Top 10 food companies branded as 'silent accomplices' to climate change 'crisis'.

Top 10 food companies branded as 'silent accomplices' to climate change 'crisis'. Photo: AFR

Oxfam International has thrown the spotlight on Australia’s most powerful food lobby in its new report on the broader food industry’s failure to cut carbon emissions and adequately tackle climate change.

In its investigation into the environmental efforts of the world’s biggest food companies, Oxfam named and shamed the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) for actively supporting the carbon tax repeal and allowing companies to remain silent on climate change policies.

"The food and beverage industry has a lot to lose from climate change and should be concerned about the direction the government is going in, and yet the council is staying silent, leaving the field open for the fossil fuel industries to dominate the debate," said Oxfam Australia’s food policy specialist Kelly Dent.

The development agency criticised trade associations such as the US Chamber of Commerce and Business Europe for opposing climate change action, and the US Grocery Manufacturers Association and FoodDrinkEurope for their passive stance. But it deemed the AFGC’s rejection of the carbon tax as "worse".

"[The food companies’] vested interests coincide with the world’s need for a cleaner and more equitable global food system and a sustainable energy system. But they are not properly acting upon this coincidence," the report said.

"Often, the companies will leave it to their industry trade associations to engage with decision-makers on climate policy. Yet in many cases, this is a dangerous and irresponsible approach."

But a spokesman for the Australian Food and Grocery Council said the report failed to take into account its Sustainability Commitment, which seeks to cut emissions per tonne of production by 20 per cent by 2020.

"This is significant, given Australia’s overall commitment is to reduce emissions by 5 per cent, compared with 2000 levels, by 2020," spokesman James Mathews said. "It is disappointing that the report gives no account of the AFGC's Sustainability Commitment, which sets targets across energy, water, waste, packaging and social issues."

In its report, Oxfam questioned why food giants such as Kellogg’s, General Mill and Mondelez would refrain from entering climate change policy debates and stand silent with trade associations, when they risked financial ruin from the consequences of inaction.

The top 10 were branded as "silent accomplices" to an "unfolding crisis" because they held the economic power to drive governments to meaningful action. Together, they generate more than $1 billion a day in revenues, equivalent to the total GDP of all the world’s lower income countries.

Food companies are already feeling the commercial pain of extreme weather events, with higher frequencies of crop failures, price spikes and supply disruptions.

In March, Ken Powell, the chief executive of General Mills (which owns brands such as Old El Paso), told investors they had lost 62 days of production in the first fiscal quarter of 2014 because of extreme weather events. Unilever (with brands such as Continental and Lipton) said it loses $415 million a year due to flooding and extreme cold.

According to Oxfam, half of the emissions from the world's 10 biggest food companies - which also includes Mondelez, PepsiCo and Mars - come from the production of agricultural materials from their supply chains. But these emissions are not covered by the companies' reduction targets.

Oxfam calculated that together, the top 10 emitted more carbon gases than Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway combined. If the big 10 were an individual country, they would rank as the world’s 25th most polluting by being responsible for 264 million tonnes of emissions.

"The big 10 companies could cut their emissions by 80 million tonnes by 2020 – when global emissions need to start reducing in order for the world to stay within a safe climate – which would be the equivalent to taking all Australian cars off the road," said Oxfam Australia’s Kelly Dent.

The companies are Associated British Foods, Coca-Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg's, Mars, Mondelez International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever.