Looking to the Future of Food and Farming: Forum Shines Light on Innovation and Transparency

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The socially-conscious consumer, transparency in food, food waste ($31 billion worth in Canada), insect protein and food innovation were some of the hot topics at Country Heritage Park (CHP) at the Future of Food and Farming Forum on October 6.

A forum to reflect on the evolution of food and look to our agricultural future, the day began with introductions from Jamie Reaume, CEO of CHP, and Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Jeff Leal. An eager crowd filled the Gambrel Barn in Milton for a full-day of engaging speakers and local food.

The assortment of speakers brought with them their varied backgrounds and knowledge (you can now view their presentations online), though there was a strong, consistent underlying message: listen to the consumer, and be inspired by, not afraid of, innovation. Hopeful signs for the future? Support for local is rising through a growing engaged consumer, which has also brought an increased demand for transparency in food – certainly a potential catalyst for the local food movement.

Paul Uys, Senior Director, Food Institute of the University of Guelph, brought his 40 years of global retail experience, speaking to issues and opportunities that lie ahead in the food supply chain. Paul, as well as the other speakers, shone a bright light on the complexity of our food system and the myriad of inter-related topics that must be considered. He highlighted 3 new pillars to look at: Well Being, Ecological Efficiency, and Market Forces. Uys touched on a product’s lifecycle, risk management, consumer’s “collective awakening”, traceability, waste, and a rising interest in natural/organic/vegetarian. A Loblaw survey also showed that 47% of respondents said “local” was important to them.

Analyzing where trends are moving points us in the direction of our future – it’s worth noting that it was said more than once that customers are putting a focus on the periphery of grocery stores, with a decline in the box-filled, processed-food-filled middle of the store.

Dr. Evan Fraser, Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security at U of G, began with debunking the idea that we need to produce more food to feed the world (at least for the short-term), saying that’s a partial red herring: right now it’s a distribution issue more than a production issue. Dr. Fraser spoke of the various issues and drivers we face, including energy, water, human/environment health, population, volatile food prices around the globe, and antibiotic resistance – situations that we will have to adapt to. He also pointed out that we are chronically under producing fruit and vegetables, and that the food we’re producing is mismatched with what we should be eating. We need to look at the unexamined part of our food landscape. Along with a digital revolution, there are opportunities growing in food processing, and support for local sustainable alternatives. Dr. Fraser says the farmers that will prosper will take advantage of these new technologies.

Barry Watson, President of Environics Research, brought his expertise in market research to the table. Demographics, trends and varying outlooks were explored through valuable data and quadrants. This perspective illustrates the true depth of analysis that needs to go into this intricate sector, especially when looking to our future. There is great value in understanding what type of person is supporting local food, for instance (and what type of person is not).

Danielle Gould, Founder and CEO of Food+Tech Connect, continued to exemplify the exciting time of food innovation we are in, highlighting some of the successful food tech companies that are on the rise. Nature Box, Hampton Creek, Instacart and Blue Apron are just some of the innovative companies that are using technology to transform the food industry. Gould also highlighted some trends shaping the future: personalization, efficiency and waste reduction, convenience, social, transparency, data-driven decision making, and do-it-yourself. It’s clear we are in a vibrant time, with major growth in food/ag tech investment. On the farm, to in the stores, to in your homes, innovation is everywhere along the food chain.

Mike Lee, Founder and CEO of Studio Industries, spoke of a conceptual “Future Market”, including an imagined rotational “crop crisp”: a product that is made from ingredients that are useful for the farmer to grow at that time. He also spoke of technological innovations (such as 3D printing), and the severity of food waste (33 million tons annually). His trends for the future of food look at : 1) Distributed Production 2) Customization 3) Alternative Protein 4) Packaging Waste 5) Feeding 10 Billion, and 6) Mass Sustainability. Innovation in food today comes from ambitious thinking about tomorrow, Lee shared.

Andreas Duss, Founder of Nourish Food Marketing, brought a focused lesson to the fact that we are socially-ingrained creatures: inventions that help us communicate always flourish. It cannot be ignored that social media and other online tools have given more power to the masses, offering the consumer a much larger say in the conversation. It is certainly no coincidence that “big food” has lost $18 billion since 2009, as Duss points out. Once again, we see the opportunity in listening to what people want – their input, and innovative solutions, are all around us.

Producing over $100 billion annually, the food and beverage industry is the largest industry in Canada (worth $39 billion in Ontario). So it was fitting to have Doug Alexander with Ippolito Group bring his three decades of experience in the food processing industry. Currently, a decline in processors is an essential issue to address. Alexander highlighted the need to keep an eye out for new ways of doing things, using his real life experience with Ippolito and battling food waste. He also discussed the “millennial” – how do we reach the sustainable consumer? Doug declared that we must learn to talk, partner and listen. Environmental health is something the food industry needs to take some responsibility for, and there are exciting solutions if we look for them.

Ryan Marshall, a seventh-generation farmer in Halton Region, was fittingly the final speaker of the day. Marshall brought some of the issues our local farmers face to the table (e.g. the uncertainty of land use), as well as a reminder of the importance of investing in knowledge. He illustrated the sort of solutions and research that can address some agriculture issues, and how technology has become a key part of this. The Marshalls have invested in nitrogen management research, gathering 3D imaging of their soil to better understand water retention as well as nitrogen loss (“more corn for less”). Demonstrating the important relationship between research and efficiency, Ryan makes a comparison between his interest in nitrogen loss with the way many of the other speakers touched on food loss. Knowledge will help us prevent waste.

Waste, climate change and a dynamic food landscape were brought up consistently throughout the day, but also consistent were the partial solutions: innovation and a conscious consumer are exciting possibilities, if we encourage them to be.

Jamie Reaume, also our GHFFA Chair, gave the concluding thanks of the day, with a final reminder that we must think further into our future – farmers think by the season, politicians by every 4 years, but we must think, Reaume concluded, at least a generation ahead.