A burger grows in Brooklyn, and musings about meat

Fresh hamburger with fried potatoesThe other day, at Net Impact’s annual conference in Minneapolis, I moderated a panel called the “Carnivore’s Dilemma,” about eating meat in a carbon constrained world. It’s becoming a familiar conversation. Every other day, it seems, Guardian Sustainable Business, where I do most of my writing, runs a story about alternative proteins, like seaweed and insects. Regular readers know that I write a lot about meat, not just for the Guardian but for Fortune, which ran this story about a company called Beyond Meat and for YaleEnvironment360 where I wrote an essay that asked: Should Environmentalists Just Say No to Eating Beef?

So, during the Net Impact panel, I must admit that I was surprised to see a chart from Ian Monroe, the CEO of a startup called Oroeco, that put the climate-change impact of beef in context. This isn’t the exact chart, but the numbers are similar (carbon footprinting is a very inexact science). You will see that the GHG footprint of beef (combined with lamb, it’s 0.9t CO2e) is smaller than driving, or using electricity at home. For those of us who travel a lot, flying generates far more GHG emissions than anything we eat. Beef, to put it simply, is not that big a deal when it comes to #climate change.

American-carbon-footprint

In that context, I wanted to ask Peggy Neu, the president of Meatless Mondays, who also spoke at Net Impact: “Why not carless Mondays?” Or, for that matter, “turn-out-the-lights Mondays”? If the problem at hand is climate change, maybe we are paying a disproportionate attention to beef.

And yet, as Ian Monroe pointed out during the panel, while we can see pathways to low-carbon or zero-carbon transportation electric cars, biofuels) and, at least in theory, we can generate low-carbon electricity using wind, solar and nuclear power, it’s hard to imagine low-carbon or zero-carbon beef. There’s just no getting around the fact that cows, when compared to pigs or chickens or fish, are inefficient converters of feed to protein, and so they generate a bigger environmental footprint. What’s more, globally, meat consumption is growing, as emerging middle class people in China and India eat more beef.

And, of course, animal agriculture has negative impacts that go beyond carbon pollution. It consumes lots of water. Livestock, particularly pigs and chickens, are often treated badly. I recently visited southwestern Minnesota (hello Mankato!) and I can tell you that the odor from pig farms, when the manure is not well-managed, can be unpleasant.

All this is by way of introduction to my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business, about Modern Meadow, a venture-funded start-up company that one day hopes to grow beef in a lab. You won’t see anything from Modern Meadow in a supermarket anytime soon, although its lab-grown leather could reach the market in a few years.

But at least some investors believe that alternatives to conventional beef could someday become real businesses. Here’s how my story begins:

Most of us embrace modern technology. We constantly upgrade our phones, connect with each other through Facebook, pay our bills online, demand the most advanced medical treatments available when we get sick and drive cars that have more computing power than the system that guided Apollo astronauts to the moon.

But, for many of us, food is another matter. We want our food to be pure, free of artificial additives, dangerous pesticides and natural – a term that, incidentally, is all but meaningless. Genetically-modified foods arouse anxiety. We want, in the words of influential journalist Michael Pollan, to avoid eating anything that our “great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”.

And according to a Pew Research survey, only 20% of Americans would eat meat grown in a lab.

That’s a problem for Andras Forgacs. He’s the co-founder and chief executive of Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn-based startup that intends to use tissue engineering – also known as cell culturing or biofabrication – to create livestock products that require fewer inputs of land, water, energy and chemicals than conventional animal agriculture.

What’s more, Forgacs says, his company’s products will also require no animal slaughter.

You can read the rest here.

Aluminum, and the circular economy

42b241f5-fb55-4ca8-b5e1-37c4bbfe7988-620x372

Aluminum is an amazing material, as I’ve written before (here and here). It’s infinitely recyclable, lightweight and strong.

Ford is making more of America’s best-selling vehicle, the F-150 pickup, out of aluminum. Other automakers, too, are designing more aluminum into their cars.

The typical aluminum beverage can in North America is made of about 68 percent recycled content and, according to the industry, a can that’s recycled becomes a new can in less than 60 days. Some craft brewers are turning to cans.

Nevertheless, somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of aluminum cans are thrown away and wind up in landfalls in the US, I’m told. Only because we are such a rich country can we afford to waste so much. But why should we?

