Ep18: Food systems investors on COP26
Welcome to Feed a food systems podcast presented by TABLE – a collaboration between U Oxford, SLU and Wageningen U. I’m Matthew Kessler.
This is the second episode in a mini-series on COP-26 held in Glasgow in November 2021, which is where Feed’s co-host Samara Brock was at the time of this recording. You can listen to the first episode now where we heard from a Scottish NGO, a Swedish youth activist and politician from Sao Paolo. Our guests were disappointed to see that little attention was given to food systems during COP. They believe food was left of out of the discussion because it is thought of as too personal, difficult and complicated to address.
In this episode, we examine efforts to halt or reverse deforestation from an investment perspective and we see that it’s impossible to talk about deforestation without talking about the food system. One of the main causes and culprits of deforestation is from converting forest land into agricultural production. In different parts of the world, forests are converted into soy or palm monocultures and into pasturelands for cattle ranching. While the total area of forest now under legal protection has increased, the rate of deforestation has remained at around 10 million hectares per year between 2015 and 2020. Another way to think about this is forests the equivalent of nearly 4 Swedens have been deforested each year.
This is all to say that reversing forest loss – which has many socio and ecological consequences for biodiversity, for different cultures and for peoples’ livelihoods – is an important part of the toolkit in slowing down and reversing global warming.
But what does it actually look like to influence large companies to change their practices? How might food systems investors use their unique leverage to reverse this trend? And how do they work with other stakeholders including agribusiness, NGOs and policymakers?
We speak with Annalisa Tarizzo and Thomas Peterson, two shareholder advocates for Green Century Capital Management, the investment advisor to the Green Century Funds. It’s worth saying that Green Century is not your typical mutual fund. The Green Century Funds are the first family of fossil fuel free and diversified mutual funds in the United States. And Green Century Capital Management is the only mutual fund company in the U.S. wholly owned by environmental and public health nonprofit organizations They are pioneers in this field, though they aren’t necessarily representative of the whole investor class.
We’ll first here Thomas and Annalisa introduce themselves.
My name is Thomas Peterson and I'm a shareholder advocate with Green Century Capital Management and my work at Green Century focuses mostly on our tropical forest protection campaign but also on deforestation more generally, and increasingly on full value chain emissions for companies in food and agriculture.
And my name is Annalisa Tarizzo. I'm also a shareholder advocate with Green Century Capital Management. And my work focuses on engaging companies related to deforestation in part, but my primary issue area is plastic packaging reduction. And I've also done some engagements on pesticide use.
Thank you so much both of you for joining us. And maybe we could start with what is green century Capital Management, what is their mission, and then what exactly is a shareholder advocate?
Green Century Capital Management is an environmentally responsible mutual fund company based in Boston. So we operate three different mutual funds and we aim to have an environmental impact through our work in three ways. First, is that we aim to invest in sustainable companies through those funds, companies that are leaders in their fields in terms of ESG ratings.
And just to clarify for people ESG is environmental and social governance.
The second is that we have a shareholder advocacy program. And that means we engage directly with companies in our portfolio on a variety of sustainability issues in order to push them to improve their current policies and practices. And then thirdly, we are actually owned by a group of nonprofit organizations. And so 100% of our profits from managing the Green Century funds go back to those organizations to contribute to their legislative campaigns on environmental and public health issues.
Alright, so it might be a little hard to disentangle this, but I’d like to first talk about the topic of investments in food systems, and then turn to your work at Green Century, and some of your examples and some of the hopes for COP 26. Food Systems are really complex, and they incorporate all aspects from farm production to supply chain management, to retail and restaurants. From your perspective, what part of the food system is in your purview as investors? And what role can or should investors play in encouraging food systems change?
First, I should say that our approach to food systems investments is the same as our approach to other investments in our portfolio. So we use these environmental, social and governance ratings to invest in companies that lead in their sectors on a variety of sustainability issues. So in all of the different food and agriculture sectors that we invest in, we aim to invest in sectoral leaders. And in addition to screening out the fossil fuel industry in all of our funds. So we're the first family of entirely fossil fuel free mutual funds in the US. One of our funds, also screens out factory farms. So that's an additional approach that we take to screening when it comes to the food system. However, we believe that even best in their class companies have room for improvement, which is where our shareholder advocacy program comes in. And what our shareholder advocacy program does is we engage with the companies that we hold, to push them to improve their practices on a range of different environmental metrics.
