Investing in climate change-resistant crops

15 Jun 2020

Lucozade Ribena Suntory recently announced a £500,000 investment in developing new varieties of climate-resilient blackcurrant.

Which other companies are making similar investments and how effective is this in ‘climate change-proofing’ ingredient supply chains?

Investing in climate change-resistant crops

This month, Lucozade Ribena Suntory (LRS) said it would fund research at the Scotland-headquartered James Hutton Institute to develop climate-resilient blackcurrant varieties.

LRS uses 90% of the blackcurrants grown in Britain to make its fruit-based cordial Ribena, and, since 1991 has invested over £10 million ($12.5m) to improve the sustainability and quality of British blackcurrant crops, which are increasingly under threat from climate change.

Without a period of sustained cold weather in the winter, blackcurrant plants yield less fruit and have a shorter lifespan. Winters in the UK are getting slowly getting warmer – the UK’s 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 2002 – and this puts LRS’ blackcurrant supplies at risk.

Developing climate-resistant crops is attracting increasing attention as climate change-related events worsen.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is a non-profit research organization that develops improved varieties of wheat and corn able to withstand drought, heat and pests in order to increase food security. It says that over 90% of its work relates to climate change.

CIMMYT researchers have used new breeding technologies to harness the stress-resistant traits of wild grasses, adding them to modern wheat varieties, and under one of its projects, farmers in Pakistan have started using heat-resistant wheat.

Multinational food companies are getting on board, and CIMMYT’s work also involves connecting local farmers with companies looking to sustainably source grains. In 2020, it helped facilitate commitments from Kellogg, Nestlé, and Grupo Bimbo among others to buy 839,000 tons of maize and 100,000 tons of wheat grown sustainably by Mexican farmers.

Other manufacturers are breeding their own proprietary crops to obtain greater control over their supply chain. Over 65% of the potatoes PepsiCo Europe buys, for instance, are propriety varieties that it bred internally or in collaboration with third parties.

Troubleshooting

US grain giant General Mills, which has pledged to roll out regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030, discovered that switching to more sustainable crops can sometimes cause supply chain disruptions.

Under its brand Cascadian Farms, it invested in commercializing Kernza, a deep-rooted perennial grain with significant sustainable potential, but bad weather and mistimed planting and harvesting decisions affected supplies. It had to scale down the launch of honey-toasted Kernza cereal and settle for a small-batch launch of just 6,000 products.

For General Mills, however, the set-back was a minor bump on its path to making its business more resilient through climate-resistant crops and regenerative agriculture.

“The benefits of Kernza have incredible promise to redirect the course of climate change and significantly improve planet health,” said MC Comings, marketing director for Cascadian Farm, at the time.

According to Thibault Gravier, director and head of supply chain sustainability at global sustainability consultancy BSR, the decision to ditch certain crops and switch to others for environmental reasons should not be taken lightly.

“We are involved in complex systems and any single solution that appears to be the easy one is almost always the wrong one,” he said. “Finding alternatives and substituting [crops] could appear to be a good solution, but the advice is that any organization considering this might want to look at all the consequences of changing.”

Palm oil, for instance, has come under fire for its association with deforestation, peatland destruction, slash-and-burn techniques and biodiversity loss, causing some manufacturers and retailers to remove it from their products and make ‘palm oil-free’ claims.

However, many of the alternatives they source may in fact be worse from a climate change or social impact perspective than sustainable, responsibly sourced palm oil, Gravier said.

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