One company that is aiming to drive aluminum recycling is Atlanta-based Novelis. Novelis is the industry leader when it comes to recycling–the company, unlike its competitors, owns no mines–and it talks a lot about the idea of a circular economy. Last week, I wrote a story for Guardian Sustainable Business about the company and its new product, the evercan, which is made of 90 percent recycled aluminum.

The evercan is, by all accounts, an environmentally superior product to conventional aluminum beverage cans, and arguably a better single-serve beverage package that PET bottles–but so far, no major beverage company has adopted it. My story asks why.

The story is getting some pushback, in the comments as well as privately from readers I respect. They say that no company has the right expect other companies or consumers to buy a “greener” product. Of course, that’s correct. My point is that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser Busch and Miller Coors all say they want to promote recycling, but none has yet committed to the most recycled beverage container on the market.

Criticism came, as well, because I was hired earlier this month by Novelis to moderate a panel on the circular economy, at the opening of the company’s new aluminum recycling plant in Nachterstedt, Germany. This was disclosed in the Guardian. I knew there was a risk in writing about Novelis under those circumstances but I felt the story was still worth doing. [For a much longer explanation of how I manage conflicts or potential conflicts of interest, see this. The short version: I’m transparent about my paid moderating and speaking work.]

While in Germany, I spent a good deal of time with Novelis and its head of sustainability, John Gardner, and I came away impressed. I’m sure this influenced my approach to the story. But I’m not alone in believing that the company is a sustainability leader. Its include such respected environmental thinkers as Jonathan Porritt of Forum for the Future, Matt Arnold of JPMorgan Chase and author-academic Stu Hart.

What I learned while reporting the story is that inventing and manufacturing a greener product isn’t enough to drive change. Other business issues–in this case, what appears to be the understandable reluctance of the big beverage companies to depend on a single supplier–can stand in the way. Changing systems is hard.

In any event, you can judge the story for yourself. Here is how it begins:

Imagine an infinitely recyclable product that performs as well as the alternative, costs less to make, and is unquestionably better for the environment. You would bet on its success, wouldn’t you?

Novelis, the world’s largest recycler of aluminum, has made that bet. Since 2012 the Atlanta, Georgia-based company has invested half a billion dollars in recycling by building, among other things, the world’s biggest aluminum recycling plant. This $260m high-tech marvel officially opened earlier this month in Nachterstedt, Germany.

Novelis uses the facility to produce materials for its “evercan”, a beverage container made of 90% recycled aluminum.

As an infinitely recyclable metal, aluminum is a poster child for shifting from a linear take-make-waste model of industrial production to a circular model in which everything, at the end of its useful life, is made into something else.

On its website Novelis endorses the circular economy, stating that it is moving its “whole business model” toward a closed loop. “We are embracing an entirely new way of thinking and operating, in order to radically transform our company – and, in the process, lead the way in our industry.”

But Novelis is having trouble finding followers. None of the world’s major beverage companies have adopted the evercan. So far, the product has just one customer: Red Hare Brewing Co., a small craft brewer based in Marietta, Georgia.

You can read the rest here.

The circular economy at Disney World

Harvest Power Orlando - Energy Garden copy

Alas, you won’t be able to take a tour of this new “attraction” next time you visit Disney World. But inside those giants vats, through a process called anaerobic digestion, something cool is happening — food waste, used oils, fats, grease and treated human sewage are being turned into electricity and compost.

On second thought, you may not want a tour.

But this facility, which is owned and operated by a company called Harvest Power, is a potential solution to the problem of food waste, which is a bigger problem that you might think. Food that winds up in landfills is not only a waste of money, and a source of methane pollution, but the water and energy required to grow that food (and the greenhouse gas emissions created in the process) are also wasted. Addressing the problem of food waste requires taking steps up and down the supply chain, from the farm to the table, if you will, but anaerobic digestion will likely be part of the solution.

Last week, I wrote about Harvest Power for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

Millions of people a year visit Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, the world’s most popular theme park. These days, some of the food that they don’t eat – as well as some of the food they do – ends up being used to make electricity for the resort’s theme parks and hotels.

