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SCN News No 39 - Nutrition and Business: How to engage?

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The numbers of food and nutrition insecure in the world remain unacceptably high. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ estimate for 2010 persisted at 925 million people suffering from hunger. A key indicator of food and nutrition insecurity is stunting - when children fail to grow to their potential and are too short for their age compared to standards. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 171 million children below the age of five were stunted in 2010. Moreover, 1.5 million children die annually due to wasting - perhaps the most severe acute manifestation of food and nutrition insecurity. At the other end of the spectrum of nutrition problems, overweight and obesity are increasing public health concerns worldwide, affecting people of all ages. As a consequence, rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other diet-related conditions are escalating. While undernutrition, obesity and diet-related chronic diseases are often perceived as separate problems, they are closely linked and often rooted in poverty, coexisting in poor communities and at times even within the same household.

Ensuring food and nutrition security to all and realizing the human right to adequate food are moral imperatives, critical challenges and a converging interest and shared responsibility of multiple stakeholders.

High and volatile food prices, climate change and an increased frequency of extreme weather events, increased linkages between financial, energy and agricultural markets due to growing demand for biofuels and the growing and uncontrolled financialization of food and agricultural commodities, urbanization, population growth: these are all major contributing factors to food and nutrition insecurity. Coupled with the incidence of disease, decreased household capacity of caring for their most vulnerable members, and food market environments where healthy choices are, recurrently, not easily accessible and affordable, they can lead to an increase in the prevalence of stunting, wasting and of nutrition-related chronic diseases.

Global efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by half in 2015 (MDG1) are being challenged by these factors. But even if this MDG is to be achieved by 2015, some 600 million people in developing countries would still be suffering from hunger on a daily basis. These same people could be the ones also affected by chronic diseases that are on the rise. Much more needs to be done to sustainably achieve food and nutrition security, and it must be done now.

Private initiatives are part of the solution. Millions of farmers and rural entrepreneurs form the bulk of agricultural production and investments. Private businesses, of all sizes, constitute the food supply chain as it evolves from the farm to the fork. Additionally, some of these businesses create foods for special therapeutic uses that can be live-saving. Other private initiatives, from a large variety of industrial sectors create employment, generate income, produce a vast array of goods and services, and, in this way, are also critical to sustainable, long term food and nutrition security.

The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged the business community as an essential partner for reaching the MDG goals in his 2010 report for the General Assembly (Report A/64/665). Furthermore, in his report to the UN General Assembly in 2011 (Report A/66/320), he recognized that the relationship between the United Nations and the private sector has entered a phase of maturation and that transformational partnerships are a tool to help achieving development objectives. However, he called attention to the remaining challenges for the UN to more fully take advantage of collaborations with the private sector. He requested that more long term and strategic considerations are taken into account that include "further building up measures to protect the Organization's integrity, promote a culture of transparency and ensure alignment with the priorities set by Member States".

Nutrition and business interests are overlapping more and more. Businesses are increasingly including product and social innovation as well as sustainability into their core corporate strategies and supply chains. Business is also continuously reaching out to new consumers, including the urban and rural poor, exploring emerging markets and engaging with other nutrition stakeholders. While these overlaps create opportunities for cooperation and convergence of interests for achieving food and nutrition security, they also carry controversy, and sometimes cause heated debate, especially on transparency and accountability issues. There are cases of actual or perceived conflicts of interest that undermine such convergence and diminish trust, jeopardizing potentially fruitful initiatives.
Low- and middle-income countries, engaged in scaling up nutrition, request ideas and examples on how to work with the business sector in ways that assure convergence of interest and manage potential conflicts, minimizing risks and maximizing benefits. Specifically, they are keen to see answers to the following questions:

  1. Are there opportunities for a positive engagement with the business sector to improve nutrition? In which instances are the agendas of the public and the private sector compatible?

  2. Is it possible to achieve convergence of interest by managing conflicts and thus for opening up more opportunities for development? What are the unexplored potentials and gaps?

  3. What are the innovative approaches for engaging with the business sector in nutrition that have high potential to sustainably improve livelihoods?

  4. What kind of issues should be considered when entering into a partnership agreement with the business sector?

The UNSCN, in 2006, developed a Private Sector Engagement Policy that lays out a series of principles and mechanisms that can help to manage and minimize the possible risk of conflicting interests. This SCN News 39 follows up and aims at adding to this long overdue and necessary debate by offering space for interested authors to not only showcase examples of public-private engagement where interests converged and generated positive results but also examine and present their insights on the potential risks, challenges and opportunities that such engagement brings. We invite the interested reader of the SCN News 39 to engage in this balanced and constructive dialogue on nutrition-business cooperation in ways that contribute to our collective endeavours of ensuring food and nutrition security for all while serving the purposes and principles embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.

Denise Costa Coitinho Delmuè UNSCN Executive Secretary on behalf of the editorial team