Future Forces: Defining moment

Will the industry tell its story of change, or will it let others be the voice of the future of food?

By Patrick Kiernan

As our nation begins to learn what is in the new national health care system overhaul, two important health care issues will not change for the food industry—health care costs will keep rising in our industry and the American diet will continue to be a major part of the cause of exploding health care costs. The simple fact is that the legislation passed will provide increased coverage but do little or nothing to control costs or improve societal wellness.

So what, you might ask, does health care cost have to do with our industry beyond our business and personal share of the benefits and burdens? Well, some day in the not-too-distant future when health care costs move up to consume one-fourth of our nation’s economy, someone along the way will point out that the food industry is in need of legislated reform. The combination of an aging and obese society, increasing health care costs, failure of U. S. Dietary Guidelines, global climate sustainability and a need to improve food security will all come together to force dramatic change in the food industry.

We can wait and “let it happen,” or we can begin to understand our industry’s role to “make it happen.” Fortunately, an excellent report can help the industry navigate in these changing times. This year the British government developed a new food strategy—the first in more than 50 years. The report, Food 2030: How We Get There, describes how the U.K. can enable and encourage its people to eat both a healthy and sustainable diet.

The 24-page summary report, which was developed in cooperation with the British Retail Consortium, Food and Drink Federation and National Farmers Union, can be found at www.defra.gov.uk.

Why is the year 2030 meaningful?

  • All baby boomers will be over 75 years of age and retired;
  • Energy and fresh water needs will be increased by 50%;
  • Almost 3 billion more mouths worldwide will be looking for food security;
  • Heath care costs will consume 25 cents of every federal and state tax dollar;
  • Environmental taxes on greenhouse gas emissions and food production will be legislated;
  • The way food is grown, bought and sold will be revolutionized; and
  • Consumer acceptance of food technology will impact world hunger.

While 2030 seems too far off to think about, Hilary Been, Britain’s secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, suggests we are at one of those moments in history where the future of our economy, our environment and our society will be shaped by the choices we make now. And while the U. S. is not the U.K., many of the issues reported on are common to the entire global food system in which the U. S. plays a critical role.

As with any change this big, one side of our brain keeps saying, “Perhaps we shouldn’t get too alarmed. After all, there have been doomsday scenarios for centuries.” The goal of this Future Forces column is not to provoke fear or frustration, but rather industry thought and study. As an industry and a nation, we are behind in developing perspectives for Food 2030. Beyond the most recent U.K. report, the European Union has developed research and conference reports as far back as 2007. The E.U. is already anticipating research needs for the competitiveness of the European food industry.

The ever-changing preferences of consumers must be managed, while at the same time understanding the changing role of agriculture and the need for innovation in food production. Our Old World model of “no bad foods, just bad diets” has created a skeptical consumer. Food safety, country of origin, organics and the fear of new technologies such as food biotechnology all reflect our industry’s decline in leadership and consumer trust.

The U.S. food industry has important choices to make over the next decade. Research and development investments in high quality functional foods, genomic and bioengineered technologies need to occur to increase sustainable food production.

An ongoing dialog with consumers to hear their fears and concerns needs to occur to bring back pubic trust in the U. S. food supply and our products. If we don’t lead and tell our story of change, who then will be the voice of the future of food?

Patrick Kiernan, managing partner of Day/Kiernan & Associates, is affiliated with The Center for Food Marketing at St. Joseph’s Uni­versity, Philadelphia; the Institute for the Future, Palo Alto, Calif.; and Encore Associates, San Ramon, Calif. He can be reached at KiernanPat@aol.com.

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