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CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Nestlé partnership with University of Pretoria raises critical corporate capture questions (Part 2)

Nestlé partnership with University of Pretoria raises critical corporate capture questions (Part 2)
Big corporations producing unhealthy food and funding food research raise questions of corporate capture. (Photos: Lennon K on Unsplash / mamava.com / Unsplash / Wikipedia)

While corporations have always filled the state’s funding gap for public research, where is the line to be drawn between the potential for undue influence especially in public health?

This is the second story of a two-part series into the Nestlé and University of Pretoria partnership. Read part 1 here.

Marion Nestlé (no relation to Nestlé the company), a molecular biologist and nutritionist, has said that research funded by industry tends to favour the industry — this is known as The Funding Effect.

When corporations fund research, it means they can shape the research agendas in Africa, and in the long run, policy. They also get positive press out of funding research.

It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last, that corporations fund research. For higher education, it also makes sense — funding from the state is not always sufficient. Where does this leave public health?

This is a form of marketing, says public health lawyer Safura Abdool Karim, where the corporation can get good press.

“In addition to co-opting thought leaders in the space, they then weaponise both the research that was produced and the researchers themselves to be advocates against regulation.”

This means corporations are shaping careers, shaping what the emerging leaders think of products, and how academics frame issues, she explains.

“You’re also creating a relationship that’s deeply favourable, [and] a sense of obligation,” she adds.

People think science is objective and you can’t fake things, Abdool Karim says. But you can put your finger on the scale, ask the right questions, and get a particular result.

“Even the choice of what you research is political,” she adds.

Lisanne Du Plessis, associate professor at the Division of Human Nutrition, Stellenbosch University, says history is repeating itself. In the past, breastmilk substitutes were promoted in low and middle-income countries, the new area of marketing is towards a large population of young, ambitious people.

She cites the new slogan: “Nestlé needs YOUth”.

“They build brand loyalty among this young ambitious cohort. Many economically vulnerable students find aspiration in consuming these branded products. These young people are the mothers and fathers of the next generation of babies and children,” Du Plessis explains.

Shifting the narrative, shifting the blame 

The food industry, like the oil industry, tries to shift blame towards individual responsibility.

Major beverage companies often sponsor sporting events, Petronell Kruger, the programme manager at the Healthy Living Alliance (Heala) outlines, because they want to push the story that if you just ran enough you wouldn’t struggle with your health, and can drink/eat whatever you want. It’s a move to associate their brand with physical activity, but it undermines the other issues, she says.

“Eating unhealthy food is a bit like paper cuts. One is not going to kill you — one Coca-Cola, one piece of polony — it’s the combination of things over time that leads to harmful results,” says Abdool Karim.

Busiso Moyo, food activist and writer, admits that corporates can be part of the solution towards a nourishing food system, but he questions what seat they should have at the table. It’s crucial to look at how influential corporate actors are with agenda setting.

Platforms of consultation mean that state and corporate play lip service to concerns raised by activists, scholars, and human rights defenders, Moyo says. If consultation happens under the guise of a multi-stakeholder framework, he says it creates a power imbalance.

“Because oftentimes, power is discursive. It’s about who whose agenda gets prominence.

“When everybody is somewhat accountable for the problem, liability and accountability become elusive,” Moyo says.

He adds that we need to be clear that we have a food system that is not nourishing and is bifurcated — some people in South Africa experience world-class food and others experience food as though they’re living in a warzone.

South Africa as a gateway to the rest of the African market 

“This partnership with the University of Pretoria reinforces Nestlé’s commitment to youth empowerment and sustainable research and development in Africa,” said Conny Sethaelo, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs Director at Nestlé, East and Southern Africa Region in the announcement of the MoU.

Regulation is a little bit like fever, Kruger says. If you have it, you might give it to your neighbour. She cites South America, where Chile led the regulations on unhealthy food and beverage marketing with front-of-pack labelling.

Busiso Moyo says that by the time the public galvanises to ensure we’re all singing from the same hymn book, there’s already a power dynamic there.

“We’re not even clear on how it is they go about expressing and influencing that landscape. As far as I’m concerned, it’s bigger than what we think. These people are talking to a continent-wide footprint.”

Moyo says more and more South Africa is being used as a gateway into the continent for multinational corporations to forge ahead with their agenda.

Commercial determinants of ill-health 

The role of food companies in public health outcomes is called the “commercial determinants of health”. It’s about the positive and negative influences that corporations have — but some scholars argue that corporations’ bottom line of profit contradicts public health goals, with very few positive influences.

In the Constitution, Section 27(1)(b) states that everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water. Section 28(1)(c) states children have the right to enough food, shelter, basic health care and social services.

According to the 2020 Child Gauge report, one in four young children are stunted or too short for their age, because they are not getting enough nutrients for healthy growth. One in eight young children is overweight or obese, because they eat foods low in nutrients and high in energy from sugar and fat, and don’t get enough exercise.

There is an idea that hunger and malnutrition are different from a poor diet, Moyo explains. You can eat a packet of chips, so at least you’re not hungry, even if it is a bad diet.

This is because of the implicit influence from corporate actors, he says; they point out there’s an unemployment crisis, a hunger problem, so they’re bringing out cheap products for the poor.

“At the end of the day, the poor and marginalised are only going to eat that which they can afford,” he explains.

Moyo says this conversation goes beyond the right to food, to well-being — from food security to food sovereignty.

