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Food for a sovereign public thought


Human Rights Reader 334
If children were reared for profit (like young farm stock), giving them a diet below requirements-for-health would be financially unsound. (Boyd Orr)


Food sovereignty in perspective


1. Food sovereignty entails shifting the focus of our discussions from commodities to diets; it entails seeing biodiversity as indispensable for livelihoods, for health and for the environment; and entails coming-up with sustainable dietary guidelines, because varied diets also positively affect the ecosystem. Human rights-based development policies must thus be reoriented to more sustainable diets (because standard and ‘simple’ solutions are not sustainable). These policies must also learn from traditional food systems (i.e., from agri-culture) and must put action-learning in a prominent place. Bottom line, food sovereignty calls for a reorientation of institutional set-ups at all levels which most still fail to see.

Public-Private (for profit) Partnerships (PPPs) in perspective

In the last decade, PPPs have become a vulnerable flank of serious contradictions.

2. Mixing science and public health nutrition with the influence of powerful corporate interests in foods and beverages is not the recipe for healthy eating and sustainable diets. Here is a call, then, for public sector actors and the UN to reconsider PPPs as a default paradigm for engagement with the private sector. Such partnerships are often portrayed by participating corporations and by other proponents alike as being a ‘win-win-win situation’: for the public sector actor, the private sector actor and the general public (or relevant publics). However, the ethical and human rights implications of PPPs are more complex than either of these positions may initially suggest. The systemic effects of PPPs tend to be insidious and include an erosion of the mission and integrity of participating public institutions –on top of an erosion of the trust and confidence placed in those institutions.  For them, it is problematic to restore lost trust and confidence without also addressing the underlying loss of integrity. What is of concern are both the corporate influence over policy making at the expense of the public good, as well as the loss of the public partner’s legitimacy with key constituencies due to perceived co-option by commercial interests.

3. More often than not, PPPs ‘sanitize’ the reputation of the corporate actor that hopes to increase its brand loyalty. If the predictable effects of a PPP are to create loyalty for a brand that it markets, for example, energy-dense foods and sugar-sweetened beverages, it can be argued that such an arrangement undermines the mission and integrity of the public partner, especially when that partner is a government official or agency responsible for public health.

4. Moreover, partnerships related to the conduct of health or nutrition research raise a variety of further concerns. One issue here is the systemic distorting effects of corporate sponsorship of research, whether or not such research is framed as a PPP. Much of this research, e.g., in nutrition, is conducted in academia with the financial sponsorship of industry and, not surprisingly, this research is often enough designed to explore mostly the potential benefits of consuming these foods and ingredients. Such a research: (a) reinforces an industry-favorable framing of social problems (for example, emphasizing individual responsibility for obesity rather than the social, marketing and environmental determinants of malnutrition and health), and (b) introduces a systemic bias favoring technological solutions that may be readily commercialized.  Therefore, the potential these partnerships have to undermine the public’s trust and confidence in policy makers, in policy processes, and in the resulting policies is great. Despite these concerns, a number of governments –including those in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia– have expressly invoked the rhetoric of ‘partnership’ to describe the role of industry in the development and implementation of policies related to health promotion. The ethical and human rights implications of this kind of industry participation in policymaking include concerns about the preclusion of policy options (most notably, increased regulation), the marginalization of claim holders, the discounting of relevant evidence, and a distortion in the development and implementation of policies.

5. Allowing the private partners to influence the strategic priorities of the public sector actor –through ‘quick combustion friendship deals’ with policy making officials (A. Berg)– distorts the latter’s agenda, because it prioritizes goals that are favorable to the industry.* So, literally, the corporate mask must thus be unveiled and, as necessary, stripped off their faces before sanctioning the partnership. The latter means that public partners must explore and assess the ethics of PPPs before considering any proposed partnership. They must also seriously consider disengaging from existing partnerships for similar or related reasons. To further our example above, if the partnership threatens to distort the research agenda of the public partner by focusing on research in the interests of the industry partner, the public partner must consider imposing a condition that matching funds be found elsewhere to support related research that can be contrary to the interest of the industry partner. Counterbalancing is an essential component for any ethical approach to PPPs that would be capable of addressing the systemic effects of such partnerships. It is the cumulative effects of partnerships that must inform the ongoing monitoring and evaluation of any partnership, as well as thorough ex-post analyses.  Thinking creatively should involve the exploration of other modes of interaction with the private sector that do not involve partnerships.  (What’s the Big Deal?: The Ethics of Public-Private Partnerships Related to Food and Health by Jonathan H. Marks Edmond J. Safra Research Lab  Working Papers, No. 11 Harvard University, 2013)