And so when it comes to food systems, we engage with companies that kind of run the gamut in the food system. So we engage with retailers that sell food, typically we’ll engage them on upstream deforestation, on pesticide use, on the use of medically important antibiotics in the products that they sell in the emissions in their value chain. But we also engage fast moving consumer goods companies. So the big food companies - food and packaged goods companies that are providing the foods that those retailers are selling. And we're also engaging with big agricultural commodity traders further upstream. And I think the final piece there is that we also do engage with banks on their financing of forest risk commodities. So you could argue that that's even further upstream, or at the same level as the trader is, so we're pushing banks to ensure that they're not financing the destruction of tropical forests for our food systems.
And that's a really clear example of encouraging banks to not invest. Can you maybe also talk about some of the other places? Can you make some of these more kind of tangible connections of how that encourages food system change?
Yeah, definitely. So we could walk through some different examples in each of those at each of those different levels. Deforestation is a major focus of our advocacy work. And since the majority of tropical deforestation is driven by the production of just a couple of agricultural commodities, so beef, soy palm oil, and wood, pulp and paper, we do a lot of engagements with companies throughout the value chain focused on their policies related to those commodities. And we see that as a way of driving change in the way those commodities are produced and ensuring that the production of those commodities doesn't drive tropical deforestation. So a recent example looking further upstream, and Annalisa, if you'd like to talk about this more, we've been engaging with Archer Daniels Midland and Bungie which are two of the largest agricultural commodity traders on the conversion of native vegetation in their soy supply chain.
Yes, they are. They're huge companies with very extensive supply chains. So we've been engaging with both of them since around 2015. And through an initial shareholder proposal that we've filed with those companies.
And before we go further, what is a shareholder proposal?
A shareholder proposal is basically a 500 word document that you can present that a shareholder who owns a certain amount of stock can present to all shareholders of a company at their annual meeting. Through an initial shareholder proposal that we filed with those companies. We secured their very first no deforestation commitments. And since 2015, we've continued to engage with both of them to ensure that their commitments were being implemented effectively, and to strengthen further those goals that they had originally set to ensure that deforestation is eventually eliminated from their supply chains.
So this past year, we filed a shareholder proposal with Archer Daniels Midland with ADM. And we were actually able to negotiate what we would call a withdrawal agreement. So we took back the proposal in exchange for the company committing to some policy changes. And so ADM is going to be increasing some of their reporting around or actually has already increased some of their reporting around the actual volume of deforestation and conversion free soy that they source, they've also updated some of their policies to include native vegetation conversion, an effort to eliminate native vegetation conversion in their supply chain.
An issue that we have been very focused on with both ADM and Bungie is that they source soy from a region in Brazil called the Cerrado, which is not technically a forest. But it's very important biome for biodiversity, it stores a significant amount of carbon in its root system. And there are not as many legal protections in Brazil for the Cerrado as there are for the Amazon, for example. And so, ADM has included some language around native vegetation conversion now in their deforestation policy, amidst some other changes. And so we've also, at the same time, filed a shareholder proposal with Bungie who we were trying to work through some similar negotiations. Unfortunately, we were unable to come to a withdrawal agreement with the company at the time. And so our proposal actually got voted on by all of Bungie’s shareholders in May. And the proposal that we filed, the company ended up supporting our proposal. And so we got a 98% vote in support from shareholders, which is a pretty mind boggling number for a shareholder vote. Normally, we get maybe 30%. So getting majority vote like that was pretty significant. And now we're continuing to work with the company to hopefully make some substantive changes to their deforestation policy to strengthen it.
So one of Green Century’s tactics to shift big companies towards more sustainable practices is through filing these shareholder proposals. As Annalisa said, shareholders with a certain percentage of shares in the company can present a proposal, which tends to recommend a specific course of action. They’re then voted on by the rest of the shareholders. If it seems like something might pass, it often passes resoundingly even though it doesn’t necessarily reflect the personal view of all the shareholders. They don’t want to seem out of step.
