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Daily News Blog

08
Nov

Companies that Claim Sustainable Sourcing Lack Criteria, Virtually None Includes Pesticide Use

(Beyond Pesticides, November 8, 2019) A new report out from As You Sow — 2019 Pesticides in the Pantry: Transparency and Risk in Food Supply Chains — focuses on the risks that agricultural pesticide use represents for food manufacturers, and offers recommendations and benchmarks for improvement in the areas of management and transparency. The report concludes that companies typically have some sort of sustainable sourcing program within their supply chains, but that most of those “lack clear criteria,” and virtually none of them includes pesticide use as an indicator.

As an organization that works on shareholder advocacy to “harness shareholder power to create lasting change that benefits people, planet, and profit,” As You Sow is responding to investor and shareholder demand that companies reduce the presence of synthetic pesticide chemicals in their supply chains. No doubt this report has arisen indirectly from increased public, judicial, and media attention to the harms — to human and environmental health — of intensive pesticide use in conventional agriculture. Beyond Pesticides maintains that the real fix for the problem is a transition to organic and regenerative agriculture.

Highlights of the problem in the U.S. identified in the report include:

Additionally, the report points to the human health and environmental harms, and economic costs, related to agricultural pesticide use. It identifies connections between pesticide exposures and neurodevelopmental, endocrine, reproductive, renal, hepatic, and cardiovascular disorders, as well as links with obesity, diabetes, and cancer. It notes the increased risks of exposure for people who live, work, attend school, and/or play near areas of heavy pesticide use. The report identifies impacts on biodiversity, endangered species, and soil’s climate resiliency services (its carbon-capturing-and-holding abilities, in particular).

To its credit, Pesticides in the Pantry, which is unusually reader-friendly, also acknowledges that the environmental costs of pesticides impact agroeconomics. It offers economic metrics related to biodiversity, and especially pollinator, loss, for example: “Healthy pollinator species are necessary for the production of 87 of the top 115 global food crops, an estimated 35% of all global food production. Losing pollinators could mean losing their contribution of more than $24 billion to the U.S. economy.”

The report addresses points that Beyond Pesticides has made over the years: that pesticides’ actual utility is both inflated and severely limited, given the issue of resistance. Pesticides in the Pantry notes that chemically intensive agriculture is, fundamentally, an exercise in entropy: “Over time, as resistance develops, more intense and more frequent applications of the pesticide are required to eliminate the pest, until eventually the pesticide provides little or no effective pest control, and a new, potentially more potent chemical must take its place.” Crop losses due to pesticide resistance cost $1.4 billion each year in the U.S. Increased costs of pesticides (and the genetically engineered seeds with which some of them are paired), caused in part by consolidation in the agrochemical industry, further challenge profit margins for farms — especially small- and mid-sized operations.

The report goes on to say that increasing rates of farm delinquency and bankruptcy are contributing to the financial instability of the sector, and that reduced pesticide use offers one bulwark against such instability. It notes, “Researchers have found farmers are able to reduce pesticide use significantly, without sacrificing productivity. One study found that farmers of pesticide-free, regenerative operations had 78% higher profits than their conventional counterparts, and reduced insect pest populations tenfold. The ability to raise food profitably, without massive pesticide dependence, is underscored by a United Nations’ human rights report that outwardly denounces the ‘myth’ that pesticides are necessary to feed the world’s growing population.”

The authors of Pesticides in the Pantry, Christy Spees and Danielle Fugere, identify 30 “performance indicators” that aimed to measure company efficacy at managing risk and acting on stakeholder interests. The risk management arena included, e.g., “robust strategies for the reduction of toxic pesticides and meaningful metrics for tracking performance and progress.” They then administered a questionnaire (see Results section) to 14 large food corporations,* which asked about policies, goals, targets, tracking, and outcome metrics, as well as about sustainable sourcing, and the presence, nature, and metrics of any regenerative agriculture programs they might maintain.

On the basis of responses to the survey, the researchers developed a first-ever (2019) scorecard for each corporation. As they note, “In this inaugural year of benchmarking and reporting, companies’ average scores were relatively low.” On a scale of 0–30 (with 30 representing the best possible outcome) only General Mills and PepsiCo scored above single digits, with 18 and 14, respectively.

Although three of the companies do explicitly address the issue of reducing the use of pesticides in their supply chains, most “do not currently provide goals, strategies, or targets for the reduction of pesticide use.” Roughly half of the companies have an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) program, but only one (Del Monte) sets out the reduction of synthetic pesticide use a goal.

Other dismal results from the survey were: not one of the companies has a supplier standard for glyphosate-based herbicides, and only Kellogg’s does any tracking of suppliers’ use of glyphosate; General Mills alone has a regenerative agriculture program of any kind; none of the companies has a crop-specific, sustainable sourcing program (e.g., for palm oil, a ubiquitous ingredient in processed foods); only General Mills and Mondelez require suppliers to provide quantitative data about their pesticide use; and only Lamb Weston has a specific, time-bound goal or target of reducing pesticide use in its supply chain.

