World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

One green corn stalk in a field of dead plants

Life at the Speed of Change

  • Date: 24 July 2023
  • Author: Jason Clay, Senior Vice President, Markets, and Executive Director, Markets Institute @ WWF

Have you ever thought that life was passing you by? Increasingly it seems to me that that is what is happening with climate change. The impacts are more extreme, more variable, and more omnipresent than we thought possible. And we all struggle — individuals, NGOs, companies, and governments alike — to find responses to these impacts.

This is perhaps most apparent in the global food system, where climate change is wreaking havoc via floods, droughts, heat domes and crop failures. Two years ago, the United Nations convened a Food Systems Summit to review and transform “the entire spectrum of food,” including its production, shipping, consumption, and disposal.

As a biennial Food Systems Stocktaking Moment begins Monday in Rome, we wanted to understand how some of the most advanced food companies we work with are coping with the current environment. The results are evident in this report, issued jointly by World Wildlife Fund and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Meeting the global demand for food requires reducing environmental impacts and preserving natural resources. As one of the companies we consulted said, “Nature has moved from a nebulous issue in 2020 to one today that’s actionable.” But if we feel impotent, it is because our responses to date largely have been so.

We have not seen the immediate impacts that we expect to. We have set forces in motion that we don’t entirely understand and that will not respond to quick fixes. This is the fight of a lifetime, several lifetimes in fact, but the behavior of the organizations that collectively represent us has not changed.

We aren’t doing enough, and we certainly aren’t doing it fast enough. Here are a few questions to help guide us:

  • What do we need to do more of to ensure the sustainability of our food system?
  • Who can help us do more and what do we need from them?
  • What data and risk analyses would push us to act more quickly?
  • Are companies willing to share data to get data?

The willingness to integrate environmental priorities into globally traded food is gaining traction. But companies need to transform the global food system, not just find the perfect partners. The poorest performers are responsible for most of the negative impacts caused by the food system. And the global impacts of producing food will not be acceptable until we move the bottom.

Making the best producers a bit better will not solve the problems. Every company has poorly performing producers in its supply chains.  This is also true of companies along the chain that are willing to turn a blind eye to the impacts, in turn, of their suppliers.

Due to climate change and shifting production patterns, most companies need to look further afield to find the products they need. No company knows all its suppliers and their impacts. But that needs to be the goal and, in the not-too-distant future, the new norm. To do that with constantly shifting production, every company needs to require transparency and traceability of its suppliers, eliminate those in their supply chains who refuse to play ball, and work with competitors to learn faster and reduce risks.

We are on a long and steep learning curve. It will become even longer and steeper if we don’t begin to work together — sharing information and lessons learned, good and bad. And, as I tell my staff, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, just make new ones and share the results so that we all can learn faster. We didn’t get into our current situation through our own actions alone and we certainly won’t get out of it that way either.