The quiet revolution of food retailers

October 28, 2010

While many debates continue in the political and “parapolitical” world about many aspects of food production systems and the impact of human activity on the environment, retailers lead a quiet revolution. Without making the headlines, they gradually change the way their suppliers will do business in the years to come.

Such an evolution is certainly welcome, especially in a time where important decisions need to be made. Political leaders seem unable to reach any agreement on environmental issues, as the world could see at the late Climate Summit of Copenhagen. In the food sector, there are many discussions going on about sustainability and genetic engineering, to name the two hottest items, but the political class does not seem to generate clear and concrete action plans.

Just like what happened in the 1990s about food safety in Europe, retailers are taking the initiative to create momentum on the current issues. The problems that plagued the food industry in Europe, such as salmonella in poultry, the mad cow disease, or the dioxin in Belgian fat for chicken feed showed a number of weaknesses that needed to be addressed. In the case of BSE, UK retailers did not wait for British or European legislation to demand meat and bone meal-free feed for farm animals. As I was working for a company supplying the UK market with chicken meat, I can testify that these were dramatic times. Tough decisions had to be made on a very short notice that had serious financial consequences. By then, a couple of reasons made the retailers took the lead. First, the inability of the government to prevent and tackle the issues was creating a bit of a vacuum on leadership. Consumer confidence in their institutions was fading, and retailers were the only ones, true or not, perceived to take the proper actions to protect the public. The second reason was the fact that many retailers had their own private labels. In this case, the problem was not the supplier’s problem anymore because the supermarket chain could have risked serious PR damage if a food safety issues would have been associated with their brand.

This time, retailers are again in the position where they can present themselves as the consumers’ champions. Legislation is slow to move and make significant decisions. The involvement of interest groups adds to the infighting and delays decision-making.

To prepare for the future, they already have come out with plans and communication on how and where they want the food they sell to be produced, and they try to offer a choice to consumers. By doing so, the most active among them are setting new standards, and forcing the whole production and supply chain to think about the things to come.

In previous blog posts, I have mentioned some of such initiatives, and in Future Harvests, I described the increasing leadership role of food retail in agricultural practices.

In particular, I mentioned the carbon footprint labelling on dairy products by Tesco, Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index questionnaire to suppliers, and the seafood sustainability programs of many retailers. Marks & Spencer started their Plan A in 2007 with the objective of making their business more sustainable. To achieve this, they are involving their suppliers and the farmers producing for them to carry out the changes that M&S finds necessary for a better future.

More recently, new initiatives indicate that retailers are pursuing further on such initiatives. Wal-Mart came last week with their plan for sustainable agriculture. In the UK, Sainsbury let know last week that they were committing GBP40 million to invest in farming. Earlier this week, Carrefour unveiled their “Reared without GMO” program. In their stores in France, they will sell 300 food items labelled as being GMO-free, to offer consumer a choice based on transparent information. If Carrefour ventures into this, one can be sure that they do so because they already know that this will be good for their business. By gaining market share, it is very likely that their competitors will soon react by issuing similar programs. The EU Commission may be struggling to figure out how to deal with GMOs, but Carrefour says “Let the consumers tell us!” Vox populi, vox dei!

Of course, such initiatives do not please everyone. Today, I could read in a blog for a US magazine backed by the meat industry some interesting reactions about Carrefour’s new plan. Some readers were bringing up the typical arguments. Meat would be so expensive in Europe. Well, meat is quite affordable in France, even without GMOs, so think again! The other argument was about freedom of choice: people should be able to eat what they want. By labelling its food item, Carrefour does just that. French consumers are free to buy at Carrefour or somewhere else, and they have the right to choose what label they prefer. The freedom of choice is ironic coming from the US meat lobby, since American consumers do not have that freedom. Reared with GMOs is pretty much the only choice in the US. For now, that is. However, it is interesting to see on Carrefour’s press release that the pictures of fish, chicken and pork chops are exactly the same, regardless of whether they would be grown with or without GMOs.

In the 1990s, British and European consumers, and retailers, were challenging food industry practices because they were worried about their health and about the lack of transparency about food. Nowadays, in the USA, consumers are increasingly suspicious of their agribusiness, because they are worried about their health and the lack of transparency of the industry. Beef recalls because of E. coli, egg recalls because  of salmonella, spinach contaminated with manure are in the news on a (too) regular basis. They are also increasingly aware, and suspicious, of the relations between interest groups and their government agencies, and how this influences decisions on what they eat.

Retailers are now saying that they are not waiting for politicians to make decisions. They have defined their vision, they know what they want, and they are passing the message on to the suppliers. What would happen in agribusiness USA if Wal-Mart took a similar approach as Carrefour?

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Consumers shape food production systems

October 21, 2010

Although it is tempting to think that food production systems are created by agribusiness, they depend greatly on the choices and the attitude of consumers and society. For humans, food is not just about nutrition, but it is loaded with a high emotional content.

Consumer choices are highly irrational. To demonstrate this, here are some examples.

