Oxfam America recently released a study called “Behind the Brands,” which examines the social and environmental policies of the world’s largest food and beverage companies. Specifically, the report focuses on what Oxfam calls the “Big 10” companies including, Associated British Foods (ABF), Coca-Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez International (previously Kraft), Nestle, PepsiCo, and Unilever, and “aims to increase the transparency and accountability of the ‘Big 10’ throughout the food supply chain.” Overall, the study determined that companies “have neglected to use their enormous power to help create a more just food system.”
Recognizing that the world’s largest and most successful food and beverage companies depend upon cheap land and labor in communities around the globe in order to maximize profits, Oxfam set out to discover and rate how these companies approach social and environmental issues. They created a “scorecard” system that rates companies’ policies in seven areas “critical to sustainable agricultural production, yet historically neglected by the food and beverage industry,” including, women, small-scale farmers, farm workers, water, land, climate change, and transparency.
The companies received scores from 1 to 10 in each of the 7 categories, allowing for an optimum score of 70. None of the companies scored higher than a 7 in any category, and the highest scorer, Nestle, received 38 points while the lowest, Associated British Food, received 13.
At the heart of the study is the growing desire of consumers to know where their products are coming from and the need to create a just food system that accounts for workers and the environment. It is a sad truth that the food producers, namely, small-scale farm workers in developing countries, are struggling to feed their families on less than $2 a day. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) estimates that there are about 500 million small farms in developing countries that support nearly 2 billion people, or a third of the world population.
While world governments’ investments in agriculture in developing countries have fallen, the growing world population means an increase in food demand. Today, global food security is at a critical state. Over the last 30 years, investment in agriculture fell in developing countries due to the perception that agriculture was not profitable. As a result, the growth rate of agricultural productivity dropped from 3.5 percent in the 1980’s to 1.5 percent today, and global food stocks have decreased by about 3.4 percent each year since 1995.
IFAD believes that small-scale farms can contribute to a larger world food supply if they have secure access to land and water, roads and transportation, and technology. They also need greater bargaining power in the marketplace. Supporting these farmers would both enhance world food security and significantly decrease world poverty. But Oxfam’s study found that, while corporations have implemented some social and environmental projects, such as cutting back on water usage or building schools for communities, the programs often fail to address companies’ own supply chain operations. According to Oxfam, some of the most glaring policy gaps include:
• Companies are overly secretive about their agricultural supply chains, making claims of ‘sustainability’ and ‘social responsibility’ difficult to verify;
• None of the Big 10 have adequate policies to protect local communities from land and water grabs along their supply chains;
• Companies are not taking sufficient steps to curb massive agricultural greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate changes now affecting farmers;
• Most companies do not provide small-scale farmers with equal access to their supply chains and no company has made a commitment to ensure that small-scale producers are paid a fair price;
• Only a minority of the Big 10 are doing anything at all to address the exploitation of women small-scale farmers and workers in their supply chains.
Rather than a declamation, Oxfam said it intends for the study to be an incentive for companies to better their policies, and challenges them to a “race to the top” to improve their social and environmental impact.
Alisha Mims is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire.