Redressing the Corporate Cultivation of Consumption: Releasing the Weapons of the Structurally Weak

Document Type : Review Article


School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia


Corporate control of the global food system has resulted in greater global availability of highly processed, packaged and very palatable unhealthy food and beverages. Environmental harm, including climate change and biodiversity loss, occurs along the supply chains associated with trans-national corporations’ (TNCs’) practices and products. In essence, the corporatization of the global food system has created the conditions that cultivate excess consumption, manufacture disease epidemics and harm the environment. TNCs have used their structural power – their positions in material structures and organizational networks – to establish rules, processes and norms that reinforce and extend the paradigm of the neoliberal corporate food system. As a result, policy and regulatory environments, and societal norms are favourable to TNC’s interests, to the detriment of nutrition, health and environmental outcomes. There is hope, however. Power, of which there is many forms, is held not just by the TNCs but by all actors concerned about and connected to the food system. This paper aims to understand these power dynamics, and identify how structurally weak, public-interest actors can release their agency and work to achieve positive structural change. Such an analysis will help understand how the status quo can be disrupted and healthy and sustainable food systems created. The paper draws from the health governance and social movement literature, examining the Doha Declaration on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement and Public Health, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), and the Divestment movement. These cases demonstrate the many ‘weapons of the weak’ that can, against all odds recalibrate structural inequities. There is no one approach to transforming the corporate food system to become a healthy and sustainable food system. It involves coalition building; articulation of an ambitious shared vision; strategic use of multi-level institutional processes; social mobilization among like-minded and unusual bedfellows, and organized campaigns; political and policy entrepreneurs, and compelling issue framing.



"Watch the Special Issue Video Summary"


  Check the full list of "Political Economy of Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems" special issue here