How? Food waste – including table scraps, used cooking oils and grease – is collected from selected restaurants in the Disney World complex, as well as area hotels and food processors, and sent to a system of giant tanks at a facility near the park. There, the food waste is mixed with biosolids – the nutrient-rich organic materials left over after sewage is treated – and fed to microorganisms that produce biogas, a mix of methane and carbon dioxide. The biogas is combusted in generators to make electricity, and the remaining solids can be processed into fertilizer.

The circular economy at Disney World may not be as pretty as Cinderella’s Castle, but this process for turning organic waste into energy, which is known asanaerobic digestion, could turn out to be the best way to extract value from food scraps and treated sewage that would otherwise wind up in a landfill.

“We’re able to turn all of the waste stream into productive products,” saysKathleen Ligocki, the chief executive of Harvest Power, a venture capital-funded clean-tech company that built the Florida facility. “This is our goal – pumpkins to power, waste to wealth.”

I met Kathleen Ligocki recently at a clean tech event in DC. Impressive lady–she’s had a long and successful career in the auto industry, then joined Kleiner Perkins as a partner before taking over as CEO of Harvest Power early this year. The company is a bit disjointed and unfocused; it was put together through the acquisition of composting operations around the country. Her job is to scale up the operation, and eventually take the company public. You can read the rest of the story here.

Game changer: Walmart’s focus on food and ag

28e0e549-367c-467e-9f67-41c34a470b91-620x372Lately, I’ve come to believe that the food industry is moving to become more sustainable with a seriousness that few other industries, particularly energy, can match.

Since Labor Day, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to top execs from Cargill (Greg Page), DuPont (Ellen Kullman), Monsanto (Hugh Grant and Robb Fraley) and Walmart (Doug McMillon) talk about a variety of initiatives to increase crop yields, better manage nitrogen pollution, reduce food waste, improve living standards for small farmers in emerging markets and confront the obesity crisis. These are real, and they are aimed at producing more affordable, nutritious food, without destroying the planet in the process. All these companies could be moving faster and doing more–in particularly, I’d like to see them become more active in the climate-policy arena–but there’s no doubt in my mind that they recognize that climate change is a growing threat to their businesses, and they want to do what they can to respond.

On Monday, Walmart held one of its quarterly sustainability milestone meetings, this one focused on food and ag. I wrote about it in a story that was posted this morning at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Nearly a decade after setting a series of bold sustainability goals, Walmart has struggled to curb its climate pollution and buy more renewable energy. But the company has already changed the way food is grown around the world – curbing agricultural pollution, pushing healthier choices, supporting local growers and promoting transparency. And the world’s largest retailer (fiscal year 2014 revenues: $473bn) is just getting started.

This week, Walmart showcased food and agriculture during its latest sustainability summit, while saying little about energy and emissions. It’s easy to see why. The company remains a long way from being powered by 100% renewable energy, one of its aspirational goals.

Currently, it gets about 24% of its electricity from clean energy, and its fleet mostly runs on fossil fuels. That’s because wind, solar power and alternative fuels generally cost more than coal, oil and natural gas, and Walmart is all about delivering low prices to customers.

Nor has Walmart been able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. While the company has become more efficient, its absolute emissions are rising as Walmart grows its market share to satisfy Wall Street. This year, Walmart plans to open about 115 super centers (surrounded by vast parking lots, in most cases) along with 270 to 300 smaller stores. Tensions between its business model – which depends on selling more stuff to more people everywhere – and its environmental aspirations remain unresolved.

But when it comes to food and agriculture, Walmart has found a sweet spot, a place where its low-cost mantra is nicely aligned with the social and environmental need to deliver safe and affordable food to the world, using less land, less water and fewer chemical inputs to do it.

The story goes on to quote Kathleen McLaughlin, Walmart’s senior vp of sustainability, as saying: “We have very bold aspirations for systemic change. We’re not playing small here. This is a whole company, a whole industry, a whole system effort.” I don’t doubt it.

I met Kathleen last month during Climate Week in New York, and she’s impressive. A former McKinsey consultant, she uprooted her husband and kids from Toronto, where they had lived, to move to Bentonville, Arkansas, mostly because she wants her work to make a difference. She oversees the Walmart Foundation, as well as sustainability programming, so she’s in position to make sure they are supporting one another.

