When it comes to sectors essential to our survival, you can’t get much bigger than agriculture, aquaculture and fishing. Their role in feeding the world is clear to see, yet clarity on their corporate environmental impacts is not. The Global Reporting Initiatives (GRI) aim to boost clarification.
GRI says lands and seas face ever-competing demands, while biodiversity loss and the urgency of climate adaptation demonstrate why greater transparency is essential. In addition, with 2.5 billion people relying on the sectors for their livelihoods, their impacts on economic development and human rights should not be underestimated.
This has led to ‘GRI 13: Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fishing Sectors 2022’, the first global and holistic sustainability reporting standard for all companies in the upstream production of crops, animals and seafood, setting expectations for disclosure of their shared and distinct impacts.
Commentary and opinion
Judy Kuszewski is Chair of the Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB), which sets the GRI Standards.
“There is a paradox in that the ways we produce the food and materials that a growing population requires also result in numerous economic, environmental and social impacts, which in turn put at risk the future viability of world food systems. Addressing this challenge requires concerted, global and multi-stakeholder action.”
She elaborates that for GRI, it’s clear business as usual by companies will not result in the sustainability transformation we need to see. “Shining the spotlight on the most significant impacts of organizations involved in crop cultivation, animal production, fishing or aquaculture, GRI 13 brings the clarity and consistency needed to inform responsible decision making.
“From safeguarding migrant workers to tackling over-fishing, cutting emissions to halting deforestation, GRI’s Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fishing Standard has an enabling role in charting the pathway to a sustainable future for these sectors.”
In other comments, Viktoria de Bourbon de Parme, Food and Agriculture Lead, World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA), added: “WBA applauds GRI’s work to improve impact reporting by creating a new global standard for companies that play an important role in our food system.
“The so urgent transformation of this system requires large-scale and fundamental action, which can only be achieved with multi-stakeholder partnerships at local and global levels, as well as concise, transparent, and trustworthy reporting to hold food production companies accountable.”
“GRI 13 was developed by a 19-member multi-stakeholder working group, with agriculture, aquaculture and fishing organizations represented alongside investors, civil society, mediating institutions and labour bodies.”
So, change is afoot. And GRI isn’t the only global agency to spot the need for improvement.
Symbiotic steps at play
The UK has just agreed to join the Sustainable Productivity Growth Coalition (SPG) to share knowledge of best practice on green agriculture and food production.
Whilst voluntary, this coalition aims to accelerate the transition to more sustainable food systems through a holistic approach to productivity growth.
It was launched in 2021 at the United Nations’ Food Systems Summit and members include the USA, European Union, Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, so it has plenty of clout. It is also supported by a raft of academic institutions and trade bodies representing industries including grain, dairy and livestock from all over the world.
The UK is a useful example of approaches developed countries are taking to tackle corporate and sustainability challenges regarding food production, as it has also just produced its new National Food Strategy, albeit to a somewhat muted response.
It’s too early to comment on the Strategy’s impacts, as the ink is barely dry. But it promises to create a prosperous agrifood and seafood sector that ensures a secure food supply in an unpredictable world and contributes to the UK’s levelling up agenda through good quality jobs around the country.
It seeks to achieve a sustainable, nature-positive, affordable food system that provides choice and access to high quality products that support healthier and home-grown diets, while encouraging trade that provides export opportunities and consumer choice through imports, without compromising regulatory standards for food, whether produced domestically or imported.
Regulation is especially important for the UK following its recent withdrawal from EU governance on these issues, but similar challenges affect the global food chain, no doubt part of the reason behind the GRI Standard.
The point is there’s plenty of movement in this space, as countries realize global and national targets on sustainability alongside a vexed geopolitical food supply scenario are an opportunity to change things up. Corporates in the sector take note.
Further stakeholder commentary
Dr. Leah Samberg, Lead Scientist for Global Policy, Rainforest Alliance, comments: “Companies in the agriculture sector must play a key role in the achievement of global goals for climate, forests, human rights, and sustainable development.
“By providing a comprehensive blueprint for standardized reporting on progress toward these goals, in alignment with the Accountability Framework and other guidance, GRI enables downstream buyers, investors, financiers, civil society organizations and other stakeholders to gather the information they need to make informed decisions related to company performance.”
Joel Brounen is Country Manager with international civil society organisation Solidaridad: “For Solidaridad, the new GRI Sector Standard for agriculture, aquaculture and fishing helps to create more transparency across supply chains and will ensure companies communicate better on key issues like living income, economic inclusion and climate adaptation.
“Reporting on a common set of topics is the starting point for further measurable and verifiable results.”
And finally, Jacqueline Dixon, Technical Advisor, Hong Kong Sustainable Seafood Coalition: “The aquaculture and fishing sectors face unique sustainability challenges and we welcome the Sector Standard from GRI as a guide to reporters on what can be considered most material to these industries.
“A common approach to reporting will not only ensure these concerns are monitored and documented at a much larger scale, but will also enable comparability between reporters to ultimately move the industries forward on best practice.”
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The endgame for food?
No new standard will revolutionize the problems the global food sector faces overnight, nor will the UK’s Strategy and nor indeed the SPG’s work.
Yet, these signals represent something of importance for the corporates involved in this essential sector. Namely, that increased disclosure, transparency, oversight and focus are on the way. This needn’t be a problem, often the changes that come with better highlighting of business issues can lead to better, greener profits too.
Underlying the shift; Putin’s moves in Ukraine have had an impact. No GRI press release draws this direct link, but it feels implicit with massive rising costs and food scarcity that the invasion has driven action similar to what we’ve seen in the energy sector reimagining of sourcing and risk.
What comes next will be interesting. A rewriting of how food is produced? More sustainable, local production? It’s possible, and it might come because of how the Ukraine situation has highlighted inadequacies in the legacy systems. Sustainable change can come from the strangest of sources.