Big Food Watch network member Claudio Schuftan writes:
In his commentary ‘Words for our sponsors’ (1), Fabio Gomes says rightly: ‘ “Big Food” refers to the class of food and drink product manufacturers and caterers that have become colossal since the 1980s, and also to corporate commodity traders, suppliers, associated industries such as ingredients and additives manufacturers, and the organisations they have set up and control to represent their collective interests’.
This definition should be widely used (2). The chief Big Food corporations are all [the] transnationals. But as shown above, a full definition also includes supporting organisations, such as foundations and non-profits that are funded and more importantly controlled by corporations. These include, for instance, the International Life Sciences Institute and the International Food Information Council, and ILSI and IFIC subsidiaries.
Bill Gates as a Time Person of the Year (left) with Melinda Gates and Bono, for his charitable work At the World Economic Forum (left), he is flanked by the CEOs of Pepsi-Co and Unilever.
In this letter I go one step further, and propose to include organisations formally independent from Big Food, but which have strong permanent shared interests. My example is the Gates Foundation. Bill Gates is a mighty man, invited to share and set agendas at the highest levels – see the picture above of him speaking at the World Economic Forum, flanked by the CEOs of PepsiCo and Unilever. (Asa big donor, Bill Gates also is one of the very few outside invited speakers at WHO’s World Assembly –twice). Aside from how the WEF itself should be categorised, below is a graphic from a recent journal feature (3), with figures from the Foundation’s 2012 annual accounts. This updates an earlier analysis of Gates Foundation holdings (4) showing Gates as the largest single shareholder in Coca-Cola.
The Gates Foundation $US 500 million headquarters in Seattle (left). (Right): Bill Gates and fellow multi-billionaire Warren Buffett share jokes and Cokes and cards maybe on a mercy mission
Does Gates have [colossal] important holdings in Coca-Cola and McDonald’s because their shares are hot? Or are they a way to lever these Big Food corporations towards healthy policies (if so, evidence please)? Or is it simply that in common with other super-rich and powerful US citizens, Bill Gates believes in ‘the American way’? (On this, see below). He is frequently challenged on the ethics of Foundation holdings. So Bill and Melinda Gates have led a policy review, as a result of which they decided to continue to invest in companies that give the best financial return, including agrotechnology giant Monsanto and world commodities dealer Cargill (5). An exception is Big Tobacco, which Bill and Melinda see as ‘egregious’.
Bill calls the shots
The obvious explanation of the shareholdings is an innocent one. The two trustees of the Gates Foundation are Bill and Melinda Gates, and Bill Gates is putting his money where his mouth is. He enjoys cheeseburgers and Coke, as shown in this video of him from the US 60 Minutes show, ordering a cheeseburger and a large Coke in his favourite burger joint in Seattle. He thinks about burgers, too. Asked to say what are the cheapest things that give him most pleasure, he replied: ‘kids, cheeseburgers and Open Course Ware courses’. His advice to University of Washington students on wealth has been that after the first few millions ‘it’s the same hamburger’.
The style of the Gates Foundation, as a manifestation of Bill and Melinda Gates themselves, is also easy to understand. Bill Gates says he is ‘an impatient optimist’. This aspect of his character was learned as he progressed from Harvard dropout to becoming the youngest billionaire in the US, and so on then up. He has always been sure of his own opinions and judgments, as many successful entrepreneurs are in the US. It is apparent from Gates Foundation grants that what he wants in his charitable work is much the same as what other rich or powerful US institutions and people want. The ‘American style’ is to ‘fix problems’. And it is not to say that the Foundation has not made some good contributions… But in this context this includes seeking to solve global problems by giving grants for specified programmes, and being interested mainly in ‘magic bullet’ treatments which show quick measurable results, rather than enabling empowerment of the people living in impoverished countries, which is an altogether more complex process.
This is an edited extract from Global Health Watch (www.ghwatch.org ), produced by the People’s Health Movement.
