Maple Leaf Foods CEO: ‘A global food strategy must meet the needs of the many, not just the affluent few’

By Elaine WATSON

- Last updated on GMT

Thanks to the influence exerted over food culture and policy by 'urban elites' in developed markets, government policy is being "pushed in directions that are purely related to personal preference and are unrelated to solving the impending global food crisis", argues Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain
Thanks to the influence exerted over food culture and policy by 'urban elites' in developed markets, government policy is being "pushed in directions that are purely related to personal preference and are unrelated to solving the impending global food crisis", argues Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain
Blanket opposition to genetically modified crops is “a morally unacceptable position to take on the basis of unsubstantiated suspicions and fears”, according to the boss of Toronto-based firm Maple Leaf Foods.

In a provocative keynote speech delivered at the annual Campden BRI Day in the UK last week, Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain echoed comments made in recent public appearances by R&D bosses at PepsiCo and Nestle by arguing that we will not feed 9bn people by 2050 with organic agriculture.

We need to be extraordinarily cautious about food strategies that have become something of the cult of an urban elite

In the speech - entitled ‘Towards a global food strategy - from discourse to dialogue’ - he said: “We need to be extraordinarily cautious about food strategies that have become something of the cult of an urban elite, but actually work against finding solutions to this global food crisis.

“For example, things like ‘locavore diets’ and ‘organics’ are simply not scalable and would exacerbate an already critical gap in affordability, availability and sustainability.

“This group of people appears to believe they are doing the right thing, which is admirable, but they are immune to the effects or not properly informed of the consequences. A global food strategy must meet the needs of the many, not the affluent few.”

And thanks to the influence exerted over food culture and policy by these urban elites, government policy is being pushed “in directions that are purely related to personal preference and are unrelated to solving the impending food crisis”, ​he argued.

It’s a morally unacceptable position to take on the basis of unsubstantiated suspicions and fears

While we will likely need “technologies and innovations not yet invented​” to meet production needs in the future, he predicted, “we certainly need to be using the technologies that we do have at our disposal, starting with genetic modification.”

michael_mccain-Maple-leaf-foods-ceo
Maple Leaf Foods Inc CEO and president Michael McCain was the keynote speaker at Campden BRI's annual conference in the UK on June 6

And aside from developing new drought resistant crops,we must increase the productivity of land already in production he added.

 “Opponents of GM foods are going to have to accept that a complete ban on usage will result in the starvation of millions and the impoverishment of millions more.

“They are also going to have to accept that it is crunch time, decision time, and they have no hard evidence to justify a ban. It’s a morally unacceptable position to take on the basis of unsubstantiated suspicions and fears.”

Crucially, the problem of feeding the world’s growing population cannot be solved with the food industry “in pitched battle​” with the environmental movement or other stakeholders, he claimed.

Biotech crops just part of the toolkit, not a panacea

Clearly, biotech crops are not a panacea, however.

In sub Saharan Africa, he pointed out, there are “local governance issues that could make a difference, notably doing more to empower women​”, along with using “improved seeds, increasing the amount of cropland irrigated, increased use of modern inputs, availability of credit, and access to markets, good extension advice, and adequate returns through undistorted prices for inputs and outputs”.

Biofuels: In exchange for a marginal environmental benefit, we have threatened the affordability of food for millions

Tackling waste is also critical, he added, observing that 20% of fish biomass caught is thrown overboard.

He also quoted the UK’s Institute of Mechanical Engineers, which says that “due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30-50% of all food produced never reaches a human stomach”.

biofuels-istock-kalulu

Meanwhile, almost 2bn tons of produce are thrown out every year “because of the way it looks​”, he added. “These kinds of practices need to end.”

As for biofuels, he said, western governments must stop supporting grain-based fuels (from sugar cane, corn and soybeans). “In exchange for very marginal environmental benefit, we have threatened the affordability of food for millions.”

We face unprecedented levels of poverty and geopolitical instability

In one sense, there has always been a global food crisis, in that millions go hungry in a world that produces enough food to feed everybody, he said.

“What is new is that an exploding, increasingly urbanized population threatens to extend that tragedy to additional millions, and drive up food costs for billions more, if the food industry cannot meet an enormous production challenge.”

He added: “One would have to be willfully blind not to see the inevitable and ongoing conflation of food shortages, mismatches of food supply with need, environmental degradation, and dramatically rising food prices that will, if unresolved, lead to unprecedented levels of poverty and geopolitical instability”

This discussion is contained to the policy elites at think tanks and NGOs

PepsiCo-Mehmood=Khan
In a speech delivered at the Research Chefs Association conference in North Carolina in March, PepsiCo chief scientific officer Dr Mehmood Khan said poor people cannot afford to have philosophical discussions about the merits of organic versus GM agriculture, while technologies that enable yields to increase without using more pesticides, or crops to grow with less water, will be essential if we are to feed more than 9bn people by 2050.

In short, the industry is facing a crisis of a “scope that threatens to dwarf our imagination to resolve​”, he said.

“We have to feed two billion people more than we are feeding now, with a diet likely more heavily reliant on meat and other animal proteins, and do so without the easy solutions we have relied on to increase food production in the past - more land and water, rising yields and cheap energy.”

So why isn’t this impending crisis topping the news agenda?

Chiefly because the average consumer - in the developed world at least - has no sense of the scale of the problem, he said.

“This discussion is contained to the policy elites at think tanks and NGOs, but we need ordinary citizens to get more engaged and to be more informed about the choices we face.”

