“We’re in a race to the bottom with impact accounting”

here needs to be action to bring food metrics together. The time has come for the food system to be truly accountable” – and with those words co-founder Gavin Wren launched the new non-profit OmniAction on January 27th.

Lise Colyer

February 03, 2022

“There needs to be action to bring food metrics together. The time has come for the food system to be truly accountable” – and with those words co-founder Gavin Wren launched the new non-profit OmniAction on January 27.

It aims to address greenwashing, slavery, land theft, poor diets and poor food safety protections. The launch event drew a global audience of more than 600 via Zoom, TikTok and Facebook.

In video

Executive director Lise Colyer explained that she arrived at the initial idea for OmniAction, “Because everyone I interviewed for Quota.Media – no matter what country they were in or their role in the food system – said this cannot go on. Things have to change. But there is no agreed set of parameters.”

Agriculture and food’s systemic failures include producing one third of all greenhouse gas emissions, she said. In addition, the supply chain is plagued by child and forced labour, and poor, inadequate food is the biggest killer in the world.

The team would define what a multi-metric approach should include for data scientists, elevate labour rights and land sovereignty to equal billing as impacts to be measured, promote high food safety internationally, and explore how nutrition in the food matrix could be better reflected.

It aimed to address the lack of regulation and accountability around all five of its key metrics, which are the environmental, labour, land, food safety and nutritional impacts of agriculture and food.

“The wrong people have decision making power when it comes to reporting food impacts”

By curating a global, agreed framework on the criteria all food should be assessed against, transparent labelling for consumers and sustainability measurements for investors and financiers become possible.

Co-founder Anya Doherty said, “We’re in a race to the bottom when it comes to impact accounting.”

In her role as Founder of Foodsteps, producing carbon footprint labels for food companies, she has seen that “the wrong people have decision making power when it comes to reporting impacts of food, and I include myself in this. We are not incentivised to create the most transparent information.

“It’s really hard to operate in that space without a North Star framework because it means that you don’t have a leg to stand on when pushing companies to account for wider impacts. And that’s where Omni can come in.

“In the absence of robust legislation and consensus, it is easier to do life cycle assessments [of food products] badly. It’s easier to cut corners, so we can expect people to take the easier route and not look at the whole impacts.”

Demonstrating the different choices consumers might make with more information, she presented examples including two fish species.

“We are skipping the reality of our decisions. It is a real risk that we go ahead without a framework”

“When you choose a smaller number of frameworks like carbon footprint, land use and water use you choose one fish. Without the North Star framework such as OmniAction, it’s really easy for a company to say ‘let’s measure these three things and not look at the bigger picture.’

“But if you look just one step beyond these metrics you see this is a critically over-fished population with plummeting stock levels due to poor regulation.

“It’s a no-brainer that we are just missing out the reality of the decisions that we’re making. It is a real risk that we go ahead without a framework and make poor decisions based on limited information.

“If we don’t have a North Star framework where we can push for a holistic accounting approach we will absolutely be in a situation where we’re just picking and choosing ways to make food items look the best and not looking at the whole picture.

“The data is getting better.

“We’ve reduced the cost by five times for doing a full farm to fork assessment in the past four years. That is driven by the demand for food companies who want these assessments done.”

“The data will only improve if we ask it to. We need to agree on a North Star framework”

In the meantime though, she said, “We’re wasting a lot of time and energy on uncertainty around framework and methodology. We need governments to adopt an OmniAction framework to drive that consensus.

“The data will only improve if we ask it to. We need to agree on a North Star framework.

“I see a massive proliferation of approaches to accounting for the impact of the food system. There are lots of life cycle assessment approaches with different system boundaries, people using different criteria and certification approaches.”

Tim Lang Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at City University and OmniAction co-founder said, “Is it all too complicated? The answer is no. You need a framework which agrees what that criteria are which translate down into consumer-friendly mechanisms like labelling.

“It needs to be a public framework not a private framework, to stop food information being a commercial fight out.

“It’s a good way of getting different interests together. Food flows across borders, so a framework is a way to stop standards becoming inter-governmental, international battlegrounds.

“It has to be a function of OmniAction to act as good agent, good facilitator, to ensure that little people don’t get squeezed out”

“My argument is that OmniAction is pushing at an open door. At the EU level it’s already emerging not just from the Farm to Fork strategy but also the Green Deal strategy.

“Extraordinary things are happening through the Green Claims directive which will emerge in the next year or so.

“The EU will in about two months’ time be launching essentially an omni action approach – what we need to be doing is ensuring it is actually an omni action approach or determine whether there are bits missing. Or that the process allows revision.

“No one has the right to determine whose framework becomes the framework. It’s got to be a process of deliberation. A process of engagement.

“That has to be the function of OmniAction, to try to act as good agent, good facilitator, to ensure that little people don’t get squeezed out. And that a process of creating say omni labels isn’t just sewn up by a cartel pre-ordaining what is in the consumer’s interest.

