Agribusinesses and food companies are “heading in the right direction” on sustainability, says Kundhavi Kadiresan, assistant director general and regional representative for Asia-Pacific at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, but action and attention on social and environmental issues needs to come from C-suites and boards.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Responsible Business Forum on Food and Agriculture in Bangkok, Kadiresan said that the creation of dedicated heads of sustainability within large companies shows that they do have a commitment to social responsibility, but that this does not yet go far enough.
“Does it translate at the highest level, being the CEO? Does it translate to the board, and does the demand come from the shareholders?” Kadiresan says.
Without that high-level pressure, sustainability initiatives have not necessarily translated into tangible action on the ground, she says, while CEOs are still principally judged on short-term financial metrics, rather than on their long-term sustainability initiatives.
“These interests have to change from short-term to long-term,” Kadiresan says. “I have often had, even heard the sustainability heads telling me: ‘we will have to wait for another 10 years when we get a new generation of CEOs’. So what does that tell you? That you’ve got to have not just these units creating buzz, but you need to have the vision and also to influence the shareholders. The shareholders influence the CEO and the board.”
Large international development players like the FAO are increasingly exploring partnerships with multinational agribusinesses as a mechanism to amplify their development impact. However, despite an apparent public consensus on significant issues—from climate change to rural livelihoods—the two sides still often struggle to communicate and find common goals, according to Kadiresan.
“Partnerships are pretty difficult, because our agendas and our priorities are often different,” she says. However, the conversations are happening, and “by this dialogue and conversation, hopefully it can build more common understanding and also bring those priorities sooner together rather than later.”