Walmart is in a perfect position to drive change. It has influence over big food brands like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Unilever, MillerCoors and many more–and, as Doug McMillon noted the other day, they are all ready to act. Environmental Defense Fund, with its Bentonville staffers led by Michelle Harvey, is bringing its scientists and activists to the task, particularly around the important (but not very sexy) issue of nitrogen pollution. Other NGOs are stepping up, too.

What’s more, as I wrote, new farming technologies will help drive efficiency efforts, so the timing is good:

There was talk at the sustainability summit about AdaptN, a web-based tool to manage fertilizer in the corn industry, and Harvest Mark, which traces food from farm to fork. Monsanto, a key partner, last year acquired The Climate Corp, which uses big data to help farmers increase crop yields, manage chemical inputs and increase crop yields.

You can read the rest of my story here.

A smarter approach to biofuels

A field of sorghum–it grows tall and fast!

The US biofuels industry has not covered itself in glory. It has consumed billions of dollars in taxpayer dollars, as much if not more from investors and in return delivered economic and environmental benefits that are murky at best, at least according to its critics.

You’ll hear a different story from the industry, which is desperately trying to retain its support in Congress and the White House. The  importance of the Iowa presidential caucuses virtually assure that no candidate for president can oppose support for corn ethanol, the dominant US biofuel. It was the Bush administration, you may recall, that launched the current push into biofuels, with the enthusiastic support of a corn state US Senator Barack Obama.

The thing is, biofuels need to be part of a low-carbon US economy. About 40 percent of emissions come from transportation–cars, trucks, trains, planes, buses, farm and construction equipment, etc.  These existing fleetss can’t be electrified en masse, anytime soon, if ever. So for decades ahead it’s fossil fuels or biofuels–an easy choice.

That said, it has become increasingly clear that corn ethanol “has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today,” according to this excellent analysis from Dina Capiello and Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press.

In their 2013 investigation, they write:

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies..

And as for the climate benefits of corn ethanol, the AP reporters say:

The government’s predictions of the benefits have proven so inaccurate that independent scientists question whether it will ever achieve its central environmental goal: reducing greenhouse gases. 

Great.

The trouble is that corn needs fertilizer (which is made from natural gas), requires irrigation (at least in some parts of the country) and, in an ideal world, would be used to feed people (or animals, if you insist), but not cars and trucks.

About the best thing you can say about corn ethanol is that it will pave the way (oops, that’s an unfortunate metaphor) for advanced biofuels that are cleaner and greener. Some of these are on the way–a bunch of cellulosic ethanol plants are scheduled to begin commercial operations this year, including the Project Liberty plant from Poet and DSM in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and a DuPont facility in Nevada, Iowa. Both will use corn waste.

Why, though, can’t we make biofuels from crops that are designed and bred for energy? That’s the question that led a young entrepreneur named Anna Rath to start a company called NexSteppe, whose current focus is sorghum. I invited Anna to Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference in May, where she won the “Great Green Ideas” competition, and wrote about NexSteppe the other day for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

As scientists around the world research biomass feedstocks — trees, shrubs and grasses that are designed to produce energy — a California startup called NexSteppe is betting that fast-growing, drought-resistant sorghum will emerge as a crop to sustainably fuel cars, trucks and power plants.

Sorghum, a millenia-old cereal grain, today feeds animals and people. It is turned into flour, syrups and beer, and used in gluten-free products. In Asia, sorghum is made into couscous, and across Africa, it’s consumed as a porridge.

Last year, though, NexSteppe introduced two new brands of sorghum seeds, dubbed Palo Alto and Malibu, that were bred expressly to be energy crops. They grow on marginal land and in a variety of climates, and they climb to a height of 20 feet after only four months of growth.

“Sorghum is naturally very heat and drought tolerant,” says Anna Rath, NexSteppe’s founder, president and CEO. “It originated in Africa. It’s a camel of a crop, if you will.”

Although NexSteppe has done almost no marketing outside of Brazil, its biggest market, the company’s sorghum is now being grown by farmers in 15 countries, including China, India, South Africa, Germany, Canada and the US.

Sorghum may not be the ideal feedstock for biofuels. It’s used for food, after all. But it appears to offer major advantages over corn.

More important is the idea behind NexSteppe–that we should breed crops for energy, just as we have very successfully bred crops for food since the invention of agriculture. Government and university scientists are trying to do just that, as the story goes on to say. You can read the rest here.