So this seemed like two pretty big victories in recent period for you, what do you attribute to the success? I suppose you began conversations in 2015. Was this slow process that built over time? Was there perhaps a turning point or a threshold that was reached?
Yeah. When Green Century started working on the issue of deforestation, it was very new within the investor community, not a lot of firms were talking about it. And over time, we've really made a concerted effort to help investors understand that deforestation risk is contributing to climate change can impact their portfolios. And so we've seen really a massive shift in how investors think about this issue and see increasing focus in terms of investor engagement, and also a really pivotal shift in the way that large asset managers are voting for shareholder proposals on this issue. So prior to 2020, none of the big three asset managers who are Blackrock, State Street and Vanguard had voted for a deforestation related shareholder proposal, and then in the Fall of 2020 all three voted for the very first time on a proposal that we have filed with Procter and Gamble. So we've seen a really large marked shift in the way that investors think about this issue.
That's really interesting. So food system work and the investment world are entangled with maybe every other actor in the food system. There's the work of NGOs to bring about this messaging. There's the work of governments and policymakers to make your life either easier or harder. And the role of corporations as illustrated in this agreement, can you talk about how your work is different from or complementing the role of other actors in making food systems change?
Well, a lot of our work is reliant on what's happening both in the NGO space and in the governmental space. So when there are new regulations on the table, new legislation on the table, it shows companies that there are potential regulatory risks ahead for them if they're not dealing with deforestation. So that piece helps us make the case to companies that this is a risk, they need to be considering if there's action on the government front. At the same time when NGOs are bringing these issues to light that helps broaden the understanding at companies and within the investor community that these things are a problem that there needs to be a response to. And I think, the useful place that we fit in as investors as shareowners of companies, we have unique leverage there. And I think there is increasing understanding in environmental movements broadly in the climate movement, that this is a really important leverage point that investors need to be taking a more active role in ensuring that their investments are not fueling climate destruction or not fueling deforestation. And so I think the role that we have is that we have that special position with regards to a company where, you know, they need to listen to the feedback of their investors, and we can file these shareholder proposals, which then all of the other shareholders can vote on. And we can provide feedback that way. So I think we work in tandem with other groups that are doing this kind of work to sort of move the needle forward, but have a special influence when it comes to working with companies.
And how about your relationship with policymakers? What can policymakers do to either help investors take more action on climate change in food systems? And what do investors need from any particular deal out of COP26 to make your life easier? What are your hopes to come out of COP26?
Well, there are a couple of factors at play a couple of different ways to answer this question. One piece that makes things easier for us is when governments are setting really strict policies around deforestation, because obviously legal deforestation is an issue many places. And then that means that we have to work with companies to create policies that go above and beyond what the laws require for their supply chains. And so if deforestation is more comprehensively illegal, and is enforced better, that doesn't become an issue as much. So ensuring that governments are setting strong goals related to eliminating all deforestation, legal or not, is really important. And it's definitely something that we hope to see out of COP. And it's definitely been good to see that there's movement in that direction that the UK Government is asking world leaders to pledge to halt deforestation by 2030. So seeing buy in to that ask from the COP presidency will definitely be important. The other piece related to the COP meeting on the investor end is that the COP26 presidency has called on the financial community to commit to zero deforestation portfolios by 2025. And so that's another piece - it'll be interesting to see what happens there. If you know really big forces in the financial community are moving in that direction. And it'll send a clear message to companies that they need to move quickly to rid deforestation from their supply chains. And then that will help to end the financial incentives to continue commodity driven deforestation.
Is there anything you want to add to that Annalisa?
Thomas covered it pretty well. But I guess I'll just add that we also work with both companies in the food and agriculture sector, and companies in other sectors on setting science-based greenhouse gas reduction targets. And so the stronger signal that countries can send that they are going to enact legislation that will require more emissions reductions in line with the 1.5 degrees scenario, the easier it is for us to convince companies to direct their efforts in that direction. We've seen a lot of companies come forward with big commitments. But there was a recent study that said a very small fraction of the Fortune 500, for example, in the US actually has science based emissions reduction goals, so anything that can push that along as well would make our lives easier.