Response from Mota Mota, Head: External Communications, Nestlé East & Southern Africa Region

“As the world’s largest food and beverage company we play an active role in contributing to finding science-based solutions to address the world’s food systems challenges. In this context, we are convinced that scientific dialogue and collaboration between public and private stakeholders is vital to drive scientific discoveries and find concrete evidence-based approaches amongst experts.

“At Nestlé R&D we work closely with a wide range of academic institutions and public organisations worldwide, including in sub-Saharan Africa (Nestle Innovation Partnerships | Nestlé Global). Our partnerships are based on the Nestlé Policy on Public-Private Science & Research Partnerships — a policy that promotes academic freedom, neutrality, ethics and integrity. We support public-private partnerships that meet the following criteria: Neutrality in research, openness and effectiveness, and transparency (c.f. policy in more detail). This is to ensure that investigators and researchers are free to conduct their research, reach scientific conclusions and publish them according to the best practices in academic research that promote academic freedom, ethics and integrity.

“With regards to the MoU between Nestlé and the University of Pretoria, Nestlé will provide selected students with opportunities to perform their PhD research in collaboration with Nestlé’s R&D experts. The company will also host students for experiential learning and partnership programmes at Nestlé R&D centres that are relevant to their studies. This is part of our ongoing efforts to strengthen scientific engagement with universities and research institutes in sub-Saharan Africa. Through knowledge sharing and supporting emerging students, we want to contribute to the advancement of the food and nutrition value chain in a holistic and locally relevant way, incl. for example through Nestlé run webinars  Nestlé scientists share expertise with students | Nestlé Global (nestle.com).”

University of Pretoria’s Response to Nestlé Memorandum of Understanding

The University of Pretoria (UP) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Nestlé in 2023, marking the beginning of a strategic partnership to drive impactful research in sustainable food systems. This collaboration underscores the University’s commitment to fostering academic excellence and promoting sustainable development in Africa, and is one of many such initiatives at UP.

We acknowledge the importance of engaging with industry partners while managing associated risks through careful contracting, agreed-upon outcomes, and clear scopes for the work involved. Our long-term active relationships with various partners and organisations align with our transdisciplinary ethos.  We collaborate with them to effect positive change, guided by our commitment to promoting solutions that benefit society.

Through this MoU, UP’s African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems (ARUA-SFS) will play a pivotal role in conducting research aimed at transforming Africa’s food systems to promote sustainability and food security. The research includes the development of African crops for improved nutrition- and food security, at scale. The agreement signifies a shared dedication to revolutionising food research and education, paving the way for mutual benefits and advancements in the food and nutrition domain. As part of this partnership, Nestlé will provide selected students with opportunities to conduct PhD research in collaboration with Nestlé’s research and development experts. Additionally, Nestlé will host students for experiential learning and partnership programmes at its research and development centres relevant to their studies. UP, on its part, will provide the necessary training materials and equipment to support students’ experiential learning, thereby creating a robust learning environment.

These agreements have undergone rigorous approval processes at various levels within UP. In addition, our Department of Research Innovation conducted a diligent assessment of the associated risks and due diligence to ensure the integrity of these agreements. Primarily aimed at expanding scientific knowledge, the research contract delves into the value addition of African crops and essential aspects pertaining to food and nutrition security. Notably, there needs to be a more fundamental understanding of African cereal crops such as sorghum and millets than better-researched counterparts like wheat, rye, barley, and oats. Addressing these knowledge gaps is pivotal in overcoming barriers to utilising these essential African crops.

The University of Pretoria remains committed to providing a conducive learning environment and supporting all students, irrespective of their financial background. We take pride in offering evidence-based, participatory problem-solving and transdisciplinary research to our students. Our focus is on bringing different disciplines and stakeholders together to have the conversations that allow solutions to complex problems to be co-created.

The ongoing collaboration with Nestlé has provided our students at UP with exclusive opportunities to engage with a diverse array of scientists, granting a unique advantage within South Africa. Since last year, our students have actively participated in the Nestlé Youth Entrepreneurship Program (YEP), benefiting from online lectures and networking opportunities with professionals. This partnership not only paves the way for future prospects but also strengthens our alumni network. It’s noteworthy that the sponsorship also prioritises black female African students, aligning with our commitment to fostering transformation and gender equity in STEM fields.

We believe that we can collectively address our world’s challenges by embracing diverse perspectives and fostering meaningful partnerships. UP remains committed to pursuing excellence in research, education, and collaboration for the betterment of our communities and our planet.

Daily Maverick contacted ARUA, Prof Frans Swanepoel, Dr Colleta Gandidzanwa and the University of Pretoria for comment but did not receive a reply by the time of publication. DM

Lillian Roberts is a freelance journalist in South Africa with a focus on social and health issues and has previously written for Forbes Africa and Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism

This article was updated to include University of Pretoria’s response received on 19 March 2024.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Confused Citizen says:

    All research submitted for peer-review must declare funding sources. Hence readers can judge if the results are interpreted too favourably. Similarly, the state also funds research as part of the HEIs’ budgets. This goes through as ‘No funding sources’.
    Why should we be concerned by corporate-funded research, but in e.g. Social Sciences research, nobody raises an eyebrow about communist idealogically infused studies that are equally harmful to society?
    The people interviewed for this piece worried about corporate influence in policymaking. I worry about all the ANC caders that are currently making policies and regulations. What are their Idealogical worldview?

  • Pieter van de Venter says:

    And Churchill put it even clearer. “If I ask for statistics on the death of new bornes, I expect statistics indicating a reduction in deaths.”

    So, whether universities are funded by industry or by politicians, the outcome will be skewed to suit the views of the group that writes the cheques.

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