Feeding my grandson

14178_820263797896_5858208601246584279_n

 

Meet my grandson, Hudson Scott, who is six months old and just started eating solid foods. This means that my daughter Rebecca and son-in-law Eric have to decide what to feed him–the baby food in jars from Gerber and Beech-Nut that have been around forever, it seems, the newer and hipper lines of organic baby food, which come in pouches from companies like Plum Organic, or do-it-yourself baby food that she makes at home.

As it happens, and perhaps not by coincidence, this is a question that has been explored lately in the pages of Guardian Sustainable Business US, where I am editor-at-large. This week, I profiled Plum, a B Corps which is nested inside the publicly-traded Campbell Soup Co. Here’s how my story begins:

Plum Organics, the leading brand of organic baby food and a unit of the Campbell Soup Company, has an impressive story to tell. As a certified B Corporation, Plum meets high standards for environmental and social performance. Its products are organic, its innovative packaging is lightweight (albeit not recyclable), its lowest-paid workers earn 50% above a so-called “living wage” and it gave away more than 1m pouches of food to needy children last year.

“Our mission is to get the very best food to kids,” says Neil Grimmer,Plum’s president and co-founder. “I have a goal of being in every lunchbox and high chair in America.” And more: Plum this fall plans to introduce its first product for adults, a collection of five-ounce snack pouches of blended fruits and vegetables branded as Plum VIDA. Sample flavors: cherry, berry, beet, and ginger.

So what’s not to like? To begin with, all that social and environmental goodness doesn’t come cheap. Plum’s products cost more than mainstream brands like Gerber, the No 1 seller of baby food. Then there’s the question of whether processed baby food is needed at all….Finally, Plum’s breakthrough innovation was the spouted pouch, which is convenient, but it enables babies to engage on-the-go eating, for better or worse.

You can read the rest here.

Meantime, just last month, my friend and Guardian contributor Erik Assadourian, who is a new father, assailed the baby-food industry in a column arguing that there’s no need to buy baby food at all. His column, Making our own baby food, begins like this:

Here’s the thing: the majority of Americans are fat. So much so that most people don’t even consider themselves fat, probably because everyone around them is also fat. Lots of kids are fat too – a trend I’ve really started to notice since becoming a father two years ago. Toddlers and babies are so fat that sometimes I worry that my own son, Ayhan, looks malnourished.

But my son isn’t malnourished. In fact he’s strong and lean, and acts like one of the healthy monkeys in the ongoing Wisconsin National Primate Research Center caloric restriction study: perky, energetic, and excited about eating proffered bits of fruit. So when I step back and get a bit of perspective, I’m not worried.

I’m more concerned about how children are being set upon an unhealthy dietary path that starts not just when they’re born, but when they’re conceived. Recent studies find that what mothers eat while pregnant shapes children’s palates in vitro. So if mama is regularly indulging in ice cream and salty snacks, baby may be predisposed to crave those too.

Then when they’re born, too many children are raised on baby formula, which is far less healthy than breast milk (a topic I already discussed, to much maternal anger). At around six months, when starting on solids, many parents lead their children down another wrong path – that of powdered cereals, premade baby foods, and junk foods disguised as baby-friendly snacks. No wonder childhood obesity is at 17.3% in the US.

One recommendation: make your own baby food.

Eric’s right that a lot of the foods given to American kids is unhealthy. His indictment is too sweeping, though. Plum and Beech-Nut offer early-stage baby food that consists of nothing more than apples, peas or sweet potatoes. Which, of course, raises the question: Why not make it yourself?

For now, that’s what Rebecca, who is a stay at home mom, and Eric have decided to do. It will take more time and effort that buying baby food at the store or online, but it will save them money and give Hudson a good start on what we hope will be a lifetime of healthy eating. Yams and carrots, so far. Next up? Avocados.

Why animal welfare is a “green” issue

pigs10_300_1

Where bacon begins

Environmentalists love animals, the more exotic, the better. You can find environmental organizations dedicated to the protection of pandas, polar bears, sea turtles and birds. Elephants and whales, too.

Pigs, chickens and cows? Not so much.

But the way we treat animals in agriculture has profound environmental implications. And the group doing the most to change that is not a green group at all but the Humane Society of the United States. I recently interviewed Wayne Pacelle, the HSUS’s president and CEO, about the environmental impact of the animal welfare movement for the website Yale Environment 360.

