Treating “Big Food” companies as allies for food systems transformation

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When the UK introduced Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) in April 2018 to help tackle childhood obesity and related conditions, “the changes brought about by the SDIL have been far greater than those achieved by voluntary industry initiatives”. Image source: grocerygazette.co.uk

Pradeepa Korale-Gedara is a post-doctoral research fellow with the Food System Horizon (FSH)* initiative in Australia. She participated in the 2024 food systems e-course. Pradeepa believes collaborating with large agri-food companies can be a more effective strategy for food systems transformation. She wrote this blog to further explain why and how.

As an agricultural economist, I was initially convinced that pushing for greater efficiency and larger economies of scale within our food systems would deliver widespread societal benefits. However, this perspective began to shift in 2023 with my involvement in the Food System Horizon (FSH) and further evolved during my participation in the food systems e-course in 2024. The e-course, in particular, deepened my understanding of the global challenges food systems face, the complexities involved in transforming these systems, and the diverse methodologies employed to study them.

In my exploration of food systems, I've come to understand that the drive for efficiency through economies of scale—achieved by companies growing larger or merging—often overshadows the important social, nutritional, and environmental aspects of food system activities. This focus on scaling up can lead to unsustainable, unhealthy, and unfair food systems.

When I read more, I realised that historically, the push to achieve economies of scale had been a global strategy to maximise the use of limited resources and meet the needs of a growing population. However, this approach has also led to a few large agribusiness firms gaining substantial market power, reflecting changes in social and economic demands over time.

I understand the criticisms of large agri-food companies for their role in unsustainable food systems and for their resistance to change. At the same time, I question whether reducing corporate dominance while still achieving significant transformations is possible. This challenge is further complicated by the need to retain the benefits of economies of scale. I believe a more effective strategy would be to collaborate with these companies, treating them as allies in the efforts to transform our food systems. By doing so, we could harness their considerable scale and resources to effect widespread systemic change.

Recognizing that adversely affecting sustainability of food systems is not the core objective of these firms, I delved into the literature to identify factors that prevent or slow down these companies from adopting sustainable practices. Like in many other sectors, a significant barrier is the perceived risk of trialling new, sustainable strategies, which can jeopardise short-term profits.

In this context, I advocate for governments to partner with large corporations to mitigate the financial risks of transitioning to sustainable practices. By offering incentives like grants and sharing risks, governments can facilitate corporate innovation in sustainability. However, such collaborations must not make compromises on regulations that hold companies accountable for negative externalities, promote corporate social responsibility, and support small-scale food businesses to foster competitive markets. In FSH, we collaborate with a range of food system stakeholders, including large food companies, to identify the challenges they encounter in adopting sustainable practices. This partnership enables us to develop scientifically informed solutions collectively.

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* The FSH Initiative is a collaboration between the University of Queensland and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), and serves as a dynamic think tank that employs a systems approach to analyse and envision the future of Australian food systems.

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Pradeepa Korale-Gedara

e-course participant

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  • Anonymous

    Hi Pradeepa, thanks for this nice blog describing the trade-offs in working with 'big food' on food transitions. The example is in the picture: while food companies have been developing low or no-sugar alternatives in response to market niches, the push for scaling this approach came from government and its sugar levy. Do you know of other examples with similar impacts?

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