Magazine Issues » September 2019

Opinion: Cherries at Christmas

Fiona_RintoulBack in the early 1990s, I visited St Petersburg with a couple of friends. One of them worked for a charity that operated in Russia, and so, to save money, we rented a flat on a St Petersburg housing estate from someone he knew. This was a revelation in many ways. I had never seen anything to compare with Russia’s crumbling residential infrastructure at that time.

The other revelation was food. The supermarket near the flat did not offer much choice – there was one kind of sausage and one kind of cheese – and so we went to a local farmers’ market. It wasn’t very clean, and the food was not presented in the sanitised Cellophane packing we were used to. But the biggest shock was this. The food we bought tasted amazing. Much better than anything we had ever tasted at home. Back in the UK, I bought organic vegetables, free-range eggs and artisanal butcher meat, but I never succeeded in finding anything as good. Eventually, I concluded that the way we produce food in developed countries destroys a good part of its taste.

Now there is another problem with our food production. It is not sustainable. Nowhere is this truer that in the animal protein industries. New research from FAIRR – a global network of investors that addresses ESG issues in protein supply chains and compiles the Coller FAIRR Protein Producer index of 60 publicly listed animal protein producers, with a combined market cap of $324 billion – highlights the problems. According to FAIRR, which is supported by investment managers with assets under management of $17.1 trillion, 77% of major meat, fish and dairy producers do not measure all their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and do not have meaningful targets to reduce them.

This contrasts with the transport sector, which gets a much tougher rap. Undeservedly, it would seem, as livestock release more emissions than all cars, planes and trains combined.

And failure to measure GHG is just one sustainability issue. Others include deforestation, water pollution, antibiotics, animal welfare and worker safety. “Investors need to understand these risks and better industry disclosure is needed,” says Eva Cairns, ESG investment analyst, climate change at Aberdeen Standard Investments, a member of the FAIRR investor network. “The impact of agriculture and food production on climate change has long been overlooked and needs a lot more attention now.”

The Coller FAIRR index provides a nuanced look at the problems. Some may be surprised to see that Norwegian fish-farming firm Mowi, which has been in the news for transporting millions of dead fish from Scottish island sites to landfill, is one of its best performers. New Zealand dairy cooperative Fonterra is another, while four poultry firms languish in the bottom five.

The index and the information around it create a call to action. We must hope that producers heed it for their own sakes as much as the planet’s. It also shows how climate change has hurt meat and dairy producers. In 2018-19, Australian Agricultural Company, Australia’s biggest beef company, suffered huge losses, partly due to extreme weather events.

As a species, we perhaps need to ask ourselves deeper questions. Like, why are we eating packaged foods? What happened to seasonality? A Slovenian friend recalls her teacher disparaging people “who want cherries at Christmas”. To an extent, we have all become those people. We need to stop. Maybe then we’ll get tomatoes (in season) as delicious as the ones they used to sell in St Petersburg market.

Fiona Rintoul is editor-at-large at Funds Europe

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