The torrid heat wave that made last month the hottest on record and left a devastating drought in key farm states underscores that climate change is no longer just a theoretical foreshadowing of future events — it has very real-world, present-day consequences.
Moreover, the deleterious effect of the drought on corn and soybean crop yields — and the expected boost that is expected to give to retail food prices — means that climate change is having a direct impact on the food industry. Since drought conditions, along with other extreme weather events, are likely to continue, food companies will be dealing with crop and price swings for some time to come.
So what should the food industry do about this?
If one takes the position of at least 97% of the world’s climate scientists, climate change is the result of carbon emissions generated largely by fossil fuels used to produce energy. Many food retailers have voluntarily sought to limit their energy consumption — at the same time helping their bottom lines — and some have invested in alternative energy sources like solar and wind. A number of retailers have joined the Environmental Protection Agency’s GreenChill program to cut down on refrigerant leaks that also contribute to climate change.
Industry trade associations have been very proactive in supporting environmental initiatives. In 2007, the Food Marketing Institute launched a Sustainability Task Force that continues to develop tools and resources for retailers, and FMI produces the annual Energy and Store Development Conference, to be held next month. FMI and the Grocery Manufacturers Association jointly sponsor the Sustainability Summit, another valuable conference taking place in October.
What I would still like to see food industry trade groups do, however, is lobby on Capitol Hill for legislation that would directly address the need to transition from fossil fuels like oil and coal to alternative energy sources (including natural gas, a cleaner fossil fuel) through some regulation of the former and support for the latter. What that regulation would be — cap and trade, a carbon tax or something else — is open to debate, but some kind of limits are needed if we are to truly curtail greenhouse gas emissions.
Granted, no Congressional action will take place until after the November elections. But then it should be time to get serious about energy legislation. Or the food industry can accept a future filled with extreme weather, crop and price uncertainty.
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