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In the line of fire

Food and drink companies are no strangers to activist campaigns. From historical boycotts of Nestlé over the promotion of infant formula to more recent protests against Starbucks for perceived tax avoidance, the industry, with its raft of household name brands, incites strong consumer emotions.

The fossil fuel divestment movement that is gathering pace across the globe is a different beast entirely. Firstly, it does not discriminate between businesses – all 200 leading fossil fuel companies by reserves are considered fair game. Secondly, the cause is a common one – to slow down and ultimately end the extraction of fossil fuels by making the process financially and morally unsustainable.

The movement has a long way to go before it starts hurting businesses in the pocket, yet the reputational damage of naming and shaming polluters is already being felt.

To date activists have focused their attention on direct extractors of fossil fuels; but with the urgency of tackling climate change more apparent with every passing year, food companies may not escape scrutiny forever.

The Paris climate talks in December are being billed as a critical juncture in efforts to achieve a legally binding commitment to keep a global rise in temperatures below 2°C. Should the talks fail the fervour of grass roots climate change activists is only likely to increase.

The high environmental costs of our food system are well known. Food companies, wherever they sit in the supply chain, can and should be in the vanguard of carbon reduction efforts. Many already are, but those who are lagging behind must ask themselves how long can they hide behind their progressive peers and what are the consequences of being unmasked by campaigners?

As the fossil fuel divestment movement continues to gain momentum it will surely recalibrate and seek new targets. The food industry is a logical place to start.

*A version of this blog was first published by Footprint magazine

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