And I don't know if I'm stepping on a third rail here talking to investors. But I'm curious about what you'd find the role of divestment - as in not investing in polluting companies - if that's a tool or strategy for asking them to engage in environmental and social issues or efforts to drive changes in agribusiness practices.
Yeah, that is a really interesting question for Green Century in particular, because we are an entirely fossil fuel free mutual fund company. And we're very strong proponents of divestment from a very early point in the divestment movement. So we do believe in in that tool as a way to drive change and send a signal to the market that there are certain industries like oil and gas that are just not compatible with a livable future basically. In terms of divestment for Agribusiness companies, though, and other food companies. We're not I don't think we're at that point yet. We, we are seeing progress through our engagement strategies. And so it's obviously not something that can be ruled out. But I think we are seeing progress being made. And so wouldn't go to that point quite yet.
I agree with that. And I think the key difference that we would draw between the fossil fuel industry and agribusiness, even though obviously, both of them are massive contributors to climate warming emissions, is that the fossil fuel industry just has to end. And it has to be replaced by alternative forms of energy generation. But the food and agriculture industry obviously is not going to end cannot people need to be fed. And so there is a productive path of engagement here towards working with the major companies that control our global food systems to adopt more sustainable practices on a whole range of different issues, but in this context, on reducing the emissions of their value chains, we think that that is a productive and necessary enterprise in a way that it's not with a business model that just simply has to wind down and stop. And we think that although obviously there are a lot of negative impacts of the massive consolidation that we see in the food and agribusiness industry, one thing that it does mean is that when we get one of these massive actors to move and improve their policies that can have huge follow on impact, especially if they're applying it to their full value chain and all of their suppliers.
I'm very lucky to be speaking with both of you because I think this could be the end of the interview and some other conversations with other investors. So I'm happy to have this exchange and learn and I think that is an interesting and important distinction, how you view fossil fuel versus agribusiness and their contributions to society. A follow up question of this is that ESG investing is, it’s still a minority in the investment world. Clearly, it's growing, and you're already sharing several examples of how you're making an impact. I'm wondering what do you think it would take to make ESG investing more mainstream?
It's a good question. I think it is quickly becoming more mainstream, the trends in that direction continue. I think, increasingly, major investors, major asset managers are seeing that climate and biodiversity risks are material. There are systemic risks of the financial system. And so I think that will continue to move the whole investment world in that direction. On the fundamentals, the climate situation, the biodiversity situation, they're both going to get worse. And I think as those impacts are seen on supply chains, when you see climate impacts disrupting supply chains, people will realize more and more just how material these impacts are for the companies that they hold. And so I think that that will keep moving things in the ESG direction. And I hope that action is more proactive rather than responsive there. But there's sort of no turning around the ship.
Yeah, and I'll just add that, we are seeing this massive growth in the availability of ESG focused investment tools. But we're also simultaneously seeing this growth in basically greenwashing of investment products. And so it's really important for people who are going out and seeking those kinds of products to really dig into the details. You know, what are these funds that say that they are ESG? What are they actually investing in? Are they doing any work to improve the companies that they do deem sustainable enough to invest in? It's one thing for the industry to grow the way that it is now, but it's another for it to become a really effective tool to make change. There's still a lot of work to be done there.
Do you have any red flags or telltale signs for a company that might be using this type of language for greenwashing?
Yeah, I think the most common one is like a low carbon fund. You know, those kinds of funds could still be investing in fossil fuel companies that are directly driving the climate crisis. It takes some digging into the holdings, I think, to really determine whether they're walking the walk or not.
This question might be redundant, I wonder if you could share some examples from your portfolio that outline Green Century’s mission for food system investments, you name some earlier, but if there's some additional ones that you'd like to speak to.
So we have over the years engage on a lot of different issues related to the food system, one that we've been working on for the past couple years is working to reduce the use of synthetic pesticides in agriculture. And so one successful engagement that we had there was with General Mills, so we had filed proposals for two years in a row with General Mills urging them to set goals to reduce synthetic pesticide use in their supply chain and they actually pledged to adopt a goal to increase the use of regenerative agriculture practices on 1 million acres of farmland in their supply chain by 2030. This has been really an industry leading commitment related to sustainable agriculture. And as this commitment, I think they first made it in 2019, and so over the last two years, they've really come out with a lot more detail about how they're going to go about doing this. And it's, I think, a very promising initiative that some companies are now trying to replicate, which is really great to see.
