Africa, Agriculture, Food & Nutrition, People, Americas, Europe, Asia Pacific

Businesses must show appetite to tackle the challenges of food and nutrition

Peter McFeely | Oct 10, 2018

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Every country in the world currently faces a serious challenge due to our eating habits. Whether it’s under-nourishment or obesity, malnutrition is on the rise. If we want to ensure everyone has good food and nutrition, we have to tackle both ends of the scale – providing both enough of and the right type of calories. In short, we must tackle the dual challenges of access and information; making sure that everyone has a choice in what they eat, and ensuring they have the knowledge that helps them make the best choice.

But a ‘good’ diet isn’t just about consuming enough calories, or even the right balance of nutrients. A good diet is one which provides nutrition while also protecting our planet, limiting climate change and preventing biodiversity loss. If we don’t take care of the land and water which grows our food, we won’t have a choice in what we grow. Some might question if this is the role of the private sector, over providing services, products and benefits to customers and shareholders, but the private sector has a fundamental responsibility to its shareholders to develop sustainably, as it’s the only way they can grow their revenue in the long-term.

When we think about sustainable development and ensuring good food and nutrition for all, we must consider the strains that the food system puts on our planet – it uses 69% of all freshwater and 34% of all land; it’s the biggest cause of deforestation and the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Yet we don’t consume a third of all the food produced. We are literally eating up our planet, but not for personal benefit – around 850 million people go hungry every day while 650 million are obese, a further 1.25 billion are overweight. We’re damaging ourselves and our planet and we must take urgent action to adjust our diets.

Diet though is an extremely personal and emotional element of life – there is no single recommendation which can be applied universally; all solutions to access and information need to be localised. WWF is currently conducting a study to measure  the connection between human and planetary health  by comparing how national diets compare with national dietary guidelines, and the impact that closing the gap would have on the environment and biodiversity. The results will provide grounds from which countries can make locally and culturally relevant recommendations that will resonate with their populations.

How we communicate these findings is extremely important. We have to make them accessible to different audiences – from those who need the science to shape policy and health guidance, to the consumer with little information who is making snap decisions on what to eat. That means developing different content and putting in the places that matter to them – whether it’s online, in print or instore.

Levels of success in consumer education have already been achieved, with tools such as clear-labelling of nutrition facts, meat and seafood guides which give consumers information on environmental footprint of different products, and recognisable certifications and standards helping raise awareness of the negative impacts of poor consumption choices. Governments and civil society often deliver this information, but businesses can play a key role to play in raising consumer awareness – they have loyal customer bases and can leverage established trust.

True impact will be enjoyed only when partnerships are developed, and commitments made in tandem, between the private and public sector. Businesses must work with other stakeholders and shift from corporate social responsibility to creating shared value – and educating consumers will only get us so far if we don’t tackle access and affordability. In many instances, companies’ sustainability efforts are tied to operational efficiency, but we need to move beyond that, into an era of innovation.

Access to healthy and nutritious food is often a problem in rural and developing economies. For instance, many smallholder farmers who are trading their own crops are left in a situation where they can not afford healthy and nutritious food. Too often they are using their land to grow a single commodity, for instance palm oil, which delivers them most profit but doesn’t provide subsistence. While the produce from their land is exported, there is no influx of affordable food to their local market. Market dynamics need to be changed so that food is available and farmers are able to afford it. In addition to changes in pricing and trade flows, smallholder farmers must be encouraged to adopt more sustainable agricultural methods that protect the long-term viability of their land. Such practices however, require improved financing and investment – the barrier to adoption is frequently the impact in the farmer’s pocket as they do not deliver immediate returns. Banks and investors are beginning to improve financing models  –RaboBank for example has collaborated with the United Nations Environment Programme to establish a billion dollar fund dedicated to forest protection and sustainable agriculture – but there is still more that can be done to give communities direct access to nutritious food.

Along with empowering and enabling farmers to provide for themselves, more healthy food can be made available to all communities – including those in urban areas – if large businesses cut out bad ingredients, add good ones or introduce new products. This is already happening – McDonald’s has launched McDonald’s Next with prominent salad bars, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have developed sugar-free drinks and KraftHeinz and Nestle have both reformulated recipes to remove artificial ingredients – and businesses must continue to invest R&D dollars in creating healthy and nutritious food rather than doing so only in response to regulation or taxation.

The price of food, along with its environmental footprint, could also be reduced through technological innovations that can transform production methods. Vertical and hydroponic farming, meat substitutes, lab-grown produce and resilient crop strains all enable food to be produced in different environments, cutting down food miles and logistic costs and creating possibilities for more nutritious foods to be made directly available to communities who need them most.

There is a clear opportunity for businesses, most effectively as part of multi-stakeholder partnerships, to improve access and information, thus ensuring good food and nutrition for all. Moreover, there is a basic need for businesses to focus on the creation of shared value or risk eroding their long-term viability. Many businesses are making commitments and while they may look good in annual reports and investor briefings we have to see action. The planet can’t survive any further downturns in performance – it needs immediate reinvestment and a return to profitability. While serving their own shareholders, we hope the private sector is beginning to see its own responsibilities as shareholders in our most valuable resource – our planet. They have a major say in how it fares in the long-term and our ability to sustainably feed a growing population.

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