The Future

How Does Lobbying Impact our Food and Agricultural Policies?

Lobbying is often considered the sole remit of large companies and firms, but it also has the potential to directly influence our health, what is on our plates, and what we see in our supermarket aisles. Here’s how lobbying works to shape agricultural policy and influence both regional and national food environments - for better or worse.

How does lobbying work?

At its core, lobbying is when an individual or a collective shares their opinions on an issue with government officials, with an aim to influence policy. Conventional lobbying involves companies engaging professional lobbying firms to execute lobby campaigns. But as lobbying practices have evolved due to technology and the diversification of lobbying channels, the scope of what it means to ‘lobby’ has widened. It is now common for non-profits, industry groups and companies to directly launch lobbying campaigns.

The means of lobbying ranges widely, from more traditional approaches such as directly engaging with politicians, to funding academic papers that support a policy stance or shaping public perception through social media campaigns. Modern lobbyists usually adopt a combination of these approaches. Here are a few of the common approaches used to lobby:

Industry-funded research

    Industry-funded research has historically been a primary way for companies with vested interests to indirectly influence policy and public perception. Many reports show that industry funded papers have a high risk of bias, from the agenda setting stage to the ‘design and publication of the research’. Studies of food industry research also found that funded reports are often associated with the selective reporting of results that favour the funder.1 A prime example of this was seen in 2016, when a journal article revealed that the US sugar industry funded research that downplayed the relationship between sugar and coronary heart disease in the 1960s and 1970s.2,3 The funded literature review examined multiple causes of coronary heart disease, and concluded the best way to address the disease is to cut out fat in American diets.

    Social media campaigns

      Digital technology has gifted food lobbyists another powerful tool to influence public opinion. Social media campaigns have become a key manner for companies to shape, inform, and sometimes misinform public perception in favour of their message.4 One study published by University of London exposed how the Australian ultra-processed food industry has used social media to influence policy found some of the main tactics include: co-opting public health narratives, supporting self-regulation, engaging in policy processes and affecting public perception.5 In one example, Australia’s Beverage Council responded to a Twitter comment, stating “[@anonymised]: Discriminatory taxes like a soft drink tax have had no discernible impact on public health ANYWHERE in the world”.

      What do food and beverage companies lobby about?

      In 2020, Food and Beverage companies (F&B companies) spent a collective USD 38.2 million on lobbying, and they will lobby about any issue that will affect their business. Professor Marion Nestle, Former Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University says “I can't think of a single area of food or nutrition policy that isn't subjected to lobbying [by the largest F&B companies]".6 A few of the major F&B companies engaged in lobbying, like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and General Mills, will even publish updated statements on their website describing their advocacy activities.

      I can't think of a single area of food or nutrition policy that isn't subjected to lobbying [by the largest F&B companies].

      How a lobby campaign is initiated

      The lobbying process will look different depending on the initiators, the channels used and the country the lobbying occurs in. Despite this, it is generally agreed that the most effective period to lobby is during the initial agenda setting stage. Here’s a brief summary of how a lobby campaign can be initiated by an advocacy group in the EU:

      1. The lobbying issue is identified

      2. Advocacy group consults member organisations on the issue and develops a position that best represents the majority view

      3. Gathers data and produces briefings and reports to support their stance and shares documents with member organisations

      4. Members will submit document to local government ministers. Every EU member state will have ministers responsible for different policy areas, such as Agriculture & Fisheries, Environment and Education; collectively, they form ‘The Council of the EU’.7

      5. Advocacy group may also submit a joint letter to the EU Commission on behalf of all members

      6. Actions following the initial lobbying depend on whether the advocacy group’s recommendations have been adopted

      How lobbying is influencing modern food and agricultural policy

      Lobbying continues to shape modern food and agricultural policy in cogent ways. Lobbying may even occur at state level, as shown by Brazil and Argentina’s actions before last year’s COP26 in Glasgow. Leaked documents revealed that the countries, two of the biggest producers of beef and animal feed crops in the world, lobbied for the UN to downplay the relationship between meat consumption and global emissions. According to the BBC, both countries requested the authors of a UN report to alter parts of the report linking plant-based diets to reduce global emissions.9

      Most recently, EU’s agri-food lobbies have been lobbying against the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy. With an overall goal to make food in Europe healthier and more sustainable, objectives of the Farm to Fork strategy include halving the use of pesticides and antibiotics in livestock farming and reducing the use of fertilisers by 20%. Agri-food lobbies such as Copa Cogeca and CropLife Europe have actively lobbied to weaken the strategy; some have also leveraged the threat of food insecurity caused by the Ukrainian war to further roll back the strategy.14

      Lobbying for the right reasons

      While lobbying is often associated with companies looking to shape policy or opinion out of self-interest, in the right hands, lobbying can also serve as a powerful means to improve our food systems. Eurogroup for Animals is a non-profit advocacy group that has worked with its members to improve animal welfare since its launch in 1980. Eurogroup has launched many successful lobby campaigns both independently and via the European Citizens’ Initiatives (ECI).

