It is without doubt that the pandemic has impacted our food supply chain - An industry once evolved to feed a globalised world has now been scaled back to the local level in some cases…
As part of China’s economic transformation in the 1990s, they increased their food production systems to industrial scale. One notable side effect of this meant that small-holder farmers were undercut and pushed entirely out of the livestock industry. In a bid to search for new ways to earn a living, many turned to farming ‘wild’ species that had previously only been eaten for subsistence.
At the time, this was seen as a profitable sector and ‘wild food’ was formalised, increasingly becoming branded as a luxury food item. However, the smallholder farmers were not only pushed out economically, but geographically as well. This is evident through the exponential growth of industrial farming which acquired huge swathes of land, thereby encouraging small-scale farmers to cultivate closer to the forest edge and in forbidden territories. As our planet’s population continues to increase, so too does the occurrence of humans encroaching into exotic places and valuable ecosystems, and the risk of exacerbating infectious diseases becomes ever more apparent.
Similarly, the Chinese ‘wet markets’ alone present a further risk of virus transmission. When these exotic animals from different environments are kept in close proximity to one another, it provides a breeding ground for viruses to jump from one species to another, giving them reason to amplify, mutate, and develop into something much worse. In recent decades human infections of animal origin have been widely documented, such as the Asian Flu in 1956, SARS in 2002, and H7N9 which killed four in ten people. If humans continue to interfere on these biodiversity hotspots, nature will find its way of fighting back.
Most of the attention so far has been focused on the deplorable conditions of ‘wet markets’ in China. It is without doubt that these wet markets will need to be better regulated, but it is also important to look at how our food is produced on a global scale.
While scientists do not have a definite answer to how exactly COVID-19 originated, it is believed that other pandemic virus threats such as swine flu and bird flu almost certainly evolved at pig and chicken factory farms. Links have already been established between increased pandemic risks and intensive animal agriculture, hence there should be a stronger focus on factory farm conditions, and possibly rethink how we can feed our populations in a safe way. Maybe we should all just turn Vegan?
The pandemic has also highlighted the poor conditions in the meat processing industry. In recent weeks Germany has seen several coronavirus outbreaks among meat factory employees and has even put two districts in western Germany in quarantine after more than 1,550 workers at the Tönnies slaughterhouse were infected with the disease. There is undoubtedly a need for better regulations here too.
As we have spent more time in lockdown, people have become more attuned with the nature that surrounds them. Many people have even tried growing their own food, which is certainly a positive development for the future. In line with this, urban farming and vertical farming will become more crucial. Localising food production will lead to significant cuts in fossil fuel consumption, help consumers reduce their carbon footprint, and help provide them with the opportunity to purchase food that has been grown in their community.
With our planet's population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, there's no escaping the fact that food production around the world needs to increase while also ensuring citizens’ health is kept in check. It is important now that we use our voices and vote for those who will hold agribusiness to higher standards on social and ecological grounds, take an active stance against the illegal wildlife trade and encourage the localisation of food production so that future generations can be sustained.
Even though the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the globe and suffocated the global economy, deforestation has continued largely unchecked. Every day, vast swaths of tropical forests are burnt to a crisp for the production of agricultural commodities such as soybeans, palm oil, and beef that end up on our supermarket shelves. Not only does deforestation release huge amounts of carbon already stored in trees and soils, but it also eliminates the future potential of the forest to sequester additional carbon as the land is cleared and burned. Protecting and restoring these forests and natural landscapes are equally as important as eliminating our fossil fuel use to help mitigate the effects of climate change.
At Keystone we’re integrating agroforestry practices on the ground. Agroforestry is a land management system that enables both trees and crops to grow together. First we begin by acknowledging the individual climatic and soil conditions, as it helps us determine which native trees and crops are able to survive the sparse and degraded landscapes. By carefully choosing native species, we are able to regenerate the land and reinvigorate it to its true state.
This unique system is designed to improve the quality and productivity of society and the environment, all the while increasing food security through greater crop yields - turning our negative ecological impact into a positive. It also helps relieve the pressure of overgrazed land, reduces erosion, increases biodiversity and is capable of improving water infiltration which is vital for increasing soil fertility for agriculture and ameliorating the microclimate.
The programme will bring about huge social benefits, such as increasing the farmers’ self-reliance, by encouraging them to supplement and diversify their diet with the plethora of crops that will be grown. Furthermore, it will strengthen the local communities and invigorate the local economy by providing an opportunity for many to sell their surplus crops.
Agroforestry is part of a growing movement for sustainable and organic agricultural practices. It has taken on a new urgency with the recent coronavirus pandemic as scientists warn that the climate crisis and escalated land development will heighten the chances of another deadly virus jumping from animals to humans. The fears of another global pandemic on the horizon could be the very reason that more sustainable agricultural practices are introduced to help reinvigorate our planet.
As global warming reaches historical new highs, both corporates and individuals are increasingly looking towards concrete climate change solutions to reverse, or at least mitigate the severe damage that has already occurred. Tree planting is the one of the worlds biggest and cheapest ways of absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere., which will in turn help offset emissions from sectors like aviation where alternatives are not yet available.
The roots of ESG emerge from Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), where money is not invested in companies that engage in environmentally and socially irresponsible practices. In fact the first instance of SRI dates back 200 years ago where the Methodist movement protested against investing in companies that were involved with making weapons and tobacco. The main difference between SRI and ESG lies in the fact that investing based on ESG criteria is considered to make financial sense as well, and is not solely tied to a moralistic stance against unethical businesses.
As such, ESG investing began in January 2004 when former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote to over 50 CEOs of major financial institutions, inviting them to participate in a joint initiative under the auspices of the UN Global Compact and with the support of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Swiss Government. The goal of the initiative was to find ways to integrate ESG into capital markets.
A year later this initiative produced a report titled ‘Who cares Wins’. The report made the case that embedding environmental, social and governance factors in capital markets makes good business sense and leads to more sustainable markets and better outcomes for societies. And it does. At the same time, a similar report called the ‘Freshfield Report’ was produced by UNEP, which highlighted how ESG issues are particularly relevant for financial valuation. Together, these two reports formed the backbone for the launch of the Principles of Responsible Investment (PRI) at the New York Stock Exchange in 2006 and the launch of the Sustainable Stock Exchange Initiative (SSEI) a year later.
Today, the PRI now has 1600 members representing assets worth over $70 trillion. As the effects of the climate crisis are felt more widely and accepted, it is without doubt that ESG compliance is going to become increasingly important. Already we have seen ESG investments accelerating, most evident between 2014-2016 where ESG commitment had increase by 41% - amounting to $8.4 trillion worth of assets according to the GSIA.
Interestingly, investments in green stocks and companies during the coronavirus have faired much better as a result of their ESG parameters, and are as such reaping better financial results. All in all it emphasises how they are proving to be more resilient in the downturn, and yet still retaining all the impact they are having.
The greatest barrier that is currently preventing ESG compliance to be the norm is the lack of data available to stakeholders. The ESG ecosystem involves investors, governments, international regulators and data providers, where the data providers are the backbone of this ecosystem and the ones to fuel all the other members’ decisions. What we need now is the government to prioritise and work towards providing high resolution data such as AI and satellite imagery, that will provide stakeholders with the necessary information so that they can invest with confidence. Prioritising these efforts is imperative if we are to mitigate climate-change disasters that are now happening far too often.