The report connects the dots for food corporations: “The environmental damage caused by pesticides creates significant operational risk to food companies. Crop supply chains reliant on heavy use of pesticides may be damaged by loss of pollinator species, degraded soil, and pesticide resistance. To ensure long-term supply reliability, especially in the face of climate-change related impacts that make growing food more difficult, it is imperative that food companies mitigate these risks now by moving supplier farms toward sustainable pest management practices which reduce chemical inputs.”

The report does point to some “notable practices” by some companies, citing:

  • Unilever’s Global Guidelines on Use of Pesticides in Sustainable Tea Sourcing, which identifies both reduction targets and time frames
  • General Mills’ compilation of the most comprehensive set of metrics on pesticide use among the companies reviewed — identifying specific measurements to be taken and when, committing to annual reporting, and providing technical support to farmers for data collection
  • Nestlé’s Responsible Sourcing Standard, which the authors describe as “comprehensive,” and which requires full supplier compliance, no use of prophylactic use of pesticides, and no use of “chemicals of concern” (including those identified by the Stockholm Convention and the Rotterdam Convention, and Class 1a and 1b pesticides identified by the United Nations’ World Health Organization, i.e., those characterized by their known or presumed carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, and/or reproductive toxicity)

Pesticides in the Pantry acknowledges strides that some corporate entities have made in the areas of reducing deforestation, water use, and energy use and sourcing (resulting in reduced greenhouse gas emissions). It aims right at its corporate “targets” when it declares, “The total costs to human health and the environment from pesticides, coupled with the financial costs to farmers of maintaining a system with high input needs, suggest that food companies can benefit from supporting farmers in shifting away from conventional methods of pesticide-dependent farming.”

The near-absence of initiatives addressing reductions of pesticide use puts companies at significant legal liability, regulatory, and reputational risk, the authors maintain. With huge swaths of the public concerned about “chemical invasion” of the environment, food, and human bodies, high-profile lawsuits against chemical companies for pesticide harms, and regular media attention to pesticide residues found in consumer food products, food companies would do well to look to their supply chains. The report concludes that companies should establish corporate sustainability commitments that address pesticides by identifying reduction targets, clearly defining expectations, and measuring and evaluating progress. A useful addition to that list might be actual consequences for failure to meet requirements, targets, and expectations.

Pesticides in the Pantry identifies organic agriculture, regenerative agriculture, and IPM (Integrated Pest Management) as specific solutions that companies should pursue in their supplier chains. On that last: the authors do acknowledge that there is no standardized definition of IPM, and that any references to it in corporate policies should be accompanied by very specific goals, requirements, and metrics. Food corporations would do well to reform their supply-chain practices by sourcing organic ingredients for their products, and to support farmer-suppliers in transitioning to organic production. They ought also to advance the growth of regenerative agriculture, which can vastly improve soil health, increase biodiversity, mitigate some impacts of the warming climate and its sequelae, and improve farmer profitability.

The report’s conclusion says, “The problems of pesticide use raise risks from litigation on health and environmental damages, to changing consumer demands for healthy foods and reputational loss, to increasingly less effective crop production, especially in the face of climate change. . . . Given the myriad risks the use of pesticides creates for the environment, public health, consumers, and corporations, it is time for investors to amplify solutions that promote long-term sustainability. Agricultural supply chains will face increasing challenges as the impacts of climate change continue to unfold; it is critical that companies that rely on these supply chains take action now to prepare for these challenges and mitigate risk. This scorecard provides suggestions for meaningful corporate action to reduce pesticide use in agricultural supply chains. By taking steps to shift the food system away from toxic chemicals and towards practices which promote healthy soil, biodiversity, and farmer resilience, corporations have an opportunity to live up to their responsibility to all stakeholders, protect themselves from litigation and regulatory risk, and gain the trust of consumers and the public.”

Pesticides in the Pantry recommends that:

  • investors and shareholders push corporations toward robust pesticide-reduction strategies
  • corporations commit to: reducing pesticide use in their supply chains, noting that prioritizing core ingredient corps is a smart first step; employ great specificity in goals, requirements, and outcomes; triage pesticide reduction focus, identifying the highest-risk compounds as the most urgent to reduce; and invest in agricultural practices that eliminate chemical pesticide use and improve the health of soil (such as regenerative, organic agriculture)

This peek into the supply chains of giant food companies provided by Pesticides in the Pantry offers some takeaways for the consumer. One might certainly be to avoid processed foods; but in addition, those who have investments in large food companies can exercise their shareholder influence on corporate practices related to pesticides in the food supply. Supporting organic production is another important way to voice both objection to chemically laden food and the desire for its opposite. Through its Daily News Blog, Beyond Pesticides covers not only the problems of pesticides, but also, the solutions on the path to a less-toxic world.

* Those companies include: B&G Foods, Campbell’s, ConAgra, Del Monte, General Mills, Hain Celestial, J.M. Smucker, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz, Lamb Weston, Mondelez International, Nestlé, PepsiCo, and Post.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59a706d4f5e2319b70240ef9/t/5dc0996c789a43074732bb2c/1572903283537/PesticideInThePantry2019_04_FIN.pdf and https://www.asyousow.org/report-page/2019-pesticides-pantry-transparency-risk-food-supply-chains

 

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