Forests and agriculture | Opinion

Why the future of food requires business model transformation

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Following Innovation Forum’s future of food conference series, Ian Welsh reflects on some of the trends identified and practical steps forwards

We can’t avoid it. The Covid-19 pandemic inevitably dominates all conversations. Its impact is, of course, all pervasive. 

But, there is unanswerably opportunity for change – could the pandemic response be the ultimate reset button? This sense was reflected throughout the two conferences. It’s an old cliché, but perhaps more relevant now than ever that we should never “waste a good crisis”.  

There seems to be a growing recognition that now might be the opportunity to really work with consumers on the true value of the food they eat. We need to think beyond monetary value – there are embedded resources, energy, water in everything we eat. An increase in consumers growing their own food might change attitudes.  

Transparency and storytelling

For business, there seems to be an ever-greater acceptance that supply chain transparency is crucial. Brands need to know who their suppliers are if they are going to be able to ensure long-term supply security – so supply chain mapping is an essential start. 

And alongside acceptance, there is a growing desire from companies to be transparent. Perhaps a sense from the public that there was a lot of greenwashing going on has finally made a difference. 

Better corporate storytelling is definitely here. It’s apparent how important it is for companies to get beyond stark datapoints when engaging consumers and other stakeholders. Big companies are getting that consumer demands are shifting, and are engaging with them in new ways. Small businesses have always had to be engaging. Big business appears to be doing so more now. 

Corporate targets are becoming properly focused. Their commitments are entering the next stage now. The growth of science-based targets has been a gamechanger for many companies. 

Finance reset

Regenerative agriculture and similar innovations are very exciting for sure, but they need new types of longer-term financing. In some cases it can be 7 to 10 years before there is a return, which doesn’t work with standard investment models. 

Perhaps stewardship type models where investors and producers co-invest and share profits, with the producer becoming full owner when the investor is fully bought out, are the answer. But certainly, innovation and careful thinking is necessary.  

There are continual conversations about data, which links of course to supply chain transparency. But there needs to be careful thinking about the quality of the data and the quantity. 

There’s no point in collecting data for its own sake. And the providers of the data – suppliers, farmers – need to get something out of the process too, and not be asked again and again for the same-but-slightly different numbers. 

Transforming systems? 

That said, there is a sense of systemic transformation. For years at conferences and sustainability workshops the conversations were about the need for real innovation – now it’s about the progress and the next steps forwards. 

At the same time there’s a recognition of more traditional farm level approaches – cover crops, tilling techniques, for example – that are coming back. 

Language is changing. Corporate goals are becoming more about what benefits growers and their communities and not just the next quarter’s accounts. The interdependent nature of everything has perhaps never felt so real as it does right now. 

There’s a sense of joined up narrative that’s developing in the need for resilience in supply chains – weaving economic, health and broader social issues together. Jurisdictional and landscape approaches are trendy, but for good reason. Business, government, producer groups are going to have to work together. 

And, while profits still matter – of course they do – there is a growing realisation that for there to be profit in the long-term then a whole value chain approach is essential, with the resulting corporate KPIs that are necessary. Perhaps that’s the ultimate reset that the sector needs. 

Click here for details about Innovation Forum’s sustainable commodities and landscapes event in November. 

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