A reflection on food systems at COP26

The following is contributed by Beth Blissman, who currently serves as the United Nations representative for the Loretto Community. She has been a co-member of Loretto since 1995.

Who could resist a session entitled “Helping Everyone Eat Better”? This Green Zone (i.e. public access) session (found here) was sponsored by Sainsbury’s, the second-largest grocery chain in the United Kingdom. It started out rather dry, with reviews of corporate promises, some data and reminders that we can all choose to eat more healthfully (at least two different vegetables at every meal, try for at least 80% plant-based, etc.). The section on global food waste (found about 30 minutes into the program, led by Ruth Cranston, their group head of corporate responsibility and sustainability) was particularly inspiring for those who are new to this issue, and could easily be used in a classroom or a local community setting to raise awareness.

I noticed a few interesting patterns.

First, it was intriguing to me to see distinct gender roles appearing, which I have also noted in other corporate presentations. More women are involved, yet there are still invisible barriers. Women promoted the sustainability, product/packaging innovation, and culture-shifting parts of the presentation, which included most interactions with the public. Men were handling the energy usage data and carbon tracking portions of the work, outlining the different ways in which carbon was used throughout the supply chain. Sainsbury’s also presented a brief video from their suppliers and farmers, all of whom were male.

Second, when I visited the front page of the company website, I saw “the supermarket partner of COP26” featured alongside results of market share gains, annual reports and fiscal statements — this was definitely a for-profit enterprise. Sainsbury’s says they believe that “good food should be accessible to everyone” and their stated interest in COP26 is the opportunity to “collaborate … with world leaders, climate experts and businesses who are at the centre of decision making.”

As someone deeply concerned with the long-term viability of U.S. food systems, and how they impact (both human and ecosystem) health, ecological sustainability and solidarity with those living on the margins of the “wealthiest” country in human history, I’m curious about what we might learn from this example. Are Sainsbury’s efforts outlined at COP26 sincere efforts at corporate responsibility? Or a huge helping of greenwashing? The verdict is still out. …

Overall, this provided a good example of a company, filled to the brim with well-intentioned people, that has been working on its carbon footprint for well over 15 years. Presenters noted that they’ve reduced their carbon footprint by nearly 50% while growing the company over 40% — taking pride in busting the myth that continual growth needed a higher carbon footprint. However, they were still talking about net zero, and goals for success were often set too far ahead (2030, 2035 or 2040). One of the younger female presenters, who had already lost her voice from a week at the climate talks, acknowledged that they needed to move more quickly and collaborate more.

Let’s hope we can all do the same.


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