Managing Differences Among Pro-nutrition Actors on Corporate Engagement; A Response to the Recent Commentary

Document Type : Correspondence


1 Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA

2 The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC, USA

3 Berman Institute of Bioethics, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC, USA


There is much debate about the role of partnerships between civil society and government actors on the one hand, and industries on the other, in achieving better nutrition and health outcomes from food systems. In a recently published commentary, Kraak1 expresses concern about fragmentation among the network of actors in civil society and government on corporate-engagement principles and on strategies to strengthen food systems and calls forto to strengthen food systems. She calls for pro-nutrition actors to come together. However, our research findings indicate that the shared vision she calls for, at least in the near-term, is politically unattainable. We instead argue for a more politically feasible strategy: pro-nutrition actors should strive to manage expectations and disagreements so that they can become a more potent political force, partnering with industry where possible, and continuing to challenge industry where necessary.

Our research shows that for many pro-nutrition actors, even engaging with industry players is off the table. Why is this? Our paper examined factors that impede partnership between public and private sector actors. These include mistrust between civil society/government and private sector actors; a weak architecture for the global governance of nutrition; power imbalances between public and private sector nutrition actors; and a lack of understanding of the causal pathways behind many nutrition problems.

Reconciling competing visions, harmonizing engagement principles, and bringing forth a shared narrative is difficult when many civil society and public sector actors will not fathom even engaging. In the same way, plenty of private sector actors are not motivated to work with governments and civil society because they have been demonized—in many instances rightly so due to continuing transgressions in public health and environmental stewardship. Similar tensions around the engagement of private or industry actors exist across many other issue areas, including alcohol, climate, tobacco, firearms, and pharmaceuticals.2–5

One such example where engagement was fractured was the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) held in September of 2021. The Summit was meant to be a crucial moment to foster a unified road map for global food system transformation. Instead, it was fraught with controversies.6 Hundreds of civil society groups, academics, and social movements, many of whom represent indigenous communities and small-scale farmers and producers, boycotted the UNFSS because the agenda was led by a narrow pool of elites and hijacked by corporate interests.7,8 This group did not attend or participate in the proceedings leading to the UNFSS, and they instead held another summit at the same time, entitled “The Global People’s Summit on Food Systems.”9 A declaration was signed by over 600 organizations and individuals that stated: “[We] reject the ongoing corporate colonization of food systems and food governance under the facade of the United Nations Food Systems Summit … The struggle for sustainable, just, and healthy food systems cannot be unhooked from the realities of the peoples whose rights, knowledge and livelihoods have gone unrecognized and disrespected.”10 Accountability was also not considered at the UNFSS in terms of democratic legitimacy and participation6 or in terms of monitoring outcomes of commitments made by actors at the Summit.11

Differences exist in the nutrition community, but pro-nutrition actors should not let disagreement on the issue of engaging the corporate sector stand in the way of coming together on other critical issues where disagreements are less stark. After all, the community is, at a deeper level, unified by a profound disquiet concerning global food and nutrition inequities. This shared moral commitment serves as a powerful foundation for nutrition actors to find ways to work together on issues where stances largely align, and to manage differences on issues—such as corporate engagement—where disagreements persist.

Ethical issues

Not applicable.

Competing interests

Authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors’ contributions

JF, YRS, and JS contributed equally to the conceptualization and writing of the manuscript.


  1. Kraak VI. Advice for food systems governance actors to decide whether and how to engage with the agri-food and beverage industry to address malnutrition within the context of healthy and sustainable food systems: Comment on “Challenges to establish effective public-private partnerships to address malnutrition in all its forms. ” Int J Health Policy Manag 2022; 11(3):401-406. doi: 10.34172/ijhpm.2021.70 [Crossref] [ Google Scholar]
  2. Buse K, Hawkes S. Sitting on the FENSA: WHO engagement with industry. Lancet 2016; 388(10043):446-447. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(16)31141-2 [Crossref] [ Google Scholar]
  3. Moodie R, Stuckler D, Monteiro C. Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drink industries. Lancet 2013; 381(9867):670-679. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(12)62089-3 [Crossref] [ Google Scholar]
  4. Leventon J, Dyer JC, Van Alstine JD. The private sector in climate governance: opportunities for climate compatible development through multilevel industry-government engagement. J Clean Prod 2015; 102:316-323. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2015.04.125 [Crossref] [ Google Scholar]
  5. Bolton M, Sakamoto EE, Griffiths H. Globalization and the Kalashnikov: public–private networks in the trafficking and control of small arms. Glob Policy 2012; 3(3):303-313. doi: 10.1111/j.1758-5899.2011.00118.x [Crossref] [ Google Scholar]
  6. Canfield MC, Duncan J, Claeys P. Reconfiguring food systems governance: the UNFSS and the battle over authority and legitimacy. Development (Rome) 2021; 64(3-4):181-191. doi: 10.1057/s41301-021-00312-1 [Crossref] [ Google Scholar]
  7. Nisbett N, Friel S, Aryeetey R. Equity and expertise in the UN food systems summit. BMJ Glob Health 2021; 6(7):e006569. doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2021-006569 [Crossref] [ Google Scholar]
  8. Canfield M, Anderson MD, McMichael P. UN food systems summit 2021: dismantling democracy and resetting corporate control of food systems. Front Sustain Food Syst 2021; 5:103. doi: 10.3389/fsufs.2021.661552 [Crossref] [ Google Scholar]
  9. Global People’s Summit on Food Systems. Accessed February 10, 2022.
  10. Global People’s Summit on Food Systems Declaration. https://Peoplessummit.Foodsov.Org/Gps-Declaration/. Published 2021.
  11. Covic N, Dobermann A, Fanzo J. All hat and no cattle: accountability following the UN food systems summit. Glob Food Sec 2021; 30:100569. doi: 10.1016/j.gfs.2021.100569 [Crossref] [ Google Scholar]
  • epublished Author Accepted Version: February 27, 2022
  • epublished Final Version: March 9, 2022
Volume 11, Issue 8
August 2022
Pages 1599-1600
  • Receive Date: 16 February 2022
  • Revise Date: 26 February 2022
  • Accept Date: 26 February 2022
  • First Publish Date: 27 February 2022