      The European Citizens Initiative (ECI) was launched by the European Union (‘the EU’) so that citizens can directly participate in the policy making process. If a citizen led proposal reaches one million signatures, the European Commission will act on the issue. Citizen representatives will be able to meet with an European Commission representative to discuss the issue, and will have a chance to present it to the EU Parliament at a public hearing.8

      The power of this process was utilised in 2018, when ‘End the Cage Age’ is an ECI launched in September 2018 by Compassion in World Farming, one of Eurogroup’s members. The campaign sought to end caged animal farming in Europe. The campaign closed a year later after successfully gaining 1.7 million signatures. ‘End the Cage Age’ was the first successful ECI on the issue of farmed animal welfare.

      In June 2021, the European Commission committed to revise current legislation and put forward a proposal by the end of 2023 to phase out and prohibit the use of cages for hens, sows, calves, rabbits and other farmed animals by 2027.15

      Another example of a successful ECI is the recent ‘Save the Bees and Farmers’, initiated by a network of over 140 environmental NGOs, farmer and beekeeper organisations. Collectively, the members are demanding for an EU that is environmentally friendly, free of synthetic pesticides and respects biodiversity and farmers. The ECI ended after receiving 1.2 million signatures and has been submitted to the European Commission.

      Is lobbying regulated?

      Lobbying is a democratic, legal activity that can help politicians gain insights about the key issues impacting citizens and organisations. However, the practice can also lead to unfair advantages for parties with more resources to invest in lobbying activities. Camilla Bjorkbom, Political Advisor for Food Policy at Eurogroup for Animals comments, “The corporates with business interests have a lot of money to spend, they can sway politicians… this is not regulated, it’s not always a level playing field”.

      More transparency is needed

      Lobbying can also put public interests at risk when it happens behind closed doors. For example, US lawyer Miriam Guggenheim is described in the US National Law Review as a representative who ‘assists a broad range of major food and dietary supplements companies … in achieving their marketing goals while minimising regulatory and litigation risks.’10 Despite working with companies such as ‘Mars’ on lobbying activities in 2011, Guggenheim has not been registered as a lobbyist since 2010.11 Guggenheim’s case serves as an example of the ways in which lobbying has and likely continues to occur without full public transparency outside regulatory frameworks.

      Most countries have mandatory or voluntary systems in place to regulate lobbying practices. In fact, almost 90% of jurisdictions require lobbyists to be registered on a public registrar.13 In 2011, the EU set up the Transparency Register, a public database that records activities of interest groups trying to influence EU decision-making.12 Countries such as the US and Canada also have mandatory legislation requiring lobbyists to report annually on client spending. However, such regulation has been criticised as insufficient, with a US report finding that those registered to lobby disclose minimal information about their activities.11

      There are also many independent organisations such as Europe’s Corporate Observatory Europe and the US’s Open Secrets, which work to increase lobbying transparency by providing data about lobbyists and their sources of funding. In order to provide equal access to lobbying, initiatives such as Brussels-based ‘The Good Lobby’ assists citizens and nonprofits with lobbying skills and activities. The Good Lobby aims to increase citizen driven lobbying by advising nonprofits on how to make their case at EU level.

      Can lobbying be democratised?

      Since companies with vested interests usually have more financial resources to allocate to lobbying, can citizens actually make their voices heard?

      Laurence Modrego from The Good Lobby expresses, “The EU is actually a very open institution, they actively encourage citizens and civil society organisations to be part of the legislative process, especially because they were previously criticised as too opaque.” When asked how to effectively lobby politicians, Bjorkbom comments, “Ultimately, civil society organisations and non-profits represent the public interest - businesses don’t. Since politicians need to be elected, they are very open to adopting recommendations from public advocacy groups.”

      Food and agricultural policy has undoubtedly been shaped by lobbying activity. Though not all food and agriculture lobbies have public interest at heart, the democratisation of lobbying reflects the potential to positively influence public health through lobbying.

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      1. “Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research, A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents”, JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(11), November 2016
      2. OECDiLibrary, “Lobbying in the 21st Century: Transparency, Integrity and Access”, Accessed 9 April 2022
      3. “How food companies use social media to influence policy debates: a framework of Australian ultra-processed food industry Twitter data”, Cambridge Online University Press, 23 November 2020
      4. Doering Christophger, “Where the dollars go: Lobbying a big business for large food and beverage CPGs”, Food Dive, 6 Dec 2021
      5. “Council Configurations”, European Council, Council of the European Union, Accessed 9 April 2022
      6. “European Citizens’ Initiative – How it Works”, European Union, Accessed 9 April 2022
      7. Rowlatt J. and Gerken T., “COP26: Document leak reveals nations lobbying to change key climate report”, BBC News, 21 October 2021
      8. National Law Review, Miriam Guggenheim, Accessed 10 April 2022
      9. Simon Michele, “Behind closed doors: Who’s taking meetings with the FDA on Food Safety?”, Food Safety News, 4 December 2013
      10. “Transparency of lobbying in member states: Comparative Analysis”, European Parliament, November 2019
      11. “Comparative study of lobbying regulation mechanisms”, High Authority for Transparency in Public Life, (HATVP), Accessed October 10 2022
      12. “The Farm to Fork strategy is in the future of the EU Food System”, Slow Food, Accessed 10 October 2022
      13. Eurogroup for Animals Press Release,“European Commission announces historic commitment to ban cages for farmed animals”, 30 June 2021
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