The Field Report: Food Companies Are Not Counting All of Their Greenhouse Gas Emissions | Civil Eats

The Field Report: Food Companies Are Not Counting All of Their Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Plus, chemicals in food packaging, the infant formula shortage, and more. 

A palm oil plantation at the edge of a rainforest in Malaysia.

Last March, when JBS, the world’s biggest meat company, announced plans to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity by 30 percent by 2030, it specified that the target only applied to Scope 1 and 2 emissions. Those are emissions generated by JBS’ own operations and the energy it pays for, such as trucking fuel and office electricity. The company set no clear target for Scope 3, which includes methane from cattle and manure, nitrous oxide from fertilizers, and deforestation for land use within parts of its supply chain it doesn’t own. In fact, because of the way supply chains are structured, the bulk of emissions JBS and other big food and agricultural companies create—often 80 percent or higher—fall into that category, and they often go uncounted.

“The food sector right now doesn’t do a great job of disclosing the majority of their emissions, which come from Scope 3 within their value chain,” said Julie Nash, senior program director of Food and Forests at Ceres and co-author of a new report that zeroes in on the issue. “And we found that companies that don’t disclose and really understand their emissions have a hard time addressing them with action plans.”

In the report, Nash and her colleagues share data from Ceres’ Food Emissions 50 project, which tracks the top 50 publicly traded North American companies that produce, distribute, and sell foods with the highest GHG emissions footprints. They found that as of January 2022, only 21 of those 50 companies have set short-term emissions-reduction targets that include Scope 3 emissions.

Tracking and reducing those emissions is crucial to limiting global warming to 1.5°C and avoiding catastrophic climate outcomes, according to the latest round of reports from the world’s top climate scientists. In the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) most recent release, scientists estimated that food and agriculture could provide close to a third of the GHG emissions cuts necessary to meet global climate goals.

But that can’t happen if those emissions go unacknowledged.

Just four companies met the authors’ criteria for both full disclosure of Scope 3 emissions and having reduction targets in place that align with science-based frameworks for meeting global goals: Starbucks, Mondelez, Hershey, and General Mills. Companies that met none of the criteria include Wendy’s, Kroger, and Costco.

However, Nash also pointed to mega-grocer Costco as an example of the kind of progress the report is hoping to spur. Through the Food Emissions 50 project, a group of investors has been pushing the company to disclose its emissions and set science-based targets. After years of advocacy, in January, 70 percent of shareholders voted to support a resolution demanding the company do so, the first step in shifting the company’s approach to measuring, reporting, and hopefully reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

“What we’ve seen in the last few years is a sea change in terms of investor advocacy specifically when it comes to climate change. It’s a very different environment than just a few years ago,” Nash said, and many companies have moved forward even if they haven’t hit all of the metrics used in this report. Since Ceres launched the Food Emissions 50 project in July 2021, 11 of the companies have set new GHG emissions reductions targets that include Scope 3 emissions. Three of those—Chipotle, Restaurant Brands International (which owns Burger King and Popeyes), and Grupo Bimbo (which manufactures packaged foods)—set goals that align with the 1.5°C target.

To that end, the report provides information for investors on what a meaningful “climate transition plan” for a food company should look like, with full disclosure and reduction goals across all scopes, including emissions from land use and agriculture, and clear strategies and actions to get there. The authors provide a series of specific questions investors can ask agricultural companies, distributors, and retailers on different metrics and “red flags” that might signal companies are making flimsy commitments.

Of course, even concrete targets can take years of effort to produce meaningful results, and food companies have a long history of setting goals on all kinds of things, including antibiotic use and cage-free systems, and then conveniently ignoring them once public attention has shifted. Nash acknowledged that challenge and said Ceres’ team sees pushing for disclosure and targets as the first step, while pushing for the full implementation of action plans is the harder and more critical move.

