Food and conflict: Demands for corporate accountability are growing

Sector Program Manager Margarita Lysenkova writes that the Global Reporting Initiative’s new reporting standard can help companies respond to growing scrutiny on business practices that can potentially impact food security.

Ores mined in war zones have long been subject to heightened attention when it comes to sustainability and reputational risks. Yet in 2022, it is the production and sourcing of ‘soft’ commodities, like wheat, that are increasingly under scrutiny.

As the conflict in Ukraine continues to escalate, the impacts on sustainable development become more pronounced, and the vulnerabilities in global food supply chains are increasing.

Most food is produced, processed, traded and distributed by private businesses. At the same time, when an individual company looks at their impacts on food security in isolation, it often struggles to determine them. Multinational companies may also focus on developed markets where food security is not a significant concern. The risk is that food security is perceived as a macro “development” issue, which is why expectations for transparency on food security is relatively new for many businesses.

Many companies have suspended trade and operations in Russia due to sanctions and stakeholder pressure. While the diplomatic agreement reached to unblock Black Sea trade routes from Ukrainian ports offers some encouragement, uncertainties remain. In addition, concerns over products being obtained under extortion add to the challenges for companies involved in commodity trade throughout the region.

The GRI Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fishing Standard (GRI 13), launched in June, supports any organizations operating in these sectors to communicate and disclose their sustainability impacts in a comprehensive and comparable way. This new reporting standard singles out food security as one of the significant issues, providing a new global baseline for transparency on the topic.

For example, disclosures included in the GRI 13 ask companies to report their contribution to strengthening farmers’ capacity to produce and supply food. Partnerships on food security are another key piece of information highlighted for reporting. Reporting on actions to strengthen food security locally and regionally can contribute to strengthening the resilience of food systems and reducing vulnerability to crises in other regions. Disclosure of the level of food loss reflects the potential for more food to be preserved for human consumption through efficiency.

As the EAT-Lancet Commission report outlines, food production needs to shift to be beneficial for both human health and the environment. This means businesses need to be taking active decisions about how they are using land and natural resources.

GRI 13 recognizes there is no silver bullet solution to global food security but that myriad approaches and actions are needed.

Food is more than just a commodity that can be left to the whims of market forces – nor should its supply and security be undermined as a consequence of armed conflicts and natural disasters. The integration of food security considerations into the sustainability strategies of companies, as encouraged through GRI’s new Sector Standard, is a crucial next step towards the long-term solution.

Margarita Lysenkova is an Amsterdam-based sector program manager in the Global Reporting Initiative’s sustainability standards unit.