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Can multi-national businesses make farming more sustainable?

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To what extent are multi-national businesses trying to increase their sustainability? And how much power do they have to be successful? Based on a recent study, the answer to the first question seems to be ‘more than I thought’ while the second question has the opposite answer.

Opponents of genetically-modified foods often cite corporate control of the food system as a reason for their rejection. They are generally referring to Monsanto, but when researching for my book I discovered a far more complex picture.

As well as the multi-nationals involved in agriculture, our food system is dominated by ‘Big Food’ companies such as Kellogg, PepsiCo and supermarket chains. The recent analysis questions how powerful these organisations really are, and concludes that while they face growing pressure to increase their sustainability, they don’t have the knowledge or power needed to ensure farmers will change their practices.

A major hurdle is information. Processed food typically has ingredients from around the world, and each ingredient may have a complex supply chain with many players, so huge amounts of information would be needed to assess the impact of a single product.

One barrier to Big Food companies collecting that information is that they normally buy from commodity trading companies such as Cargill rather than directly from farmers. This means they know very little about the farmers who produce the food, let along have the ability to influence how they behave. What’s more, it emerges that the trading companies themselves don’t even have detailed information about the sustainability of the farms they buy from.

One approach Big Food is taking is signing up to multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs). These bring together government, NGOs, civil society and the private sector to address complex challenges.

For example, dozens of companies signed up to the Sustainability Consortium. This was founded in 2009 to help Walmart create a ‘sustainability index’ quantifying the environmental and social impacts of every product it sold. This knowledge, they hoped, could be passed on to consumers. However, it turned out that there was a complete lack of data needed to make a reliable sustainability indicator.

The technology exists to tackle this. Farmers often collect data for their own operations, and new software has been released that would allow the flow of data from farmers to a central database. The first question is will farmers agree to data being shared, the second is even if this data is collected and analysed, will this lead to change. We shall see.

Susanne Freidberg (2017): Big Food and Little Data: The Slow Harvest of Corporate Food Supply Chain Sustainability Initiatives, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, DOI: 10.1080/24694452.2017.1309967

Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website:

One thought on “Can multi-national businesses make farming more sustainable?

  1. Welcome to the complexity of The Food Industry.

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