When the mad cow disease, or BSE, hit the UK in 1996, beef consumption dropped, but the behavior of consumers was odd. A leading retailer put British beef on sale at 50% off the normal price. They had their best weekend sales ever by then. When asked why they had bought beef, while there were concerns about health risks, some consumers gave answers such as “At that price it is worth taking the risk” or, even better, “ I will freeze it and eat it once the mad cow crisis is over”! At the same time, customers’ visits to the leading fast food chain drop sharply and beef burgers were not in demand, although their beef was from the Netherlands, a country free of BSE by then.

In Europe, mostly in France, consumers used to demand veal to be white. Not slightly pink, just plain white. To achieve this, calves were fed a milk powder diet, which kept them anemic. Yet, at some point, consumers denounced this technique as being against proper treatment of animals. The demand of white meat with a normal diet could not be reconciled. It took years before consumers finally understood that veal was supposed to be pink.

For most customers, white eggs are perceived as being from intensive cage production, while brown eggs are perceived as being more “natural”. Everyone with knowledge of the industry knows that the color of the shell has nothing to do with the nutritional quality of the egg. The belief that the egg color indicates a difference persists, though.

Some blind tests carried out between “industrial” and free-range chicken meat carried out in the Netherlands in the 1980s showed interesting results. When consumers were not told which was which, they could not clearly taste a difference, while when they knew which meat was from which production system, they overwhelmingly gave the preference to the free-range chicken.

Here, in Vancouver, there is a strong trend towards organic foods produced locally. Farmers markets flourish and the environmentally conscious consumers choose to buy their “natural” food on these markets. Ironically, many of them drive in their gas-guzzling SUVs to go there. So much for caring for the environment.

Who, with a rational mind, would choose to eat junk? Yet, junk food is quite a popular item in North America, and it has been a growing trend in many European and emerging countries as well.

In the case of tobacco, not a food, but an agricultural product nonetheless, the warning on the package is quite clear. Yet, some people decide to smoke.

The list could continue and I am sure that everyone has more examples of irrational behavior. Consumer demand (both the rational kind as the irrational one) determines what farmers and food companies produce and sell. In this regard, consumers also share a responsibility in what is produced, how it is produced, where it is produced and how it is distributed to them. Blaming retail or the agribusiness alone for the kind food systems that are in place is unfair.

Of course, it would be interesting to imagine what people would eat if they were rational, and what impact on our food production this would have. A rational diet would follow proper nutritional recommendation, and to this extent would follow the same principles as those used in animal nutrition. However, this would not have to be as boring a diet as what animals are fed. A rational diet does not need to be a ration. After, the human genius that is cooking would help prepare delicious rational meals. It would be like having the best of both worlds. The emotional, social and hedonistic functions of food would remain. The key would be about balance and moderation. If people were eating rationally, there would not be any diet-related illnesses. There would not be obesity. There also would be a lot less food waste. This would improve the level of sustainability of agriculture.

Will consumers become more rational in the future? I do not think so, but I believe that they will become better informed and more critical over time. Especially with the rise of social media, information circulates much faster and trends can gather momentum faster than in the past. More programs for healthier eating are currently running and action is taking place at many levels. In particular, schools are a place where much can be achieved. One can wonder how long the “lunch money and self-service system” will last. Having schools placing vending machines selling items that are highly unbalanced foods and leaving the decision over to kids to decide what they want to eat was of course a disaster waiting to happen. I cannot believe that anyone would expect kids to consciously making the choice of spending their lunch money on broccoli and mineral water. Kids will choose what they like best, not what is best for their health. They need adults for guidance.

Attitude towards food is changing all over the world. Currently, I can see two major trends growing. One is taking place in North America and the other is happening in emerging countries.

In North America, consumers are waking up and starting to question the way their food is produced. This is a major change compared with their attitude until a few years ago. When I moved to this part of the world in 1999, I was amazed by how easy consumers, and retailers, were for the food industry. Consumers simply seemed to consume without trying to know about production methods. Hormones, antibiotics or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) seemed to be accepted. This was a sharp contrast with what I had known in Europe, where all of the above was meeting strong resistance from consumers and retailers. What I currently see happening currently in North America reminds me strongly of what I had seen happen in Europe 20 to 30 years ago. The similarities are almost disturbing. Consumers are losing trust in government agencies, and retailers seem to be the ones to champion food quality, traceability and production methods. This will have much more profound consequences in the way food is produced in the USA and in Canada than the agribusiness seem to realize, or is willing to admit. The population is aging, the generations are changing and the values about food are shifting. The current opposition is not a short-term fad. Consumers will make different choices. Some food producers see that and are already adapting, but many producers still seem to think that opposition will pass. I believe that they are in for a surprise. The expressed plan of Wal-Mart to buy more from small and mid-size farms, to reduce waste, and to develop sustainable sources of agricultural products is a very clear signal that business is changing!

