N. body of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warning in 2018 fish production is continuing to grow at rapid rates globally, risking further overfishing. Future growth of the sector therefore will require continued progress in strengthening fisheries regimes, reducing loss and waste, and tackling illegal fishing pollution and climate change, the FAO said.

With that in mind, McBain has even loftier ambitions for Thai Union going forward. The company recently has begun reaching out to start-ups for innovative solutions, including through its food tech incubator program, and perhaps most interesting, it has announced several investments in the burgeoning market for alternative proteins. For example, in the United States it has teamed up with Calysta on a project to farm shrimp fed with protein created from natural gas, while in October it announced support for Flying Spark, which uses insect larvae to produce protein powder and oil. The broad aim in both cases is to develop a healthy, more sustainable fish feed alternative that reduces the environmental pressure on traditional fishmeal supply chains, which are also often harder to trace and therefore potentially more at risk from illegal fishing and labor practices.

It is very early days, but McBain says Thai Union is also considering the potential to develop alternative proteins for direct human consumption, aimed at consumers looking to reduce their intake of meat and fish.

“It’s an investment in the future,” she says. “I think if we got [alternative proteins] to between 5-10 percent [of Thai Union’s business] in the next five to 10 years, that would be an amazing achievement. We’re certainly putting that investment in that will grow that segment of the market, but obviously it needs to move in parallel with market demands.”

But she stresses the fisheries sector remains crucial to ending world hunger and malnutrition, with more than 50 percent of protein consumption coming from fish in developing nations, compared to 17 percent globally. As such, she hopes global diets “shift towards more sustainable seafood than away from it.”

“When you pair sustainable seafood with having positive climate change benefits and inherent nutrition benefits, then I would hope we see category growth in that way,” says McBain.

Having spent her first 4.5 years at the firm concentrating on labor rights, supply chain traceability and environmental sustainability targets within the core of Thai Union’s business, McBain’s immediate focus is now on broader climate action, more on which is expected to be revealed in the next sustainability strategy later this year.

She concedes there is a great deal more work to do on Thai Union’s “Scope 3” emissions, which she describes as an “unwieldy beast,” partly because it includes shipping for both fishing and freight. Tuna cans, fortunately, require little temperature control, which reduces the energy required on ships to transport them, but other seafood products can be more demanding, and shipping remains a major global emitter with no clear decarbonization path available as yet. McBain has been keeping a close eye on Austral Fisheries’ project to build a low carbon fishing vessel in Norway, and highlights greener shipping as an “essential” focus for Thai Union going forward, even though the firm does not directly own or operate any vessels.

But McBain believes the scope for a global seafood company to positively assist the climate fight is “massive,” pointing to a recent IPCC report estimating the ocean economy will contribute around a fifth of the action required to keep global warming within 2 degrees Celcius, while also bolstering climate resilience. As such the company is exploring how to support the growth and protection of mangroves in coastal communities, which could open up further opportunities to reduce Thai Union’s climate impact. Analysis earlier this month by Planet Tracker — the sister think tank to Carbon Tracker — highlighted how mangroves are a vastly overlooked conservation issue, with the farmed shrimp industry estimated to be responsible for around 30 percent of mangrove deforestation and coastal land-use change across Southeast Asia.

“Mangroves in particular have a massive ability for carbon capture and storage, and so we would really like to strengthen our approach there,” McBain explains. Her broader question, she says, is “how do we use sustainable seafood in the fight against climate change?”

“It’s all linked: we can provide healthy food while also being part of the ‘planetary diet’ — which recommends a reduction in most forms of protein and a move towards alternative proteins, but fish is still part of that diet,” she argues.

In just five years, Thai Union has come a long way due to a commendable openness to change through collaboration, experimentation and transparency. Fostering long-term trust among consumers, environmentalists and investors in an industry increasingly under the spotlight for its fishing practices will take longer still, but if McBain has her way the company soon could lead the wider sector towards a greener, more sustainable future. Within two years, for example, Thai Union might be ready to offer consumers its first net zero cans of tuna, she says.

But through it all, McBain says her motivation has not been the threat of Thai Union losing its social license to operate, but a positive desire to be on the right side of history. “We’ve already had enormous pressure from consumers from various campaigns over the past few years,” she says. “But it’s not about just making sure consumers are happy. Sometimes, if you’re a big company and you’re able to do something, you should be taking steps.”

Source: GreenBiz.com
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