The $470 billion problem

A newsletter about food systems, climate change and everything connected to them

A short one this week as I’m wading my way through what’s turning out to be a super busy month. Apologies in advance for typos!

The billion dollars distortion

A whopping $470 billion of annual farming subsidies goes to measures that distort prices and are harmful for the environment and human health, according to a new report by three U.N. agencies - FAO (food and agri), UNEP (environment) and UNDP (development).

This amounts to 87% - an overwhelming majority - of the money that goes into agricultural support every year, which currently stands at $540 billion or 15% of total agricultural production value. If current trends continue, subsidies could be as high as $1.8 trillion by 2030.

Most of the support involves price incentives - import tariffs and export subsidies - as well as fiscal subsidies tied to the production of a specific commodity or input - and they are “inefficient, distort food prices, hurt people’s health, degrade the environment, and are often inequitable, putting big agri-business ahead of smallholder farmers, a large share of whom are women,” the press release said.

The report urged governments to phase out the most distorting and environmentally and socially harmful policies such as price incentives or coupled subsidies and support for more nutrition-sensitive policies.

A few key takeaways -

  • Unhealthy products, like sugar and emission-intensive commodities (beef, milk and rice) receive the most support worldwide.

  • Meanwhile, the production of more nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables were penalised.

  • In high-income countries, the highest rate of assistance goes to rice production, followed by sugar, sunflower seed and livestock products – with beef receiving the largest subsidies among meats.

  • Because agricultural support is often based on production or inputs like area planted or number of livestock, large farms tend to be the major beneficiaries.

We’ve often heard of how agricultural subsidies contribute to some of the key problems we’re facing in our food systems - a focus on productivity at the expense of nutrition and environmental protection, for example - and now we have a report that shows why it’s high time for reform, particularly because of food systems’ massive contribution to climate change.

If you don’t want to read the 180-page report, which is fairly technical, you can check out the story on FT (not behind a paywall as yet) or watch this short video.


Can we fix the business of food?

Only 1 in 10 of the world’s largest food companies disclose a corporate goal for product ranges that contribute to healthy and sustainable diets, according to a new report from an initiative led by the Barilla Foundation (yes, the pasta makers).

They scrutinised 100 leading producers and retailers along four key areas that can broadly be defined as healthy and sustainable products, fair employment and working conditions, sustainable supply chains and good governance and corporate citizenship.

According to the assessment, in addition to a significant lack of disclosure and/or commitment to healthy and sustainable diets -

  • More than 90% monitored greenhouse gas emissions but only 22% set an objective for emissions in their sustainability strategies

  • Only 9% has objectives for development of new plant/animal varieties, protection of endangered species, initiatives to support biodiversity, or similar indicators

  • Only 7% have complete objectives for monitoring and addressing corruption.

  • Only 6% disclose targets for sustainable sourcing of palm oil and paper.

  • Only 5% published targets for sustainable supply chain management.

  • A big fat 0 when it comes to information disclosure regarding the protection of land and water rights.

It’s not a long report but fairly jargony, so if you want to get to the meat of it, read Section 2, which begins at page 34, and check out Table 10 - the list of the analysed companies.


Front line defenders in trouble

2020 was the worst year on record when it comes the murder of land and environmental defenders, with more than four people a week being killed for defending their homes, land, livelihoods and ecosystems, according to Global Witness’s annual report that tracks the grim statistics.

  • All but one of the 227 recorded killings of defenders took place in the countries of the Global South.

  • Over a third of all fatal attacks targeted Indigenous people, even though Indigenous communities make up only 5% of the world’s population.

  • Over half of attacks took place in just three countries: Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines.

  • Almost 9 in 10 of the victims of lethal attacks were men.

As you can see from the picture below, a fair bit of it is related to how we produce and consume our foods.

“The rest of us need to realize that the people killed each year defending their local places are also defending our shared planet - in particular our climate. The activities that flood our atmosphere with carbon- fossil fuel extraction and deforestation - are at the heart of so many of these killings,” leading environmentalist Bill McKibben said in the foreword to the report.

This is a difficult - and harrowing - read but if there’s one report from this week’s newsletter you should read, it’s this one.


Food Systems Summit is finally here

After 18 months of prepping, dialogues and disagreements, the big Summit is finally here. It’s happening next Thursday (Sep 23) during New York hours.

It’s all virtual obviously which has its advantages. It’s open to everyone and you can register here.

There is also a counter-event by grassroots movements who disagreed with the process which is being held from Sep 21 - 23.

I’ll be following both closely so watch this space.


The Amazon of Europe gets recognition

I’m going to end this newsletter with some positive news because let’s face it, we all need it.

UNESCO has designated the Mura-Drava-Danube river corridor, which stretches across Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary and Serbia, as the world’s first ‘5-country biosphere reserve’.

The area covers “700km of the Mura, Drava and Danube rivers and a total area of almost 1 million hectares in the so-called ‘Amazon of Europe’ – making it the largest riverine protected area on the continent”.

Home to nearly 1 million people, it is also supposed to have Europe’s highest density of breeding white-tailed eagles as well as otters, beavers and critically-endangered sturgeons. It is also an important stopover site for more than 250,000 migratory birds every year.

River management is critical to agriculture and fish stocks as well as forests and quality of drinking water, so I’ll drink to this one.


As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail thin@thin-ink.net.