Driving corporate action and accountability for food systems transformation: insights from the Zero Hunger Pledge and the Food and Agriculture Benchmark

Carla Hommes (World Benchmarking Alliance), Lysiane Lefebvre (Shamba Centre for Food & Climate), Sara Posa (World Benchmarking Alliance), Camilla De Nardi (Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition)
Published on 08-07-2024

Corporate action and accountability are pivotal for achieving sustainable development and eradicating hunger.

The private sector, encompassing multinational as well as small- and medium-sized enterprises, plays a significant role in advancing nutrition outcomes by improving the consumption of safe and nutritious food for all people, especially those most vulnerable.

In 2021, the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) called for private sector investments, market-based solutions and innovations to shift towards healthier, inclusive, more equitable and sustainable food systems. At the first Stocktaking moment of the UNFSS in 2023, (UNFSS+2) the UN Secretary-General emphasised the need for greater private sector engagement and reinforced the importance of strengthening accountability mechanisms.

Accordingly, the United Nations (UN) Food Systems Coordination Hub gathered key players to propose a mechanism for feasible private sector engagement and corporate accountability framework. The Hub’s recent launch of a roadmap and guidance towards UNFSS+4 and beyond in June 2024, developed by different stakeholders including UN departments, agencies, funds and programmes, international NGOs and private sector bodies, marks an important first step towards a globally aligned framework on corporate accountability in food systems transformation, paving the way for the next stocktaking moment of the UN Food Systems Summit in 2025.

Initiatives like the Zero Hunger Private Sector Pledge and the World Benchmarking Alliance’s Food and Agriculture Benchmark demonstrate how companies' commitments, when backed by rigorous accountability measures, can drive meaningful progress.

While most large companies are not taking sufficient action to transform our food system,  as found by the World Benchmarking Alliance’s 2023 Food and Agriculture Benchmark, there are promising signs of progress and business best practices. The following document showcases how company actions, achieved through the Zero Hunger Private Sector Pledge, are recognised and rewarded by industry benchmarks, emphasising corporate accountability as a key driver for change.


Urgent need for enhanced corporate action

Our current food system is failing millions around the world and remains the leading transgressor of our planetary boundaries[1]. Over 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet[2], and more than 700 million people faced hunger regularly in 2022[3]. At the same time, global demand for food is projected to increase by 35-56% by 2050[4].

The need for increased company engagement was emphasised in the Business Declaration signed by private sector representatives and the Call to Action issued by the United Nations (UN) Secretary General at the first Stocktaking Moment of the UN Food Systems Summit in 2023 (UNFSS+2).


Action and accountability – a positive ambition loop

Action and accountability are closely intertwined. Without accountability, promises are empty, and without concrete commitments and action, progress toward global goals like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) stalls. Global civil society is demanding greater corporate action and accountability, while regulatory scrutiny and disclosure requirements are increasing. 

We need businesses to act urgently and decisively, with clear contributions to the global agendas. Effective accountability mechanisms[5] encourage rapid change, by rewarding companies that lead and holding laggards to account. This also makes the impact of companies consequential to their success and, in doing so, corporate accountability can encourage further action.

The Zero Hunger Private Sector Pledge (ZHP) and World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) are pushing for more transparency regarding companies’ sustainability activities. Accountability mechanisms, such as the reporting process of the ZHP and WBA’s Food and Agriculture Benchmark, are necessary to hold companies accountable to their promises and to keep striving for more disclosure and transparency in corporate sustainability.

Among the top 20 ranking companies on WBA’s Food and Agriculture Benchmark, five committed to the ZHP and participated in the 2023 reporting process. These companies are, respectively, Unilever (ranking 1st), Bayer (ranking 5th), PepsiCo (ranking 12th), Ajinomoto (ranking 13th), and Arla Foods Ingredients (ranking 18th).

The level of ambition and action of these companies is reflected in their relatively high score in the benchmark. Some of the areas in which pledging companies have performed particularly well include ecosystem conversion, soil health, farmers' livelihoods, availability of healthy foods, and food loss and waste.


Businesses driving sustainable food systems: examples from the Food and Agriculture Benchmark and ZHP companies

Through its pledge and the Vanilla for Change programme, Unilever has been working with partners to help smallholder farmers improve their livelihoods and ensure a more secure and sustainable source of natural vanilla in Madagascar. As confirmed by the Food and Agriculture Benchmark, Unilever also discloses that it supports smallholders in bringing their business up to the standards upheld by the company in its supply chain.

In the 2023 Food and Agriculture Benchmark, Bayer explicitly disclosed its commitment to the Zero Hunger Pledge, through which it distributes improved varieties of quality seeds critical to local farmers’ diets (e.g., okra and bitter gourd). The company also gives farmers access to innovative farming solutions, designed to reduce field and post-harvest losses, such as in the Ansal tomato.

