Food and nutrition: Not for sale

By Flavio Valente 16 October 2015

The increasing control of business over food systems and policies is putting people’s right to adequate food and nutrition at great risk. Photo by: Tom Henning Bratlie / FIAN Norway

Over the coming year, around 795 million people will continue to face hunger, or “undernourishment,” using medical parlance. A further 2 billion will remain malnourished due to imbalanced diets — another form of hunger, mostly affecting children and women of reproductive age.

Paradoxically, while this happens, more than half a billion will be suffering from obesity and associated noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, and risking preventable early death. I don’t like to consider the cup — perhaps plate would be more appropriate — as half empty, but World Food Day hardly seems like a day for celebrations.

All these “numbers” have names and faces. Their suffering and deaths are predictable — most are indeed preventable — and are as unacceptable as the drowning of the two-year old refugee child Aylan. Such predicaments are not natural or accidental, but the result of misguided policies, actions and omissions by public authorities, from the local council to the global community. And that includes the failure to effectively regulate the activities of transnational corporations.

Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, business rhetoric has increasingly spilled over into the international political arena, namely the United Nations. Corporations have been positioning themselves as part of the solution to global challenges, such as climate change and eco-destruction, poverty and hunger.

All grown up? The UN Global Compact at 15

A lot has changed since the first meeting of the U.N. Global Compact, established to encourage the international business community to adopt responsible business practices. With a new set of global development goals set to be ratified and a new leader waiting in the wings, Devex takes a look at the organization's evolution and what’s ahead.

In 2000, the U.N. Global Compact was created with the alleged purpose of stimulating TNCs to implement policies aligned with respecting human rights, environment and anti-corruption. A means to avoid binding regulations and replace these with voluntary initiatives, the Global Compact not only served to “bluewash” corporations but in fact handed them the keys and opened the door to the U.N.

Later in 2010, the World Economic Forum launched the Global Redesign Initiative. This spells out its vision for the restructuring of global governance, in particular the U.N., into a “multi-stakeholder” platform, in which corporations govern alongside states and select civil society organizations — a vision that is already kicking in under the watchful eye of big business.

And with the growing weight of the private sector on public policymaking, high priorities of TNCs have infiltrated crucial areas such as food and nutrition. Big food industry and agribusiness already, and heavily, influence this policy arena, including the type of solutions that should be sought to tackle malnutrition.

Examples of the above are initiatives such as Scaling Up Nutrition and Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. Although different in nature, both confine nutrition to the interaction between food and the human body, the technical and medical domains, thereby minimizing the socio-economic and cultural context in which human beings feed themselves. The danger of this approach is that the understanding of malnutrition is reduced to “the lack of nutrients” that can only be rectified with external technical interventions. These mostly involve industrialized food supplements, nutrient pills and powders — that not so coincidentally also imply large-scale profit.

As echoed by the Right to Food and Nutrition WATCH 2015, behind policy responses there are increasingly programs that are heavily influenced — and in some cases technically run — by the corporate sector. This progressively rules out bottom-up approaches based on the promotion of locally produced, diversified and culturally acceptable diets, which have proved their suitability to communities from every angle.

In Mexico, for instance, the government has established My Sweet Business, a program to combat hunger in the country, and which has been technically supported and funded by Nestlé — a corporation that human rights organizations are not very fond of in view of its activities.

Through this program, the Swiss corporation has trained more than 15,000 women to produce and sell desserts with Nestlé products, which are highly industrialized, contain high sugar levels and do not reflect the cultural diet of Mexicans. All this happens in a country where half a million have died of diabetes over the last six years! This is only one of many examples that showcase the negative consequences of prioritizing the corporate agenda over public interventions to nutrition that are firmly grounded in the human rights framework.

Luckily, there are examples of fighting back against this influence. In Kenya, the government resisted heavy lobbying to introduce highly industrialized baby foods in the country. Instead, it followed the civil society call and adopted the Breast Milk Substitutes (Regulation and Control) Act. As a result, exclusive breastfeeding among Kenyan mothers has increased and significantly contributed to a drop in infant mortality in the country since 2008 — from 52 for every 1,000 births to 39.

We are presently at a crossroads. On the one hand, the U.N. Charter and the International Bill of Human Rights require governments to address malnutrition as part of their obligation to realize the right to adequate food and nutrition and ensure the primacy of human rights over other legal frameworks and private interests. On the other, we have other powerful societal actors, especially TNCs, which attempt to intensify their grip on the global governance via public-private partnerships and “multistakeholder” platforms, thereby — ultimately — weakening the role of U.N. intergovernmental policy spaces.

Governments need to put into place safeguards to protect public policy spaces from undue influence by business interests. State plans must address food production, processing, supply, marketing, consumption, safety and human nutrition in a coordinated fashion — and this must take place in coherence with the human rights framework. A first step for countries should be to conceive and implement comprehensive policies and support programs to develop and strengthen human rights-based sustainable food systems that ensure domestic food and nutrition security.

And that comprises culturally and economically aligned policies that reflect the reality of local communities, such as the promotion and protection of locally rooted food systems engaged in sustainable agroecological methods. This would favor many of the 795 million, who will remain undernourished if states don't drastically change their approach.

There is no way that food and nutrition policies will favor communities if the participation of civil society groups does not take place. International agreements, especially those impacting the food and agriculture sectors, must not be signed if they conflict with states’ human rights obligations and are negotiated without — adequate — public consultations with potentially affected populations. Profit interests can never be allowed to supersede the human right to adequate food and nutrition.

States and peoples worldwide need to raise their voices and defend long-term and structural public policies that are aligned with human rights and food sovereignty. People’s food and nutrition must not be for sale.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

About the author

Flavio
Flavio Valente

Flavio Valente is a physician and specialist in public health. Since 2007, he has been the secretary general of FIAN International, a human rights organization advocating for the right to adequate food and nutrition that holds consultative status at the United Nations.


Join the Discussion