It is widely accepted that consumer tastes, preferences, and concerns will drive the Future of Food. The companies that find a way to connect with consumers on these issues will gain market share and traction, or so the theory goes.
But how will consumers know which foods are tastier and more nutritious? Safer and less heavily processed? Produced on farms committed to soil and water quality and conservation? Or, whether food comes from animals that have been treated humanely?
In a fascinating “Talking Points” entitled “Badges of Honor — Restoring Trust Through Certification,” Nick Fereday, Rabobank’s ED for Food and Agribusiness, asks a question most major food companies are currently pondering — “how does one go about restoring trust and becoming credible again?” Good question.
Fereday provides an overview of the successes and shortcomings of companies going the B-corp route, and the pros/cons of various certifications. He then addresses “The Elephant in the Room” — “the nutritional quality of food, and an assessment of the impact that this has on consumers.”
One example of an effort to address food nutritional quality is highlighted — the Gates Foundation funded Access to Good Nutrition Index. This report is released each year and ranks the food and beverage product lines of the world’s 22 largest food and beverage companies, using indices reflecting various aspects of food nutritional quality, or lack thereof.
Searching for “Smarter” Metrics
“Smarter metrics will help fix our food system” argues Pavan Sukhdev, founder and Chief Executive of GIST Advisory, based in Mumbai, India, in a World View commentary in the prestigious science journal Nature. Sukhdev begins his piece bluntly (and remember, his piece is published by a top-notch science journal with rigorous peer review) —
“Today’s food systems are broken. Our diets are the leading cause of disease. Some 800 million people worldwide still suffer from hunger, while more than 2 billion are overweight or obese.”
Sukhdev plugs the metrics in a recently released UN Environment Programme report entitled “Measuring What Matters in Agriculture and Food Systems.” He claims that this report “demonstrates how to capture the complex reality of food systems through a wide-angle lens.”
His concluding statement in the Nature piece is aspirational, but debatable — “Only if we diagnose our food system honestly, can we heal it.”
This sentiment reminds me of sage advice delivered at the beginning of my career by the late Congressman George Brown. Mr. Brown Chaired the Congressional Subcommittee I worked for in 1981-1983. We were discussing the role of oversight in drafting new legislation, and he said:
“It is best to understand the causes of a problem before setting out to solve it.”
So true. But 35 years later, it is clear to me that understanding a problem does not mean it will be effectively addressed, let alone “solved.”
Will Product Quality Set You Free?
Across the pond, Peter Melchett, Policy Director for the U.K.-based Soil Association, published a provocative commentary in the July 6, 2018 Farmers Weekly entitled “Time to tap into growing demand for ‘quality’”. Peter writes:
“Food and farming lags behind other industries when it comes to providing accurate information about how differences in production systems affect quality.”
Melchett then highlights historic changes in policy under development in DEFRA, the U.K.’s USDA. A new plan is urgently needed to help U.K. farmers survive post-Brexit. Once Britain splits off from the EU, they will lose the generous, automatic farm subsidies that have kept U.K. farmers going for years.
The U.K. cannot afford to replace EU subsidies, but they hope targeted investments in value-added, high-quality foods, both for domestic consumption and export, will create new income streams sufficient to keep most farmers in business.
According to Melchett, this shift in UK policy is needed because “…there is no way English farming can compete on a world market based on price alone.”
A sober, contemporary assessment of the U.S corn and soybean industries might soon lead to a similar conclusion, especially if Trump’s trade war spreads and lasts.
The cold, harsh reality is that there many countries are pushing hard, and successfully, to develop the infrastructure needed to sell $3.00 corn and $8 dollar soybeans in world markets, prices too low to sustain many current U.S. farm operations.
Tack on 25% tariffs on grain from the U.S. to some key export destinations, and the shift in global competitive advantage will accelerate, and not in favor of Chuck Grassley’s constituents.
Getting Real About Quality
To me, the “Elephant in the Room” is the sometimes harsh light that “smart” and quality-relevant metrics would shine on some of the food products in American grocery stores, and by extension, on some of the farming systems and technology in the U.S.
Progressive food companies want to win back consumer trust and confidence, but are reticent to commit to meaningful, simple metrics and qualitative measures that connect directly to goals consumers care about. But a new consortium of four major players has banded together to hopefully push the envelope, as recounted in the July 12, 2018 Washington Post story “Four of the world’s largest food companies have a new plan for fixing food and farming policy“.
Stay tuned for more discussion of three examples: cow longevity in the dairy sector, pesticide residues and risk in fresh produce, and how to objectively quantify the nutritional quality of food so that consumers can tell the difference between super-foods and, well, you know, the other kind, rhymes with dunk.
Caitlin Dewey, “Four of the world’s largest food companies have a new plan for fixing food and farm policy,” Washington Post, July 12, 2018
Nick Fereday, “Badges of Honor — Restoring Trust Through Certification,” Rabobank Talking Points, July 2018. Email Nick to get on his mailing list to receive his informative newsletter.
Peter Melchett, “Time to tap into growing demand for ‘quality’”, Farmers Weekly, July 6, 2018
Pravan Sukhdev, “Smarter metrics will help fix our food system,” Nature, Vol 558, June 7, 2018