Désirée Abrahams explains how the UN Global Compact is challenging the food and agriculture sectors to address their social, human rights and environmental impacts.
In November 2014, the United Nations Global Compact launched the ‘Food and Agriculture Business’ (FAB) Principles. For the UN Global Compact, the FAB Principles were pioneering: for the first time, the United Nations’ corporate responsibility initiative had focused on developing standards for a specific industry sector.
Divided into six themes, the FAB Principles challenge the food and agriculture sectors to consider and address their social, human rights and environmental impacts in a holistic way, essentially from ‘farm to fork’. The Principles call on food companies and agribusiness to address a diverse number of interrelated food and agricultural issues, from protecting the environment and minimising waste to ensuring that food is healthy and nutritious and that farmers, workers and consumers are afforded protection. The Principles offer a framework to help the development and delivery of effective, practical and scalable solutions to make food systems secure and agricultural systems sustainable.
While the FAB Principles, like the UN Global Compact’s Ten Principles, can be viewed as a ‘public good’, and therefore open to any entity to use as inspiration for developing responsible business practices, signatories to the UN Global Compact from the food and agriculture sector are invited to take an additional voluntary step to embrace the Food and Agriculture Business Principles and report annually on their progress through their ‘Communication on Progress’ Report (a requirement of all business signatories to the UN Global Compact).
... for the first time, the United Nations’ corporate responsibility initiative had focused on developing standards for a specific industry sector.
Since the launch in 2014, companies have embraced the FAB Principles in a number of ways. Some have publicly acknowledged that they support and endorse the Principles in public reports (e.g. Nestlé , Syngenta  and Lindt & Sprüngli ), while others have used it to initiate a deeper discussion with stakeholders on the role of business as an enabler and supporter of sustainable and inclusive economic growth in developing countries.
For example, Yara International partnered with the UN Global Compact and the Chamber of Commerce of Bogotá, Colombia, to canvass views from stakeholders on the role of business principles in meeting sustainable business goals . No doubt, many more global companies have used it as inspiration for developing or augmenting existing business strategies in support of sustainable food and agricultural systems. As a set of global voluntary principles, there is no mandatory requirement for companies (be they UN Global Compact signatories or otherwise) to report on how they are using the Principles to influence their policies, processes and wider activities. Such is the challenge and limitation of voluntary approaches; however, influence and traction can be considered in other ways.
Since their launch, the FAB Principles have acted as a catalyst for other spin-off principles, standards and related activities. These have been targeted approaches focused on addressing the concerns of specific industries or regions.
For example, the agricultural sector accounts for more than 40% of GDP in Southeast Asia. Acknowledging that the sector is critical to many of its regional economies, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministers of Agriculture and Forestry committed to working with the UN Global Compact to consider how the Principles could be used to benefit their region. Resultantly, in 2015, following many consultations and the development of an ASEAN Strategic Plan on Action on Food Security, the ASEAN CSR Network established the Integrated Sustainable Agriculture Programme, which is an evidenced based registry measuring the sustainable development of farmers and SME agribusinesses in the ASEAN region .
The FAB Principles have influenced specific subsectors within the wider food and agriculture sector. The endorsement of the Principles by the Fruit Juice CSR Platform  is a good example. In addition to committing public support to the Principles, the CSR Platform participants (comprised of European fruit juice companies) have also committed to a series of implementation measures. Firstly, to conduct a company baseline against the six FAB Principles and encourage suppliers to also conduct such an assessment, and secondly, to commit to engaging in collaborative actions to maintain momentum and drive improvement forward.
While the FAB Principles, as the name suggests, are specifically targeted at businesses, the Principles have influenced other actors and sparked collaborative efforts, bringing both public and private partners together to work towards sustainable food and agricultural systems.
The FAB Principles have influenced specific sub-sectors within the wider food and agriculture sector.’
The Declaration of Abu Dhabi , established in 2014, is a good example of both public and private actors uniting to develop and adopt a common set of criteria for good agricultural practices, in addition to supporting farm identification and reporting systems. It is a global collaborative platform bringing together a diverse array of participating organisations. To date, 44 signatories have committed to the Declaration and this includes public sector authorities (e.g. Directorate of Fisheries, VietNam), large companies (e.g. BASF), producers (e.g. Jumosol), certification organisations (e.g. Friends of the Sea), intergovernmental organisations (e.g. International Trade Center) and service providers (AGCO). Importantly, the Declaration openly states its alignment with the FAB Principles and the UN Global Compact’s Integrated Sustainable Agriculture Programme.
While it is laudable that companies and other organisations have taken inspiration from the FAB Principles, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the perfect timing of the birth of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, which provide another impetus for food and agricultural companies to consider how their business, products and services impact society and the environment and what they can do to address any adverse impacts.
In September 2015, the ‘2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ was launched at the United Nations in New York. The Agenda, which outlines the SDGs, sets forth 17 goals and 169 targets. These came into effect on 1 January 2016 and replaced the Millennium Development Goals, established in 2000. While the FAB Principles predated the SDGs, there is much alignment between both standards, most notably, SDG 2: Zero hunger, SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, and SDG 14: Life below water, to name a few.
Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, which were directed primarily at nation states, the SDGs speak directly to the actions of governments and the private sector. They acknowledge that everyone has a role to play in achieving the Global Goals and working towards a sustainable future. Given the important role the SDGs hold in governments, businesses and society, there is no doubt that some food and agricultural companies will use them as an influencing guiding framework in developing and delivering sustainable food and agricultural systems. Being sector specific, the FAB Principles provide complementary and harmonised guidance and can and should be used alongside other international frameworks, such as the SDGs, when addressing sustainable food and agriculture.
Désirée Abrahams, Director, Day Associates Web: www.daconsult.org
Désirée was formerly Head of Insight and Capacity at the UN Global Compact Network UK.