  1. Bevir M. Governance: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2012.
  2. Stiglitz JE. Making Globalization Work. WW Norton & Company; 2006.
  3. McMichael P. A food regime analysis of the ‘world food crisis.’ Agric Human Values. 2009;26(4):281. doi:10.1007/s10460-009-9218-5
  4. Lang T, Barling D, Caraher M. Food Policy: Integrating Health, Environment and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2009.
  5. Nye JS, Kamarck EC. Democracy in the Information Age. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press; 2002.
  6. Swinburn BA, Sacks G, Hall KD, et al. The global obesity pandemic: shaped by global drivers and local environments. Lancet. 2011;378(9793):804-814. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(11)60813-1
  7. Hawkes C. Dietary implications of supermarket development: a global perspective. Dev Policy Rev. 2008;26(6):657-692. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7679.2008.00428.x
  8. Story M, Kaphingst KM, Robinson-O'Brien R, Glanz K. Creating healthy food and eating environments: policy and environmental approaches. Annu Rev Public Health. 2008;29:253-272. doi:10.1146/annurev.publhealth.29.020907.090926
  9. Popkin BM. Relationship between shifts in food system dynamics and acceleration of the global nutrition transition. Nutr Rev. 2017;75(2):73-82. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuw064
  10. Lawrence M, Friel S. Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems. Abingdon, England: Routledge; 2019.
  11. Swinburn BA, Kraak VI, Allender S, et al. The global syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change: the lancet Commission report. Lancet. 2019;393(10173):791-846. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(18)32822-8
  12. Harris P, Baum F, Friel S, Mackean T, Schram A, Townsend B. A glossary of theories for understanding power and policy for health equity. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2020;74(6):548-552. doi:10.1136/jech-2019-213692
  13. Clegg SR. Frameworks of Power. London: Sage; 1989.
  14. Howarth D. Power, discourse, and policy: articulating a hegemony approach to critical policy studies. Crit Policy Studies. 2010;3(3-4):309-335. doi:10.1080/19460171003619725
  15. Barnett M, Duvall R. Power in international politics. Int Organ. 2005;59(1):39-75. doi:10.1017/s0020818305050010
  16. Carstensen MB, Schmidt VA. Power through, over and in ideas: conceptualizing ideational power in discursive institutionalism. J Eur Public Policy. 2016;23(3):318-337. doi:10.1080/13501763.2015.1115534
  17. Gramsci A. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers; 1971.
  18. Mooney P. Too Big to Feed: Exploring the Impacts of Mega-Mergers, Consolidation and Concentration of Power in the Agri-Food Sector. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems; 2017.
  19. Statista. Market Share of Carbonated Beverages Worldwide as of 2015, By Company. Statista; 2020. Accessed 20th May, 2020.
  20. Monteiro CA, Cannon G. The impact of transnational "big food" companies on the South: a view from Brazil. PLoS Med. 2012;9(7):e1001252. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001252
  21. Baker P, Friel S. Food systems transformations, ultra-processed food markets and the nutrition transition in Asia. Global Health. 2016;12(1):80. doi:10.1186/s12992-016-0223-3
  22. Stuckler D, McKee M, Ebrahim S, Basu S. Manufacturing epidemics: the role of global producers in increased consumption of unhealthy commodities including processed foods, alcohol, and tobacco. PLoS Med. 2012;9(6):e1001235. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001235
  23. Clapp J, Scrinis G. Big food, nutritionism, and corporate power. Globalizations. 2017;14(4):578-595. doi:10.1080/14747731.2016.1239806
  24. Freudenberg N. Lethal but Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health. Oxford University Press; 2014.
  25. Fuchs DA. Business Power in Global Governance. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers; 2007.
  26. McMichael P. Global Development and the Corporate Food Regime. Amsterdam: Elsevier; 2005.
  27. Braithwaite J, Drahos P. Global Business Regulation. Cambridge University Press; 2000.
  28. Nestle M. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. California: University of California Press; 2013. doi:10.1525/j.ctt7zw29z
  29. Thow AM, Snowdon W, Labonté R, et al. Will the next generation of preferential trade and investment agreements undermine prevention of noncommunicable diseases? a prospective policy analysis of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. Health Policy. 2015;119(1):88-96. doi:10.1016/j.healthpol.2014.08.002
  30. World Trade Organization (WTO). Minutes of the Meeting of 21 March 2007, Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade. Geneva: WTO; 2007.
  31. Stuckler D, McKee M, Ebrahim S, Basu S. Manufacturing epidemics: the role of global producers in increased consumption of unhealthy commodities including processed foods, alcohol, and tobacco. PLoS Med. 2012;9(6):e1001235. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001235
  32. Friel S, Schram A, Townsend B. The nexus between international trade, food systems, malnutrition and climate change. Nat Food. 2020;1(1):51-58. doi:10.1038/s43016-019-0014-0
  33. Townsend B, Schram A. Trade and investment agreements as structural drivers for NCDs: the new public health frontier. Aust N Z J Public Health. 2020;44(2):92-94. doi:10.1111/1753-6405.12982
  34. Panjwani C, Caraher M. The Public Health Responsibility Deal: brokering a deal for public health, but on whose terms? Health Policy. 2014;114(2-3):163-173. doi:10.1016/j.healthpol.2013.11.002
  35. Schmidt VA. Taking ideas and discourse seriously: explaining change through discursive institutionalism as the fourth ‘new institutionalism.’ Eur Political Sci Rev. 2010;2(1):1-25. doi:10.1017/s175577390999021x
  36. Hawkes C, Blouin C, Henson S, Drager N, Dubé L. Trade, Food, Diet and Health: Perspectives and Policy Options. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell; 2010.