In the interview, Pacelle makes the point that crowding pigs, chickens and cows into so-called factory farms inevitably creates environmental problems, particularly around waste disposal. So, of course, does the sheer number of animals we raise for meat–about 9 billion in the US alone–and the enormous amount of grain that most be raised to feed them.

Pacelle told me:

We cannot humanely and sustainably raised nine billion animals in the United States. And we’re asking consumers, if they care about animals and the environment, to eat a smaller amount of animal products. 

As regular readers of this blog know (see this or this), I agree with Pacelle that all of us should, at minimum, think about how we consume meat and, to a lesser degree, fish. There’s debate about the environmental impact of animal products but  a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that quantifies the land, water and greenhouse gas burdens of meat, eggs and dairy production points to “the uniquely high resource demands of beef.” So there are compelling environmental reasons to avoid steak and hamburgers from factory-farmed cows. Of course, there are health reasons as well to eat less meat, as well as strong moral reasons to avoid meat from factory farms or, for that matter, all animal products.

HSUS has had a big impact on how animals, especially pigs, are raised in the US. The organization’s savvy campaign against gestation crates has helped persuaded big brands like Costco and McDonald’s to eliminate the crates from its supply chains, bringing pressure of major pork producers like Smithfield and Cargill.

Pacelle, as it happens, is a vegan. But HSUS is not trying to abolish animal agriculture. In our interview, he said

We are an organization that embraces humane and sustainable farmers. The vast percentage of our members eat meat, drink milk and consume eggs.

Others see that as a betrayal of animals. I saw this tweet the other day from Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy, himself a vegan, which led me to an interview with Phillip Wollen, a former Citibank executive who became a hard-line animal rights activist after visiting one of his bank’s client’s slaughterhouses.

An Australian, Wollen has this to say about the so-called humane slaughter of animals:

Anyone who tells me there is such a thing as “humane” slaughter should contact me. I see a wonderful business opportunity to sell them the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I seriously wonder how they define the word “humane”. It is a saccharine, feel-good word designed to provide convenient cover for an atrocious act of barbarism. And it gives consumers a smug sense of satisfaction that eating animals is ethical, after all. A ghastly con – a betrayal of the worst kind.

Fascinating, no? You can read more here from Wollen.

I’m not yet persuaded, as Wollen is, that eating animals is being complicit in murder.

But I don’t feel good about continuing to eat chicken and fish.

General Mills, Walmart, Target and compassion

compassion-wordThe other day, I went to a daylong meditation retreat about lovingkindness. One of the themes: how to find ways to bring an attitude of loving kindness not just to friends, but to strangers and even to the most difficult people in our lives. My rabbi, Fred Dobb, with whom I ordinarily spend my Saturdays, touches on a similar theme when he talks about widening our circles of compassion, to go beyond family and friends; the edict to  love thy neighbor extends not just to the folks next door but to the needy around the world. I don’t mean to go all Biblical on you here but it is written in Exodus 23:9: “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

What does this have to do with corporate responsibility, and sustainability, the topics of this blog? A lot, actually, as I realized when a pair of stories that I wrote for Guardian Sustainable Business were published in quick succession this week. Both stories are about big, publicly-traded companies that seek to enhance shareholder value with considerable vigor. But both, at heart, are also about the idea that good companies increasingly take an expansive, as opposed to a constricted view, of their place in the world, and their obligations to the world.

Yesterday, I wrote a story about General Mills’ new climate policy. Here’s how it begins:

Two months after Oxfam launched a campaign urging food and beverage companies to take stronger action to curb climate change, General Mills has promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its agricultural supply chain and to advocate for government climate policy.

General Mills on Monday detailed its new policy on its website, saying: “The imperative is clear: Business, together with governments, NGOs and individuals, needs to act to reduce the human impact on climate change.”

In a news release, Oxfam praised General Mills as “the first major food and beverage company to promise to implement long-term science-based targets to cut emissions from across all of its operations and supply chains that are responsive to the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2C.

“It’s a major leap,” said Heather Coleman, climate change manager for Oxfam America.

What’s noteworthy about the General Mills’ policy is that it dig deep into the company’s agriculture supply chain, where its environmental impact is greatest, and that it commits the company to be more politically active on climate issues. Put another way, this big food company is taking responsibility for trying to reduce the environmental impact of oats that go into Cheerios. You can read more here.

