Collectively Harnessing Innovation for Our People and Planet

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the global prevalence of the double burden of malnutrition is devastatingly high: Approximately 795 million of the 7.3 billion people around the world – or one in nine – were suffering from chronic undernourishment between 2014 and 20161. Yet, another 765 million or so suffer from obesity2.

A joint report from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)3  also found that several middle-income ASEAN countries are battling simultaneous crises of over- and undernutrition, with increasing percentages of children becoming overweight or obese, while others suffer from the effects of undernutrition – namely wasting, stunting and micronutrient deficiencies. These issues are intertwined: A child whose growth has been 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 by about 1.1 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century, driven by increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere, as a result of human activities4. Last month was the fifth warmest January in 138 years, according to NASA statistics5. Climate change can cause extreme natural occurrences, such as droughts, floods and storms with greater intensity and frequency, which will adversely impact food production and thus, global food security.

With increasingly concerning statistics emerging around these pertinent issues, there is no doubt that
developments of these complex challenges are set to affect all of us. These are issues that are inextricably tied to the food and beverage (F&B) industry.

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

F&B companies have a duty and obligation to play our part for a healthier people and planet, through innovative solutions in the way we do business. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)6, the private sector makes up more than 60 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in most countries. Globally, the F&B sector contributes significantly to GDP – between an estimated 16 per cent and 20 per cent7. With such scale, F&B companies around the world all have a critical role in finding sustainable solutions.

We have all seen recent news headlines that tell of how an increasing number of companies are making proactive commitments to reformulate their products, with some exploring all-natural, low- or no-calorie alternatives to sugar. This has been a long-standing commitment at Mars, where in 2010, we committed to only developing single serving sizes of less than 250 kilocalories (kcal). We have now 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 measure 200 kcal or less per pack.

Behavioural “nudges” through simple, evidence-based food labels that help people eat a balanced diet and enjoy certain food and drinks as treats can also help empower people to become part of the solution. This is why Mars was one of the first companies to use Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) labelling on our packaging, to help consumers easily find the nutritional information they need. Since 2014, GDA labelling has been implemented across 99 per cent of our chocolate, gum, confectionery, and other food products worldwide.

Just last year, we made a bold statement and announced that we will be investing approximately US$1 billion over the course of the next few years in our Sustainable in a Generation8  plan, which takes a holistic, science-based approach to tackling the issues that threaten the sustainable growth of our business, the environment and the community. We have expanded our focus beyond our direct operations to include the extended supply chain, putting in place initiatives to empower women and youths in the farming communities we work with via education and access to capital, besides improving farming practices. One of our goals is also to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across our value chain by 27 per cent by 2025, and 67 percent by 2050, so as to do our part to keep the planet from warming beyond two degrees Celsius.

Partnership for progress

However, while the F&B industry has an important role to play, efforts by the industry alone are not enough to solve the challenges we face. Last year, a study on tackling obesity in ASEAN, published by the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN) and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), highlighted the need for collaboration between industry and government in food interventions such as product innovation and school-based food programmes, and the development of best practices for marketing, especially to children.

There are many areas in which multi-stakeholder partnerships have the potential to deliver significant results. For example, Mars works with a network of scientific collaborators around the world, such as the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S. to conduct research in nutrition, genomics and genetics, in order to explore the positive impacts that particular foods and agricultural practices have on human health, and contributes the data to the public domain. Promoting responsible marketing practices is another area for public-private sector collaboration – Mars was one of the first companies to implement a responsible marketing programme that encompasses a range of commitments, including no advertising to children younger than the age of 12.

Similarly, in environmental sustainability, while companies are making greater efforts to limit the impact of human action on our planet, more needs to be done to promote public awareness and discourse. This is where documentaries and calls to action from notable figures, such as Sir David Attenborough in his renowned Blue Planet series, as well as the tireless efforts of environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) around the world, have made huge contributions.

Ultimately, while the F&B industry has to pave the way for change, multi-stakeholder partnerships with governments, other industry bodies, academia, NGOs and communities, through common and uncommon collaborations, are required to fundamentally shift the dial, and make sustainable impact for a healthier people and planet.

Change for good: The role of innovation

This April, leaders from Asia’s F&B industry will gather in Singapore for Food Industry Asia’s Food for the Future Summit. Together, we will look at how innovation of existing technologies can drive us toward a more sustainable future.

The stage has long been set for industry, government, civil society and other stakeholders to collaborate and embrace innovative, effective solutions to today’s challenges. We cannot delay any longer - it is vital that we get into role and move toward a sustainable planet for ourselves and the generations to come.

FIA’s inaugural Food for the Future Summit will take place on 26 April at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore. This invitation-only event for CEOs and senior leaders will feature debates around some of the biggest food trends and issues relating to food innovation, reformulation, sustainability and product packaging. 

Mr Ehab AbouOaf, who is Regional President, Asia-Australia, Middle East & Africa for Mars Wrigley Confectionery, and President of Food Industry Asia (FIA), will give the welcome address at the Summit.



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