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Dr Emma Keller

Head of Sustainability, Nestlé UK&I

The food and agriculture industry is responsible for nearly a third of all carbon emissions, so must be a major part of the solution to the climate crisis going forward.

If the world is serious about getting to grips with the climate crisis, agriculture and food production must feature more prominently in the debate. After all, this sector is responsible for nearly one third of all carbon emissions — and ignoring facts simply isn’t a credible option. Yet at November’s milestone COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, the delegates focused elsewhere, including phasing out fossil fuels.

Of course, it’s right fossil fuels get so much attention because their phase-out is a critical part of the climate action equation. But ignoring the food system is simply missing a major piece of the pie. Perhaps it’s because food and agriculture is an incredibly complex, emotive and challenging subject, says Dr Emma Keller, Head of Sustainability, at Nestlé UK&I. “It can be difficult to work out how we change behaviours around food and food production at a global, national and even individual level,” she admits. “For example, we have to eliminate — or significantly reduce — food waste globally, and we also need to have challenging conversations about what constitutes sustainable diets and the role of animal versus plant agriculture.”

Exchanging knowledge and working together to improve outcomes

Nevertheless, it needs to be taken seriously. Dr Keller says: “At COP26, there wasn’t a food or agriculture day and it wasn’t mentioned in the official Glasgow Climate Pact – the key document coming out of the negotiations. Food and agriculture is clearly a missing part of the climate action puzzle.”

Nestlé attended COP26 and took part in a variety of events, contributing to numerous panel debates, as well as sponsoring the Sustainable Innovation Forum, a business conference, and the Extreme Hangout, a platform giving a voice to youth. “We had a genuine legitimacy to be there because in 2020 we launched our roadmap to become net zero by 2050,” says Dr Keller. “As the world’s largest food and drink company, it was important for us to be present to advocate for more ambitious climate change commitment, action and collaboration. We wanted to learn from others, share what we are doing and add our voice to some of the important discussions.”

Our net zero roadmap has been a way to galvanise our employees and stakeholders, because we know we can only achieve our net zero goal if everyone plays a part.

There are a number of things that food companies can do to reduce their emissions, insists Dr Keller, including starting the transition to regenerative agriculture. “This is about farming in harmony with nature and putting more back than we take out,” she explains. “Regenerative agriculture employs practices such as sustainable livestock management, soil protection, replanting trees and hedgerows. Farming in this way can put carbon back into the soil, enhance biodiversity and have wider benefits including improving farmer livelihoods and making the farm more resilient to flooding.”

Building on the climate action momentum achieved at COP26

Companies in the sector can also shift to using more reusable and recyclable packaging. “Our commitment is to make all of our packaging reusable or recyclable by 2025,” says Dr Keller. “We’re also looking at our operations and logistics so our factories are using renewable energy and our vehicle fleets move to low carbon solutions, where possible. Our net zero roadmap has been a way to galvanise our employees and stakeholders, because we know we can only achieve our net zero goal if everyone plays a part.”

It’s widely agreed that the pledges at COP26 didn’t go far enough to restrict global warming to the 1.5°C target, yet Dr Keller remains positive about the future. “One meeting was never going to fix the climate crisis,” she says. “What’s absolutely critical is that we build on the momentum we’ve achieved and take meaningful actions as we look towards COP27 in Egypt in 2022.”

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