Global food production is a multi-billion dollar business. Despite the extent to which food and other agricultural products flow from farm to factory to table, approximately 1 in 8 people, many of whom produce food for end consumers, are starving. Food security is not only essential to combating poverty and improving economic development, it is critical for growing the food industry. Dwindling inputs due to climate change, migration of youth away from farms and a growing impatience with supply chain transparency increase concern over the future of food security.
Some government programs have begun to address the problem. For example, the World Food Program Food for Assets initiative links food provision to incentive structures, livelihood training and other humanitarian assistance. Germany, United States, and most western countries, have well-funded aid programs targeting food security and development. These programs are necessary but not sufficient. Rather than put a band aid on the food gap, what can the private sector do to close it completely?
Leading food companies including Nestlé, Unilever and General Mills are facing the challenge head on. For example Nestlé has re-shaped its sourcing strategy to ensure its nearly 700,000 farmers and providers are buoyed by its rural development framework, an origin based investment program aimed at improving infrastructure, increasing access to safe water, address financing and market efficiency gaps and improving labor conditions. Oxfam’s “Behind the Brands” has ranked Nestlé for the second straight year as the number one company in relation to its approach to land use, climate change, water access, social and human rights which together will improve food security in regions where the company sources its products and manufactures its goods.
General Mills launched Partners in Food Solutions (PFS) in 2011. A separate non-profit organization working on food security and improving market efficiencies in Africa, the organization was later joined by Cargill, Royal DSM and Techno Serve to engage 500,000 smallholder farmers in fourteen or more African nations. Ultimately PFS wants to attract more corporate leaders to address the evolving food waste challenge and build more effective and efficient pricing models.
Agriculture conglomerates Monsanto, DuPont and Cargill are prioritizing improving yields, helping make farmers more productive and expanding education about proper nutrition and responsible land use. Working with NGO partners like Conservation International and CARE has helped to highlight the effectiveness of collaboration as companies gain perspective on the social, environmental and development challenges of underserved populations.
What’s missing, however, is a more coordinated approach to collaboration and partnership. Addressing challenges as widespread as food insecurity will take more than bilateral partnerships investing in pilot projects. To truly scale the solutions brought to bear by partnership and collaboration, a coordinated effort is critical. Project investors should select a geography where gaps remain and focus on its niche only. Then, by bringing in others with different skill sets to fill in other gaps, the theory of comparative advantage sets in and the outcomes are stronger. Focusing on the needs of the community in question should be the priority. If other interests take over, the impact will not be as great.
What the private sector can do is (1) encourage broader collaboration beyond bilateral partnerships; (2) target collaborative work to address gaps rather than reinventing the wheel; and (3) be pushy and keep the work moving. Ensuring the needs of the communities drive the efforts and investments is critical. Given social, political and local complexities, it may not be enough to provide funding without involving governments (local, regional and national particularly) and other stakeholders, especially prior to investing, in order to understand the local conditions and considerations.
The B20 Task Force on Food Security, a collaboration of business leaders within the consumer goods sector, aims to “to achieve a 50 percent increase in agricultural production and productivity by 2030” via public and private investment. If guided well the coalition could be quite powerful.
Another example of a broader collaborative approach is the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. Launched in 2012, the New Alliance “aims to accelerate responsible investment in African agriculture and lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2022” by bringing together the investment community, private sector companies and donor partners. If carried out well, the intent is to drive country policies and investments toward sustainable agriculture, market efficiency improvements and collaborative approaches to improving engagement among smallholder farming families.
Both examples take a broader approach beyond bilateral partnerships, target specific needs to address food security and include key actors from the private sector. What remains to be seen in each case is the effectiveness.