Food processing

Op-Ed: The Neglected Role of Food Processing Companies in Shaping Human and Planetary Health

The food system concept in research typically follows a simple progression: a one-way journey from farms to forks.


Equal space and weight is often given to stops along the way, including food processing, transportation, and retail. Diagrams also typically float apart in space, unrelated to any legal system, economy, or private entity. Despite their seductive simplicity, these characterizations fail to capture the real imbalances of power and responsibility in food production, in stark contrast to the realities of the modern food industry.

Large agribusinesses, engaged in the processing and manufacturing of agricultural raw materials for profit on global markets, are not just another step on the road to the food system. They play an outsized role in driving disparities in human health and environmental sustainability.

Source: USDA, 2021

Food processing companies currently make a quarter of every dollar spent on groceries in the United States, with just a handful of companies controlling as much as 98.4% of the market share in certain prepared food categories. By comparison, the country’s more than 2.5 million farm workers, the majority of whom are undocumented and unprotected by fair wage laws, receive just eight cents for every dollar spent on groceries.

Food processing companies like Nestle (Switzerland), Coca Cola (US), Danone (France) and Unilever (UK/Netherlands) are bottlenecks in the global food system, wielding undue influence what is produced by upstream farmers and how much. as well as what and how much is consumed by downstream consumers.

As Jeffrey Sachs poignantly pointed out before the recent UN Food Systems Summit, “We have a global food system. It relies on large multinational companies; it is based on private profits; and it is based on a radical denial of the rights of the poor.

Pressure on farms

Despite this concentration of power and wealth, international public health and sustainable food production agendas often call for reform not by the most powerful food corporations, but rather by farmers and consumers.

The agricultural sector – a diverse set of small, medium and large producers present around the world – is widely criticized for greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation and water use. However, little is said about the artificial demand created by food processing companies for by-products of farmers’ crops and livestock, including refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and animal meats and fats. . By encouraging overeating in their meals and product formulations, fast food companies and food processors are creating excess consumer demand, putting undue pressure on farms to supply massive amounts of cheap food. and produced in an unsustainable way.

Far from determining the end use of the whole grains, grains, vegetables and legumes they produce, farmers are increasingly trapped in cycles of dependency, relying on the costly and contractual use of pesticides and fertilizers to increase yields and compete in the global market. Their lands and productive capacities are consequently degraded, creating new economic pressures and leading to increased suicide rates, all to meet the ever-increasing demands of food processing companies.

Blame the consumer

Instead of accountability, a UN business statement called on food processors to “engage consumers as agents of change to create demand for high-quality healthy and nutritious diets, products sustainably”. Efforts such as Meatless Mondays, public education campaigns and meat taxes by the pound on consumer purchases are often offered as solutions to the poor behavior of individual consumers, who are allegedly “at the end of the line”. supply chain “. [and] arguably in the best position to drive positive change in its entirety,” the authors of a 2020 paper in Nature wrote.

But changing consumer behavior is not a panacea. Efforts to change diets are not only challenged by deeply rooted and reasonably entrenched cultural norms, they must also deal with deteriorating food environments; low purchasing power for healthier food alternatives such as whole fruits, legumes and vegetables; and an outcry against colonialism over efforts to green already malnourished, protein-poor diets in low- and middle-income countries.

Despite these ethical concerns, many members of the academic community continue to promote these and other small-scale interventions (urban agriculture is another example), which do not reflect the lived realities of poor households and allow businesses food processors from escaping their own responsibilities, including their disproportionate influence on millions of diets around the world.

While we’d like to believe that all food options are equally accessible, global food environments are increasingly monopolized by large, highly consolidated food and beverage companies, each flooding grocery store aisles with addictive products, employing marketing strategies aggressive and ultimately leading to excessive consumption and chronic diet-related diseases.

As Consumer International has pointed out, “Many approaches to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and United Nations climate targets are highly dependent on consumers buying choices or changing their use of goods or products and services. But it is not a fair responsibility to impose on consumers where the current market structure favors unsustainable options.

Empowering agri-food companies

Public health researchers must recognize the responsibility of food processing companies to reduce the health and environmental costs of their products. Efforts such as the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment and the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s Four Pillar Framework fill this advocacy gap and provide clear, practical guidance on aligning business with the Goals. sustainability in the food industry, outlining the specific responsibilities held by the private sector. sector to address past damage and change business strategies to produce healthy food in a more ethical and sustainable way. As a bottleneck for the concentration of power and wealth in the food supply chain, the food processing industry is a far more effective and efficient target for reform than the various hundreds of millions of consumers and of global farmers at opposite ends of the food system.

Research and policy must identify how food processing companies can mitigate harm to human health and natural environments. Instead of burdening consumers (who already bear the hidden cost of food through health care, pollution control and other public services) with higher prices or taxation of unhealthy foods, the solutions should prioritize consumer protection taking into account inherent consumer disparities. relationship with supplier, including disparities in bargaining power, knowledge and resources.

Greater transparency of the environmental and social risks faced by all actors in the food supply chain, and not only agricultural producers, is necessary so that consumers, decision-makers and investors can disfavor risky and non-risky business practices. durable. Government regulation must also go beyond current marketing and labeling laws (which simply shift the responsibility for informed decision making to the consumer) to establish and enforce strict food and beverage standards that can be legally produced and sold.

Food processing plays an important role in food and nutrition security, extending shelf life and fortifying staple foods with essential vitamins and minerals. Far from complete abolition, increased attention and accountability to these powerful private sector actors can ensure that food production contributes to, and does not continue to impede, human and planetary health.

Abrania Marrero is a PhD Candidate in Population Health Sciences in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and a former Agents of Change in Environmental Justice Fellow.

From articles on your site

Related articles on the web