Sounding Board: Seed money

If you want to know what items will be in the produce department 15 years from now, talk to a genetic scientist today.

By Len Lewis

If you ever want to feel really stupid, talk to a genetic scientist—a really enthusiastic one.

No one likes to wander past their conversational comfort zone. But as I have said before, my job is to ask questions and maybe get into areas that do not come up on a daily basis but still impact your business.

This is that kind of story. It is about sustainability, quality, variety, logistics, food safety and generally what has become the industry’s latest motto—improving customer experience. It is about something that can sit on the tip of your finger and literally change the world—seeds.

This issue may seem esoteric to those of you mired in competitive battles, facing another round of union contracts or trying to push back the wrath of Mother Nature. But it is something that any student of strategic planning should consider.

We have tried marketing the idea of “field to fork” with pretty pictures of local farms and fields to make shoppers feel all warm and fuzzy about the produce they are buying.

But take a few steps back to places like Culiacan, Mexico, De Lier in The Netherlands, the Mineiro region of Brazil or even the University of California at Davis, where global seed breeders such as Syngenta, Rijk Zwaan, Enza Zaden and Monsanto are pumping billions of dollars into research that will produce a better melon or keep get rid of that yucky jelly stuff inside a tomato.

Most of these companies are not exactly household names, but if you want to talk to consumers about where food is coming from and why you are able to carry 30 varieties of tomatoes or more than just iceberg lettuce, this is really the place to start. These marketers and scientists are the people who know what your stores will be stocking in 10 to 15 years because they are the ones who are now developing it. As I have learned, it can take that long for one of these projects to go from seed to store. Talk about patience and long-term strategy.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with a number of these people, including director of research for Syngenta’s North American operations George Kotch, who is as enthusiastic as any retailer, chef or foodie I have ever met. I have to concede that at times I understood only about every third word he was saying. Like any product of the public school system, science is not my strong point—let alone genetic structure and gene mapping.

But the conversation was not about creating “Frankenfoods” through gene splicing or “GMOs.” It was about what our industry discusses every day—giving people the best, most convenient and reasonably priced foods possible.

There was a time when the seed industry was more about yield than anything else—maximizing production per acre or hectare and developing the herbicides or pesticides that could do it.

Yield, including drought and pest tolerance, is still a big issue. It is what guarantees that Kroger or Walmart or anyone else has fresh strawberries, cantaloupes or heirloom tomatoes when there is two feet of snow on the ground. But there is more at work and at stake these days.

Increasingly, it is about stewardship of the earth, sustainability and our capacity to feed billions more people in the decades to come when water and arable land will be at a premium and the idea of food waste will become intolerable. Can anyone dispute the connection between agricultural productivity and the supermarket industry?

Interestingly, the seed business is much like retailing—a delicate balancing act between profitable productivity and consumer demand. It is about making sure that peppers shipped from the West Coast do not spoil before they get to the local ShopRite or that the melons are ripe and flavorful after a three-week journey in a container ship from South America.

More and more, the seed business is about shelf life and what shape products are in not only when they get to the store but when customers get them home, including color, flavor, mouth feel and aroma. Therefore, this is business that is helping create another point of differentiation—a consumer sensory experience that will either bring people back to your stores or drive them somewhere else.

Now, if you will pardon me, I am making salad tonight and I have to bone up on structural plant modeling protocols before heading to the supermarket.

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Communications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at lenlewis@optonline.net or at www.lenlewiscommunications.com.

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