Building a shared, sustainable future for people and planet together

With its scale, the global F&B industry has an obligation to drive transformational change in tackling sustainability and public health challenges, but industry efforts alone will not suffice. The stage has long been set for all stakeholders to collaborate on solutions to build a sustainable future, says Ehab Abou-Oaf of Mars Wrigley Confectionery.

Children in Laos eating traditional foods
Children in Laos eating traditional foods. Food and beverage companies are responsible for 16 per cent of the world's GDP and have a responsibility to provide good nutrition responsibly. Image: World Bank Photo Collection, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the global prevalence of malnutrition and undernutrition is devastatingly high: approximately 795 million of the 7.3 billion people around the world—or one in nine—were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2014 to 2016. Yet, another 765 million or so suffer from obesity.

A joint report from UNICEF, WHO and ASEAN also found that several middle-income ASEAN countries are battling simultaneous crises of over and malnutrition, with increasing percentages of children becoming overweight or obese while others suffer from undernutrition (wasting, stunting and micronutrient deficiencies). These issues are intertwined—a child whose growth was stunted has a higher risk of becoming overweight in adulthood.

At the same time, the scientific evidence for rapid climate change is undeniable—the Earth’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.1 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century, driven by increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as a result of human activities.

The start of this year saw the fifth warmest January in 138 years, according to NASA statistics. Climate change can cause extreme weather events with greater intensity and frequency, which will adversely impact food production and global food security.

These twin challenges of health & nutrition and sustainability are inextricably linked to the food and beverage (F&B) industry. With our industry making up an estimated 16 per cent to 20 per cent of global GDP, F&B companies around the world have an obligation, as well as opportunity, to play our part in achieving a healthier people and planet, by driving transformational change in the way we do business.

The role of the F&B industry in creating a healthier people and planet

Just last year, Mars announced an approximately US$1 billion investment in our Sustainable in a Generation (SiG) plan over the next few years. While the scale of the investment made headlines, at its core is a science-based approach to focus on doing what’s right, and not just doing better.

What this means is we have set environmental targets based on what science says is necessary to keep the planet healthy, focusing beyond our direct operations to incorporate the extended supply chain. Specifically, one of our goals is to reduce GHG emissions across our value chain by 27 per cent by 2025 and 67 per cent by 2050, to do our part to keep the planet from warming beyond two degrees.

Similarly, addressing the health & nutrition challenge also requires a holistic approach that addresses the various facets of the issue. Much progress has been made by the industry in helping consumers make better choices through nutrition labelling.

For example, Mars was one of the first companies to use the Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) on our packaging, and since 2014 GDA labelling has been implemented on 99 per cent of our chocolate, gum and confectionery and food products globally.

Yet, there is room for the industry to take a more proactive role by giving consumers behavioural “nudges” towards healthier choices. Product reformulation and packaging is an area that has been garnering growing attention.

This has been a longstanding commitment at Mars, where in 2010, we committed to only develop single serving sizes of less than 250 kcal. We have achieved this for 99 per cent of our products globally and are on track to reach 100 per cent soon. Our next goal is to increase the number of products that are 200 kcal or less per pack.

Recently, we have also seen efforts by our industry peers to reformulate their products, such as a recent pledge by Coca-Cola, F&N Foods, PepsiCo and four other major soft drink manufacturers to reduce sugar content in their drinks in Singapore to 12 per cent and below by 2020.

Partnership for progress

That said, the efforts of the F&B industry alone are not enough to solve these challenges. While the F&B industry must pave the way for change, collaborations with governments, other industry bodies, academia, non-government organisations and communities, are required to fundamentally move the dial.

With our industry making up an estimated 16 per cent to 20 per cent of global GDP, F&B companies around the world have an obligation, as well as opportunity, to play our part in achieving a healthier people and planet, by driving transformational change in the way we do business.

A study on tackling obesity in the Association of South East Asian Nation, published by the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition and the Economist Intelligence Unit last year, highlighted the need for collaboration between industry and government in interventions such as product innovation and school-based food programmes.

Beyond the government, academic and research institutions can also play an important role by collaborating with corporates to advance scientific research that can help inform product reformulation.

Come 26 April, leaders from Asia’s F&B industry and Singapore’s government will gather for the inaugural Food for the Future Summit in Singapore held by Food Industry Asia, a non-profit organisation formed to enable major food manufacturers to speak with one voice on complex issues such as health & nutrition, food safety and the harmonisation of standards. Together, we will look at how innovation of existing technology can help us forge a more sustainable future.

The stage has long been set for all stakeholders to collaborate and embrace innovative, effective solutions to today’s challenges. We cannot delay any longer—it is vital for us to get into gear and move toward a sustainable planet for ourselves and the generations to come.

Ehab Abou-Oaf is President, Asia-Australia, Middle East & Africa, Mars Wrigley Confectionery, as well as President, Food Industry Asia. This article was first published on Eco-Business.

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