Today, the Guardian published my story about an unusual collaboration between Walmart and Target that aims to insure that beauty and personal care products are produced more sustainably. Here’s how that story begins:

In an unlikely partnership, rivals Walmart and Target have joined together, working with suppliers “to improve sustainability performance in the personal care and beauty industry”.

Their first event, the day-long Beauty and Personal Care Products Sustainability Summit, will be held on 4 September in Chicago. It’s being organized by Forum for the Future, a UK-based NGO with an outpost in New York.

Up until now, Walmart, the largest US retailer, and Target, the fourth-ranked retailer (according to the National Retail Federation), have taken divergent paths on sustainability. Why are the two companies now joining forces around the sustainability of soap, toothpaste, hair care products, shaving cream and cosmetics?

The story goes on to say:

It may be – and this definitely falls in the category of informed speculation – that Walmart and Target have come to realize that they are not as powerful as they want to be when dealing with big consumer brands and their suppliers in the chemical and fragrance industries.

The secrecy around ingredients in beauty and personal care products, along with the complexity of chemical formulations, creates information asymmetries. The brands and their suppliers know a lot more about product formulations than the buyers at Walmart and Target. They often tell critics that there’s no readily available substitute for a “chemical of concern.” And they are unwilling to share information about whether they are researching or developing safer chemicals.

An industry insider told me: “There’s so much that’s hidden in these supply chains that even Target and Walmart don’t know what goes into everything on their shelves.”

The point is, Walmart and Target are digging deeper than ever before into their supply chains, seeking to understand the chemicals that go into cosmetics or hair care products, or the impact of packaging.

You can see these shifts across the field of corporate responsibility. Look at the apparel and electronics industries which, over time, have agreed, at least in theory,accept responsibility for the working conditions and environmental practices deep in their supply chains, in places like China and Bangladesh.

Are companies becoming more compassionate? I don’t think so, at least not in the since that people can seek to become more caring. But are they recognizing that the long-term health of their business depends upon their reputations as corporate citizens, not to mention the health of the planet or the safety of the products they sell? Yes, they are. It’s a very slow and imperfect process, but it’s real.

Paul Greenberg’s fish stories

AmericanCatchCoverMuch of what I know about seafood I’ve learned from Paul Greenberg. Paul is an acquaintance and a gifted writer whose new book, called American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, looks at three iconic American seafood species: New York oysters, Gulf shrimp and Alaska salmon. It’s a sequel of sorts to his previous book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, which I blogged about in 2010.

In the introduction to the new book, Paul describes the impact of globalization on the seafood that we catch and eat in the US:

By all rights this most healthy of food should be an American mainstay. The United States controls more ocean than any other country on earth. Our seafood-producing territory covers 2.8bn acres, more than twice as much real estate as we have set aside for landfood.

But in spite of our billions of acres of ocean, our 94,000 miles of coast, our 3.5m miles of rivers, a full 91% of the seafood Americans eat comes from abroad.

..It gets fishier still. While 91% of the seafood Americans eat is foreign, a third of the seafood that Americans catch gets sold to foreigners. By and large the fish and shellfish we are sending abroad are wild while the seafood we are importing is very often farmed.

…American consumers suffer from a deficit of American fish, but someone out there somewhere is eating our lunch.

Last week, I interviewed Paul by email for Guardian Sustainable Business. I asked him why trade in seafood differs from the global exchange of other goods, the prospects for restoring oysters to New York harbor and a couple of intriguing experiments with community-supported fisheries. You can read his responses here.

There’s encouraging news in Paul’s fish stories. Alaska’s salmon fishermen are in the midst of what could be a successful effort to protect the world’s most productive salmon fishery from Pebble Mine a massive gold and copper mine near Bristol Bay. (The EPA moved to block the mine last week.) Meantime, nonprofit groups in New York are laboring to bring back the oysters that were once plentiful up and down the east coast.

A lifelong fisherman, Paul brings to these stories and obvious passion for his subject and a zest for adventure. (He uncovers and consumes a New York oyster from the muddy waters of the East River.) More than passion, though, goes into a book like American Catch. In the acknowledgements, I learned that Paul’s editor put him through seven drafts of the manuscript. The result, a rarity in this world of 24-7 news, instant analysis, and blogging on the run, is a work of journalism that delivers both insight and enormous pleasure.

