Big Food’s Big Influence

Corporations face reckoning on transparency on eve of world food summit

Written by Lucy Martinez Sullivan, Executive Director at Feed the Truth

Amidst rising global hunger, an epidemic of diet-related disease, and a climate crisis linked to global agricultural production, calls for food system transformation have grown more numerous and urgent. These calls are recognizing our food system for what it is: a result of the breakdown of our political system; one in which vast amounts of corporate money shapes and sets policy in ways that are hidden from view.

The truth is we know very little about how food corporations operate to gain political advantage, and all of us pay the price for that lack of transparency. The food industry has lobbied to keep junk food in schools, make sugary soda cheap and on the menu in government nutrition assistance programs, keep wages low for frontline food workers, and make sure environmental protections from harmful industrial agricultural practices remain off the table. Big Food uses the same playbook as Big Oil, one laid out for the world to see by an ExxonMobil lobbyist earlier this month: bankroll front groups, obscure the science, underwrite political campaigns, spare no lobbying expense.

The historic calculus has been: share as little information as possible and aggressively manage PR crises when exposed. This approach has become a liability to corporations, as investors increasingly appreciate the level of blind risk this asks them to assume. That is why my organization, Feed the Truth, developed the Food and Agriculture Corporate Transparency (FACT) Index, released this week.

The FACT Index reveals the alarmingly minimal extent to which the world’s largest food corporations disclose their political spending in four areas: lobbying, influencing elections, corporate-funded science, and charitable giving. For example, out of a total possible score of 100, agribusiness giant Bunge and Tysons Foods, scored an abysmal two and three points respectively, because of their inability to even repost disclosures required by law to their websites. Further, even though Nestlé (18/100) and Unilever (20/100) signed a pledge at Davos earlier this year committing to publish information on a set of environmental, social, and governance metrics ranging from greenhouse gas emissions to board diversity, the two corporations provide little transparency when it comes to their political spending. The highest-ranking corporation, Coca Cola, still received only 39 out of 100, because while it partially discloses information in all four categories, the global soda giant does so only for its activities in the U.S. and not the other two hundred countries and territories it operates in.

These scores leave significant room for improvement in a public and shareholder atmosphere that is increasingly demanding transparency. Earlier this year, the world’s second largest asset manager, Vanguard, supported for the first time, a shareholder proposal requesting disclosure of Tyson Foods’ political activity after the corporation lobbied the Trump Administration to waive regulatory requirements that led to poor working conditions and COVID-19 spread at its meat processing plants. Vanguard issued a strong caution noting that “poor governance of corporate political activity, coupled with…a lack of transparency about the activity, can manifest into financial, legal, and reputational risks that can affect long-term value”.

Indeed, the risks are high — and not just for shareholders. The upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit in September will provide a unique space for advancing sustainable development in food systems. But corporate capture — where private industry uses its political influence to take control of government decision making — of the Food Systems Summit has already proved profound enough for more than 200 organizations working for critical reform to boycott the event altogether. These organizations beg an important question: should corporations be driving global policy…especially without having to disclose their roles or agendas?

Sunshine is needed throughout the food system — from the agricultural fields where food is grown, to the boardrooms and halls of power where decisions that affect what we eat are made. It is our hope that the FACT Index will be used to bring political spending out of the shadows and shine light on how big corporate money is distorting both our democratic and food systems.

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Feed the Truth works at the intersection of equity, democracy, and food justice to stop corporate control over the food we eat.

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