Ho Chi Minh City

Letter to the Editor
UNSCN NEWS 42, 2017, pp133-135

Point: A one-sided understanding of the foreseen role
of the key actors of the private sector in the Decade
and in the food and nutrition realm in general is clearly

Previous SCN News carried a section on Private Sector
Perspectives. Stordalen and Mushtaq’s article on feeding
the world in SCN News #41, purports to speak about the
role of the private sector in the Agenda 2030 (pp. 80-82). I
believe that it was clearly misleading in advocating for, in
my opinion, the wrong road map to the future.

Let me make myself clear. It is certainly not true that public
health and environmental sciences are now converging with
business needs and opportunities – and this surely is not a
win-win proposition for victory. It is further untrue that our
food supply needs to be profitable for the business sector for
things to work for the better. The vast millions in need of fair
access to food certainly need another kind of food security.
Other issues are also in need of debunking.

Point: Half-truths and, worse, distortions and
biases should definitely not be our guide in the
implementation of the Decade.

• Today, the global food system is increasingly agro-industrial,
which is why it is unsustainable; it undermines the
environment and is oblivious to climate change and to
the loss of biodiversity. It further certainly does not deliver
nutrition equitably.
• It is not true that non-communicable diseases surpass
infectious diseases as the leading cause of death worldwide
if we consider absolute numbers.
• Sustainable food systems are at the very centre of the
already unfolding Decade’s agenda.
• The current Decade of Nutrition agenda certainly does
not call for a paradigm shift that blocks the chances of
businesses in the Big Food sector to grab.
• Furthermore, it would be a good idea if consumer demand
for healthy foods would reward good businesses. But
this is far from the truth. It is actually Big Food that
entices and manipulates the consumers to purchase their
ultra-processed products. The quick transformation that
businesses aim for is actually a token reformulation of
junk foods to cut their salt, sugar and transfats content
– but still producing and aggressively marketing …junk

Point: Is the Decade of Nutrition really calling for a
roadmap for transformative change in the food industry?
As mentioned above, a transformative change towards token
reformulation is a clever and quick reaction or gimmick (mostly
a whitewashing one) that purports that industry empathizes and
complies with our worries about non-communicable diseases
(NCDs). This is not a significant enough change of behavior of
industry; much less is it radical. Rather, it is forced upon them
already from the NCDs High Level UN Meeting on NCDs in New
York in 2012 – and has created a brilliant opportunity for them
for yet more sales. What is actually needed is to challenge
existing business models all along the food value chain.

For these and many other reasons, one can confidently disagree
with the often heard assertion that reliable business models
are ‘essential’ to direct private capital and investments in the
direction of better nutrition. If the business community interprets
the new Decade’s agenda as a roadmap for transformative
change, we have yet to hear what they intend to do – this is
where the real challenge lies right now. Industry has been, is
and will be mapping out future markets, further profitability and
ways to influence new legislation favorable to them. This is
their leitmotif. Let us not be deceived by what we read about
Big Food and Big Soda bringing a new set of ethical values,
greater transparency and catering to consumer aspirations. If
they have not yet done so, why would they do it now? A truly
good reason would be this: business needs to make operations
more sustainable, yes, but certainly not by exploiting the new
opportunities that allow them to become yet more profitable
from now on. A chameleon position?

Moreover, in the realm of food production practices, land, food,
water, energy and minerals are increasingly exploited – in large
part by transnational corporations, be it in palm oil plantations
or by outright land grabbing. To date, nothing is said about this in
Decade documents. No justification is either given for why higher
volumes of food need to be produced when a large portion of it
is being grown for animal feed or to be used as biofuels. I cannot
figure out why we so often read that we need to increase plant-
based foods if used to produce more meat and dairy products,
because this can potentially increase profit margins. If industry
thinks that there is no longer a trade-off between sustainability
and profit, I simply ask: How aspirational is this assertion?

Point: New partnerships to bring about change?
Profit-driven actions can and do deviate from the interests of
society. But then, can ‘well-regulated private sector forces’
drive forward rapid positive change? The key question in
this is: Are these forces well-regulated in our food and
nutrition sector? Of course not. But worse, can the private
sector have an important role to play in contributing to
the political discussions ensuring that business needs
are taken into account when implementing the Decade of
Nutrition? Decisions in our field (and other global concerns)
are the prerogative of Member States in the public domain.
Period. The private sector is not to be a central engine in
the transformative shift of the next ten years; at the most,
perhaps just one of the four wheels. The contributions
from the private sector have simply not been transparent
and accountable with respect to the business engagement
in global policy processes. There is no room for them in
global policymaking. Do we need to be reminded of the baby
milk industry? We are often made to believe that there are
positive, historically transformative shifts attributable to Big
Food to be cited, but I cannot find them. Finally here, in an
exaggerated fashion, we are also often told that one of the
strongest calls for action in the global conversation on the
Decade’s agenda has been to enable new partnerships to be
the main engine of change. Really? What about the strong
rebuttal in the literature about public-private partnerships and
their letting-the-public-sector-take-the-risks with the-private-
partner-reaping-the-benefits? Or, what about the flagrant
conflict of interest of the private sector in many so-called
multi-stakeholder platforms?

Point: A new model for transformative change?
If what we read above about public private partnerships and
multistakeholder platforms is to be the new model during
the coming years of the Decade, I strongly purport both are,
not only out of place, but outright dangerous.

Yes, business strategies are needed in both the short and
long term. Yes, guidance from the scientific community is
needed. But what is needed more is guidance from public
interest civil society organizations and social movements
representing claim holders whose right to nutrition is being
violated. Not enough is emerging about the latter beyond lip
service. As set up, platforms between science, policy, civil
society and business can – and if not careful will – distort the
balance of these actors by biasing it towards the purportedly
key role of the private sector. How much of what we get to
read is said directly or indirectly (using a front organization)
in the name of big private sector players will be difficult to
determine. But the risk of this model becomes clearer day
after day and is not worth running. I apologize for saying
so, but how could I not strongly suspect it? (Note that I do
not chastise all actors of the private sector, but a majority
of the big players.)

In summary

Yes, we are all in search of a new paradigm of universal
prosperity and good nutrition, but certainly not a paradigm
of profitability. Yes, we need to channel economic forces in
a more prudent direction, and certainly not in the direction
that unfortunately they have been pointed towards at
the beginning of the Decade. Public interest simply must
prevail; platforms that align public and private sector
interests cannot just give lip service to the role of the
public interest sector.

In short, I find elements in the Decade that have a high risk
of being misguided in terms of the direction they point to,
especially since, when so doing, I find a whole lot of contradictory
statements that ultimately go against the grain of the true spirit
of the Decade and of the post-2015 Development Agenda. I
will be glad to be refuted if wrong in my perceptions.

Anyone for a counterpoint?

Author: admin

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