UN, European companies debate long-term business principles


The UN is preparing the publication of a set of principles to foster corporate responsibility in the agricultural sector, based on the theory that long-term food security depends on businesses taking more seriously their role in the global food system.

The sustainability of global food systems has gained prominence in Brussels' political debates since the world food price crisis between 2007 and 2008. In addition, the world faces the challenge of feeding a global population that is expected to rise to between 7 and 9 billion by 2050. This, combined with rising food waste and high obesity levels in Europe, has led officials to seek sustainability commitments from agri-business.

The UN Global Compact, the international organisation’s business initiative, has drafted six food and agriculture principles after a consultation with businesses and other food security ‘stakeholders’, such as civil society, academics and policymakers. The consultation took place between September and November last year.

The draft Food and Agriculture Business Principles (FABs) aim to provide a ‘holisitic’ solution to these challenges, and spur the adoption of more sustainable food systems in the developing world. They call on businesses to align themselves towards:

  • Providing food security, health and nutrition;
  • Ensuring environmental responsibility;
  • Ensuring the economic viability and share value across the “value chain”, from farmers to consumers;
  • The respect of human rights, providing decent work opportunities and allowing rural communities to thrive;
  • Encouraging good governance, such as anti-corruption measures, accountability and transparency, in areas such as natural resource use and land rights;
  • The promotion of access to information, knowledge and skills, investing in new technologies which respect the stated principles.

The draft principles emerged from the document with the outcomes of the Rio +20 UN conference on sustainable development, 'The Future We Want'. A second consultation on the final list of FABs began in January and will run until March. The UN expects to release the final draft of FABs in October.

“If we look to sustainability, we have to be aware that that is has to do with climate and environment and social responsibility. Sometimes one of two are forgotten,” said Gerda Verburg, the chair of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on World Food Security.

“You cannot rebuild the world in one day,” Verburg said at a conference on the principles hosted by the Italian Socialist and Democrat MEP Paolo De Castro at the European Parliament this week. “We only can create a future if we manage to invest in sustainability, in nutrition, as long as it is taking all the people on board, whether small-holders, women or people in big cities."

Business planning for the long-term

A number of European companies have joined the global compact, understanding that social responsibility ensures their survival over the long-term.

“Why is the private sector so interested in the processes and exercises which have been developed by the Global Compact? … We can contribute to the challenge of feeding [the] people by 2050, with the right means to guarantee food supplies of high quality,” said Jean Paul Beens, the head of public and affairs and industry relations at Yara, a Norwegian agri-business that co-hosted the Parliament event.

Yara’s main business is the sale of fertilisers but Beens says that global food security does not depend solely on their products.

“We are the last to claim that we have a holistic solution to the problem,” he said, adding that along with business “we need more stakeholders to engage, NGOs governments, the public sector”.

“Everyone along the supply chain has specific knowledge which can be contributed. By listening you come to a much more holistic solution,” Beens said.

UN assessing agri-food 'matrix'

The FABs initiative is voluntary but the UN intends to establish reporting obligations for signatory companies so as to ensure that goals translate into action.

Puvan Selvanathan, the head of sustainable agriculture at the UN Global Compact, said that companies would receive “signals” about how well they had complied with each of the principles but that there would be no qualitative judgment under the current plan. Rather, the UN plans to present reporting “benchmarks”.

The UN is also working out where each business fits into the agri-food chain over the longer term.

“We designed a matrix to look at the problem in its entirety, so that business can find out where they can make a difference throughout the whole process,” Selvanathan said.

The role of each company depends on how well their products converge with the principles. A fertiliser company such as Yara would need to ensure soil fertility, for example. “Soil becomes key,” Selvanathan said. “Soil is an area we just started exploring.”

Selvanathan said that the UN was looking into the role of less apparent, yet equally important, businesses in the food and agriculture "value chain", such as logistics companies.

To Beens, whether the FABs turn out to be a success depends on the engagement of the private sector.

“Absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, inattention to the results. [These are] the pitfalls in cooperation [and a] very good start for the discussion for predictability for any investment you intend to do,” he said.

The UN has also adopted similar food security initiatives, such as the ‘Zero Hunger Challenge’, launched by the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. The ZHC, which calls for the creation of sustainable food systems among other goals, has failed twice to be adopted by members of the European Parliament.

Over the last century, Europe has largely responded to rising domestic food demand by increasing agricultural intensification, with large, heavily-mechanised farms, and pushes to gain more yield from crops and livestock through a mixture of pesticides and herbicides.

In the recent reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, the European Commission pushed for a "greener" approach to EU farming, backing more organic cultures, and measures to protect cropland and rural biodiversity.

  • October 2014: UN Global Compact expected to release the final draft of the Food and Agriculture Business Principles (FABs)

United Nations


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