Innovation Forum’s online future of food conference was an encouraging three days of debate and discussion. What remains evident is the scale of the challenges in meeting the challenges of the food sector. But the conversations have clearly moved from debating the why to thinking about what the how looks like.
Across a number of sessions at the event, for example, there was debate about how important the adoption of science-based targets has been when addressing carbon impacts of agriculture – one panellist described them as critical in delivering credibility.
But brand leaders need to understand the climate challenges and bring consumers into the picture. Once consumers are better informed, they will start driving the sector forward demanding products that are more sustainable. It feels like that process has already started – brands beginning to empower consumers with the knowledge they need to make choices based on climate impact.
The ‘tanker ‘problem
Business models have to change. We have a “turning round the tanker” problem in food production. Producing as much as possible as cheaply as possible has become ingrained with grower communities – that’s what the market has demanded. Now that demand is shifting to requiring lower impact farming, but the tanker takes time to turn around.
Efficiency has to be a key route to tackling the challenges. More efficient use of fertilisers, for example, and using fertilisers that are not dependent on fossil fuels and, particularly, given ongoing conflicts, fertilisers that are not beholden to global natural gas markets is important. Certainty of supply and price can be established via a switch to using renewable energy.
Also, we need more efficiencies on food waste. If food waste was a country it would be the world’s third highest emitter – a third of food does not make it from farm to fork.
Farmer incentives are crucial, as is making sure they’re properly involved in the conversations. Taking an outcomes approach when working with farmers on regenerative agriculture is an intriguing way to go. But it’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to regenerative agriculture for sure, and farmers are certainly best placed to know what works on their land.
Regenerative agriculture needs to become the new baseline approach – there isn’t any alternative. But we need to not forget that farming incomes need to be sustainable before there is any realistic chance of change. Farmers feel they are being asked to deliver on sustainability with continued downward pressures on price.
However, for the leading companies, the era of brand colonialism in terms of dictating practices does seem to be receding, and an increase in the need for developing relationships of trust with grower communities, and the need to be humble, is developing. Involving those who the farmers trust is important if, for example, you are proposing a change to established practice – no-till farming being an excellent example. Farmers have been ploughing since farming became a thing.
Honesty and humility
Across the event, there was certainly a clear humility and honesty about the challenges. And this honesty means being prepared to be challenged – it was great to see business leaders be prepared to come and recognise the problems and openly debate how to solve them.
Pace of change, and frustration at the lack of it has been a common theme – there are inevitably inherent drags on getting on with it, particularly around company-to-company collaboration. But everyone accepts that cooperation is essential – at the conference many times participants commented that “we can’t do this alone”. Therefore, the importance of collaboration, collaboration, collaboration is definitely a key theme that emerged.
There’s still time to register for the Innovation Forum Future of Food conference in person in Minneapolis, USA, on 14th and 15th June. Click here for full details.