Research shows that the majority of investors would like their financial advisors to talk to them about responsible investing. The challenge for advisors, however, is staying informed about the issues that can affect financial performance and have an impact on society. Global food security is one of those issues.
Producing enough food in a world with shrinking resources is a challenge facing all countries. A United Nations’ (UN) study predicts that there will be more than nine billion people on the planet by 2050. The 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report estimates that 60% more food will be needed to feed us if food consumption and food waste trends remain at today’s levels.
Seven out of eight people on the planet currently have enough to eat, but the growing need has so far been met through unsustainable industrialization of agribusiness and increased reliance on fossil fuels. This is putting enormous stress on natural resources and land use, with dire consequences.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
Access to adequate fertile land for agriculture is essential to the survival of the human race. But there are also many other challenges that can have an impact on global food security including extreme weather events, poor infrastructure, droughts, disease, degraded soils, genetically modified organisms and rising food prices. In its fourth year of drought, California, the world’s ninth-largest agricultural economy is an example of the devastating impact of climate change on food production.
Food is currently treated as a commodity, which means that it’s bought, sold and wasted based on financial or economic returns. In the 2008 food price crisis that affected the entire world, hedge funds and speculators saw an opportunity. As a result, the price of grain nearly doubled — and almost 100 million people experienced hunger due to the drastic spike in prices.
So, why should this matter to you and your clients? Companies depend on stable communities in which to operate. Food and water scarcity and extreme weather events can push vulnerable communities to the breaking point. Violent conflicts and mass migration can result from competition for dwindling resources. For example, there are thousands of economic migrants fleeing war-torn countries and hunger in Africa and the Middle East camped out in Calais, France waiting for an opportunity to cross the channel tunnel (Chunnel) to enter the U.K. illegally. Neither France nor the U.K. have been able to deal with the humanitarian crisis adequately and people have died trying to get through the Chunnel.
Globalization means that companies in all sectors, anywhere in the world, can experience risk from supply chain interruption, unstable sources of energy or water and lack of access to workers. Companies that are exacerbating the problem can face reputational risks that affect sales and dry up markets.
Responsible investors in Canada have responded through shareholder engagement with companies on issues related to food insecurity, including sustainable agriculture, nutrition, genetically modified organism (GMO) labelling, pesticides, water scarcity and climate change.
Toronto-based NEI Investments, a division of Northwest & Ethical Investments LP, has developed a comprehensive framework to mitigate risks stemming from food insecurity. Its “Farm to Fork” strategy identifies key environmental, social and corporate governance issues, companies and initiatives related to their investment in the food and beverage sector. They have prioritized engagement efforts with Loblaw Cos. Ltd., Empire Co. Ltd., Metro Inc. and Coca-Cola Co.
Vancouver-based Ocean Rock Investments Inc.’s Meritas Funds have focused on George Weston Ltd., Loblaw, Metro and Restaurant Brands International Inc, about GMO labelling in response to strong consumer demand and company readiness to export to countries that require GMO labelling.
Toronto-based IA Clarington Investment Inc.’s Inhance funds have engaged with Loblaw, Rona Inc. and Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. about the use of neonicotinoids, a harmful pesticide that kills bees and other pollinators that are vital to food production.
Food security isn’t only about managing risk. Many of the problems in the developing world and elsewhere will require investment in innovative solutions from the private sector. In fact, AGF Global Sustainable Growth Equity Fund, sponsored by Toronto-based AGF Management Ltd., seeks investment in companies that are providing solutions to problems such as sustainable food production.
According to the FAO, significant investment in research and development for sustained productivity growth, adaptive strategies, mitigation and new technology will be required in order to feed the nine billion people expected to be on Earth in 2050. That creates huge opportunities for long-term investors concerned about food security.