Land Grabs by Food and Beverage Companies

Michelle Katz

Michelle Katz
Policy Advisor, Private Sector Department, Oxfam America

Oxfam’s Behind the Brands, an initiative evaluating the social and environmental policies of the ten largest food and beverage companies, has been advocating for companies to address land rights issues in their supply chains. Since 2000, over 930 large-scale land acquisitions covering over 35 million hectares globally have been recorded.

Many of these large-scale land acquisitions involve evicting traditional landholders, through coercion or fraud, commonly referred to as “land grabbing”. Land grabbing primarily affects small-scale farming communities in developing countries and has been linked to hunger, violence, and loss of livelihoods. To date, the food and beverage sector has barely recognized land grabs as a problem, let alone taken measures to address it.

The agricultural commodities commonly linked to land grabs are sugar, soy, and palm oil – commodities food and beverage companies rely on as key ingredients. A recent investigation by Oxfam revealed that companies supplying sugar to PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Associated British Foods have been implicated in violent land grabs – pushing small farmers off their land and undermining their livelihoods.

Thirty-five investors representing over $1.4 trillion in assets signed a statement supporting the Behind the Brands campaign, and this fall, Oxfam organized investor roundtables on the topic hosted by Morgan Stanley and Kepler Cheuvreux. Following Oxfam’s engagement and advocacy efforts, Coca-Cola declared “zero tolerance” for land grabs and committed to end land conflicts in its supply chain. PepsiCo has lagged behind, causing Oxfam in November to file a shareholder proposal requesting that Pepsi adopt policies addressing such land rights violations.

Oxfam is calling on companies to take the following steps:

  1. “Know and show” risks of land grabs within the companies’ supply chains. Conduct and publish impact assessments related to land with the full participation of affected communities. Disclose countries from which the company sources these commodities.
  2. Commit to “zero tolerance” for land grabbing and include it in supplier codes of conduct, including for franchisees. Commit to sector specific sustainable production standards for sugar, soy, and palm oil.
  3. Advocate for governments and traders to address land grabbing and support responsible agricultural investments.

Land controversies present significant risks to companies, shareholders, and affected communities. There is growing concern among consumers regarding the supply chains of the products they purchase. Improved transparency and ethical practices that secure future commodity supplies and reduce social and environmental risk help build a sustainable business model for companies and their shareholders.

Download Proxy Preview 2014 to find more sustainable forestry shareholder resolutions.