Recipe for a global crisis
The war in Ukraine, following in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the latest in a string of dramatic shocks to global food production.
Together with increasing climate-related disasters ― fires, floods, drought, and more ― the geopolitical turmoil and pandemic supply-chain disruptions have exposed devastating cracks within the world’s highly complex food system.
These fissures have pushed many low- and middle-income countries reliant on food imports to the tipping point, raising the specter of food emergencies, humanitarian disasters, social unrest, and human displacement. Even in the incredibly wealthy U.S., we have grown accustomed to empty shelves and shortages of essential products.
At the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), Amy Senter (BS ’08/MS ’11) is mobilizing efforts to address these formidable challenges.
As WBCSD’s global director, food and finance, Senter works with the chief executives of more than 200 international corporations and financial institutions to accelerate industry transformation of the global food and agriculture system.
The council’s long-term goal is to make safe, healthy, affordable food accessible to the world’s population by improving the sustainability, resilience, and equality of food production, processing, transportation, and distribution.
A flawed system
Achieving the WBCSD’s ambitious aim will not be quick or easy, Senter says.
“We’ve created a global system focused on low-cost food production with just-in-time delivery. This system doesn’t work well when there are supply-chain disruptions.”
For one thing, global food production is highly decentralized and extremely privatized.
There are more than 570 million farms in the world as well as millions of suppliers, processors, shippers, and business owners who work relatively independently of one another. As a result, when one major food producer, such as Ukraine, experiences a massive disruption, it is difficult to mobilize other growers in the global food system to make up for lost production.
Even when food is plentiful, the massive amount of waste in our food system often prevents it from reaching the people who need it most.
“In countries like the U.S., consumers waste a lot of their food,” Senter says. “Additional food is lost through manufacturing and supply chains, at retail-sales outlets, and even on farms.”
Grocery stores often discard slightly flawed produce and packaged goods that have passed their expiration dates. Transportation issues can leave container-loads of food rotting on transoceanic cargo ships, at loading docks, and in warehouses. Some fresh produce never even leaves the field because there are not enough farm workers to harvest it.
Conversations about improving global food production have become increasingly complex in recent years, as concerns arise about climate impacts, nature degradation, biodiversity loss, soil depletion, water shortages, land rights, inequality, and human rights.
“When we experience global shocks to our food system, we need to look for ways to solve all these things at once,” Senter says. “This illustrates how interconnected our global food system is with so many other aspects of our world.”
To help WBCSD’s 200 member companies and their partners improve their scorecards on climate, nature, and equity, Senter focuses on three key strategies: strengthening corporate governance, providing the right tools to incentivize change, and encouraging the capital markets to reward businesses for their ESG (environmental, social and governance) actions.
She works with member companies through several innovative WBCSD projects in the food and agriculture space to accelerate the industry’s transition to more sustainable development.
- The Soils Investment Hub encourages food and agriculture companies to make long-term commitments to investing in soil health across their supply chains.
- FReSH (Food Reform for Sustainability and Health) takes a “fork-to-farm” approach to positive nutrition and consumption, starting with dietary shifts to ensure the world’s population can “eat well, responsibly, and within planetary boundaries.”
- Global Agribusiness Action on Equitable Livelihoods improves access to markets and finance for small rural growers and family farmers with small- to medium-sized land holdings. The project also strengthens human-rights practices and promotes inclusive technology.
- Scaling Positive Agriculture creates a positive role for agriculture as a net sink (absorber) of greenhouse-gas emissions and a regenerator of nature. It also bolsters agriculture’s role in supporting resilient farming and food-producing communities.
Mixing up the menu
Senter often works with international corporations that are moving toward more planet-friendly food products.
“The vast majority of calories in the world are consumed from corn, wheat, and rice,” she says. “We need to look at cool, new ingredients like teff (a species of lovegrass with edible seeds), cassava, rye, and sorghum.”
The Kellogg Company ― a WBCSD member company where Senter previously served as vice president and chief sustainability officer ― launched its signature plant-based protein product, Incogmeato, in 2018 under its Morningstar Farms™ brand. Unilever’s Knorr (another WBCSD member) is adding plant-based ingredients to its product lineup, and has set a goal to make 50 percent of its foods plant-based by 2025.
Closer to home
The Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens attracts students from the Program in the Environment. Produce goes to U-M dining halls, the Maize and Blue Cupboard, and more. (Image: Michigan Photography).
As the nation’s second-most diverse agricultural state, Michigan has an important role to play in food security, according to California native Senter, who relocated to Ann Arbor to pursue her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.
However, the effects of climate change, loss of nature, and growing inequality are now being felt right here in our own backyards.
“We know in Michigan that the climate is changing and impacting both our food system and our communities,” Senter says, noting that more needs to be done and it’s time to act now.
“We are experiencing more hot days, and we have seen historic flooding in Detroit. We have been fighting algal blooms and invasive species in our waterways for years. Every summer, we collectively hold our breath when the cherry season arrives in hopes the crop will be a good one. These issues are not foreign to us at home.”