“If consumers are kept in the dark, we’re not going to get the rapidity of change we know is needed. Consumers need to be actively brought into the change process.

“There is a tremendous opportunity for us to make a big change through a common framework”

“It’s got to be coalitions of governments that provide the terrain on which this framework is argued out. Governments need to be honest brokers within the diversity of food system actors, otherwise consumer interest actions get lost.

“The stakes are very high indeed.”

“There is a tremendous opportunity for us to make a big change through a common framework,” said Emeline Fellus, Director of Food Reform for Sustainability and Health (FReSH) at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

Her own organisation’s work on the True Value of Food was promoted at the UN Food Systems Summit last year, showing that this sector creates unaccounted costs amounting to twice its value.

She said, “The big gap between the true costs of food and the accounted costs is putting businesses and people at risk.

“We think there is a way to change the system. Which is to change the way business accounting and investor relation models are accounting for all of this.

“We should expect holistic action from all companies, it can be done”

“This is the concept of the OmniFramework, which I’m happy to see being put in action.”

She added that WBCSD’s CEO Peter Bakker believes, “Securing the application of the true value of food represents a unique opportunity to create awareness and incentives for the big transformation intended for food systems.”

Carla Hommes, Research Lead for the Food and Agriculture Benchmark at the World Benchmarking Alliancesaid, “What we expect can be done. There are businesses who demonstrate that a holistic approach is possible.”

The benchmark tracks the top 350 agrifood companies in the world against nutrition, social and environmental impacts.

“We should expect action from all companies,” she said. “This holistic ask is what we should expect.

“The drawback is that overall companies are not on track for food system transformation… 65 per cent fail to achieve even a quarter of the score. Many, many companies need to step up their efforts.

“Companies are not on track for meeting Paris Climate targets”

“This to put it frankly is not on track. It’s worrying. It’s not standing up to a world that leaves no one behind.

“Two thirds of those living in extreme poverty are working in the agriculture sector. Plus, climate change has very negative effects and makes their life a lot more difficult.

“Companies are not on track for meeting Paris Climate targets. Nutritious diets are not a consumer choice because 80 per cent of the companies assessed have no statement or strategy to make nutritious foods more accessible or affordable.

“We are grateful that this work feeds into the work of World Benchmarking Alliance in all you are doing.”

Cliona Howie, executive director of Foundation Earth said, “We need a harmonised approach when it comes to labelling. This needs to be credible. It needs to generate trust. It needs transparency. It needs to be multi-criteria. We work in global supply chains, so thinking about this from one geography makes no sense. Food crosses borders so why would think only inside borders?

“If we look at this from a business case, businesses don’t want the admin and bureaucracy of having to deal with different standards. If we look at consumers, they deserve to have the full story on what the impact is.

“Collective collaboration for true transformative change is what’s going to make this feasible”

“We’re talking about the human right to know what they are putting in their body. Environmental impact is health impact.

“We cannot know where thresholds and boundaries should be if we don’t measure it with robust data.

“That data has to include Scope 3 emissions [the result of indirect impacts by companies, which often represent most of an organisation’s emissions].

“Transformative change means the full story including Scope 3 emissions. We can link up supply chains to bring that data in to an eco label that robustly and fully tells the story of what the environmental impact is.

“We know this is feasible and we know it’s the right thing to do.

“We can’t do this alone. We all know that collaboration is the word of the century. Collective collaboration for true transformative change is what’s going to make this feasible. It is feasible but we do have to come together.

“The situation on our planet is changed. We no longer have any luxury of time”

“From Foundation Earth’s perspective we couldn’t be more supportive of this approach. We’re very happy to contribute to this. We want to raise the bar on how to bring transparent conversations and collective action to one mission.

“System change is top down, bottom up, side to side and every angle simultaneously. The situation on our planet is changed. We no longer have any luxury of time.

“Businesses know this, they’ve done their financial simulation models. They know they have to change and they are demanding this.”

Hélène Papper, Global Communications and Advocacy Director for the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) explained that her agency is helping smallholder farmers build their livelihoods while also developing resistance to climate change.

She said, “It’s really fantastic to see all these partners come together to help fix our food systems. To change the way companies behave. To help consumers make choices about the companies they support.

“A 360-degree approach is absolutely fundamental. The full systems approach to break down silos – it’s absolutely key to making an impact.

“We have the perverse situation where many who produce the world’s food are vulnerable to hunger”

“Despite the agricultural achievements that we have seen, abject poverty remains stubbornly concentrated in rural areas where livelihoods are deeply dependant on food systems.

“We have economic insecurity, unacceptable working conditions that continue to characterise the livelihoods of too many who work in food systems.

“Inadequate incomes are a major cause of the disturbing situation where you’ve got around 3 billion people in the world unable to afford healthy diets.

“We have low, unstable, insecure incomes that are especially prevalent among those working in our food systems.

“And that’s leading to the perverse situation that many of those produce the world’s food are themselves vulnerable to suffering from hunger and malnutrition.

