Natural Products Expo
Food companies play integral part in climate change recipe

Food companies play integral part in climate change recipe

Environmentalist Paul Hawken calls on the food industry, as a big part of the problem, to lead the way against climate change. Read what he has to say before he takes the stage at Natural Products Expo East in September.

Renowned author and environmentalist Paul Hawken will illuminate the relationship between food and climate in his keynote address at Natural Products Expo East. We asked him how the natural products industry fits into the fight against climate change.

What do you think this industry is doing well when it comes to practicing and educating consumers about sustainability in the context of climate change? What are its weak spots?

I honestly do not know what this industry is doing with respect to climate change and sustainability. Maybe that's the industry's weak spot-that I do not know and maybe it should be obvious to anyone. I certainly see individual companies making commitments-such as Guayaki, Dr. Bronner's, Organic Valley, Numi Teas, and many others-but I am unaware that the industry as a whole is making a clear commitment to practices that will address and reverse global warming. There are initiatives such as We Mean Business and RE100 in which companies do step up to climate change initiatives. But as a whole, natural food companies have not-nor any of the larger food conglomerates that are purchasing and consolidating the smaller natural food brands-signed on.

The irony is that, with the exception of energy, no industry has a bigger impact on climate change than agriculture and food, both as a source of the problem and as a solution. Land management-based emissions, along with food transport and manufacturing, are a greater source of CO2 emissions than all the coal-fired power plants in the world. Conversely, a plant-based diet, reduction in food waste and regenerative agricultural practices are some of the top solutions to global warming. I think the industry could galvanize, mobilize and become a leader in this respect if it so chose.

What can the natural products industry do, in a collaborative or collective manner, to help reverse climate change?

The first thing is to make reversing global warming a priority. It is THE priority of humankind in this century. No other goal surpasses it in importance because every other cause and concern we have is connected to it. We will fail in our initiatives to address poverty, hunger, migration, health, security, conflict, water, sanitation and much more unless we reverse global warming.

Second, we need education, literacy and awareness. Climate change is not going to be solved by a government or silver bullet. This is a systemic problem that involves and impacts all levels of society and all sectors of commerce. Climate change is a nonlinear system; we cannot plot out or accurately predict the rate of change or the acceleration of its impacts. The natural food industry is at the forefront of solutions but does not seem to realize it collectively. The industry ultimately relies on the land, food, crops, water, grasslands, pollinators and soil. USDA organic practices unto themselves do not address climate change except for the reduction of nitrogen fertilizers. Plant-based diets, deep reductions in food waste, how we grow our rice, how we graze our animals and farming practices that can sequester carbon are ways the industry can lead. And of course the industry relies on energy and buildings just like all companies. Choosing renewables and net-zero buildings is critically important for all of industry.

Third would be commitment, leadership and action. Does the industry care, have a voice or insert itself into areas where it has impact or is impacted, in the ways that the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Department of Energy or the U.S. Department of Agriculture have? Is it promoting regenerative agriculture for both plant and animal foods on a broad level and linking that to its responsibility to address global warming? Is it looking at and committing to reducing food waste? Is it supporting localization of food webs, or is it promoting centralization and high transport miles per food calorie?

As awareness of the relationship between food, climate and the environment grows, what are the most overlooked or misunderstood aspects of this relationship?

The relationship between food, land and climate is the area in which citizens can arguably have the greatest single impact. It involves much more than simply reducing energy use. The only way to reverse global warming is to include land-use practices (agriculture, grazing and forests) into our overall plan. In this area, regenerative practices such as multi-strata agroforestry, silvopasture, AMP or pulse grazing, permaculture and advanced organic farming (beyond USDA requirements) all sequester significant amounts of CO2.

There is, at this time, no other way forward. It is our path into the future that will eventually lead us to drawdown-the point in time when atmospheric greenhouse gases begin to decline on a year-to-year basis. It is the only way we can know we are doing everything we can to secure a livable future for our children and all children to come.

This industry was founded to address human health and the health of our land. Its future requires that it address the health of the entire Earth.

Any tips for consumers who want to support sustainable businesses but don't know which labels and marketing claims to trust?

Consumers can do the same thing the industry could do: Make reversing global warming a personal commitment. One action is to ask companies they purchase from what they are doing with respect to renewable energy use, energy efficiency and the buildings they occupy and construct. Consumers can ask companies about the miles their food travels, the source of their ingredients, the exact farming practices employed by their vendors, how they handle food waste if they have it, and whether they and their suppliers are measuring their impact and are dedicated to practices that sequester carbon in the soil.

The word organic is good, but that word alone does not mean a company is undertaking practices that will bring atmospheric carbon down into the soil. Every company in the industry has to step up. There is this idea that we need a low-carbon economy, that we should "decarbonize" the economy. We already decarbonized. Our land practices and fossil fuel combustion (fossil fuels were once plants) removed carbon here on Earth and put it into the atmosphere. Photosynthesis is the way to bring it back home. Scientists, ranchers, agronomists and farmers are now on the vanguard of a movement to reverse global warming using older and novel land use practices. Consumers need to know that and look for those companies.

Catch Paul Hawken at Natural Products Expo East.
8:30-9:30 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 22
Room 308/309 in the Baltimore Convention Center

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