When NGOs can’t be trusted

DonateNonprofitsLogos304I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reporting a story for the Guardian on NGOs and GMOs–specifically, the ways that some nonprofit groups have stirred up fears about genetically-modified organisms, by taking facts out of context, distorting mainstream science or, occasionally, saying things that simply are not true. I did the story in part because I believe that agricultural biotechnology could be–could be–a valuable tool as we try to feed people in a resource-constrained and warming world. I’m by no means an enthusiastic fan of biotech crops — the rollout of the technology has been managed poorly by the industry–but I’m fairly confident  that they have enormous potential. That potential will never be realized until we can have a rational fact-based debate about how the technology should be managed.

But my hope is that this story will make a bigger and more important point about the non-profit sector: That the claims of NGOs and advocacy groups should be received with the same skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to claims from business and government. That might seem like an obvious point, but my experience tells me that many people tend to take what NGOs say at face value. Public opinion surveys also find that NGOs are trusted, far more than corporations or the government.

On the GMO issue, this is a terrible  shame. But it helps to explain why, as I write

so many people – 48%, according to Gallup – believe that foods produced using genetic engineering pose a serious health hazard, despite assurances from corporations, government regulators and mainstream scientists that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now on the market are safe and, indeed, have been studied, tested and regulated more than any other food product in history.

More broadly, though, it’s too easy to forget that NGOs, like companies or the government or, indeed, all of us, are driven by a set of incentives. Again, from the story:

..non-profits and the people who lead them are subject to the same temptations, pressures and incentives that drive companies: They are self-interested. They seek attention in a noisy marketplace. And they rely on the financial support of donors, just as companies depend on customers.

As it happens, some of the groups opposed to the spread of GMOS are backed largely by corporate interests: Just Label It, a dot-org coalition that favors GMO labels is financed by organic and “natural” food companies that benefit from the anxiety around biotech food.

Follow the money, as Woodward & Bernstein used to say. A lot of money behind the anti-GMO movement comes from the organic food industry. Right now, the best way to avoid GMOs at the supermarket is to buy organic.

To take an example from another arena: When I talk to scientists or engineers about climate change, most do not believe we will be able to power the US economy anytime soon entirely with renewable energy. They believe that some form of zero-carbon baseload power will be needed — either nuclear energy or coal plants with carbon capture. (About which there was a bit of encouraging news this week.) In the US, depending entirely on solar and wind, along with the required energy storage and transmission lines, would be enormously expensive. In places like China and India, it’s unthinkable. So it makes sense for the US to find ways to make nuclear power or coal plants with carbon capture a lot cheaper, so we can export those technologies to the developing world. This is true for solar and wind as well, of course.

Yet environmental groups–the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, in particular–are implacably opposed to nuclear power and, as best as I can tell, they oppose coal with carbon capture. Fracking, too. I don’t doubt the sincerity or the intelligence of their leaders, but I have to believe that if they wavered in their opposition to nukes and coal with carbon capture, their customers, i.e., their members and donors, would revolt. So, at the very least, the deep green groups are less than transparent about the tradeoffs that will be required if we give up on nuclear or so-called clean coal, and put all of our investment into wind and solar.

Another example, from the story:

The issue of credibility goes well beyond GMOs, of course. What’s the most effective way to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people? It’s hard to know whether a comprehensive approach (the Millennium Villages), major health initiatives (the Gates Foundation), micro enterprise (Kiva) or disaster relief (Care) will work best. Each NGO understandably touts its own approach. Meanwhile, economists say trade has done more than aid to help the global poor.

A bigger and more important point, which I’ll save for another day, is the question of who is holding NGOs accountable. It’s an important question because, like it or not, as taxpayers we all help finance the nonprofit sector because donations to NGOs are frequently tax-deductible.

None of this is intended to diminish the enormous value delivered by the nonprofit sector. My next Guardian story will be built upon a terrific new report on corporate taxation put together by a couple of NGOs. The NGOs that I know best, those in the environmental sector, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, for the most part do great work. My wife and older daughter work for NGOs, and I’m on the board of Net Impact, a nonprofit that I (obviously) believe in strongly.

None of which means you should automatically believe everything you hear from a so-called public interest group. You shouldn’t.