Two Giants of the Food Industry Vow to Tackle Climate Change

Thanks to public pressure, Kellogg’s and General Mills go from 'laggards' to leaders on global warming.

(Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Aug 14, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Snap, crackle, power to the people!

Bowing to public pressure, industrial food giant Kellogg’s announced a major initiative to tackle its global warming emissions yesterday, leapfrogging ahead of rival General Mills. The latter announced its own “sweeping commitments” to address climate change a mere few weeks ago—commitments that, according to one NGO, “went beyond what any food and beverage company has done prior.”

It’s a rather stunning turn of events. Just this past May, the advocacy group Oxfam released a report, Standing on the Sidelines, that took the world’s "Big 10" food companies to task for essentially doing little or nothing to curb their industry’s mind-boggling contributions to global warming pollution.

According to the report, which was part of Oxfam’s larger Behind the Brands campaign, “if together they were a single country, these 10 famous companies would be the 25th most polluting country in the world, emitting more [greenhouse gas emissions] (263.7 million tons per annum) than Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway combined.”

Not only that, but Oxfam singled out both Kellogg’s and General Mills as the “clear laggards” of the bunch.

That was, again, just three months ago. What accounts for the dramatic change in course? What caused two multinational companies, which, together with the eight other largest food makers in the world, bring in $1.1 billion a day in revenue—“equivalent to the gross domestic product of all the world’s low-income countries combined,” according to Oxfam—to change so much so quickly?

Grassroots campaigning—or, to be specific, what might be called corn-and-soy-root campaigning.

Some 230,000 Oxfam supporters signed the organization’s petition calling on Kellogg’s and General Mills to step up their game, and that’s combined with the 115,000 who signed a petition initiated by Missouri farmer Richard Oswald on specifically targeting Kellogg’s.

Rural counties in Missouri may have been responsible for the razor-thin margin by which the state recently adopted a “right to farm” amendment, widely seen as a boon for Big Ag in the fight to fend off more pesky environmental regulations. But Oswald is proof that you can’t paint all farmers with the same brush.

A devastating flood in 2011 that wiped out all of the fifth-generation farmer’s crops was the clarion call for Oswald. He’d already been dealing with extreme fluctuations of weather that he sees as caused, in part, by climate change—which is not only poised to wreak havoc on the global food supply but is putting smaller farmers out of business.

“The economic impact of the variability [in weather] contributes to fewer people able to make a living on the land,” he told Oxfam.

Oswald had already done his part, implementing a number of measures on his farm to reduce carbon pollution, such as adopting no-till planting. But he knew it was a drop in the bucket compared with the kinds of carbon reductions that could be made if big food makers like Kellogg’s began to demand emission cuts all along their supply chain.

“As an individual I have to look and see what I can do,” Oswald continued. “If you can get everyone in the world to think about what we could do to make it better, then we could do a lot.”

Indeed, while most of us may imagine belching coal-fired power plants and gridlocked freeways when we think of carbon pollution, a full third of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans are related to our food supply. That’s according to a 2012 analysis by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research, which highlights fertilizer used to grow crops, the methane generated by livestock, and all those humming refrigerators in the coldscape as contributing factors.

While many of the Big 10 food companies have adopted policies to address climate emissions in their own operations, critics have long complained that that’s just one step short of greenwashing. It’s not only because those targets tend not to be based on science but, more significantly, because big food makers rely on a sprawling global supply chain that may range from palm oil plantations in Indonesia to cattle ranches in Brazil to sugar plantations in Africa.

Direct operations only account for about 10 percent of big food’s carbon pollution, some 30 million tons, compared with more than 230 million tons generated along the supply chain. As part of their newfound commitment to addressing climate change, both Kellogg’s and General Mills have pledged to set reduction targets for their entire supply networks by next year—and Kellogg’s is apparently taking an even more aggressive approach.

So there’s something to forward to all your cynical friends who don’t think you can make a difference signing some silly online petition.