21/05/2014 13:01 BST | Updated 21/07/2014 06:59 BST

Food Companies Must Act on Climate Change to Tackle Hunger

Black clouds churning from coal power plants and smelly car exhausts may be the main images that spring to mind when thinking about the perpetrators of climate change - and rightly so. But hidden behind the thick smoke, the food industry is also making the problem worse because it emits a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases.

The difference, however, is that while it is in the interests of fossil fuel companies to protect business as usual, it is not for the food industry. More floods, storms and hotter weather are already making it harder to grow the ingredients they need to make what we eat and this is only set to get worse.

Already, Unilever says that it loses $415million a year because of extreme weather conditions that are worsening because of climate change. General Mills have also reported losing 62 days of production in the first fiscal quarter of 2014 alone.

These two companies are among the 'Big 10' food and drink companies, along with Associated British Foods (ABF), Coca Cola, Danone, Kellogg's, Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé and PepsiCo. When it comes to climate change, some are way ahead of the others.

Oxfam's report, Standing on the Sidelines, launched this week, shows how deforestation, nitrous oxide from the overuse of fertilizers, large scale land clearances, and other harmful production practices in the 'Big 10's' supply chains are exacerbating climate change and ironically putting the fight against hunger at risk. Together, the 'Big 10' emit 264 million tons of greenhouse gases - more than all of Scandinavia. If they were a country, their total emissions of 250 million tons would rank them as 25th worst polluter in the world.

These emissions are contributing to a growing humanitarian catastrophe. By 2050, there could be 50 million more people made hungry because of climate change. More extreme and unpredictable weather is affecting food supplies, driving up food prices and causing more hunger and poverty. Oxfam estimates that the price of your bowl of Kellogg Corn Flakes could increase by up to 44% in the next 15 years because climate change could affect crops.

Between them, the 'Big 10' generate £650million a day in revenues - the same as the world's lower income countries GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Coming together, they could become a powerful bloc, unleashing a force for good and helping to stop climate change making the poorest people hungry.

First they must all get their own houses in order. All the companies claim to be reducing their emissions but the targets they have set so far exclude the biggest share coming from their agricultural supply chains. Our report shows that by replicating best practice in the sector, the 'Big 10' could save a further 80 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 - as much as both Mexico and South Africa have pledged.

The good news is that there are champions among the laggards that make up the 'Big 10'.

Some companies already have ambitious plans to reduce their emissions and disclose their progress. Unilever, Nestle and Coca-Cola are leading the way, though even they must do more.

But too many companies remain silent hoping that the crisis will solve itself, especially Kellogg and General Mills. They don't even measure or disclose their agricultural supply chain emissions each year through the Carbon Disclosure Project, which is a first step for organisations to measure and then cut their emissions. They are silent while fossil fuel companies lobby to prevent political leaders from taking ambitious climate action.

They would do well by looking at how they can better pressure governments and policy makers to be more ambitious. They do not need to look far. Unilever's chief executive Paul Polman, for example, has used his position to lobby governments and institutions to set higher targets and create better environments for businesses to invest and be part of the solution. Only this month he spoke as both the company's CEO and as Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development at Abu Dhabi and was clear that runaway climate change is avoidable and greater political ambition is needed for businesses to be able to prove this.

A number of companies including Mars, Nestle, Unilever and Coca-Cola are also engaged with progressive coalitions such as Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP) in the US. Coca-Cola and Unilever have recently distanced themselves from Business Europe because it has attempted to block EU climate action.

The food industry is part of the problem, but it can also clearly play an important role in being the solution. The 'Big 10' must as sector leaders act to on the one hand climate-proof their businesses but also climate-proof the future so there is enough food on the table today and tomorrow.