4 big businesses trying to do good?

Much has been in the news recently, whether in support or sceptical, regarding initiatives of large corporations that aim in some way to address food security and the sustainability of food systems. Judgements around whether these programmes are genuine in their aims, positive for small-scale developing food producers and effective at tackling food security are mixed. Here we discuss some of these initiatives.

  1. Cargill

Over the last five years, Cargill claim to have contributed over $83 million to reduce hunger and improve nutrition around the world through their global partnerships and about half of Cargill’s global workforce is in the developing world. They have several programmes of work, for example:

  • In partnership with CARE and the World Food Programme, Cargill is working to improve food security and living standards in parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa. Since 2008 their work has reached over 100,000 people in rural areas and in 2013 they announced a three-year $7.5-million partnership building on the success of the Rural Development Initiative and a five-year $10-million plan to support people in India, Ghana, Cote d’IVoire, Egypt, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Brazil. In particular their work tries to improve productivity, incomes, food security and education.
  • Since 2004, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Cargill have been promoting techniques to increase productivity with less impact on land, water and biodiversity in Africa, Argentina, Brazil, China and North America, for example helping farmers grow soy more sustainably and protect the Brazilian rainforest.
  • In Mozambique, Cargill is working with AgDevCo to raise incomes for thousands of smallholder farmers through a long-term maize supply agreement with the Empresa de Comercialização Agrícola Ltd. programme. Also in Mozambique, Cargill has committed $1.35 million to a three-year partnership with the Aga Khan Foundation to support Bilibiza, a vocational school providing agricultural training for 400 students each year.
  • Cargill has helped to train more than 115,000 cocoa farmers around the world in improved agricultural practices, helping to increase the sustainability of cocoa supply chains, improve livelihoods and increase food security in cocoa farming communities in Brazil, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia and Vietnam.
  • With the World Wildlife Fund, Songyuan municipal government and smallholder farmers in northeastern China Cargill are working to improve maize production, decrease waste, conserve water and reduce fertilizer use. On demonstration plots average yields have been increased by 20% while in 2013, for the more than 15,000 farmers participating, yields were 39% higher than demonstration plots and fertilizer efficiency improved 34%.

  1. Mars

4879647930_c105ec09ff_oMars, one of the world’s major food manufacturers, is working to make cocoa a more sustainable and environmentally sound industry from along the whole supply chain. For cocoa farmers around the world, most of whom are in developing countries and face significant barriers to improving production, meeting an increasing coca demand is a challenge. For Mars it is important to ensure the sustainability of these supply chains and increase overall production to meet the company’s cocoa needs, particularly since demand is rising by an estimated 2% each year while at the same time yields are declining.

Mars operates from the principle that increasing on-farm productivity is the first step, bringing higher incomes for cocoa farmers and their families. If cocoa is productive and lucrative, farmers will have more opportunity to develop their farming businesses. Seeking greater cocoa yields will require new higher quality, more resistant cocoa varieties as well as the best methods to produce them but cocoa has typically received little investment in research largely because it is a crop grown mainly by smallholder farmers.

Mars is:

  • Working with small-scale farmers to improve their agricultural skills and access to resources, technologies, education and markets;
  • Investing in cocoa research, particularly plant genetics and breeding, pest and disease control and post-harvest practices, and to share relevant findings across the cocoa industry and farmers. Mars are working on sequencing the cocoa genome in a partnership with IBM and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 2010, the group released into the public domain the initial results, which can be accessed on the Cocoa Genome Database.
  • Setting up hubs or cocoa development centres in selected locations to demonstrate the principles of profitable, sustainable cocoa farming and to provide education and mentoring to local communities. Their three mains aims are to demonstrate sustainable cocoa farming, help build capacity and conduct field trials. Village Cocoa Centers (VCCs) are also being set up in villages to educate local farmers on best practice as well as act as a hub for extension services and purchasing improved varieties.

