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Food Without Farms: Coke, Nestlé, Pepsi Among Ultra-processed Food Giants Running Global Food Policy

This article was originally published by The Defender — Children’s Health Defense’s News & Views Website.

Ultra-processed food producers are key actors in a complex global network of influence groups where they exert disproportionate power on global food policy and nutrition policy, according to a new paper in Agriculture and Human Values.

Calls for transforming global food governance from a corporate-dominated model to a “multi-stakeholder” model — led by organizations like the World Economic Forum (WEF) — has led to the proliferation of multi-stakeholder institution initiatives, partnerships, platforms and roundtables largely responsible for instituting new global “solutions” to agricultural problems.

These multi-stakeholder initiatives are based on a vision promoted by Klaus Schwab — that private corporations are key “stakeholders” that should play a leading role in sustainable development and be positioned as “trustees of society,” the authors wrote.

As a result, most prominent and powerful multi-stakeholder institutions are largely led by board members from ultra-processed food producers, retailers and business associations, the study found.

“Our results suggest that we now have a corporate-aligned, multi-stakeholder-led, global food governance system disproportionately organized by specific actors with common interests in advancing the ultra-processed food industry,” lead author Scott Slater from Australia’s Deakin University told The Defender.

“And, the key actors include executives from Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, WEF, Mars, DSM, Rabobank, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), and Danone,” he added.

That means these companies and organizations have become the key drivers of global policies to address issues like malnutrition, food insecurity, biodiversity loss and climate change.

They play this role even though ultra-processed foods are tied to serious health issues including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mental health disorders, and environmental harms including biodiversity loss and the massive proliferation of plastics across the globe.

The results, Slater said, “raise important public health and governance concerns.”

He said that “multi-stakeholder institutions potentially hide the ultra-processed food industry’s harmful human and planetary health effects, in addition to providing industry executives a privileged ‘seat at the table’ in global food-governance decision-making spaces.”

To address the issue, Slater said, structural and regulatory changes are needed to ensure the interests of these powerful actors aren’t placed ahead of food system health and sustainability. This includes the “urgently needed global coordinated responses to address the harms of ultra-processed foods.”

‘Ultra-processed food executives are in the driver’s seat’

The researchers systematically analyzed the players behind major multi-stakeholder institutions influencing global food policy using data from websites, company reports, market research and academic and policy literature.

They analyzed 45 institutions working with multilateral institutions, including United Nations (U.N.) agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, to develop food policies globally.

They found that many organizations like the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance (founded by Danone, Mars Inc, Unilever and Nestlé), the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform (founded by Danone, Nestlé and Unilever), the Consumer Goods Forum’s Forest Positive Coalition, and FReSH (Food Reform for Sustainability and Health initiative, founded by WBCSD) have boards and steering committees 100% led by manufacturers and retailers of ultra-processed foods.

Other major players have between half and two-thirds of their leadership positions held by manufacturers, retailers and other businesses associated with ultra-processed foods.

They also found that the ultra-processed food corporations that held the most power within the food policy institutions — like PepsiCo, Unilever, Nestlé and Coca-Cola— also held the most memberships in multi-stakeholder institutions focused on plastic pollution.

The researchers mapped the complex network, with a circle size proportionate to the number of links to other groups in the network. The gray circles represent multi-stakeholder institutions; red circles represent ultra-processed food companies; orange circles represent associated businesses and donors; purple circles represent nonprofit organizations; and blue circles represent U.N. organizations.

Credit: Slater, S., Lawrence, M., Wood, B. et al.

Institutions use the connections to U.N. agencies, governments, nongovernmental organizations and research institutions — over which they have a lot of influence — to legitimize their projects, they found.

Those links shield the corporations from accountability, the authors wrote. In other words, they have direct connections with initiatives promising some type of health or environmental good but don’t have to take any meaningful actions or changes to business practices.

This trend, “blue washing,” refers to corporations projecting corporate values, governance practices, and a socially responsible image through their association with the U.N., they wrote.

As a result, multi-stakeholderism “provides a mechanism whereby transnational food corporations can involve themselves in decision-making without having their executives as key players in global food governance spaces,” Slater said.

Instead, the multi-stakeholder institutions are “front and center” in policy spaces like the U.N. Food Systems Summit, but because behind the scenes the ultra-processed food executives dominate their boards, they are the ones “who stand to profit from specific solutions (or inaction and the status quo being maintained).”

Those organizations focused on expanding industrial agriculture “to serve global markets at the expense of small-scale farming systems and farmers’ rights,” health expert and investigative reporter Nina Teicholz wrote in a Substack analysis of the paper.

Citing a recent paper by Dutch and U.S. researchers, Teicholz said this has led to the growth of an “agriculture without farmers.”

She said:

“These findings raise questions about the legitimacy of global food policies when the public in whose interest they’re made is insufficiently represented.

“Although these [multi-stakeholder institutions] purport to have altruistic missions, featuring compelling photos of poor people and member activities — asserting, in all, a ‘narrative of inclusion’ — the evidence shows that [ultra-processed food] executives are in the driver’s seat.”

Small farmers and whole food producers cut out of the process

Although many actors are included in the multi-stakeholder institutions, the authors said a “critical point” is that farmers and businesses that produce whole, minimally processed foods are excluded from most of the institutions they analyzed and the multi-stakeholder model generally.

“In other words, whole-food producers — the ranchers and non-commodity crop farmers — have virtually no seat at the table at the many conferences, meetings, and roundtables that collectively determine food policy,” Teicholz wrote in her commentary on the paper.

This major shift in food policy, she wrote, began around the year 2000, when the focus of global food policy shifted from food security to the environment, and the countries of the global north started to boost industrial farming and eliminate small farmers from the conversation.

Today, she wrote, that extends to livestock producers also, who in many European countries are being forced to cull their herds or shut down their farms to reduce greenhouse emissions.

She added:

“For the same reason, countries are being asked by global leaders to issue plant-based dietary guidelines that dramatically reduce meat consumption in wealthy countries.

“Nearly 100 mayors of large cities have also signed onto a global pledge to reduce emissions from animal foods, resulting in measures such as New York City’s vegan Fridays for school children.

“Many other multinational food policies are in progress, but those targeting reductions in animal-sourced foods have seemingly been pursued most aggressively — and will arguably have the greatest impact on human health.”

Large multinational food companies are rushing to invest in “wholly new protein substitutes, made in labs and factories or, in the case of bugs, raised on farms,” she wrote, driven by projects like the Good Food Institute, which proposes to feed the world with cultivated meat or plant-based meat.

Slater said the multi-stakeholder institutions and ultra-processed food industry also tend to push policies like “technology-driven food systems development solutions, innovation, ultra-processed food reformulation, financialization and digitalization,” among others.

In other words, he said, they advocate the types of solutions “where transnational food corporations are needed as the centerpiece, and can still make profits.”

Teicholz said that one perspective might be that the companies are responding in good faith to the urgent demands of climate change, but a “more skeptical view” is that they are seeking new models for their new products.

“If these companies may have merely stepped up to the plate, then good for them,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, the entire history of capitalism teaches us otherwise.”

This article was originally published by The Defender — Children’s Health Defense’s News & Views Website under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Please consider subscribing to The Defender or donating to Children’s Health Defense.

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