So I want to move to the Food emissions 50 initiative. So if you could talk a little bit about how this came about, the timeline, and also how it works.
Absolutely. So the Food emissions 50 campaign is a project of a sustainability nonprofit called CERES, and we are one of the initial investor signatories to it and leading a number of the engagements as part of it and what the food emissions 50 company benchmark does is it assesses the 50 largest North American food companies with exposure to the highest emitting agricultural commodities. And it assesses them on their performance in three categories. So their greenhouse gas emissions disclosures for their full value chain – so inclusive of emissions from agriculture and land use change upstream in all of the products that they source. And then it also assesses them on their reduction targets. So whether they've set emissions reduction targets that are inclusive of those emissions, so the agriculture land use change emissions, whether those targets are in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and then finally assessing them on what their progress is towards the development and implementation of climate transition action plans. And the genesis of this project is that the role of the food system in the climate crisis is increasingly clear that estimates ranged from the low 20s to roughly 40% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions being traced to the food system. And so it's really important that focus be placed on high emitting food companies, and on ensuring that they are tracking and pushing to reduce emissions and their value chains globally. Because that's one of the key ways that we can influence what emissions look like around the world by advocating in the corporate space. So that's sort of the thesis behind the campaign. And this benchmark is intended to guide investor engagements like ours with these companies. And so our goals in these engagements with these companies, which range from commodity traders, to fast moving consumer goods companies, to foodservice distributors, to retailers, is to push them to disclose their full emissions, inclusive of agriculture and land use change. And then to set targets for those emissions and then make sure they're moving down the path towards actually achieving those targets.
So it's this multi-pronged approach of trying to improve transparency and recording and then holding people to their commitments.
Absolutely. And a couple things I should add, just to give you a sense of just how huge this scope three piece is for these companies. So scope three emissions refers to all of a company's emissions that don't come from its own operations, or from its purchased electricity, heating and cooling. And so anything downstream or upstream in their value chain, so the products that they source, how they're produced, and then the end use of whatever product that they sell falls into scope three. And for most food and agriculture companies, scope, three emissions from the supply chain, so just upstream represent more than 80% of their total emissions. And for some companies, it's way higher than that. It's in the mid 90s, for many food companies, is supply chain scope-three emissions, and then often the vast majority of that is from agriculture, from land use change, including deforestation, so ensuring that those companies are held accountable for those emissions, and then are also actively working to reduce them is really, really important for in a straightforward and comprehensive way dealing with those companies emissions’ impacts.
And how would you tie this to COP26? Is there a sustained campaign effort? Is the timing. Is that incidental? That this was released several months beforehand?
Yes. I don't believe there's any direct tie in there. I do think the fact that there is such a focus on finance at this COP meeting, and then also a reasonable amount of focus on deforestation certainly helps in sort of continuing to educate companies and investors about the importance of working on these issues, but there's no direct tie in between the Food emissions 50 campaign and cop 26.
One other question, and then I'll shift to wrapping up. What are your views on carbon offsetting and carbon markets in agriculture?
Absolutely, and I'm glad you asked that question. Because I think it's a really important area to discuss and put a lot of focus on right now. We are quite skeptical of offsets in general, and especially the framing of offsets as solutions for companies that have a clear path to decarbonization. We very much prefer to see companies put their time and resources into projects that will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions that they control or that their value chain controls now, that offsets should really only be considered once all other emissions reduction methods have been exhausted.
I guess the only thing I'll add is that we do acknowledge there are certain sectors that are going to be very difficult to decarbonize, like aviation, and those companies and those sectors may need to rely on offsets. And that's sort of, you know, where we get into this other very tricky conversation about how are we actually verifying that offsets are credible, it's really, people always say it's like the wild, wild west right now and in the offset world. And so we need just more clarity around sort of that credibility verification process before we will really feel comfortable supporting any sort of offsets.
And I think the biodiversity offset is even more wild than the carbon offset, wild, wild west. I’m curious what brought you to this work? How did you find yourself working with Green Century how do they fit into your own path?
