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Agriculture companies are key to achieving sustainable development goals

The World Benchmarking Alliance used its first Food and Agriculture Benchmark to measure impact of food and agriculture companies.

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Unilever, Danone and Nestle top the 2021 Food and Agriculture Benchmark. Image via Shutterstock/rvlsoft

There is no doubt that one prerequisite for achieving the United Nation‘s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 is a successful and swift transformation of our global food systems. Inequality, climate change and biodiversity loss are all closely linked to food production, food trade and the welfare of workers and farmers.

Food and agriculture companies need to use their global footprint and influence on farmers and consumers, through their operations and supply chains, to create that transformation. It is not a trivial task, so we need to use all the tools available to make it more straightforward.

That’s why the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) set up the first Food and Agriculture Benchmark, to assess 350 of the world’s most influential global food and agriculture companies. The benchmark is an accountability tool for the private sector, encompassing companies that operate globally in a number of relevant sectors, including agricultural inputs, agricultural products and commodities, animal protein, food and beverage processing and manufacturing and the retail and food service segments.

These 350 companies account for more than half of the world’s food and agriculture revenue, directly employing over 23 million people. Their influence, however, is much greater — they have a disproportionately large impact on food systems through their wide and long supply chains.

This is what gives them such an important role in food systems transformation. They have the power to be major catalysts in driving change to limit environmental degradation, increase livelihoods of producers and improve people’s health and wellbeing by ensuring nutritious food choices are available to everyone.

Room for improvement for 2023

The benchmark methodology spans 45 indicators in the interlinked areas of food systems transformation, covering governance and strategy, environment, nutrition and social inclusion. For each of the 45 indicators companies are evaluated on a five-layer scale, scoring between zero and two points. In each case, a score of zero typically reflects no relevant disclosure and a score of two reflects leading performance. The results make interesting reading.

Unilever tops the 2021 Food and Agriculture Benchmark, followed by Nestlé and Danone. The rest of the top 10 is made up of fertilizer company OCP, brewing and beverage companies Anheuser-Busch Inbev and Diageo, food and beverage processor PepsiCo, retailer Tesco, dairy cooperative Fonterra and ingredients company Firmenich. Notably, this list includes companies from all benchmark segments except for food service. It’s good news that there is breadth of leadership on sustainable development issues in the food system.

These companies have a disproportionately large impact on food systems through their wide and long supply chains.

However, the average benchmark performance is still low. Almost two-thirds of the companies score below a 25 out of 100. And the best performers still have a long way to go to complete the transition to a sustainable food system, closing the gaps in the industry’s preparedness for climate change, its progress on human rights and, overall, ensuring everyone has access to nutritious diets.

The benchmark is published every other year, with a year of research followed by a year of impact, during which WBA further disseminates benchmark results and drives action. We work with existing coalitions, relevant actors and initiatives to further push the food systems agenda.

Using the community and benchmark to drive impact

To move from reporting to impact, we invited companies to share their learnings, challenges and journeys on a specific benchmark topic. We do this in collaboration with subject matter experts, who can also follow up directly with further technical support and strategy implementation.

In 2022 we had our first of these sessions, named "community of practice," on workforce nutrition. The Workforce Nutrition Alliance (WNA) distinguishes four program categories the companies should be involved in: healthy food at work; nutrition education; nutrition-focused health checks and breastfeeding support. And the Food and Agriculture Benchmark revealed that 25 percent of the 350 companies have at least one workforce nutrition program in place that can help promote improved awareness about, access to and supply of health foods.

The companies that shared their journey of implementing these types of programs along with WNA shared four concrete, actionable steps for other companies

  1. Implementing all for four workforce nutrition program categories
  2. Providing more qualitative evidence about healthy food offerings
  3. Increasing the number or percentage of cafeterias providing healthy food options
  4. Setting time-bound targets of improving food offerings

By doing more of these sessions on other important topics in food and agriculture, the World Benchmarking Alliance is committed to engaging with proactive companies to create impact. By providing the technical tools and expertise for companies and helping implement programs across their operations and supply chains, we hope to create measurable improvements in the next iteration of the Food and Agriculture Benchmark, in 2023.

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