Economically, the ability to access a healthy diet is crucially dependent upon family income, and in LMICs, this is typically dependent on a single wage earner in each family so, if that wage earner is not getting a decent salary, the whole family suffers. In the UK, it is slightly different because we tend to have multiple wage earners and if each one gets paid minimum wage there is nominally often a larger pot of money to call on, but not so in the developing world. There is a real issue that if companies based in low-income countries are not paying fair wages, it becomes even more difficult for people to fulfil their nutritional requirements.
Laura Wellesley: It is not only about asking companies to ensure they are paying a fair wage. It is also important for companies to take responsibility for their suppliers and supply chain so there is due diligence in place to ensure that they are not sourcing from companies or actors who themselves do not pay a fair wage, or suppliers without sufficient economic access to a healthy diet.
One company involved in this research, Olam, has examined the cost of diet in communities who supply their raw commodities, such as cocoa and coffee, and where they find farmers are struggling to afford a healthy diet, they are trying to tackle it through various different means, such as home gardens but also more broadly by assessing their food and nutrition security and then committing to taking some form of action with other partners in the supply chain. It is not only about the four walls of the company when you are talking about fair wage and ensuring economic access to a healthy diet.
Tim Benton: A further broader issue is the economic flow from corporate earnings in a country to the government through taxation. Companies have a responsibility to not find creative ways to minimize their tax burden in any given country, but instead make sure they are good corporate citizens and there is a financial flow to governments so they can help tackle public health issues associated with malnourishment.
The report states that nutrition is the missing link in the SDG agenda. How can businesses play a role in helping to achieve sustainable growth?
Laura Wellesley: Big question. One of the key things we noticed, and others have noticed when looking at corporate action – or lack thereof – around nutrition, is companies are really missing a trick by not incorporating efforts to improve nutrition into existing CSR efforts, potentially undermining their own ability to deliver on commitments relating to the SDGs. That matters because investors are increasingly looking to companies to demonstrate social credentials and a capacity to deliver positive societal benefits as well as financial gains. What our report says, and what we know, is good nutrition is absolutely critical to the good health of an individual, to productivity on an individual and at a societal level, to a robust and resilient workforce that is not highly susceptible to diseases such as COVID-19. The long-term sustainability of businesses, and their efforts to demonstrate they are contributing to sustainable growth in and around the communities in which they operate, could be derailed by poor nutrition.
We hope, and expect, to see nutrition security increasingly become something that investors and ESG (environmental, social and governance) analysts and data collectors and providers look at specifically, because those links between good nutrition and many other aspects of the sustainability agenda are increasingly recognized. First and foremost, businesses should understand how nutrition relates to sustainability and recognize it is not a separate issue. If they are interested in women’s empowerment and gender equality, if they are interested in improving schooling outcomes amongst their communities, if they are interested in building a workforce to deliver against the needs of a business environment in ten or 20 years’ time, then they need to be thinking about how to ensure good nutrition and a healthy food environment for those communities.
Tim Benton: There has been a lot of focus in the last ten years, particularly since food price spikes at the end of the first decade in this century, on food security which has often been really narrowly interpreted, although not defined, in terms of having access to food and calories, so you are not starving. This report, along with others, emphasizes it is not just food, it is not just having access to food, it is access to the right sort of food. When you look at the SDGs, food security sits within SDG 2 in a relatively narrow way related to ‘zero hunger’. But being a fully functioning human being and addressing all the issues impacting poverty and women’s empowerment requires that you are not just ‘not starving’ but actually you are well-fed. Thinking about nutrition broadens the frame quite a long way beyond just a single SDG, and actually underpins multiple SDGs.
In the report, you make the point that now is the time to act. Why are the next 18 months so important?
Tim Benton: We used to call 2020 the ‘super year’ in terms of the concatenation of multiple international efforts around the biodiversity convention – the biodiversity COP – around the framework for climate change – COP 26 in Glasgow – and around the inaugural food systems summit the UN is hosting. All have now been pushed back to 2021.
Food systems are integral to climate change, and drive a significant amount of climate change, they are also integral to biodiversity because food systems undermine significant amounts of biodiversity, they are integral to nutrition. So, there is a commonality about getting our food systems right over the next 18 months because of this concatenation of major efforts. The world is waking up to the need for change, so this sequence of international meetings should hopefully provide real impetus for making food systems better – in delivering better health for people who eat the food, better livelihoods for the people who produce the food, but also importantly better overall environments through dealing with climate change and biodiversity. When you look at the commonality across those three areas there are solutions that will span all three, so accepting these are not three separate agendas but are interrelated is a key step.