Is the fresh produce industry ready to fight climate change?

Food, and food production, has a particularly unique relationship with climate change. Agriculture is a major contributor to the problem, accounting for 13 percent of global emissions in 2011 — making it the second-largest industry contributing to climate change, behind the energy sector. But agriculture is also extremely vulnerable to the kind of climatic shocks that runaway climate change could spur, from shifting precipitation patterns to rising sea levels. A growing body of studies suggests that climate change could be really bad news for agriculture — it could make crops poisonous, make crops less nutritious, and make crops more difficult to grow, among other consequences.

Already, food companies are dealing with the challenges of producing food in a changed climate. In 2010, heavy rains and flooding in Guatemala affected banana production, which led to some $9 million in losses for Fresh Del Monte Produce. That same year, a severe drought in Russia and subsequent ban on wheat exports sent shockwaves throughout the global market, causing General Mills’ share prices to drop 2.2 percent. And, in recent years, Libby’s Pumpkin — a Nestle-owned company and supplier of the majority of the world’s canned pumpkin — has seen declines in their U.S. pumpkin harvest due to an increase in precipitation throughout the pumpkin-producing state of Illinois.

Challenges like these mean that food companies have a vested interest in cutting emissions and attempting to stave off the kind of climate shocks that could disrupt the food supply chain. A handful of companies have already acknowledged this, and are taking steps to both revamp their own practices and push for policies that encourage action on climate change. In October, just months before the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, chief executives from Mars, General Mills, Unilever, Kellogg, Nestle, New Belgium Brewing, Ben & Jerry’s, Clif Bar, Stonyfield Farm, and Dannon published a letter in the Washington Post and Financial Times urging both domestic and world leaders to enact policies that tackle climate change.

“The challenge presented by climate change will require all of us — government, civil society and business — to do more with less. For companies like ours, that means producing more food on less land using fewer natural resources. If we don’t take action now, we risk not only today’s livelihoods, but those of future generations,” the letter read. “We are asking you to embrace the opportunity presented to you in Paris, and to come back with a sound agreement, properly financed, that can affect real change.”