The Markets Institute at WWF identifies global issues, trends, and tools around the most pressing challenges of our time. Each year we release a list of what we see as the top emerging industry developments that may not be apparent to help stakeholders stay ahead of the curve and to help us all shift faster.
The list for 2016 was identified through interviews of more than 50 C-suite executives and then narrowed down by our own Thought Leader Group. Here are the top trends identified for 2016:
The need to move the middle
Current efforts to improve food production focus on the best – or most progressive—producers or companies, with the notion that this will inspire movement in the rest. Yet this strategy is not likely to move the worst producers much less entire sectors. The biggest impacts will be achieved by focusing on the middle, or even the least effective producers, or those having the worst impacts and poorest productivity. Governments will probably be the most effective at changing the performance of those at the bottom, but it is not clear that governments have the appetite to do that. Still, we can’t achieve scale if we don’t at least move the middle and most likely the bottom as well.
Water use has been growing exponentially, but water shortages are also on the rise. The potential economic impacts of water shortage are devastating if you consider that for human use: 70% to produce food, 20% for other industries like manufacturing and energy, and the rest is for personal consumption and use. Companies with foresight have a water risk and contingency plan, others do not. Investing in solutions that use water more efficiently can have positive impacts on both people and the planet. The question is, do governments and businesses want to invest in water now or chase it later?
It should go without saying that Earth’s systems are finite. Yet business’ focus continues, for the most part, to be on constant growth. The concept of ‘planetary boundaries’ is starting to gain awareness – the idea of what natural systems are necessary for life to be able to continue. Yet many companies are already feeling the impact of resource constraints, water shortages, climate-associated changes, land-use change and degradation, and more. We need to much more quickly consider and shift to work within these boundaries if we are to continue to exist – through tactics including rehabilitation of degraded lands, better land use planning, and more.
Financing the food system
The U.S. SEC is starting to take seriously the question of sustainability in business practices by proposing that companies must disclose risks in climate change, water scarcity, human rights, and other risks to companies and investors. Investors are seeing the advantages of such sustainable practices, and there is a growing interest in direct investment in farm-level agriculture and venture funding in ag-tech. However, governments currently provide nearly $500B of agricultural subsidies in the top 21 food-producing countries, and these subsidies have been blamed for accelerating deforestation, excessive water use, market distortions, and the inability to transition to true-cost accounting. What is needed is capital to fund growth, innovation, climate adaptation, and reducing loss and waste. Could subsidies be shifted to cover these costs and make production more resilient at the same time? Or, the capital could take the form of long-term contracts that will buy down the risk of investing in more sustainable production.
Smallholders need capital
Smallholders have been an integral part of the global food landscape since the dawn of agriculture. However, global changes currently underway bring into question the future of smallholder agriculture – population and food demand is rising, meaning significant changes in the food system will be necessary to either put more land into production or greatly enhance productivity and efficiency per hectare. The global discourse is very strongly in favor of improving the livelihoods and efficiency of the hundreds of millions of people who make their livings from small plots of land. Yet this may not be the best choice for companies, countries or even the people themselves for without great care such programs do more to maintain poverty than to alleviate it.
Calling for the return of government
Recent decades have seen a withdrawal of government across the development and management of soft commodity industries, replaced by businesses. Companies are responding more rapidly and at scale than governments to global issues and problems. Governments have abnegated their roles in many contexts, hoping that companies would assume these functions. This is not working, and governments need to return to a more active role in the marketplace, creating the enabling conditions and enforcing mechanisms needed to be more sustainable and businesses to succeed. In the food arena alone governments need to shape the development of agricultural finance, create and apply tax incentives, foster agricultural development and innovation, take greater risks in funding, manage common pool resources, enforce laws on illegality, take steps to control food loss and waste, and create regulations to address changing technology, products, market opportunities, and environmental conditions.
Controversial topics: Science vs. Beliefs
Food is one of the most discussed – yet often one of the most polarizing – topics in the world. Controversy permeates from production practices across the value chain to marketing. What one eats—or won’t eat, organic vs. conventional, GMO vs. non-GMO, labeling and naming, nutritional guidelines, environmental impacts climate change, ag-biotech, just to name a few. The data and the science behind these issues are often unclear or contested. This is occurring at a time when the public is increasingly skeptical about science, and the media covers all sides equally, NGOs often fan these flames, taking values-based positions that are presented as science-based positions. Business, meanwhile, is retreating from public discussions of these issues.
Funding for innovation
Innovation has been the buzzword of the last year or so. But innovation must be more than innovation for its own sake; to be effective, it needs to be directed towards the major problems facing both people and the planet. In 2016 several major governments and multilaterals launched innovation funding to support agricultural innovation or technologies to improve global food production and security. Business investors in the US have “discovered” food as a place to innovate and invest. The launch of new food and ag funding sources including crowdfunding, accelerators, impact investment funds, corporate incubators will likely double in the coming year. But these efforts must be targeted and well-deployed if they are to change practices or reduce key impacts of production and along product chains.
Growing global inequality
The richest 1% of people now have more wealth than the rest of the world’s population. There is growing inequality not just between individuals but between countries, and this is especially so when it comes to food. The U.S. population spends an average of 6.9% of its income on food while Angolans spends up to 80% of income on food. Due to limitations of access and distribution some 2.3 billion people in developing countries consume under 2.500 kcal/day while 1.9 billion in developed countries are consuming more than 3,000 kcal/day with a growing problem of obesity. Food inequality will only increase in the years ahead with climate change, land scarcity, and water scarcity. Population growth and unequal increased incomes will lead to greater targeted food demand. All of these trends will result in increased pressure on the land, higher and more volatile food prices, increased likelihood of price shocks, and the persistence of malnutrition and stunting.
Many efforts of the past few decades to address the environmental and social impacts of food production have focused on the development and implementation of third-party voluntary certification standards. While share of certified products has grown rapidly for certain soft commodities (palm, sugar, cocoa, cotton) it still represents a small percentage of the main commodity supply chains and other commodities have seen slow uptake, limited market penetration, and confusion created by competing labels. There is a growing need for and interest in assessing the effectiveness of this tool, and we face the potential need to redefine how they are deployed, whether they measurably reduce impacts and the underlying theories of change.
Stay tuned for what else we see this year, and help us keep an eye on the horizon.
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