Food and the future
Report back from the Food Thinkers seminar on food corporations
This week, academics and civil society organisations came together for an all-day seminar on Food and Corporations. The day questioned the power of multinational food companies and how corporations such as PepsiCo, Unilever and Tesco were responding to the challenges from civil society and academia.
The day was opened by Tim Lang and Michael Heasman from the Food Policy department at the City University London, who outlined the current market domination by the top ten food manufacturers. They are said to have a combined revenue of $450bn and account for 15% of global food sales.
Delegates then posed the question “just what is a food corporation?” This is not as simple as it sounds as many companies that produce food are also involved in other markets. Examples given included:
- ABF and their ownership of food brands including Silver Spoon sugar and Twinnings tea as well as Primark
- Tata Global Beverages, owner of the Tetleys tea brand, which belongs to a conglomerate of companies including car and steel manufacturers.
These examples helped highlight the difficulties of creating coherent corporate social responsibility strategies and reports within large corporations.
Later Tim Lobstein from the World Obesity Forum looked at how “big food” was often advocated as being part of the solution to food security issues around the world. But he argued it was often part of the problem.
Later on in the day Mark Driscoll from Forum for the Future suggested that businesses could be part of the solution. But Tim Lobstein argued that many of the brands owned by big food produce highly processed food and formed part of government recommendations on food intake. In addition these same companies were often those consulted when it came to food policy issues.
Another theme which featured in talks by Peter Rossman from IUF, Terry Marsden from Cardiff University and Dave Spooner from Global Labour Institute was the issue of financialisation of the food industry i.e. take-overs, mergers and buy-outs by equity firms which had led to precarious working conditions for many workers.
Delegates heard how employees within food processing businesses were often viewed as a financial liability and that the objective of a take-over company or equity firm was to make the employee-to-profit ratio higher. This was often achieved through the use of more agency staff, using short-term contracts and try to remove the right to collective bargaining.
Talks by Rosalind Sharpe and Bobby Banerjee looked at corporate social responsibility (CSR). Rosalind Sharpe's research had led her to ask the question “where do the bad things happen within food corporations?” as many of the people working with CSR were not evil human beings! She argued that the complexity of supply chains meant that companies find it very difficult to link issues to together and tackle them in a systemic way.
Bobby Banerjee found that in the mining and extractive industries CSR was used as a weapon to neutralise dissent. He gave an example where a mining company had taken over the running of health centres in an area where there was strong opposition to their proposals. People who were opposed to the mine were then prevented from having access to the medical centre.
Successful boycott action
The final part of the day saw a talk by Patti Rundall, policy director from Baby Milk Action. She highlighted how their campaign had seen a boycott of a company lead to a change in international law. However she also talked about the dangers of conflict of interest by international organisations such as the World Health Organisation who are involved in projects with “big food” and the business of malnutrition.
The final speaker was Christine Tacon, the Groceries Code Adjudicator, who focused on what her role was at the GCA. In particular she looked at how her role was limited to investigating the relationships between the top ten grocers in the UK and their direct suppliers.
It was interesting to hear how she was using the idea of collaboration as a way of trying to tackle bad practices by the supermarkets towards suppliers. The GCA's new survey of suppliers is currently underway and this year they are hoping for an improved view of the organisation's role in tackling corporate malpractice when dealing with suppliers.
More information about the Food Research Collaboration
including the Food Thinkers series of seminars which features our very own Rob Harrison >