The World Food Prize is courting the private sector. What could go wrong?

Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation. Photo: World Food Prize

BERLIN — The global nutrition community will soon be arriving in Des Moines, Iowa, for the annual awarding of the World Food Prize. Simon Groot, who created a vegetable seed company that has boosted the fortunes of smallholder farmers, is the latest recipient of an award that has been called the “Nobel Prize for food and agriculture.”

With the prize — and the three days of panel discussions and speeches that culminate in the laureate address — the World Food Prize has carved out a position of significant influence over the global nutrition agenda.

"Our goal is to be the Davos of global agriculture," Kenneth Quinn, the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, told Devex. "To bring the intellectual firepower together around where do we go, what are the innovations, how will they impact and affect the poorest developing countries."

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Critics, who warn that the private sector will always prioritize profit over health, worry that the World Food Prize is leveraging its influence to boost the food and agricultural industry’s role in addressing malnutrition. Their critique speaks to a larger tension within the global nutrition community about how, if at all, to engage the private sector.

"Within the nutrition sector, there are those who feel the best way forward is to engage pragmatically and realistically with the private sector," said John Hoddinott, a professor of food and nutrition economics and policy at Cornell University. "And others who, based on past experiences, are much more suspicious of those types of engagements."

The World Food Prize, eager to be an incubator for these kinds of discussions, now finds itself at the center of this debate.

Validating the role of the private sector

The World Food Prize is awarded by an independent selection committee, while the foundation organizes the surrounding events, which are known as the Borlaug Dialogue in honor of prize's founder, Dr. Norman Borlaug. After Quinn took over as president in 2000, he wanted to turn the event from a modest, one-day event. into a platform that “drew CEOs from business, NGO leaders, academic researchers, university presidents that were putting the critical issues on the table and putting great emphasis on them."

As the prize's footprint grew, he also looked to introduce a stronger focus on alleviating malnutrition. That is reflected in winners including 2012 laureate, Dr. Daniel Hillel, who revolutionized irrigation in arid regions, and the suite of 2016 winners who were honored for biofortifying staple crops to make them more nutritious.

Some of the prize's recent choices have frustrated critics, especially members of the food sovereignty movement, which prioritize food systems that are healthy and culturally appropriate, and not dictated by corporations or markets. With selections such as the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition's Lawrence Haddad last year and African Development Bank President Akinwumi Ayodeji Adesina in 2017, critics say the prize seems to be validating a private sector role in the effort to improve global nutrition.

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GAIN sees working with businesses — alongside governments and consumers — as central to its efforts to make food systems more nutrition-sensitive. For Adesina, throughout his career, including as Nigeria's minister of agriculture, he has brokered partnerships that include banks and businesses in agricultural development initiatives. One of his signature programs at AfDB is "Feed Africa," which envisions a transformation "led by the private sector and enabled by the public sector."

At the same time, private sector voices are scattered throughout this year's Borlaug Dialogue, including a panel discussion on "Food Security in the Next Decade: The Power of the Private Sector."

This event "seems to uplift corporate solutions to food problems," said Doria Robinson, a co-convener of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance's Western Region, who believes business "is not in it for the benefit of human beings. It's in it for wealth building." Instead of private sector solutions, she would like to see more attention for "other ways of feeding the world that are people-based" — something USFSA has attempted by establishing the Food Sovereignty Prize in 2009. It honors grassroots efforts that confront perceived corporate control of nutrition.

Robinson’s critique of the World Food Prize echoes the increasingly charged debate over the private sector's growing centrality to ending malnutrition.

Conflict of interest

Researchers at the public policy NGO Global Health Advocates told Devex the private sector increasingly finds itself welcome in discussions about ending hunger or curbing obesity, despite the role it may have played in creating those problems or the potential conflicts of interest that might arise.

In a report last year, GHA highlighted issues including food fortification — a process to combat deficiencies in key micronutrients by adding them to food products. The process necessitates private sector involvement and may ultimately give early adopters a competitive advantage.

There is a danger, though, of the private sector embracing fortification and stopping short of considering and addressing what created the deficiencies. In many communities, that would mean working with small-scale farmers to diversify crops and then easing access to markets.

The counter-argument from many global nutrition leaders, including WFP laureates, is that it simply would not be pragmatic to exclude the private sector from the effort to end malnutrition.

Haddad, for instance, has recognized business as both "a big part of the problem and a big part of the solution." And GAIN's approach includes looking for strategies to incentivize businesses to prioritize nutrition, including taxes on unhealthy products, while also taking steps to hold business accountable.

"In terms of moving forward, ultimately I suspect the most productive way of doing so is through a mix of activities," Hoddinott said, including dialogues around the production of healthier foods and the technical issues of introducing programs such as food fortification.

For his part, Quinn said that while the World Food Prize certainly looks to confer some legitimacy with its award, it also sees the prize and the broader Borlaug Dialogue as an opportunity to jumpstart conversations, not present definitive solutions.

This year's winner, for instance, has offered an alternative to standard private sector approaches to seed sales, which have included practices such as seed patenting that limit smallholder farmers' access. Since founding East-West Seed in 1982, Groot told Devex he has tried to stay rooted in and responsive to individual communities, even as the company has expanded across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He also established a knowledge transfer program that looks to train farmers on vegetable production.

For him, the World Food Prize is an acknowledgment that he took a farmer-focused route different from other seed companies. "The fact that that is now finally getting some big publicity is a great joy," he said. "It is a great turnaround point."

Update, Oct. 4, 2019: This story was amended to clarify the timing of the World Food Prize ceremony

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    Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Correspondent based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.