At a media summit hosted by chemical firm BASF Corp this week in the heart of North Carolina farm country, a panel comprising a Food Network celebrity chef, professor, trendwatcher, farmer and Brazilian ag producer hashed out the state of food and agriculture in the US—from the limitations of the local food movement to the role of GMOs, growing income gaps and how to satisfy the changing consumer.
“We’ve created—through technology and media—a very savvy, mature market made up of savvy consumers who want to be satiated with basic needs but they also have more disposable income to not only eat out but buy more convenient and luxury items,” said chef Cat Cora, best known for her role as an Iron Chef on the Food Network.
“We created those types of consumers, which I think is great. They want their lamb chops sliced and trimmed, they ready to eat meals; they want bagged and washed lettuces. It’s about convenience and luxury. Many have the disposable income to eat better and healthier.”
Cora: ‘We created today's savvy, mature consumer’
TV networks like the Food Network—with an emphasis on food competitions and the “sexier” side of the food world—have been revolutionary in “retraining” the American consumer to be interested in food, said Glen Hiemstra, founder of trendwatching site futurist.com. (Indeed, several BASF Summit attendees snapped photos of Cora throughout the event to send to jealous spouses and family members.)
“There’s an interest in food that was not there as recently as 15 years ago,” Hiemstra noted. “It’s an interest in quality food and also variety. American consumers in particular, are less interested in just the same three or four food types we eat over and over again. They want a variety of foods.”
This trend is reinforced by another that Hiemstra referred to as the “quantified self-health movement”, exemplified by the proliferation of smartphone apps measure health on an ongoing basis. About 10% of smartphone users use health apps to track their own health and nutrition. As this trend is likely to continue, with it will come continued interest in a greater variety of healthy food options.
For farmers like Michael 'Bo' Stone, a sixth-generation farmer producing wheat, corn, soybeans and strawberries in Roland, NC, the increased interest in food and its origins means he and his fellow farmers have to be more consumer-facing than some of them would like, which has been greatly facilitated by social media.
“It’s our responsibility as farmers to explain what we what we do and why we do it,” Stone said. “It’s important to answer those questions, and we now have the benefit of technology and social media in this information age. When you bring people’s perceptions to reality by showing them different methods and different ways of doing things, it opens their eyes.”
That especially holds true with the more contentious parts of farming, such as the use of GMOs, which both Stone and Aurelio Pavinato, CEO of Brazilian agricultural producer SLC Agricola and fellow panelist, support.
We should have healthy dialogues about GMOs; not trade arguments
“I do trust the science behind GMOs,” Stone said. “I tell consumers we’ve been modifying animals and crops for thousands of years through genetic selection, and now science can do that more precisely through genetic modification. I talk about drought resistant genes—everybody can relate to food prices going up in 2012. I talk about putting vitamins into rice that’s going to poorer areas. I want it to be a conversation, dialogue, need to make sure we’re communicating. I don’t want it to be me talking at you and then you talking at me.”
“All this technology is helping us to produce higher amount of food so prices won’t go up so much,” Pavinato added. “If we produce more per hectare, the price will be lower. We are price takers; we have production costs. It’s not environmentally friendly to simply increase production areas.”
Hiemstra said when it comes to GMOs, the industry is trying to “swim upstream” and making a mistake—as the world is becoming an increasingly transparent place.
“The industry is trying to resist the radical transparency around GMOs, whether you think of that as food labeling. The world is moving toward transparency. You think you can fight that off for five or 10 years, but it’s better to get ahead of that and decide to lead in sharing information rather than resist.”
The local food disconnect
Julie Guthman, geographer and professor of social sciences at the University of California at Santa Cruz, described the farm-to-table movement as nothing short of “phenomenal”, noting that it’s become a “huge market for many farmers” since she started researching it in 1995. But how does consumers’ increased food consciousness affect what they want?
“How do we understand quality in the eyes of the consumer?” Guthman said. “Nutrition? It looks beautiful? How it’s grown or produced? This very vocal food movement has outsized its vocality relative to production that is skeptical of new technology, GMOs, confined livestock operations and new inventions like in-vitro meat. That’s the public conversation about food, driven by that movement. It’s interesting because it has had a huge influence on consumers across the board.”
While the Hartman Group says that 70% consumers occasionally buy an organic product, actual farmland in organic production in the US stands at about 1%, and the organic market makes up about 5% of the total market. “There’s a strange disconnect between amount of conversation about organics, local and seasonal products and actual practices,” Guthman added.
Income gap economics leads to bifurcated consumer food system
Indeed, it’s hard to ignore the growing income disparity in the US and other parts of the developed world. “There’s been a long period of time where middle incomes have gone flat, which leads to a bifurcated food consumer system in which a certain set of consumers desire one kind of food—such as organic or heirloom varietals—and the more middle class and poorer consumers don’t have choices,” Hiemstra noted.
That’s one of the reasons Guthman calls herself a "friendly critic" of the local food movement: “The local movement has taken hold in wealthy areas and others not at all,” she said. “We need to look at the mechanisms that bring better food to many rather than perfect food to a few. I don’t find the local food movement to be a good solution, though it's nice for those who have access it."
Cora is a self-proclaimed “big proponent” of local food and farm to table—noting that she calls out such marketing terms as 'procured locally and seasonally', 'organic', and 'all-natural' on menus at her restaurants. But she later added that there’s also a need for balance between commodities and niche products. “We have to have both to make world go round. I wouldn’t say I’m all for heirloom tomatoes and no corn.”
Farming practices can resonate with consumers, but you have to say it in just a few, simple lines
Sustainable and socially responsible farming practices—from precision agriculture, soil management and crop rotation to OSHA and social responsibility certifications—can help keep prices down and improve traceability and control, Pavinato said.
“We’re big proponents of precision agriculture,” Stone added. “We started yield mapping by management zones eight or nine years ago. We know what each soil type and area of the field is capable of doing. We write fertilizer prescriptions to give each area just what it needs to make sure we’re not minng nutrients out of soil, giving back what crop needs. Now we’re able to pinpoint what soil needs, cut fertilizer and water use, with increased yields each year.”
Upon hearing this, Cora exclaimed: “I love hearing that as a chef. I think it would resonate with the consumer if they knew.”
The key to getting the message across though, she said, is to simplify the message. “If they could hear about these practices, it would open awareness. But the bottom line is it has to be simpler. They’re savvy enough to know there is quality control. They want to know their meat came to the table humanely, that fish procured from eco-friendly ecosystems, that the land wasn’t pillaged to get their corn to the table. They’re supporting sustainability through what they’re eating. You can say in a couple lines on a menu or through servers. I use social media a lot to take that message to the public.”
Hiemstra added that many consumers are unaware of how far agricultural producers have come in establishing sustainable farming systems.
“If you listen to those stories, you see that there’s a self-driven movement toward sutainability driven by farms’ technology, their own values, etc., that is actually outpacing public demand. I don’t think public understands how far ahead you [farmers] are. The technology that becomes available each year enables better management of soil, better yields with less input and no runoff faster than the public can imagine.”
The challenge is figuring out how to tell them that.