Talking about the weather used to be a polite way of starting a conversation – harmless, undemanding, and safer than religion or politics. Talk about the weather today, especially to anyone involved in food production, and you quickly enter a world of near biblical disasters: droughts alternating with floods, extremes of heat and cold, and seasons which no longer seem to make sense. Add a few wildfires and tropical storms and you begin to see why commodity prices can double in a year and food security is fast becoming a global political issue.
We’re already experiencing changes on a scale and frequency no one can remember. In the short term, this inevitably impacts on price, as supply and demand try to rebalance in ever more volatile markets and to meet the needs of a growing world population. But, in the longer term, we may be looking at much more substantial adjustments to what we eat and where it comes from, as traditional sources of supply are simply no longer viable.
The University of East Anglia is the latest in a series of scientific commentators to say that crops like cocoa and coffee may disappear from sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Central and South America by 2080. A world without chocolate or cappuccinos would be different indeed. Even fruit and vegetables may be difficult to grow in much of Southern Europe, changing radically what a future Mediterranean diet might look like.
Sustainable sourcing policies are fast becoming an essential risk management tool for food companies. Nestlé’s Cocoa Plan, for example, is working to improve the lives of its farmers and the quality of their crops. Last year it provided training for 27,000 of them and distributed 1.1 million plants bred for better yields and more resistance. Through Coffee Made Happy, Mondelez aims to invest $200 million to empower 1 million coffee farming entrepreneurs by 2020, making farming more sustainable and profitable, as well as equipping them with business skills which can benefit the communities in which they live. Unilever has similar programmes for tea and Associated British Foods (ABF) is investing in energy efficiency projects for sugar in Swaziland and China. Within the UK, companies such as PepsiCo are working with their farmers to produce crops better suited to manufacturing processes and which use less fertiliser or fewer pesticides. Whatever the strategy, at home or abroad, investing in supply chains is evolving into standard business practice rather than the kind of philanthropy which inspired many founders of household brands.
Addressing the availability of raw materials is, however, only one side of the equation. Manufacturers are also looking to innovate in products and production processes, exploring new tastes and ingredients, reducing further waste and making scarce resources go further. Getting smarter with science in order to produce more from less, and with less environmental impact, has never been more important.
That is why the Food and Drink Federation is putting the need to build skills and expertise for a resilient industry at the heart of our 20/20 Vision to deliver sustainable growth of 20% by 2020. We have quadrupled the number of apprenticeships in the industry in the last two years and launched the UK’s first accredited engineering Masters degree dedicated to the needs of our sector. We have an active Taste Success careers programme aimed at attracting new entrants at all levels. In addition, we are raising our game around research and innovation in the context of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, which has identified agri-food as a priority area, not least in the context of improving export performance.
Finally, our new best practice guide, “Sustainable Sourcing: Five Steps Towards Managing Supply Chain Risk”, encourages companies to ask questions such as who supplies their suppliers, in order to provide a complete map of what they need, from where, and threats to future availability.
None of us really knows what tomorrow’s weather will be. But we can all do more to prepare ourselves for what it might bring.
Andrew Kuyk is Director of Sustainability at the Food and Drink Federation. Food and Drink Federation is a Forum for the Future partner.