Blog | February 11, 2012

Critics fear honouring controversial food giant reflects badly on U of A

By Sheila Pratt, Edmonton JournalUniversity of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera is facing heat for the decision to give an honorary degree to the CEO of controversial global food giant Nestle Corporation, the world's largest producer of bottled water and promoter of water privatization. To honour experts for their contribution to water management, the U of A will give honorary degrees next month to Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe along with U of A professor emeritus Steve Hrudey, and from India, Sunita Narain, an expert in water security, conservation and pollution control.Nestle, a major promoter of water privatization, has for years been under fire for the way it markets infant formula in Third World countries where mothers do not have access to clean water and literacy is low. Brabeck-Letmathe, who has been Nestle CEO since 1997, also made headlines in Alberta last summer after attending a meeting of the Alberta Water Research Institute.He later told a European audience that Alberta is looking at the idea of allowing water to be sold like a commodity."We are actively dealing with the government of Alberta to think about a water exchange," Brabeck-Letmathe told Reuters following a speech in Geneva.In May 2011, Rob Renner, then Alberta's environment minister, said he did not recall such discussions with Brabeck-Letmathe.Samarasekera declined requests for an interview Friday, but referred to her blog that noted the honorary degree committee "gave great weight" to the fact under Brabeck-Letmathe's leadership, Nestle was given the Stockholm Industry Water Award in 2011.Her blog says Brabeck-Letmathe was chosen "in recognition of his emerging and growing role as a world wide leader in resource management."To receive an honorary degree, a person must first be nominated and references provided. There is no requirement a degree recipient have any connection to the U of A or Edmonton. Professors critical of the award warned the U of A's reputation in the global community could be harmed.U of A sociology professor Amy Kaler, who spends time researching maternal health in rural Africa, said Nestle is still engaged in contentious tactics in selling infant formula in the Third World, especially Asia.As recently as 2011, Nestle was cited in Laos for violating the World Health Organization code of the marketing of breast-milk substitutes, Kaler said."I have no doubt he is an effective businessman," said Kaler, who wrote about her concerns to Samarasekera and university chancellor Linda Hughes.The company is "not known for stewardship of water, " she said, but rather for promoting substitutes for breast milk.There is still controversy over whether Nestle is mindful of the fact many poor women do not have access to clean water and use of formula can leave their babies vulnerable to diarrheal diseases, she said."The U of A is a major research institution, and on the global stage, we should be leading the charge for child maternal health, as our prime minister has said. So this honorary degree is really a mistake."David Zakus, director of the global health centre in the U of A medical school, said he's worried about the impact the honorary degree will have on the university's international reputation."Everyone is aware of the role Nestle plays in privatization of water and baby formula, and it will reflect back on the university," he said."We have a very strong focus on global citizenship here and how our students should impact the world. This award seems to contradict that."Colin Soskolne, professor of epidemiology, is also opposed to the honour, noting that the bottled water industry, from which Nestle makes millions of dollars, does not help sustainability of the world's water resources and leaves billions of plastic bottles in landfill sites. The company has also faced challenges in the United States for its withdrawals from local water supplies.The three recipients of the honorary degrees will take part in a panel discussion on the future of water on March 1, after the awards ceremony.

By Sheila Pratt, Edmonton Journalspratt@edmontonjournal.comThis article was published in the Edmonton Journal on February 11, 2012. Read the full article on the Edmonton Journal website.