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Business and Nutrition: Both the Problem and the Solution

Lawrence Haddad, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), says countries and organizations need to constructively push private corporations to encourage good nutrition practices.

Written by Amruta Byatnal Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A Moroccan woman sells vegetables at a local market. Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

The role of private corporations in the nutrition sector cannot be ignored. From selling biofortified products to breast-milk substitutes, they have enormous influence on what people eat from a young age. Due to the nature of influence they yield on consumption habits, there have been increased efforts to include these corporations in the nutrition conversation by the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Business Network, governments and international organizations.

Dr. Lawrence Haddad, the executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and a member of the SUN executive committee, identifies two “hotspots” of contention in the private sector nutrition arena: enforcing the responsible promotion of breast-milk substitutes, and stopping the promotion of empty calories targeted to children. He cautioned that the nutrition community should explore opportunities beyond these specific areas and find innovative ways of bringing businesses into the nutrition arena.

Malnutrition Deeply spoke to Haddad about navigating possible solutions and approaches, the challenges faced by the SUN movement and what he’s most looking forward to in 2018.

Malnutrition Deeply: What do you see as the role of businesses in the nutrition sector?

Lawrence Haddad: They are a big part of the problem and a big part of the solution. We have been focusing on the problem without focusing enough on the solutions. We need to address both dimensions to make food systems more nutrition friendly. If you look at some of the numbers, the journal articles and the media reports, they tend to be more of, “Let’s stop businesses from doing bad things,” rather than, “Let’s support businesses in doing good things.” For example, I’m a big believer in sugar taxes, but also in tax reductions/exemptions and investment in cheaper and better fruits and vegetables, and we don’t hear much about that. I’d like us to use a wide range of weapons in the fight against malnutrition.

Malnutrition Deeply: What is GAIN’s policy when it comes to dealing with private corporations?

Haddad: GAIN’s policy is both ethical and pragmatic. The private sector has a big role to play in helping end malnutrition. A group of businesses is just as heterogeneous as any set of government officials/departments, researchers and NGOs. Part of the challenge is knowing who best to work with and who not.

For example, in research, the feedback loop is quite strong. If you do a piece of bad research, everybody knows about it. If you do something in the private sector which isn’t credible or is harmful, it can be hard to find out about it.

At GAIN, we are trying to strengthen the feedback loops and accountability mechanisms that businesses face. We have a policy that we won’t work with organizations that do certain things, including violating the marketing of breast-milk substitutes code and not safeguarding vulnerable populations.

In general, there are two hotspots in the private sector nutrition arena that are absolutely critical to address – enforcing the responsible promotion of breast-milk substitutes and stopping the promotion of empty calories targeted to children. These hotspots that tend to blind us to other problems and other opportunities.

For example, can mobile phone providers help promote government approved public nutrition messages or marketing companies help create public nutrition messaging that is approved by government but which is also memorable and persuasive? Can we shift global food subsidies to farmers – annually more than half a trillion dollars – to support cheaper nutritious diets, not just production of staples? Can supermarkets use their buying power to procure and persuade customers to eat more nutritious foods? Transport companies find ways to cut food losses when getting fresh foods into cities? We need to take a wider-angle-lens approach, while remaining focused on resolving the hotspot issues.

Malnutrition Deeply: There is some criticism that the SUN Business Network is too pro-business? How do you respond to that?

Haddad: The [SUN Business Network] is neither pro- nor anti-business, but pro engagement. Without this, it will be impossible to make the food system more nutrition friendly. [The World Food Program] and GAIN co-convene the Business Network for SUN. To date, it could be clearer what a company has to do to be a member, what they need to keep doing to stay a member, and what they have to do or not do to lose membership.

The SBN with support from GAIN and the WFP is working on clarifying these guidelines. GAIN only wants to work with the corporations who are responsible and are willing to be held accountable. We are also proactively supporting and engaging the SUN Business Network to work with the SUN civil society networks. Both of these networks have been strong in building bonding social capital within their communities, but have been less good at communicating across networks.

Malnutrition Deeply: What do you see as a major challenge that the SUN Movement faces?

Haddad: I believe SUN has generated a great deal of interest, energy and commitment to ending malnutrition from those who would not have otherwise thought about nutrition. But the challenge for SUN as we move into 2018 is to demonstrate in concrete terms what its value added is at the national level.

SUN is rising to the challenge, and the secretariat and other parts of SUN are investing in assessment systems to do that. But until the systems generate objective and verifiable evidence of value added, investors in SUN can always say, “How do I know what’s working?” SUN is coming up for renewal in three to four years, and it will have to generate credible stories of where investment in the SUN networks, secretariat and all the different infrastructure components have actually led to improved policies, increased and improved allocation of funds and more profiling of nutrition in high-level development policy documents. SUN needs to track these tangible things, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Malnutrition Deeply: What are the challenges of employing a multi-sectoral approach to nutrition?

Haddad: It starts early – there aren’t many university programs that teach you nutrition in a cross-sectoral way. Practitioners and researchers are raised in a bubble – it is difficult for them to transcend those boundaries. There has to be effort to make these boundaries more permeable. Funders can do that by insisting that there be more cross-disciplinary research and programmatic efforts, although funders have their own challenges in working across boundaries within their own organizations. Cross-sectorality is an accountability issue. We know it is vital, so we need to show we are doing it. For example, people who organize nutrition conferences also have an obligation to organize diverse panels with people from all sectors. The Global Nutrition Report could track the sectoral diversification of participants at major events. We all talk about it, but we need to practice it as well.

Malnutrition Deeply: What are the developments you are most looking forward to in the nutrition sector in 2018?

Haddad: In 2018, I look forward to seeing a consolidation of the significant financial pledges made by foundations and governments in 2017 and making sure there is transparency and accountability around that spending. I’ve also got my eye on the EAT Lancet Commission that will come out in April 2018, which will give us new ammunition in terms of analytics and advocacy around healthy diets, nutrition and planetary boundaries. There is also an immense potential to bring in the climate community into the nutrition conversation. In general, the nutrition community has to work harder to reach other sectors with positive messages about what nutrition focus by them can do for them, rather than the traditional focus of what they can do for nutrition.

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