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Beware the nutri-washers

Stuart Gillespie

Published: July 11, 2021


The United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) has just wrapped up a three-day pre-summit – a hybrid conference involving participants in Rome and thousands more online.

The goal of the summit is to transform the global food system.

The UNFSS has been heavily criticized for months and many movements, organizations and individuals have boycotted it. A counter mobilization of hundreds of grassroots organizations has emerged. Several multi-signatory open letters and statements have elaborated on its shortcomings – including opaque governance, weak or absent principles of engagement with the private sector, an inability to address (or even acknowledge) conflicts of interest, the sidelining of existing UN institutions, the marginalisation of human rights (this is a United Nations conference remember!) and the silence of UNFSS leaders in the face of this criticism.

In this blog, I focus on one core concern – the Summit’s approach to engaging with multinationals whose products and practices have been shown to drive malnutrition (e.g. Nestle, PepsiCo, Coca Cola).

A few days ago, Carlos Monteiro and colleagues published A Call to the UN Food Systems Summit to reshape global food processing. Carlos is a legend in nutrition, with whom I was lucky to work thirty years ago when he contributed a case study on child stunting in Brazil to a UN Standing Committee on Nutrition initiative: How Nutrition Improves. As the Brazilian malnutrition challenge shifted from under to over, Carlos switched gears. He has since pioneered the NOVA classification and contributed to many studies that have shown how ultra-processed foods (UPFs) generate malnutrition, various non-communicable diseases and premature mortality. Scarcely a week goes by now without more studies emerging highlighting the damage UPFs cause. It’s not only papers — Dr Chris van Tulleken followed his groundbreaking BBC documentary with this podcast on UPFs.

Many of us hoped that the Summit would take the challenge of ultra-processed foods head-on — if not now, then when?

So, what’s happening?

Well, not much. It’s not as if the glass is half-full, or half-empty – the problem is the glass is cracked and the water’s leaking out. We really need a new glass.

Jeff Sachs made this point in this barnstorming speech the other day — “we have a system but we need a different system” – reminding us that we turned food systems over to the private sector a hundred years ago.

Private sector involvement in the Summit is managed by the Private Sector Guiding Group (PSGG) run by World Business Council for Sustainable Development.  The WBCSD is an association that prides itself on its open membership – a group that includes tobacco giant Philip Morris among its members. It invited two of these companies – Nestle and PepsiCo to speak the other day in a 50-minute session on “private sector priorities for the UNFSS”. I naively tuned in thinking there would be a discussion of private sector priorities for the UNFSS.  There wasn’t. Instead there were 10 presentations by individual companies and organizations on their own priorities.  Better to email promotional flyers next time.

Yesterday, WBCSD ran another session in which a speaker from EUFIC suggested that ultra-processing of food was an ambiguous and hotly debated notion. EUFIC count Coca Cola, Cargill and Bunge among their Board members.

Way back in the mists of time, I raised a question in a UNFSS pre-consultation about the involvement of malnutrition-causing behemoths in a global conference aimed at reducing malnutrition. I’ve worked on principles of engagement while at IFPRI (including IFPRI’s own), and I wanted to hear about the Summit’s principles of engagement. I was told that no single company is in a position of influence in steering the UNFSS process and outcomes. On asking why PepsiCo was invited to speak at these consultations, I was blocked on twitter by a UNFSS leader who then accused me of spreading malicious lies (not sure how a question can be a lie, but anyway…). Many other commentators with similar questions have had similar responses.

The fact is that the Summit principles remain as they were at the start. There is no “do no harm” principle.  Instead we get vague exhortations to “recognize complexity” and — irony of ironies — to “build trust”.

Looking back, a day after the pre-summit, and two months before the main Summit, the only reasonable conclusion is that the UNFSS is operating under a similar set of engagement principles as the organization who runs its Private Sector Guiding Group (PSGG) – WBCSD — and therefore anyone can join up.

This dovetails with the inclusion rhetoric – that this is a “people’s summit” open to all.  Power asymmetries don’t exist in this world — all voices are equal, everyone’s welcome to the party….all we need to do is keep talking to each other.

Over two years ago, Nick Nisbett and I wrote about principles of engagement and the need for clarity on red lines.  We were concerned about companies doing “minor goods” with their left hand, while continuing to do “major bads” with their right hand.  Minor goods include small-scale boutique corporate social responsibility initiatives and projects.  Major bads are the core business practices that generate huge profits from selling junk food and drinks.

Anand Giridharadas wrote about this too here cautioning us to be wary of side salads!

José Graziano da Silva – former FAO Director General and architect of Fome Zero, launched 20 years ago — tweeted his concern yesterday about sugary drinks companies being part of Zero Hunger, Nourish the Future Pledge.  

In this session, I asked whether there was a “do no harm” principle for the Pledge. The response (min 33.50) was “yes, there will be”. I guess this means that PepsiCo are not perceived as being harmful to nutrition, or they will be relegated once the principle shows up.

This is not trivial. It opens up a whole new can of worms that could be described as ‘nutri-washing’ – when companies play off one form of malnutrition for another. 

Companies whose ultra-processed foods, drinks and marketing practices generate obesogenic environments now have a new ‘get out of jail’ card to play. 

They can now gain kudos, profile and acceptability by pledging to fight hunger and undernutrition while continuing to drive overweight and obesity.

Big step backwards.

Of course, there’s a different way. Why not employ clear principles, including “do no harm”, from the start? Why not determine eligibility to pledge by using independent benchmarking and monitoring tools — such as the new FACT transparency index developed by Feed the Truth?

Meanwhile, in all this corporate carousing, the most successful public-private partnership of all time – taxation — has been relatively sidelined. Jeff Sachs again: “To private sector leaders — behave, pay your taxes, follow the rules — that’s what you should do”.

The UNFSS may, or may not, take on board some of these concerns proactively and transparently – there’s still time.  But whatever happens the level and type of discourse has changed this year.

In the midst of a pandemic that has highlighted the imperative for transparency, leadership and trust – big issues affecting people and planet, hitherto shrouded or back-burnered, have been surfaced and debated.

That has to be a step forward.

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