Rethinking business engagement and nutrition: old and new

By Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director

Recently GAIN and ATNF co-hosted a meeting on “Building Business Commitments for the 2020 Nutrition for Growth Summit” in The Hague. There were 140 participants, with over 60 representatives from the business community. The host was the Government of the Netherlands and the meeting was opened by the Government of Japan, which will host next year’s Global Nutrition Summit. DFID and FAO asked GAIN and ATNF to organise the meeting to develop recommendations to the Government of Japan on what business could, and should, contribute to the Summit.

My opening speech setting the stage, made it clear that we had the motive for better engagement of businesses (the slow pace of change in nutrition indicators and the need for support from all stakeholders in society), the means (including public-private examples from the Governments of Japan, Netherlands, FAO, ATNF and GAIN) and the opportunity (the 2020 Japan Summit as well as other events on the road to Tokyo such as the upcoming TICAD meeting in Japan).

I found it interesting that despite being a mix of government, civil society and business in each group, most of the recommendations were around what governments needed to do to make businesses more likely to act. This could reflect a desire to pass the buck for action from business to government, or it may reflect the intrinsic synergy and interdependence connected-ness of business and government actions within systems. We will work hard to make sure it is the latter and not the former.

We spent time working in groups to develop some draft commitment areas to be shared with the Government of Japan in mid-July. These are listed here:

  • Reformulation of processed foods to make them more nutrient dense: businesses need to make SMART clear commitments on their reformulation of their products to reduce added salt, sugar and transfats. Better government nutrient profiling models are needed at the national and regional levels to identify foods that promote health and nutrition. Businesses should also take the opportunity to fortify with micronutrients when reformulating, although not on foods below a certain health star rating.
  • Animal Sourced Foods: WHO and FAO recommendations need to be clear and aligned (which is happening I understand). Do more to recycle lost and wasted animal source food safely back into the system.
  • Fruits and Vegetables (F&V): Public procurement targets, improved infrastructure, more demand creation, more public R&D for F&V, more innovative financing opportunities for F&V operators in value chains to increase availability and affordability.
  • Marketing to Children: Stronger regulatory frameworks are needed for all media pathways and all settings, including digital and areas where children typically gather; independent nutrient profile needed, independent monitoring/audits needed, evidence on age thresholds (at what age to children exercise sufficient agency) needed.
  • Workforce: Seek commitments from companies throughout the value chain, not just at corporate HQ; companies to monitor the micronutrient status of employees; need to develop B2B learning labs on how to do workforce to help scaling to new companies, including toolboxes; all companies to make it easier for women to breastfeed on site by providing dedicated safe and clean rooms.
  • Fortification: There is an unfinished agenda. Governments to remove tariffs and taxes on premixes; harmonise regulations and standards across borders within trading regions; facilitate scale up of biofortification.
  • Financing of nutritious and safe foods: New finance and investment models should focus on two areas – setting some goals for expanding new blended finance for SMEs in food systems, and developing an international investor coalition, with support of business platforms and governments, that pledges support to a set of investor expectations on nutrition and health.

My reflections on the workshop are as follows:

1.Public sector attitudes towards businesses are changing—and vice versa. The need to work together is driving more creativity and less dogma. I have characterised old and new thinking in this area below. While agendas will never be completely aligned, the potential overlaps between nutrition advancement and commercial sustainability seem larger than ever.

Business=food multinationals.Business=large, medium and small businesses—both in the food and non-food sectors.
Businesses have no role in advancing nutrition.Businesses –small, medium and large—are the key agents in the food system.
Businesses are a big part of the nutrition problem.Businesses are a part of the problem but also part of the solution.
Nutrition can ignore climate, natural resource use and biodiversity.Nutrition cannot ignore climate, natural resource use and biodiversity and should embrace the possibilities for nutrition of alliances with stakeholders in those sectors.
Accountability and conflict of interest (CoI) is mainly for businesses.Accountability and CoIs are for all stakeholders. Governments have responsibility to strengthen the enabling environment to incentivise businesses to do good things for nutrition and prevent them from doing bad things.
Engagement with businesses is counterproductive.Engagement generates an understanding of viable opportunities and also of the inherent risks and how to mitigate and prevent them.
New nutrition financing needs to be mainly for nutrition specific interventions from public sector via health systems.Public financing should prioritise nutrition specific interventions. But additional smaller levels of public funding can derisk and therefore leverage significantly larger amounts of private investment in more nutrition-promoting
food systems.
Workforce commitments are the most business-friendly way in which businesses can commit to advancing nutrition.There are business friendly commitments in many areas.
The demand for healthy eating is restricted to elite groups in wealthy countries.The demand is universal and is here to stay—it is just blunted by high prices, lack of income and unhealthy food environments, including lack of easily used information.
Healthy eating does not afford a commercial opportunity for businesses.There is a growing recognition that the demand for healthy food and the pressure from various groups on businesses will not go away and that to survive and thrive businesses need to make healthy eating a commercial opportunity.

2. Nutrition has not yet reached the top tier of consciousness with investors in the public or private spaces. An investment fund manager sitting on billions of dollars noted that nutrition was not even in the top 3 categories of potential investor interest.

3.Diet quality and sustainability measures can form the basis of the common metric investors are looking for: from broad based food system interventions to the nutrition specific programmes.

4.There was a strong call to link commitments to a specific problem or target. In this way we can give commitments some direction and we will increase chances of clustering commitments across different stakeholders.

5.To build trust with food companies there was a strong call for businesses selling breast milk substitutes to make commitments on the BMS code in 2020 – via publicly monitor-able commitments to apply the Code in full.

6.We often call the BMS issue the elephant in the room, but there is a bigger elephant in the room that rarely gets discussed: the affordability of healthier diets. This is partly because affordability is difficult to assess in more than a few contexts due to lack of data and attention, but also because the uncomfortable truth may be that eating more healthily probably means more expensive diets for many people. We are doing some work on this at GAIN to get a better handle on the issues.

In sum, it feels like we have come a long way since the early 2000s when I was attending the annual meetings of the Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN). Back then there was such fierce opposition to even having a private sector working group that the idea got shelved.

Since the early 2000s the motives, means and opportunities for engaging with businesses to advance nutrition have changed significantly. All of us need to pursue these in a responsible and transparent manner to achieve SDG2 and help accelerate progress in all of the other SDGs.