"Forty per cent of soils globally are depleted," Danone CEO says

"Forty per cent of soils globally are depleted," Danone CEO says

Food companies can appeal to growing consumer interest in how what they eat is grown by working to improve the planet's biodiversity, Danone CEO Emmanuel Faber has told just-food.

Faber today (23 September) launched a "coalition" of FMCG companies, ingredient suppliers and retailers that have pledged to work together to "protect and restore" the planet's biodiversity.

The issue of biodiversity has risen up the environmental agenda in recent months. In February, a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned the future of the food system was under "severe threat" because of the number of animal and plant species that are disappearing. According to the FAO, nine plant species account for 66% of the world's crop production.

Food companies including Danone, Mars and McCain Foods are joining forces in areas such as regenerative agriculture and deforestation in order to "promote biodiversity and catalyse systemic change" within the agri-food sector.

Faber, who presented the One Planet Business for Biodiversity (OP2B) at the United Nations Climate Action Summit today, said tackling the "depletion of biodiversity" was not just a matter of corporate responsibility but could have the added benefit for companies of appealing to the evolving demands of consumers.

"Consumer trends for the first time ever are going in the direction where biodiversity might not only be a question of reputation for large FMCG companies and retailers but really a matter of transformative business propositions with value to create," the Frenchman, often a vocal advocate for corporations to work to address global environmental and social problems, said.

The Danone chief said consumer demand for more local food and for provenance would act as a "driver" for action to improve biodiversity. More broadly, he also argued younger generations were becoming more critical of the food system presently in place.

"People want more local food. The localisation of food is a natural driver of biodiversity, of cultivated biodiversity, as much as the globalisation of food over the last 50 or 100 years has, on the contrary, been the killer of cultivated biodiversity," he argued.

"The food revolution is happening everywhere. People continue to walk away from large brands. They look at them as kind of the previous generation of brands. And the younger generation, when they look at the older generation, they are looking at us as people that have not been delivering. I think the brands and the companies that stay that same age will be judged on the same basis."

Action, Faber asserted, will help legacy food companies reconnect with the increasing number of more environmentally-conscious consumers and compete with the wave of new competition hitting the food industry. Local, small brands are "recreating another [food] system", Faber said.

"It's a fact," he insisted. "And the fact is we have the choice of disrupting our own [system]. There is a virtuous circle. When brands are turning and are disrupting, they are regaining a connection with consumers and with this pretty demanding generation that will mean a future for our brands, our employees, our shareholders, and also our suppliers and all the agricultural partners that we have around the world."

Announcing the OP2B coalition today, the member companies, which also include B2B chocolate giant Barry Callebaut and Canadian retailer Loblaw, argued the "globalised and highly specialised agricultural system" is leading to the "loss of diversity on farms, loss of ingredient diversity in diets and [the] degradation of ecosystems".

The coalition said it would work with the public sector and with NGOs on "three main areas of focus – "scaling up" regenerative agriculture practices "to protect soil health", developing product portfolios to "boost cultivated biodiversity" by using a wider range of ingredients and "eliminating" deforestation.

Asked when the consumer-facing companies in the OP2B coalition could launch products developed as part of their efforts, Faber said: "It's hard for me to say. We want to be super serious on this. I think the reality is that probably already one year from now, we will have a number of examples across the whole coalition. But by then we would have put together the metrics for a multi-year programme on the diversification of our supply crops, seeds, species of animals, etc, that are involved in the food products of our portfolios."

The OP2B coalition has pledged for its work to "extend through to 2030" but its members have pledged that, by June 2020, they will "develop a compendium of systemic, meaningful, measurable solutions" the companies can use in their supply chains.

By October next year, the coalition said it will also "disclose ambitious, time-bound and measurable commitments" as well as "policy proposals that would help to deliver successful outcomes".

Faber said the coalition's "efforts are going to be driven outside of the GMO system". In 2016, Danone notably announced it would use more non-genetically-modified ingredients in the production of its yogurt sold in the US, a move Faber says was made to meet consumer demand and to promote biodiversity in the country's supply chain.

"We are absolutely clear on the fact that our – this coalition's – efforts are going to be driven outside of the GMO system. Not that I have anything against GMOs, but the fact is that they're so efficient in the short term that they drive a loss of biodiversity. So much money is invested in research in GMOs and so little is invested in nature-based solutions that this is going to be the push of this coalition," Faber said.

"I'm not saying that ag-tech is not part of the solution. I don't think we should stop researching and thinking and finding solutions, etc., but it's a matter of looking at the solutions from another angle and starting to spend money, resources, talent, energy, science on other sides, because we have clearly overgrown that side of things. We have blind spots in this approach."