Food for Thought: A Conversation With BSR’s New Food, Beverage & Agriculture Practice Director

August 3, 2010
  • Kai Robertson

    Former Senior Advisor, BSR

  • Faris Natour

    Former Managing Director, Advisory Services, BSR

When BSR’s new Food, Beverage & Agriculture Practice Director Kai Robertson began her career working with the food industry 20 years ago, some of the big issues for the sector were consumer’s growing interest in organically grown foods and the push for a national standard, and speculation about how Walmart’s entry into the food business with its first “supercenter” would impact the industry. Now she looks forward to working with BSR’s 40-plus food, beverage, and agriculture member companies on developing corporate responsibility strategies and finding solutions to address the complex array of issues facing the industry.

We spoke with Robertson—who has worked with companies and groups as diverse as the World Wildlife Fund, Walmart, and the Food Marketing Institute—about a range of topics, including food waste and sustainable consumption, steps the industry is taking to address the global obesity epidemic, and why we still have a hunger crisis when the world produces enough calories for people to live on.

You joined BSR in April to lead our Food, Beverage & Agriculture industry practice. What’s your assessment of the industry’s corporate responsibility efforts right now?

The industry has made tremendous progress on operational efficiencies and is increasingly working with supply chain partners to also address areas of shared responsibility.

Regardless of where companies sit in the value chain (as restaurants, retailers, food or beverage brands, distributors, or input suppliers), it’s easiest to focus on those things they can control directly, like waste reduction, water- and energy-efficiency programs, and, for food and beverage companies in particular, changes to their packaging. Looking at packaging specifically, for manufacturers, this is often one of their largest costs and thus an area where much is being done to reduce the amount of packaging. A number of exciting new business models are also being created to expand the collection and reuse, or recycling, of packaging after products go to consumers.

Another trend is the emergence of pre-competitive, cross-industry efforts, many of which are in response to the increasing recognition that the responsibility and impact of producing and distributing food and beverage products spans across trading partners. When you look at the whole life cycle of a product, the greatest impact is often upstream—what happens on the ground, whether in the field, a mine, or in the watershed. However, this often lies outside the control of most companies, which are several steps removed from the source of their raw materials. To address this, more companies are developing common measurement platforms, increasing transparency and accountability, and often collaborating on these initiatives. With respect to sustainable packaging, for example, the Consumer Goods Forum recently proposed a common framework and measurement system it hopes will become widely adopted. Other pre-competitive efforts include the Sustainability Consortium, the Keystone Center’s Field to Market work, the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, and the multi-stakeholder groups that are developing standards for commodities like palm oil, sugarcane, soy, and beef.

A key emerging issue that BSR is focused on this year is sustainable consumption. When it comes to this issue, what are the opportunities for food, beverage, and agriculture companies?

Sustainable consumption matters for a very simple reason: The food industry is particularly dependent on the raw materials that nature produces, and our growing global population—with a diet that now includes more resource-intensive products—is drawing on the planet’s resources faster than the planet can replenish itself. We need to find ways to reduce our currently unsustainable demand for natural resources.

In addition to the range of solutions being developed on the production or sourcing side, more companies are thinking about how to reduce the huge amount of waste that happens on the consumption end. I’m always shocked to hear that as food makes its way from the farm to the kitchen, up to 30 percent of it is discarded. In richer countries, most of the waste happens at the “point of consumption”—at the store, in the restaurant, or in the kitchen. Companies are trying to address this by improving their purchasing processes, partnering with food-collection groups, and modifying portion sizes. Companies like McDonald’s and Walmart are also taking steps to rethink their back-end systems by, for example, recycling used cooking oil and finding outlets for their organic waste. These efforts to look at “waste” as a resource, also often improve the bottom line. While sustainable consumption includes recapturing our waste to lighten our demand for virgin raw materials, it’s also about finding new ways to deliver value—simply put, to give consumers an expanded set of choices that use less stuff.

Given the growing obesity epidemic, several companies traditionally associated with sugary or high-fat foods have launched new product lines offering healthier food choices. There have also been initiatives to make nutrition labels more effective. What is your opinion of these trends? Are companies doing enough?

Obesity is a complex issue with a range of causes, many of which are due to broad changes taking place in society. For example, as incomes rise and more people live in urban environments, diets typically include a higher proportion of saturated fats and sugars. Similarly, jobs, transportation, and everyday activities are today more passive, requiring less physical activity.

Companies are taking different steps to address the problem of obesity—from marketing healthier options and adding product or menu labels, to reformulating products. In the United States, the current focus is on reducing sodium and using more whole grains, while a few years ago it was on replacing trans fats. (Those latter efforts were mainly driven by a looming deadline for mandatory labeling.)

Another step in the right direction is the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation—a new coalition of supermarkets, food and beverage manufacturers, trade associations, and other companies and organizations outside the industry—which has pledged to help people (especially children) reduce calorie consumption and increase physical activity. Manufacturing companies have committed to produce lower-calorie options through reduced portions or reformulated products, and they are collaborating to raise awareness about healthy eating. It remains to be seen what kind of effect this will have, but I think it’s a positive step.

Going forward, I expect companies will continue to expand their health and wellness efforts, and I believe there’s value in linking these more closely to corporate responsibility strategies. After all, healthier diets and lifestyles contribute to a healthier society and can have a positive impact on our use of natural resources, greenhouse gas emissions, social relations, and health care costs.

Let’s talk about some of the challenges and opportunities in emerging markets. Development and human rights circles have raised the concept of “food security”—ensuring all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs. What is the role for the private sector to address this challenge?

Ironically, while there are more than 1 billion people who do not have enough to eat, the World Health Organization also reports that there are more than 1 billion adults who are overweight and obese—and the number of clinically obese people is actually rising faster in many developing countries than in industrialized ones. So, what we have is a global malnutrition crisis, in terms of both deficiency and excess.

As it relates to ensuring food security, there is enough food—we literally produce enough calories to feed the world—but people lack access to it. The process for how we get our food is very inefficient. Turning again to food waste, in poorer countries, much of the loss is happening before it gets to the people who need it. Depending on the crop, this loss may happen in the field or during processing, transport, or storage. There is an opportunity for food companies to provide or otherwise support their producers with better technical assistance.

Another important role for companies seeking to improve food security in emerging markets is investing more in women, who are often the nutritional gatekeepers as mothers and farmers. It’s been estimated that women produce between 60 to 80 percent of the food in developing countries, and that equalizing women's access to agricultural inputs can increase output by more than 10 percent. Moreover, women’s gains in income and investments in the health care and nutrition of women typically lead to improvements in their own health and that of their children.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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