The term ‘philanthrocapitalism’ describes a growing movement to harness the power of the market in order to achieve social outcomes, to increase economic growth in impoverished regions, and to make philanthropy more cost-effective. In today’s world of immense wealth and enduring poverty it is vital to examine philanthropy.
The Gates Foundation spends billions of dollars on health across the world. The majority of funding is provided for research in malaria, HIV/AIDS, immunisation, reproductive and maternal health, and other infectious diseases. Bill Gates could have spent his vast wealth on art museums or vanity projects. He chose to go to Africa with much of his money. Most literature and coverage has focused on the positive impact of the Gates Foundation.
The Foundation is governed by the Gates family. There is no board of trustees, other than Bill and Melinda Gates, nor any independent scrutiny. The Foundation answers only to the Gates family. It operates like an agency of a government, but unaccountably.
Its investments are in corporations whose activities are contrary to the Foundation’s charitable goals. Its position is that it ‘can do the most good for the most people through its grant-making, rather than investment of its endowment’. Bill and Melinda Gates have chosen not to ‘rank’ companies, except that the Foundation will not invest in tobacco, or in companies that are a conflict of interest for Bill or Melinda. Over 10 per cent of the Foundation’s endowment is invested in Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.
Philanthropy can be a potent instrument for ‘managing’ the poor rather than empowering them. Few grants go to civil rights and social movements. Fewer are given to programmes calling for a redistribution of wealth and land.
Partnership with industry is an explicit and prominent part of the Gates Foundation’s global health strategy. Many of its executives come from the corporate world. The Foundation’s corporate background has resulted in a bias towards biomedical and technological solutions. The Gates Foundation has not been interested in health systems strengthening and has rather competed with existing health services.
Remarks made in private and public by Gates Foundation executives indicate a wish to expand the role of the private sector in delivering health care in low-income countries. The ties between the Foundation and the pharmaceuticals industry, as well as its emphasis on medical technology, suggest that it is converting global health problems into business opportunities.
The ability of individuals to amass so much private wealth should be seen as a symptom of political and economic failure. The Gates Foundation’s policy of ‘passive investment’ contradicts its mission and reveals its own conflicted interests.
The Gates Foundation is too dominant. It is unaccountable. It is not transparent. It is dangerously powerful and influential.
Bill Gates and Big Food
Bill Clinton on a platform with Bill Gates, discussing ways to prevent and control HIV-AIDS left).
Bill Gates (right) partnering with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon at the UN in New York
To understand the state of public health nutrition, it is necessary to know what are the drivers of food systems and food supplies and thus of dietary patterns. Anything short of this merely scratches the surface[s]. I am a member of the Big Food Watch network team, as I am of the People’s Health Movement, because protection of public health and public goods must start with empowerment of the people who are most impoverished and exploited. Debunking certain myths is an important part of what we do and I will continue doing so in these feedbacks.
I propose that in any full definition of Big Food, institutions and entities whose policies and programmes consistently aid and support Big Food, should be included. This list should include bodies with large shareholdings or cross-directorships in Big Food corporations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation belongs in this list.
1 Gomes F. Big Food Watch. Words for our sponsors. [Commentary]. World
Nutrition October-December 2013, 4, 8, 618-644. Access pdf here .
2 The PLoS Medicine editors. PLoS Medicine series on Big Food. The food industry is ripe for scrutiny. Editorial. 19 June 2011. info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001246
3 Park A, Lee J. The Gates Foundation’s hypocritical investments. Mother Jones, 6 December 2013. Access pdf here .
4 Stuckler D. Basu S, McKee M. Global health philanthropy and institutional
relationships: how should conflicts of interest be addressed? PLoS Medicine, April 2011. PLoS Med 8(4): e1001020. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001020. Access pdf here .
5 Vidal J. Why is the Gates Foundation investing in GM giant Monsanto? The Guardian, 29 September 2010.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Schuftan C. The Gates Foundation. Big Bill and Big Food. [Feedback]. World Nutrition January 2014, 5, 1, xxx-xxx