Climate change could eviscerate America’s breadbasket, and none of this bodes well for the breakfast industry. But big breakfast companies like General Mills and Kellogg are still failing to get a handle on their own emissions, according to a new Oxfam report. Worse, they’re failing to push for policy change. Unless something shifts, they’re going to keep selling you the same cereal until their crops burn up.
There’s a good business case for taking up the climate change fight. In March, General Mills’ CEO told investors that severe weather had increased the cost of production and decreased the company’s quarterly earnings. Oxfam also reports that “Big Food” will be especially vulnerable to climate-related price fluctuations. The organization estimated that climate change could raise grain prices, upping the price of a cereal like Frosted Flakes by as much as 20% in 2030. The price of cornflakes, the most American of breakfasts, could increase by as much as 30%.
Recent studies have shown climate change poses significant threats to regions that are responsible for the country’s food production. According to the recent National Climate Assessment released by the White House, the midwest can anticipate more droughts, heat waves, and floods. Rising temperatures also mean longer growing seasons, which could extend the yields of certain crops, but the report noted that those benefits have already been offset by severe weather.
Despite these major effects, Oxfam suggests that many companies aren’t doing enough to combat the global problem of rising greenhouse gas emissions. While some companies like Nestlé and Unilever are setting more aggressive greenhouse gas emissions goals, the group notes that Kellogg and General Mills have not reported agricultural emissions consistently, and haven’t yet addressed how they plan to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in their supply chains.
“What we’ve found in our assessment of the food system overall, is food system drives 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. And these are just going to continue to grow as demand rises,” says Oxfam climate change manager Heather Coleman. “Half of these companies’ missions throughout their value chain are coming from agriculture. They come from a range of things: Corn, soy, sugar. Companies really aren’t taking responsibility for their emissions.”
That said, both Kellogg and General Mills did announce major changes in their policies when, earlier this year, they vowed to source palm oil sustainably. Demand for palm oil, a cheap fat found in everything from chocolate to shampoo, has been increasing as much as 15% a year, and often comes from plantations West Africa and Southeast Asia. But because of the food industry’s demand, palm oil plantations have a history of burning or clear-cutting whole forests to make room for more production–increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and destroying key habitat for threatened species like orangutans and tigers.
Oxfam argues that making a commitment to ethical palm oil production only skims the surface of what can be done. Coleman says that companies haven’t even begun to address greenhouse gas production in other agricultural areas, including nitrous oxide-emitting fertilizer inputs.
More critically, the Oxfam report blasts companies for not engaging in climate policy discussions. The report points to membership in anti-climate action lobby groups like Business Europe and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as incongruous with the industry’s stated environmental goals. Coca-Cola, the organization notes, has been the only company to acknowledge that its affiliation with the two lobbying groups is “not consistent” with its position on climate change.
Unfortunately, feeble positions on climate change aren’t exclusive to food and beverage companies. (The fossil fuel industry obviously stands out as the foremost example.) But while hedging on climate change might avoid controversy in the short term, it does nothing to prepare for business in the future. Or, increasingly, now.