The world is at a crossroads - facing an unclear future. In 2014, we have broken economic, health, food and ecological systems – all interconnected – and find ourselves on a short time frame for correction. Global action is required – and required urgently.
There is continuing debate on the role of the private sector in solving our greatest challenges. Whether the biggest food companies should or should not work with government, science or the civil sector. But as we continue to discuss this for the near decade I have worked in global health, this debate is coming at the cost of action.
We are not seeing the transformations required and the solutions we so urgently need.
Things must change.
Be under no misunderstanding though.
In a perfect world, I believe responsible governments and societies would regulate industry - and industry would be guided by strong, clear, compulsory and sensible policy. Sadly, this world is not currently the reality and so responsibility falls also on the private sector – a heterogeneous landscape of the good, the bad and the ugly.
With this in mind, I make a challenge to the biggest food companies worldwide - who collectively control much of our food system.
Obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease are now major killers, also in our poorest nations. With increasing food insecurity and unprecedented water stress anticipated in the coming half century – all threatening to undo the gains in global health over the last 200 years – positive outliers in the corporate landscape must take a more active lead in these great challenges and take even more responsibility for stewardship.
Talk is not enough.
I call on Big Food to become responsible global voices in food supply and security – including sustainable production, sustainable consumption, and food as a catalyst for poverty reduction. I call on you to recognise and act in reducing the rapidly rising burden of Non-Communicable Diseases. I urge Big Food to emerge as a global voice of reason in environmental sustainability – supporting and not undermining existing actors. Finally, I call on you to look for opportunities to act as the nexuses – the overlap of these three great challenges.
Because like it or not, you are a global leader in these spaces, with more to lose and gain – but also greater influence than even some governments.
So how do you do this?
Be vocal – call governments on inaction which will affect food and water security – with core commercial ramifications for you. But also call them on inaction and cycles of meaningless rhetoric with regards to mitigating our global health and ecological Armageddons.
Call on other companies who refuse to acknowledge the negative health and environmental externalities of their business - and become known as the good cops in your industry. Don’t wait for others to act. Because let’s be honest, there are many in your industry who have only profits in mind and are blindly committed to making money above contributing to the well-being of our global community.
Support consumers to make sound decisions – rather than confuse them as a means to higher profitability, and at the cost of their health. Be honest - do not mislead consumers or act in a predatory way with marketing, even if this is long the industry norm. Talk to consumers with respect and in an intelligent, honest way about the healthier and sustainable future we must strive for, the sacrifices we must make and what you are doing to get there and how they can help.
Become industry leaders, with a clear, unified voice on the pervasive and predatory marketing to children of food and drinks, and particularly unhealthy foods. Renew and charge a much-needed dialogue for change.
It must be acknowledged that you also have pressures – from the industry, from shareholders and from your markets. But I also call on leading companies to challenge and refuse to accept the status quo and our collective obsession with infinite growth at all costs. This period of hyperconsumption must soon come to an end and how it ends - is in a large way up to companies like you.
Be innovative in sourcing, packaging, marketing, in portion sizes and in your products to reduce health and ecological impacts. You have such opportunity – should you choose to use it to improve our global situation.
A hearty meal.
Finally, as a member of an emerging generation and a deeply concerned global citizen, I urge you work closely with those in answering possibly the biggest question of our century – how will we feed the projected global population of 9ish billion - whilst catalysing global health and within our planetary, environmental boundaries?
Some will criticise your response, some will question your motives, but this has never been and is not a reason for delaying or avoiding real engagement. Lie, cheat or scam though - and this opportunity for true social gain, will likely be lost for us all. Forever.
Your industry is reliant on our food system. You have an opportunity, and I would argue a responsibility to champion not only for your shareholders, or even your corporate community, but for a global population likely facing serious health, food, water and climate catastrophes.
Dr Alessandro Demaio
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