Through its pledge, PepsiCo committed to sourcing ingredients in a way that supports communities and improves livelihoods throughout its supply chain. Among other programmes, it supports She Feeds the World, which provides small-scale women producers and their families with education, resources, and economic support to help them increase crop yields and improve family nutrition. According to the 2023 Food and Agriculture Benchmark, the company also publicly disclosed that approximately half of the volume of its key ingredients was bought directly from farmers through a grower group.

Through its ZHP commitment, Ajinomoto committed to expanding its innovative fertilisers programme, fortified with amino acids. The 2023 Food and Agriculture Benchmark indeed finds that Ajinomoto reports supporting sustainable agriculture by supplying highly nutritional fertilisers made from by-products of amino acid production, which can eventually reduce environmental impact and are expected to improve soil quality.

In the 2023 Food and Agriculture Benchmark, Arla Foods Ingredients, has provided evidence on preventing food waste by engaging with customers and suppliers, in addition to using a digital platform to ensure proper utilisation of milk as well as to eliminate the wastage of milk. Through its pledge, the company is implementing the Whey2Value project in Pakistan, which aims to reuse the whey by-product created from cheese production to develop an affordable and nutrient-rich drink.


The Zero Hunger Private Sector Pledge

The Zero Hunger Private Sector Pledge (ZHP), which emerged from the inaugural UN Food Systems Summit in 2021, calls for company investments toward the achievement of SDG 2 Zero Hunger.

The ZHP builds on the evidence base provided by the flagship report “Ceres2030: Sustainable Solutions to End Hunger,” published in 2020. By outlining 10 investment areas and 90 priority countries for impactful action towards SDG 2, Ceres2030 provides a framework for companies to align their investments to contribute to the global movement to end hunger, complementing public sector commitments made by donors, governments, and non-governmental organisations.

The ZHP offers companies a unique opportunity to commit and undertake meaningful actions that align with high-impact interventions in priority countries, as per the Ceres2030 framework, thereby integrating evidence-based sustainability in their core business strategy and operations.

But the initiative does not only aim to raise companies’ ambition and drive corporate action toward the sustainable eradication of hunger. It also seeks to advance corporate accountability through its reporting framework and continued engagement with companies.

To date, 53 companies have joined the ZHP, pledging investments of nearly $610 million in 49 countries. At the end of 2023, the ZHP published its first accountability report, verifying that, in the first two years of the initiative, $140 million had been spent towards 103 projects in 46 countries.


The Food and Agriculture Benchmark

In 2023, the World Benchmarking Alliance also published the second iteration of its Food and Agriculture Benchmark, which measures and ranks 350 of the world’s most influential companies on key issues underpinning the food systems transformation agenda. The indicators of the Food and Agriculture Benchmark span across four measurement areas: governance and strategy, environment, nutrition, and social inclusion, which serve as a roadmap to guide companies through the transformation by identifying areas of attention alongside clear corporate expectations.

The Food and Agriculture Benchmark also provides a platform for companies’ commitments and action to be recognised in global benchmarks, through indicators that align with global expectations.



This collaboration ensures that companies are held accountable for their promises while highlighting their efforts through industry benchmarks. This recognition encourages further participation and investment in sustainable practices, creating a positive feedback loop that drives continuous improvement.

As the examples above demonstrate, corporate action and accountability go hand in hand. Initiatives like the Zero Hunger Private Sector Pledge and the Food and Agriculture Benchmark illustrate this positive feedback loop by showcasing and rewarding companies which are taking positive action. Civil society is demanding more corporate action and accountability, and both are necessary if we are to achieve SDG 2.

Moving forward, the second ZHP accountability exercise in 2025 and the third iteration of WBA’s Food and Agriculture Benchmark in early 2026 will continue to track and promote progress of companies in delivering more sustainable food systems.


The authors would also like to acknowledge the contributions of Anouk De Vries (formerly Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition) to this piece.

[1]Springmann, M., Clark, M., Mason-D’Croz, D. et al. Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature 562, 519–525 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0594-0

[2] FAO. 2022. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022. Rome, Italy. https://openknowledge.fao.org/server/api/core/bitstreams/6ca1510c-9341-4d6a-b285-5f5e8743cc46/content/sofi-2022/cost-affordability-healthy-diet.html

[3] FAO. 2023. The State of Food and Agriculture 2023. Revealing the true cost of food to transform agrifood systems. Rome, Italy. https://doi.org/10.4060/cc7724

[4] FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2023. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023. Urbanization, agrifood systems transformation and healthy diets across the rural–urban continuum. Rome, Italy. https://doi.org/10.4060/cc3017en

[5]  For more information on corporate accountability: https://www.worldbenchmarkingalliance.org/research/white-paper-corporate-accountability/