Sugar content in food, along with levels of salt, trans fat, saturated fat and additives to improve taste or its shelf life durability, has risen dramatically as processed food has become mainstream. The principal problem with modern processed food is that it doesn’t contain enough fiber, omega-3 fatty acids or the micronutrients essential to maintain health. Instead, it contains too many trans fats, chemical additives and emulsifiers, salt and sugar.
A study in 2015 showed that of the average 600,000 items in the US food supply, 74% have added sugar, and of the 4,000 packaged items regularly on sales, 50% have a salt content that is higher than what doctors recommend be ingested daily. Too much trans fat leads to higher ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL) and lower ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL), which contributes to heart disease. Improving food quality over all is seen as being essential to maintain human health, and reduce the burden of treatment issues related to poor diet and obesity on overstretched health services.
Excessive sugar consumption over many years is known to be one of the potential causes of diabetes. More than 400 million people in the world now have diabetes, or one in ten of the adult population, while one third of all US adults are obese. The economic costs of obesity are estimated to be USD 2 trillion annually, or nearly 3% of global GDP. Sugar also has a direct link with Covid-19 deaths as one-third of the fatalities had diabetes, and were twice as likely to die within a week of contracting the disease than non-diabetic patients. In 2020, Robeco concluded a three-year engagement program with eight companies in the food and beverage industry that aimed to encourage them to use less sugar in their products.
Animal welfare and the overuse of antibiotics is another problematic issue, and one with which Robeco has engaged to improve standards in the meat and fish supply chains. Factory farming, in which thousands of chickens, pigs or cows are held together in a confined space, is not only harmful to the livestock, but acts as a breeding ground for diseases such as swine flu and avian flu. The extensive use of antibiotics is causing strains of deadly bacteria to become resistant to them, posing a threat to humans. Robeco has extensively engaged with companies in the meat supply chain to replace antibiotics with safer probiotics. These improve gut health in the animals and thereby reduces routine use of antibiotics to prevent diseases.
The overuse of fertilizers and other chemicals in crop production is another cause for concern, since residues of pesticides can remain in the crop once harvested and pass into the food chain. In 2018, Robeco began an engagement program with agrochemical, seed and fertilizer companies on the role they can play in developing yield-enhancing solutions for farmers, with a specific objective to support smallholder farmers.See also: Food sustainability