Rethinking business engagement and nutrition

Geneva, 9 July 2019 - 

Recently GAIN and the Accesss to Nutrition Foundation (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. The Department for International Development (DFID) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (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 meeting in Japan of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development - TICAD).

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 connectedness 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 research and development for fruits and vegetables, 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 headquarters; companies to monitor the micronutrient status of employees; need to develop business-to-business 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 small and medium-sized enterprises (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.

A food market in Kenya

Better government nutrient profiling models are needed at the national and regional levels to identify foods that promote health and nutrition. © Shutterstock

My reflections on the workshop are as follows:

  • 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.
  • 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 three categories of potential investor interest.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • To build trust with food companies: there was a strong call for businesses selling breastmilk substitutes to make commitments on the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (BMS) in 2020 – via publicly monitorable commitments to apply the Code in full.

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 the Sustainable Development Goal 2 and help accelerate progress in all of the other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).