Click here​ to read what PepsiCo chief scientific officer Dr Mehmood Khan thinks about the future of the global food supply.

And click here​ to get Nestle’s take on biotech crops

UK-based Campden BRI​ is a membership-based organisation carrying out research and development for the food and drinks industry worldwide. 

Maple Leaf Foods Inc has three divisions: Meat Products, which includes value-added fresh meats, chilled and ready to cook products, chilled ready to serve products and packaged meats; Bakery Products, which includes fresh bread, rolls and ethnic breads, bagels, croissants and morning goods, premium artisan bakery products, frozen par-baked and fully-baked goods and fresh pasta and sauces; and Agribusiness Products, which includes rendering, biodiesel production and hog production operations.

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False promise of GM to 'feed the world'

Posted by Bob Phelps,

Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food presents strong evidence that there is enough food in the world now to feed every human an adequate diet. But 30-40% of food is wasted - through poor storage in less industrial societies or by dumping to landfill here.

Governments of grain exporting countries - USA< Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Australia - assert the supremacy of export trade and speculative markets in food commodities, and say that no country should seek to be self-sufficient in food. But under this regime, food goes where it is most profitable, not where it is most needed. Thus, it is unaffordable for many and 1 billion people are starving or malnourished while a similar number are obese and diabetic.

The majority of starving people are landless rural women and children or those displaced to urban slums. Many of them are food commodity producers – tea, coffee, sugar, etc. also for trade and export - but they cannot afford to feed their own children a balanced diet of fresh local fruits and vegetables to prevent the hidden hunger of nutrient deficiency which GM technologists want to ameliorate with technical fixes.

In contrast, 46 million Americans now rely on food stamps to subsist, at an average per person of $143/month. Many are the working poor on minimum wages. The Australian government’s National Food Plan reports that 2% of Australians go hungry but Anglicare puts it at 5%.

Surely support for production of wholesome, diverse foods for local consumption in affordable, nutritious diets for all, should take priority over the disproportionate spending of public and private resources on GM and other high tech agribusiness non-solutions to hunger. GM crops do not yield more than the best conventional varieties and they are not better adapted to environmental stresses. They merely prop up existing industrial farming which relies on diminishing stocks of oil and phosphates and is vulnerable to climate change.

Genetic complexity will limit GM crop plant research and doom to failure most of Monsanto's rosy promises of GM tools in the toolbox: more iron, zinc and pro-Vitamin A, higher yields, drought and salt tolerance, nitrogen fixation in grains, longer shelf life, and higher nutritional value, etc.

A few single gene traits such as herbicide tolerance and Bt insect toxins have been transferred from bacteria into plants using genetic manipulation (GM) techniques but most multi-genic traits will defy transgenesis. Where many genes interact to regulate and express complex traits, scientists agree that GM techniques cannot be used to cut and paste them.

For instance, Dr Richard Richards, Chief Research Scientist at Australia's CSIRO Plant Industry writes: “GM technologies are generally only suitable for the single gene traits, not complex multi-genic ones.” http://theconversation.edu.au/top-five-myths-about-genetic-modification-2664

And Dr Heather Burrow, CEO of the Australian Beef Co-operative Research Center said: “… the dramatic breeding and selection advances (mapping the beef genome) promised have been difficult to achieve because hundreds, even thousands, of interacting genes control important production traits like growth rate, feed efficiency and meat quality - not the handful that researchers had originally believed.” Weekly Times, Beef CRC chopped, Sept 9, 2011

Unmask the false promises of GM techniques, and move on!

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Could we have some more objective coverage of the GMO issue?

Posted by Anika Hanisch,

This article broadcasts a stance that relies primarily on a “straw man” argument: The pro-GMO-labeling folks are a bunch of elitist urban foodies. That's simply not the case. I live in rural Montana and my organic farming friends are very concerned about GMOs--in solidarity with disadvantaged populations worldwide. A few examples:

1. Corporate GMO strategies have devastated Indian farmers by turning them into indentured servants (GM seed cannot be saved; such farmers have no choice but to continue buying Monsanto seed on credit year after year—see the documentary “Bitter Seeds.”)

2. We’re seeing preliminary research that indicates GMO crops fed to food animals cause digestive and reproductive problems (ie. http://gmojudycarman.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/The-Full-Paper.pdf) Shouldn’t we be researching why GMO plant proteins cause inflammation in mammalian digestive tracts?

3. Highly allergic individuals (I’m one of them) are often able to eat heritage organic varieties of foods, which they cannot tolerate when they eat a GMO version. The US has seen a rapid increase in food allergies in recent decades. Should we force this allergy-inducing food supply on third world populations, which don’t have the resources to support allergic individuals?

4. Organic, perma-culture methods have indeed been found to yield more food per acre than monoculture corporate farming methods. Where there is funding to support such educational strategies, these methods are more readily implemented in rural communities worldwide. They’re far more sustainable too. The only downside: they don’t profit large seed & chemical companies.

Yes, we need to feed the world. Yes, we MUST address global poverty. But let’s not assume the only answer is a corporate profit-making strategy. I would hope Food Navigator provides more objective well-rounded investigative reporting in the future.

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A question

Posted by ravi singh,

The danger is if what is perceived as high yielding contaminates and becomes no yielding.

Food security actually comes from sustainability and Organic crops also provide substantial live stock security, which means fresh milk for poor children.

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