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Danone cultivates multinational effort to restore biodiversity

What’s at stake: the future of farming.

A diverse group of 19 multinational companies — including food giant Danone, cosmetics queen L’Oreal and data powerhouse Google — are digging deep to plant the seeds for a global push to protect and promote biodiversity.

The short-term goal of this coalition, officially dubbed One Planet Business for Biodiversity and coordinated by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, is to identify "systemic, meaningful, measurable solutions" supporting the broader use of regenerative agriculture; creating expanded product portfolios to move away from a dangerous reliance on monoculture; and laying the groundwork for actions that will restore fragile ecosystems including grasslands, wetlands and forests.

Its first deadline: June, when the members will meet to define these actions, as well as how "success" will be measured.

But the bigger splash is intended for October 2020, when the United Nations will convene the next big Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

"It’s not a purely CSR-driven or philanthropy-driven or ‘give back’ or even because I’m an activist. It’s a bunch of serious executives that have decided that the future of their business is there. And that’s the direction," said Emmanuel Faber, chairman and CEO of Danone, the world’s largest B Corp. Faber has been working behind the scenes for the past nine months to germinate this. "We need to reopen the catalog of solutions that we have in the fields."

Why now? For one thing, decades of talk about improving agricultural diversity have yielded abysmal results, Faber told GreenBiz. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) recently reported that of the 6,000 unique plant species cultivated for food, just nine species account for 66 percent of total crop production. There’s a very justified concern among food and beverage, cosmetics, hygiene, personal care, home care and textiles companies that they will not be able to secure certain commodities in the future, he said.

biodiversity, field
Jessica Long, managing director of strategy and sustainability for Accenture, said that concern about biodiversity was a theme that boiled up in a study of 1,000 CEOs released last week by Accenture and the U.N. Global Compact. Aside from the sectors already managed, chemical companies are also paying closer attention to this issue, she suggested.

"The Convention on Biodiversity will be massive," she said. "It will be a first call that we really need to step up. We’re coming into this new generation of science-conscious CEOs, and there is a real recognition that it can’t just be an environmental initiative. This is a supply chain — a community agenda."

Meanwhile, people around the world — especially the millennial and Gen X generations — are gravitating toward food choices that are sourced locally and sourced increasingly from plants. They are asking harder questions about ingredients, farming methods and human rights, Faber said.

"CEOs understand that on one side, there is the business resilience," he said. "On the other side, there is a demand from the younger generation. When you meet demand with supply, you have a business."

As of Sept. 23, the coalition included members that do business in more than 120 countries and that generate annual combined revenue of $500 billion: Balbo Group; Barry Callebaut; DSM; Firmenich; Jacobs Douwe Egberts; Kellogg; Kering; Loblaw Companies; Mars; Migros Ticaret; McCain Foods; Nestle; Symrise; The Livelihood Funds; Unilever; and Yara.

Like many other initiatives focused on the future of food, prioritizing regenerative agriculture will be a primary focus of action for this biodiversity coalition. Investing in healthy soil is one key to addressing the degradation of agricultural land around the world, because it can absorb water far more effectively, enhance ecosystem services and improve fertility for microbes, plants and animals.

Many companies involved already have taken steps on an individual basis. For example, Danone’s North American operation launched in March 2018 a $6 million soil health initiative focused on supporting dairy farms investing in soil carbon sequestration, reduced chemicals use, biodiversity and other methods of improving soil water holding capacity.

Danone North American pays its farmers on a "cost-plus" model. Its contracts are negotiated on a long-term basis and include the expenses incurred by farmers for investing in sustainability and soil health plus a profit margin on top of that.

We’re coming into this new generation of science-conscious CEOs, and there is a real recognition it can’t just be an environmental initiative. This is a supply chain — a community agenda.
One of those operations, MVP Dairy, supplies Danone’s largest U.S. yogurt factory in Minster, Ohio. The operation has been in the McCarty family for more than 100 years. Among other things, it uses an anaerobic treatment cell system to advance its sustainability goals.

"Our desire to work with Danone started with their commitment to create more healthy and more sustainably produced foods," Kyle VanTilburg, co-owner of MVP Dairy, said in July. "Our family has been farming here in Ohio for more than four generations, and we are passionate about using farming methods to ensure we are conserving the land and improving soil health for generations to come."

Portfolio diversification will be critical as well, Faber said. In certain regions, such as the south of France, fields no longer will be able to support the crops that have covered them in recent decades — in part because many plants have been so hybridized and bioengineered that they have lost their ability to adapt to changing weather and growing conditions.

Last but not least, investing in biodiversity is necessary to make progress on fighting deforestation, Faber suggested, necessary for addressing the temptation for agricultural operations in both established and emerging economies to clearcut trees for the sake of food.

"The missing link between the wild diversity and wildlife, and what we do every day, is what happens in the field," he said.

By providing a strong framework, the coalition hopes to inspire more "informed" government policies when it comes to agricultural subsidies. Right now, the support for smallholder farms — Faber calls them the "guardians of biodiversity" — is severely lacking. So the coalition also will concern itself with creating new investment models and pricing mechanism, such as a carbon market for soil sequestration activities.

"We need to make sure that we have the finance system support all this," Faber said. "Agriculture does not get the help it should be getting."

One framework that doubtless will be used to inform the coalition’s work is a joint statement on biodiversity (PDF) issued by 13 conservation organizations in early 2019. Their vision suggests that in order to restore the earth’s unhealthy ecosystems to sustainable levels by 2050, we must focus on conserving at least 30 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 30 percent of oceans. Creating One Planet Business by Biodiversity is one step toward reaching that challenging goal, but this will be a long journey.

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