Science Blog

Cui bono genebanks?

Luigi Guarino | Director of Science and Programs

Today sees the launch of the latest Access to Nutrition Index (ANI). It’s an independent, science-based ranking of food and beverage companies based on how well they’re doing at producing and marketing stuff that is not just good to eat, but good for you.

Together with the Access to Seeds Index and the Agrobiodiversity Index, it is part of a framework that is being put in place to hold the private sector accountable in the court of public opinion, when it comes to the food we eat. More and more, people want to know that these companies are behaving responsibly, that their products are healthy and nutritious, that they’re not totally ignoring poor smallholder farmers, that the food system as a whole is sustainable.

I’m sure Nestlé is delighted that it came top of the ANI this year, with 6.8 out of 10. And General Mills may well be thinking “must try harder.” But is it enough to “fame and shame” companies like this, as Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), put it in a blog post today?

It’s certainly a great start, but I think food, beverage, and indeed, seed companies could – and should – do more. The ANI scores them on their governance, on the formulation, price, marketing and labelling of their products, on the strength and depth of their stakeholder engagement, and on whether they support healthy diets and active lifestyles. They also need to be asked what they’re doing about conserving the diversity of the crops that go into their products. And that includes how much hard cash they’re putting into genebanks.

But why should the public be interested in whether Nestlé or General Mills, say, are giving money to genebanks?

Well, you want your food to be tasty and nutritious, don’t you? And produced in a sustainable and environment-friendly manner. You want it to be there in the supermarket when you want it, and at an affordable price. You want to be able to choose among different types, surely.

All these things depend on crop breeders continuing to churn out better and better varieties for farmers to grow. And diversity in genebanks is what breeders use to make those new varieties. That’s why conservation of crop diversity is a target under Sustainable Development Goal 2 on food and nutritional security.

I’ve talked about this before, with regards to our partnership here at the Crop Trust with World Coffee Research on conserving the diversity of that particular crop, but it bears repeating. The long-term future of food and beverage companies depends fundamentally on the commodities they use retaining the diversity they need to survive the vicissitudes of pests, diseases, climate change, and consumer preference.

In his court appearances, the ancient Roman politician and lawyer Cicero was famously in the habit of asking: cui bono? To whom is it a benefit? There is no doubt that genebanks benefit food and beverage companies. They also benefit you.

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