  37. McMichael PD. Tensions between national and international control of the world food order: contours of a new food regime. Sociol Perspect. 1992;35(2):343-365. doi:10.2307/1389383
  38. Clapp J, Desmarais A, Margulis M. State of the world food system. Can Food Stud. 2015;2(2):7-8. doi:10.15353/cfs-rcea.v2i2.88
  39. Friel S, Ponnamperuma S, Schram A, et al. Shaping the discourse: what has the food industry been lobbying for in the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement and what are the implications for dietary health? Crit Public Health. 2016;26(5):518-529. doi:10.1080/09581596.2016.1139689
  40. Harvey D. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. USA: Oxford University Press; 2007.
  41. Buechler SM. Understanding Social Movements: Theories from the Classical Era to the Present. Abingdon: Routledge; 2016.
  42. World Trade Organisation (WTO). Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health. Geneva: WTO; 2001.
  43. t Hoen E. TRIPS, pharmaceutical patents, and access to essential medicines: a long way from Seattle to Doha. Chic J Int Law. 2002;3(1):27-46.
  44. Sell SK, Prakash A. Using ideas strategically: the contest between business and NGO networks in intellectual property rights. Int Stud Q. 2004;48(1):143-175.
  45. Bond P. Globalization, pharmaceutical pricing, and South African health policy: managing confrontation with U.S. firms and politicians. Int J Health Serv. 1999;29(4):765-792. doi:10.2190/4ma6-53e3-le1x-c1yy
  46. Holden C, Lee K. Corporate power and social policy: the political economy of the transnational tobacco companies. Glob Soc Policy. 2009;9(3):328-354. doi:10.1177/1468018109343638
  47. Roemer R, Taylor A, Lariviere J. Origins of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Am J Public Health. 2005;95(6):936-938. doi:10.2105/ajph.2003.025908
  48. Collin J, Lee K, Bissell K. The framework convention on tobacco control: the politics of global health governance. Third World Q. 2002;23(2):265-282. doi:10.1080/01436590220126630
  49. Mamudu HM, Glantz SA. Civil society and the negotiation of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Glob Public Health. 2009;4(2):150-168. doi:10.1080/17441690802095355
  50. 50. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change   (IPCC). Global Warming of 1.5°C: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC; 2018.
  51. Watts N, Amann M, Ayeb-Karlsson S, et al. The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: from 25 years of inaction to a global transformation for public health. Lancet. 2018;391(10120):581-630. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(17)32464-9
  52. World Resources Institute (WRI). Climate Analysis Indicators Tool. Washington, DC: WRI; 2017.
  53. Downie C. Business actors, political resistance, and strategies for policymakers. Energy Policy. 2017;108:583-592. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2017.06.018
  54. Jakob M, Hilaire J. Climate science: unburnable fossil-fuel reserves. Nature. 2015;517(7533):150-152. doi:10.1038/517150a
  55. Bulkeley H, Andonova LB, Betsill MM, et al. Transnational Climate Change Governance. Cambridge University Press; 2014.
  56. Ayling J, Gunningham N. Non-state governance and climate policy: the fossil fuel divestment movement. Climate Policy. 2017;17(2):131-149. doi:10.1080/14693062.2015.1094729
  57. Hazan L, Cadan Y, Brooks R, Rafalowicz A, Fleishman B. 1000 Divestment Commitments and Counting.;2018. Fossil Free; 2018.
  58. Ayling J. A contest for legitimacy: the divestment movement and the fossil fuel industry. Law Policy. 2017;39(4):349-371. doi:10.1111/lapo.12087
  59. United Nations. Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. New York: United Nations; 2015.
  60. World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Rome Declaration on Nutrition: Second International Conference on Nutrition. Rome: WHO, FAO; 2014.
  61. Smith J, Buse K, Gordon C. Civil society: the catalyst for ensuring health in the age of sustainable development. Global Health. 2016;12(1):40. doi:10.1186/s12992-016-0178-4
  62. Valente FLS. Evolution on food and nutrition governance and the emergence of multistakeholderism. Development. 2018;61(1):68-83. doi:10.1057/s41301-018-0198-x
  63. Friel S. Global Governance for Nutrition and the Role of UNSCN. Rome: United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition; 2017.
  64. Batis C, Rivera JA, Popkin BM, Taillie LS. First-year evaluation of Mexico's tax on nonessential energy-dense foods: an observational study. PLoS Med. 2016;13(7):e1002057. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002057
  65. Falbe J, Thompson HR, Becker CM, Rojas N, McCulloch CE, Madsen KA. Impact of the Berkeley excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. Am J Public Health. 2016;106(10):1865-1871. doi:10.2105/ajph.2016.303362
  66. Paarlberg R, Mozaffarian D, Micha R. Can U.S. local soda taxes continue to spread? Food Policy. 2017;71:1-7. doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2017.05.007
  67. Abbott KW, Snidal D. Taking responsive regulation transnational: strategies for international organizations. Regul Gov. 2013;7(1):95-113. doi:10.1111/j.1748-5991.2012.01167.x
  68. Abbott KW, Snidal D. Strengthening international regulation through transmittal new governance: overcoming the orchestration deficit. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law. 2009;42:501.
  69. Sunstein CR. Social norms and social roles. Columbia Law Rev. 1996;96(4):903-968.
  70. Swinburn B, Sacks G, Vandevijvere S, et al. INFORMAS (International Network for Food and Obesity/non-communicable diseases Research, Monitoring and Action Support): overview and key principles. Obes Rev. 2013;14 Suppl 1:1-12. doi:10.1111/obr.12087
  71. Sacks G, Vanderlee L, Robinson E, et al. BIA-Obesity (Business Impact Assessment-Obesity and population-level nutrition): a tool and process to assess food company policies and commitments related to obesity prevention and population nutrition at the national level. Obes Rev. 2019;20 Suppl 2:78-89. doi:10.1111/obr.12878
  72. Friel S. A time for hope? pursuing a vision of a fair, sustainable and healthy world. Global Policy. 2018;9(2):276-282. doi:10.1111/1758-5899.12557