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One particularly interesting aspect of Scope 3 is that while the emissions accounting is more complicated, companies all along the supply chain share an interest in reducing emissions embodied within the same product. Take nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer applied to a corn field, for example. The grain seller, the meat company that feeds that grain to cattle, and the restaurant that buys the meat to sell as steak would all have an interest in reducing those emissions, since they’d be included in each company’s Scope 3 accounting. “We have seen signs of some of that cooperation in things like packaging, where you have multiple actors within a single supply chain that are looking towards one emissions reduction,” Nash said. “We see it as an opportunity.”

Read More:
New UN Climate Report Paints a Stark Picture for Food Systems, But Solutions Exist
Can an Industrial Scale Meat Company Be Carbon Neutral?

Formula Fracas. The White House, multiple federal agencies, and Congress have been wrapped up for the past several weeks, trying to address the formula shortage caused by a recall and shutdown at a large plant run by the country’s largest infant formula manufacturer, and the issue continues to be front and center in Washington. After President Biden authorized “Operation Fly Formula” last week to use military aircraft to bring in formula from other countries, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack flew to Indiana on Sunday to meet the first shipment of 132 pallets arriving from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Biden also used the Defense Production Act to get ingredients to U.S.-based formula manufacturers faster so they can ramp up production. Meanwhile, both houses of Congress quickly passed a bill that will allow mothers buying formula with WIC vouchers—who normally are only permitted to choose one approved brand—to choose any brand when circumstances limit supply. And today, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials and representatives of formula companies will testify in front of a Senate subcommittee in a hearing that chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-New Jersey) said will probe “the nation’s infant formula product recall, shortage, steps taken to increase supply, and what further action is necessary to ensure families’ access to safe formula across the country.”

Read More:
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Dangerous Packaging? Advocacy groups also criticized the FDA on another front, after the agency responded to two petitions regarding chemicals called phthalates. Phthalates are common in food packaging—especially in fast food—and a large proportion of the U.S. population is exposed to them. A growing body of research points to multiple risks to human health from phthalate exposure. While the FDA agreed to ban one group of the chemicals that have already been phased out of use, it denied a petition to group all ortho-phthalates as a single class and ban them from any use that results in contact with food. The agency solicited additional data on the chemicals and noted, “We may use this information to update the dietary exposure estimates and safety assessments for the permitted food-contact uses of phthalates.”

At the same time, an international group of scientists released a report that identified more than 3,000 potentially harmful chemicals found in food packaging. While a lot of attention has been paid to chemicals including phthalates and PFAS, two-thirds were chemicals that were not previously known to be in contact with food. The Food Packaging Forum report also comes with a searchable database of food-contact chemicals. And this week, the Environmental Defense Fund launched its own interactive database on chemicals in food packaging that allows users to click on common packaging, like plastic clamshells, to see which chemicals are generally present. You can also search by chemical to see the kinds of packaging in which it’s commonly used.

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Read More:
If You Eat Fast Food, You’re Getting a Generous Helping of Toxic Chemicals
The Dangerous Food Additive That’s Not on the Label
Will the U.S. Ban PFAS in Food Packaging?

LP for Land Equity. Farmers of color fighting for land access and equity now have a soundtrack to accompany their efforts. On June 3, a group of musicians led by Bikini Kill guitarist Erica Dawn Lyle and drummer Vice Cooler will release an LP on Bandcamp called Land Trust: Benefit for Northeast Farmers of Color. All proceeds from the album will benefit the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, which works to advance land sovereignty and conservation among farmers who are Black, Indigenous, and represent other marginalized groups. Due to historic and ongoing discrimination and land theft, people of color now represent a tiny proportion of the country’s farmers, and advocacy groups are currently fighting for USDA debt relief for Black farmers and reparations. And more recently, a pandemic-fueled farmland rush has made it even more difficult for farmers of color to access land.

Read More:
Black Farmers Still Await Debt Relief
Beginning Farmers, Farmers of Color Outbid as Farmland Prices Soar

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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