*: The fact is that no (or very few) colleagues criticize the recommendations made by PPPs. Why? I think it is because they basically are non-threatening to the current affairs in our neo-liberally controlled world. No matter how much these recommendations push the respective envelope, things that really matter, as the social determinants of so much ill-being, still merely stay unaddressed and thus unmoved. So when it comes to PPPs, it is better for the public sector to step backwards than to get lost on the way.


Corporate behavior in perspective

6. Given the so frequently-occurring premeditated corporate behavior, let me quote: “Next time you hear of a big food or beverage company sponsoring an after-school physical activity program in your community, you can be sure they’ll say: It is to show ‘our company’s concern for our kids’ health. But the real intent is to look angelic while making consumers feel good about the brand and drawing attention away from the unhealthful nature of the company’s products”.** (Michael Mudd, former Executive Vice President of Global Corporate Affairs for Kraft Foods)

**: In our crazy present-day world, s/he who is not afraid of hunger is afraid of too much food. So we can divide the world among those who do not know what to eat and those who do not know what they eat. More and more it looks like Big Food’s motto is “fill them up” and less and less “feed them”. (C. Fernández-Vega)

7. Therefore, from a civil society and a human rights perspective, accountability is more than just a word. Collectively, we need to reflect about what kinds of accountability will create a working environment’ that includes both (mostly) regulations and incentives for the private sector to behave responsibly. This requires always asking:

-Accountability from whom (parent companies, subsidiaries, retailers, all of the above)?

-Accountability towards whom (employees, public authorities, local communities? the most nutritionally vulnerable)? and

-Accountability on what issues (on how to make companies more accountable on their impacts on the right to food and nutrition? or on their contribution to tackling the social determinants of health and nutrition, such as access to land, water, sanitation and hygiene, healthcare services, decent work, quality education and above all affordable, diverse, nutritious foods –including adequate and transparent information on the latter)? (E. de Vachat).


8. Bottom line, the right to nutrition is inseparable from social justice. It requires the adoption of appropriate economic, environmental and social policies including corporate regulation, at both the national and international levels. It is ultimately oriented to i) the reduction of poverty through disparity reduction; and ii) contextualizing poverty in the process of exploitation, domination and power imbalances. This leads to the question: Why do some people live/are kept in poverty? …and this, in turn, linked to: What about the fulfillment of all human rights for all? Ultimately, availability, access and adequacy are key –and these must be isolated from corporate influence. (U. Jonsson) The times do not call for procrastination or despair, but call for action. To stop (or not to start) is to go backwards. The tiger is not going to become vegetarian.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



Every day there are more people that speak of serious things in a silly way and about silly things in a serious way.  It actually looks like many people rather prefer to ignore than to apply what they know and conveniently forget what they remember. (Albino Gomez)


It is said that only the pessimists can change the world since the optimists are always content with the world they live in. But certain pessimists are so pessimistic that they believe that in-no-way can our existing ill-functioning world be fixed.


As regards mediocre people, they never pass judgment about themselves or others; they rather stay trapped in their limited refuges. Mediocre people reject engaging in polemic dialogues, they do not dare confronting those who think differently; they are fundamentally insecure and look for excuses that are mostly based on disqualifying the other; they lack courage to publicly express or debate their ideas, purposes and projects; they primarily communicate by monologuing and by clapping when they agree –which is most of the time. (J. Ingenieros, El hombre Mediocre, 1913)


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