Assessing the global agribusiness sector (Oxfam)

Anna Triponel

April 6, 2023
Our key takeaway: The next decade will be decisive in terms of equality, human rights and climate justice for the food sector, claims Oxfam—and we agree. Fast progress has been made in companies in some areas (women’s rights and transparency), while action is stalled in others (land rights and small-scale farmers). Agribusinesses and other global food business can take the lead in implementing needed changes. Women’s economic empowerment, land, climate change, small-scale producers and transparency and accountability—all assessed by Oxfam—are five crucial areas to prioritise for action.

Oxfam released the report Moving the Middle (March 2023), as a “Behind the Brands assessment of the global agribusiness sector”:

  • Global agribusiness are the “mighty middle” businesses of agricultural supply chains: Through its agribusiness scorecard and as part of its Behind the Brands initiative, Oxfam measures and benchmarks global agribusinesses’ policies, disclosures, commitments, implementation plans and advocacy initiatives. Global agribusinesses or agri-commodity traders, as they are also called, have a “mighty middle” position in the food industry. They connect farmers and agricultural workers with food consumers and they supply ingredients for key actors in the food value chain (food manufacturers, retailers, governments and food aid agencies). These businesses “have an outsized role and influence on how food is made and who benefits most from its production” and, as such, have a responsibility to “conduct their practices in ways that respect human rights and protect the environment.” In 2022, seven companies were assessed (Archer Daniels Midland [ADM)] Barry Callebaut, Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus Company, Olam Group and Wilmar International) across four areas: women’s economic empowerment, land, small-scale producers, and transparency and accountability (climate was left out of the 2022 scorecard, as indicators are being revised).
  • The findings: we’re not yet close to a just food system, but there are some good practices to imitate & bridge gaps between leaders and laggards: According to Oxfam, the assessment has yielded mixed results,“with average scores still well below what is necessary to sustain a just food system.” There is also a growing divide between leader and laggard companies. Since Oxfam’s first assessment in 2018, laggards have improved little while leaders continue to improve at a faster pace. The conclusion: great progress remains to be made across all areas. For instance, when it comes to equity for small-scale producers, none of the companies yet publicly recognise the importance of transparent contracts with farmers and producers, and none of them disclose the share of value earned by small-scale producers. Only one company (Olam Group) "has committed to setting a living income target based on the Living Income Community of Practice’s definition for at least one commodity.” Similarly, regarding land rights and land inequality, none of the assessed companies publicly report on the countries of high risk for land tenure issues in their supply chains, nor have they disclosed action plans to mitigate land risks. Positively, all companies have policies incorporating free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) for at least one of their commodities. Other good practices were identified—especially for women’s rights and transparency. One company is tracking the gender profile of farmers in the supply chains and has “multi-year, time-bound action plans to advance women’s economic empowerment.” And all companies are disclosing their governance and accountability structure for human rights, as well as “supplier-level information for their palm oil supply chain.” That degree of transparency is not yet happening for other commodities, however, and there is only one company regularly reporting on the salient human rights risks across its supply chains.
  • Key recommendations for companies, buyers and investors: Oxfam provides recommendations across the areas assessed in the scorecard for companies to implement and against which buyers and investors can track practice. When it comes to ensuring that women have more power within food and agriculture systems, Oxfam recommends that companies consider actions such as signing on to the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles, tracking and disclosing the gender profile of farmers and workers, ensuring equal access to grievance mechanisms, and adopting time-bound commitments for gender equality. To respect land rights, Oxfam recommends recognising and disclosing the company’s land footprint and prioritising sourcing models that strengthen land rights (among others). When it comes to small-holder farmers, fair trading practices could be promoted by disclosing the total number of small-holders within the value chains, creating fair and transparent contracting terms, supporting farmers’ rights to organize collectively, and committing to an action plan towards living income for farmers as defined by the Living Income Community of Practice. Finally, to improve transparency and accountability, recommendations include publishing “traceability information for commodities with high levels of human rights risks” and publishing “a comprehensive human rights impact assessment which assesses the impact of agricultural supply chain activities.”

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