“Protecting land sovereignty, land tenure, labour rights, is therefore essential to ensuring that smallholder farmers who are producing so much of our food are able to eat properly themselves.

“It’s extremely important to be talking to each other to find global solutions that reflect our different sets of expertise”

“IFAD is taking that omni approach to addressing food systems. We really believe that agriculture needs to provide decent livelihoods for the people who work within them. Especially small producers, the women, the men who harvest, process, store and market our food.

“IFAD also has supported projects which enable women, youth, indigenous people and other groups who are often overlooked in development processes to receive decent returns for their food. So, we are aligned with any initiative that allows smallholder farmers to be protected and treated fairly throughout supply chains.

“Climate change is further impoverishing smallholder farmers and challenging land sovereignty. At present we have just 1.7 per cent of global climate finance directed to helping small scale farmers in developing countries adapt to climate change. IFAD is committed to ensuring that at least 40 per cent of its core resources are dedicated as climate finance between 2022 and 2025.

“It’s extremely important for us to be bridging the gap in the way that we are, starting to talk to each other, to find global solutions that reflect all of our different sets of expertise.

“We need to underline education is action is change… making sure voices of the left behind are brought to the forefront…

“Education and communication are not central to funding structures. We need to work to push that forward together.”

“Land tenure is a silent crisis – it’s important that it’s added to OmniAction’s scope”

Journalist and author Paola Totaro founded a reporting organisation dedicated to uncovering insecurity in land tenure. It was funded by Omidyar Foundation and called Place.

She said, “We established the news site to bring some of these issues into the global discussion… It was an extraordinary two years of my life as a journalist. I think this is a silent crisis.

“Approximately three quarters of the world’s populations don’t have any way of proving their property right.

“A woman who has farmed land for three generations – somebody can push you off because there is no framework, no technology, no piece of paper to prove that you own it.

“90 per cent of Africa is undocumented. People work it, own it, live on it, they have no way of proving that it is land that belongs to them.

“Women produce half the world’s food and yet women own less than 20 per cent of the land they farm.

“The cocoa story illustrates one of the sink holes we’re talking about”

“This is a very unknown aspect of inequality in the world and I would argue how important it is that it’s added to OmniAction’s scope.

“We showed these tiny economies that thrive in entirely undocumented communities. There’s a huge amount of work still to be done. But it’s very important if you are looking at this omni approach that this type of measure and this type of inequality is mapped and documented better, for the consumer at the other end.”

Terry Collingsworthdirector of IRAdvocates said, “The cocoa story illustrates one of the sink holes we’re talking about. If you’re going to build standards, you need to build in your enforcement mechanism and your certification systems right away – don’t wait for the companies to tell you how they’re going to enforce it.

“In the cocoa sector there’s been agreement for years on what the standard is, so that’s not rocket science.

“You have convention 182, the International Labour Organization convention, that’s the best source for the standard and it’s very clear.

“It’s so clear that in 2001 all the major cocoa companies signed the Harkin-Engel protocol and promised to implement this convention. Since then, they’ve given themselves four extensions of time and they have now said that by the year 2025 they’ll reduce by 70 per cent their use of forced child labour.

“Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance are complicit in allowing the industry to continue with child slavery”

“They’re going to take all the time that they can take until we figure out a way to force them to stop.

“They are intentionally misleading the public. They are saying it is really complicated and then paying Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade millions of dollars to give a label that means nothing on this issue.

“Those two entities in themselves are complicit in allowing the industry to continue with this.

“I worked with Nobel Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi to set up Rugmark now – a certification system for carpets in India…

“It’s very easy to set up a monitoring system similar to GoodWeave to ensure that there is independent monitoring and certification in the cocoa sector.

“I hope I can work with all of you to participate in good systems going forward. You cannot trust anyone to monitor themselves. The fox in the chicken coop does not work – we need good rigorous transparent standards.”

“I strongly urge that OmniAction becomes a simplifying mechanism for consumer information”

Ashish Deo, special advisor at Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) said, “I’m delighted to be at a conversation which is not just why do this but is going to move on to how to do it.

“It’s important to view an initiative like this as one of a range of things needed to move the food system forward.

“What we’re discussing here is the classic analogy of an iceberg… the bottom 90 per cent can be as complex as you like, the top one tenth has to be understandable and actionable.

“What an ordinary consumer looks for is guidance not information… very few people will have the time to engage with the richness of all the different types of information… we need to find a way to express it in ways that make sense in seconds.

“When you put together a framework like this there’ll be competing interests. Different experts and people who care about these issues. We need to use the consumer to synthesise this. Would this make a difference in terms of their purchase, their action?

“Unless we do this it’s very easy to get lost in the lobbying power of different interest groups.

“I strongly urge for the consumer aspect not to be forgotten and to use OmniAction as a simplifying mechanism. We need to deal with practical life. We can’t project the wishes of five per cent of the population who are activists onto everyone else, who doesn’t have that much time.

“I wish you all well. This is exactly the right kind of thing to do and I’m very happy to help.”


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