In emerging countries, consumers are changing their eating habits, too, but for a different reason. They now have better wages and more disposable income. The previous “”subsistence” diet made of mostly grain, such as rice, wheat or corn, are now including more animal protein, as well as fruit and vegetables. In these countries, consumers are not overly critical of their food production and distribution systems, but issues that arose in developed countries affect the way food is produced, especially in the area of food safety. These consumers probably would like to experience the same level of food security and affordability of food as in the West over the past 5 decades, but the growing population, and the financial markets will temper this trend. Food prices will be firm at best and they are more likely to increase in the future on an ongoing basis.

There is no doubt in my mind that consumers and retailers are increasingly going to put the emphasis on sustainability, health, food safety and transparency. This may sometimes lead to conflicting objectives with the need to produce more food globally. This does not need to be a problem, but this is why the world needs strong leaders to show the way towards meeting both the objectives of better food and of more food.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


How to attract people to food production?

October 18, 2010

With the population increase, food production becomes an increasingly strategic activity. Yet, the food sector does not seem to have the appeal it deserves, and attracting new people appears to be a challenging task.

In countries where the percentage of the active population in agriculture is low, many young people simply have never had any exposure to food production. Their food knowledge is limited to their visits to the local supermarket. Since one can love only what one knows, this seriously restricts the number of potential candidates. In a previous article, “Who will be the farmers of the future?“, I had already asked the question of who would be the farmers of the future. To get the attention of the youth, the food sector needs to become more visible and more approachable. There is a need for more interaction between education and visits to farms and food processors. As I mentioned in “Nutrition basics should be taught in school”, such activities should be part of the normal curriculum. Understanding food is understanding Nature, and understanding Nature is understanding who we are. Food, together with water and air, is the one thing that we cannot live without. This should make clear beyond any doubt how important food production and food supply are for the future of our species.

To attract new people to the food sector, it is also quite important to tell what kind of jobs this sector has to offer. These jobs need to be not only interesting, but they also must offer the candidates the prospect of competitive income, long-term opportunities, and a perceived positive social status. Many students have no idea about the amazing diversity of jobs that agriculture (including aquaculture) and food production have to offer. This is what both the sector and the schools must communicate. Just to name a few and in no particular order, here are some of the possibilities: farming, processing, logistics, planning, sales, marketing, trade, operations, procurement, quality, customer service, IT, banking and finance, nutrition (both animal and human), agronomy, animal husbandry, genetics, microbiology, biochemistry, soil science, ecology, climatology, equipment, machinery, fertilizers, irrigation, consumer products, retail, research, education, plant protection, communication and PR, legal, management, knowledge transfer, innovation, politics, services, etc…  Now, you may breathe again!

All these types of activities offer possibilities for work that can be both local and international. These jobs can be indoor or outdoor occupations. Employers are both small and large businesses. Jobs are available in industries, in government agencies, in not-for-profit organizations. Agriculture and food are about life science, and life science is about life. Not many economic sectors can offer such a broad choice of professions.

This said, getting more students in the field of food production will require relentless communication about the present situation as well as about future perspectives. It is necessary for colleges and universities to envision the future. Educating students today must help making them operational for the challenges of the future. Education is nothing less than developing the human resources that will increase the prosperity, the stability and the dynamics of the society of tomorrow. Attracting new students goes further than just agriculture and food production at large. Within food production, every sector also competes to attract new people. Some healthy competition should benefit the whole food chain.

Clearly, there is a need to identify future trends, future challenges and future needs to produce better food and more food. This will require a practical approach. Identify future needs is not an intellectual exercise. It is about providing people with food on a daily basis for the years to come. Identifying future challenges is a team effort between education, research, farmers, businesses and governments. All must work together to create a more secure future. If we want to avoid suboptimal solutions, there cannot be walls between the links of the food production chain.

In my opinion, the most effective way to work towards developing the proper curriculum and attracting students for the jobs of the future is to have a market-driven approach. The question is not only what type of jobs will be needed, but also where will they be needed? To be effective in this process, it is necessary to develop a vision of the things to come for the coming 10 to 20 years, which is the purpose of The Food Futurist (see mission statement). In our fast-changing world, today already belongs to the past. Developing a curriculum on current issues will not prepare students properly for their professional lives, and neither will it serve society properly. Only by identifying what skills will be needed is it possible to offer the best job perspectives for future food professionals, and being able to overcome future challenges. And feeding 9 billion people by 2050 is quite an objective! Identifying the challenges of the future indicates where the best job opportunities are. The action plans to develop tomorrow’s curricula will depend greatly on geographic location. Clearly, India will face with very different demographic, environmental and economic situations than North America, Europe or Brazil will. However, when it comes to food, we will become even more globally interdependent than we are today. This offers many opportunities to train people for work abroad, too.

As my head teacher in Animal Production, the late Julien Coléou, taught us in the first lesson of our final year at the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon: “To live is to learn, to create and to fight”. When it comes being prepared for the future, these three pillars of life all need to be on the curriculum.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.