Um, for me, I have I've always been interested in, in this space in terms of, you know, the environment and combating climate change. But I really didn't realize that it's what I wanted to do for my career until my senior year of college. And so I decided when I was going into that job search that, you know, this was what I was going to try to do. And so I started out right after college working for a university Sustainability Office. And through my work there sort of realized that we were having hitting some roadblocks and implementing some of the policies that we wanted to implement because of some of the corporate contracts that the university had with certain vendors. And so when I was looking around and saw this, this job with Green Century, I was like, wow, I could actually be influencing those kinds of policies and had a kind of full circle moment, engaging with some of the companies that I had been working with my university job. So yeah, it's been a really great way to feel like we really are making an impact.
Really cool how that came full circle. How about you, Thomas?
I definitely never expected to be working in finance, or for a mutual fund. It was not something that I saw in my future. I have been really passionate about climate issues for a really long time and got involved in fossil fuel divestment organizing in high school, and then was engaged in that in college. And so the fact that I'm now working for an organization that was a leader in divestment on the investment side is really exciting for me. But in terms of what really got me doing this advocacy work, I guess, maybe two or three years ago, now I read the novel by Richard Powers, The Overstory, which is about trees and people's relationship to them, and is one of the most profound experiences of a work of art that I've ever had. And while reading it, I had this realization that, well, I knew intellectually, that we're in a sort of world historical crisis when it comes to climate and biodiversity. But that hadn't really sunk in for me at an emotional level until reading this book. But it made me want to devote all of my time career wise into working to protect forests to limit planet warming emissions. And so after that, I started working in grassroots organizing on climate and on conservation issues. And that took me to this job for sort of similar reasons to the ones Annalisa brought up that corporations are - have historically contributed to the problem have massive contributions to greenhouse gas emissions sort of across different corporate industrial sectors. And a key point of leverage with corporations is that held by investors. And seeing all the energy that's happening now on investors pushing corporations on climate and on biodiversity and deforestation related issues more broadly, made me really want to work at a place that was leading work on those issues. And so that's how I ended up at Green Century
And this is a really nerdy podcast move, but there was a recent conversation with Ezra Klein and Richard powers on the Ezra Klein show. And one of the questions he asks at the end of his interviews is what 3 books would you recommend. The way I want to think about tying that in now is are there any books or pieces of work that help you understand the space for people who are maybe are less familiar with the world of investing or these kinds of relations between finance and climate change in food systems?
That is a great question. Annalisa, do you have any off the top of your head?
I'm just like looking back at my bookshelf. (laughs) I actually don't know that I've read a book that really ties all three of those issues together really well. I think it's yet to be written.
I agree. One thing that I will throw out the ties in the climate and finance pieces and that's a fun read as well is Kim Stanley Robinson's new book - or relatively recent book - the Ministry for the future. He is a you know, Sci-fi Cli-fi writer who wrote this massive tome of a book, imagining what he terms the ‘Good Anthropocene’. So if things get bad, climate wise, but are managed relatively well, and the book imagines a new UN agency called the Ministry for the future charged with dealing with the interests of the future, and a lot of it is about what climate finance may need to look like in 10 to 20 years, just sort of the horizon on which the book takes place. And so a lot of it is about monetary policy and how central banks can respond to the climate challenge and is also a novel and enjoyable read and not that dense. I mean, I learned a lot from reading it.
This might be a cliche answer, but I do think The Omnivore's Dilemma is just a great classic for better understanding the food system. And I think, you know, especially the first section of the book that focuses more on big ag, I think really demonstrates the concentration of power found in the food system well.
Thank you both so much for speaking with me.
Thanks for having us.
Of course. Yeah. Thank you.
In the third and final part of the COP series, we will speak with Patty Fong from the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and we’ll discuss the role of policy as an instrument to change the food system. We’ll also hear all the guests from these conversations talk about power and how it operates in the food system, as that will become our focus for the next season of Feed.
Thank you all for listening. This podcast is produced by TABLE, a collaboration between the University of Oxford, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Wageningen University. This podcast was edited and mixed by Matthew Kessler with help from the broader TABLE Community. Music in this episode by Blue Dot sessions. Thank you all for listening and have a great new year.