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Rebuilding trust in nutrition (part 1)

Stuart Gillespie

Published: January 06, 2021


For some reason – unlike our health counterparts — nutrition professionals tend to shy away from research and action on the commercial determinants of (mal)nutrition.  They don’t want to be involved in polarizing discussions on the role of the private sector in nutrition.

A big part of the problem is the way the narrative is shaped.  We constantly hear clichés like “the private sector should be part of the solution”, or simplistic questions like “how do we work with the private sector?”.  A good start is probably to ban the phrase “private sector”. It’s just not helpful. There are many forms of private business, including many small companies who are trying to improve access and affordability to healthy diets. We need to do better in differentiating those whose products and practices harm nutrition from those who (actually or potentially) support good nutrition.  The former include the ultra-processed food and beverage industry which controls much of the global food system. They want to be loved by the nutrition community, so they target influential individuals, organizations and conferences and woo them in various ways. Adapted from Big Tobacco, this corporate playbook has been described and used many times. Being seen to be part of the nutrition community is huge as it confers tacit approval of actions – a soft-power ‘get out of jail card’ that reduces the pressure to change damaging products and practices.  And these tactics clearly work.

The nutrition community has made progress in differentiating good and bad corporate behaviors and even ranking them.  Much of this however draws on statements of intent, rather than action on the ground.  There are different sets of principles that define good (pro-nutrition) behaviour. But what’s missing is clarity and consensus on what this looks like in practice, where the red lines are, and the implications of crossing them.

This is not trivial.  We currently have a divide between some who believe that it’s perfectly fine to ‘talk to anyone’ and others (myself included) who believe that actions need to precede words. The ‘talk-first’ group think they can persuade malnourishing companies to change their ways – as if they were somehow still not clear on what to do.  The ‘walk-first’ group believe it’s perfectly clear to everyone what’s needed, it just needs to be done – or at least, there needs to be clear, tangible, independently verifiable progress first. This needs to be large-scale – it’s just not good enough to have a few showy small-scale CSR projects dotted around, here and there.  Boutique projects and the media froth they generate are distractions at best. At worst, they’re dangerous side salads that confer legitimacy on core business practices that may run in a very different direction.

Malnutrition is a large-scale problem, it needs large companies to act at large-scale, in the long term, to be seen to be serious.

This year we have not one but two big talking events – the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) and the Nutrition for Growth Summit. The rules for engagement in these summits are not entirely clear. I have been told there are guidelines but they’re not visible on the web. There is a Private Sector Guiding Group for the UNFSS but again – it’s not clear who is in this group, or whether it’s open to anyone.

In the various consultations in different Action Tracks for the Summit there has been a lot of discussion about the importance of enabling environments, trust and responsibility. On 23 November, the UN Special Envoy, Agnes Kalibata stated: “One of the most broken pieces of our food system is our trust in each other. There isn`t a high level of trust in the system right now, and that is preventing us moving forward.”

She’s right — it’s crystal clear that many stakeholders see trust as a big issue.

The UNFSS has put out a call for game-changing solutions. One that would go a long way to rebuild trust would be an unequivocal position on the part of the UNFSS regarding the role of the ultra-processed food industry in the challenge of addressing malnutrition. In general terms, and specifically with regard to the Summit process.

If not now, then when?

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