Mars, working with certification organisation, also aims to have 100% of its cocoa supply certified as sustainably produced by 2020. They claim the most rigorous certification principles in the industry and make sure that their certification partners are working with farmers to help learn skills, to increase yields, to produce quality cocoa in a sustainable manner, and to increase their incomes.

This is a pretty tall order given that there are more than 5 million cocoa farmers worldwide, many working in remote areas of developing countries. As such they are partnering with a wide variety of NGOs, governments, food manufacturers and other interested groups, essentially building a public/private network that helps to address the major challenges facing farmers and the industry.

  1. Unilever

6197082437_9195ec945a_oIn 2012, Unilever, in partnership with the World Food Programme and others, launched a new foundation with the goal of improving people’s quality of life through the provision of hygiene, sanitation, access to clean drinking water and basic nutrition. Unilever and WFP have worked together since 2007 engaging in partnerships such as ‘Together for Child Vitality’ and ‘Project Laser Beam’; as well as during humanitarian emergencies. Since 2007 Unilever has provided over $26 million of support to WFP.

The Unilever Foundation is, in particular, supporting WFP’s Home Grown School Meals Programme, which helps smallholder farmers increase the quality and quantity of their crops, in turn being sold to local schools meals programmes. This not only provides nutritious school meals that provide a strong incentive for children to attend class but helps create a sustainable market for farmers and empowers the parents and teachers who manage the programme. In 2014, Unilever’s support will enable WFP to provide over 9 million school meals in countries, including Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya, Ecuador, Myanmar and the Philippines.

Unilever Food Solutions are also working with cooks and chefs to help them provide healthier food, reduce waste (see the Wise Up On Waste app) and obtain ingredients from sustainable sources.

  1. Pepsico

In 2011, PepsiCo, the US International Agency for International Development (USAID) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) announced that they were partnering to improve agricultural production and improve food security in East Africa. Their initiative “Enterprise EthioPEA,” aims to increase chickpea production in Ethiopia, the largest producer of chickpeas in Africa.

Potential to increase the yields and quality of chickpeas, a more sustainable alternative to meat, is high in the county and could have other benefits for producers. The initiative’s main goals are to:

  • “Boost Ethiopian chickpea production by putting advanced agricultural and irrigation practices in the hands of 10,000 Ethiopian farmers.
  • Develop and distribute chickpeas as a protein-rich supplementary food, reaching 40,000 Ethiopian children less than 2 years old.
  • Improve the supply chain to increase availability of chickpeas for both Ethiopian and international consumers.”

This initiative aims to both improve livelihoods, reduce famine and “create sustainable business opportunities for PepsiCo”, as well as to contribute to PepsiCo’s global strategy of becoming a leader in sustainable agriculture around the world. Learn more about the Enterprise EthioPEA initiative in an interview with Derek Yach, PepsiCo’s senior vice president of global health and agriculture policy.

Behind the Brands

Despite their good intentions many large corporations, according to Oxfam, fall far short of having the positive impact they give the impression of having. Behind the brands, part of Oxfam’s GROW campaign, aims to provide consumers with “the information they need to hold the Big 10 to account for what happens in their supply chains”, the 10 largest food and beverage companies: Nestle, PepsiCo , Unilever, Mondelez, Coca-Cola, Mars, Danone, Associated British Foods (ABF), General Mills and Kellogg’s. The companies are scored based on seven themes – transparency; engagement of women; farm workers; work with small-scale farmers; land rights, access and use; water rights, access and use; and adaptation and mitigation of climate change.  As of October 2014 Unilever and Nestle has the highest total scores but Oxfam believes these companies can do a lot more to improve the social and environmental impacts of their supply chains.

While these companies may boast of new initiatives aiming to help thousands of farmers and households in developing countries and of partnerships with less profit-driven organisations, it could be argued that the way they do business is what needs to change rather than one off philanthropic projects. Some of these initiatives have a win-win appearance, building business for the company and improving livelihoods but it is hard to know what the on the ground impact really is as well as whether commitments and pledges are fully realised. On the other hand is doing something better than doing nothing?


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