In my work and travel and while attending conferences, the one question that is always just below the surface, if not blatantly in your face, is “Can the Canadian food sector be globally competitive?”
The comments are always the same: “We lack scale. We can’t compete with the big global players. We don’t have the investment incentives we need from government.” Well, why don’t we focus more on specialty and niche markets? Why don’t we focus on exports? Both of those moves would reduce the “scale” issue significantly.
Another comment I hear is, “The prices of commodities are too high due to marketing boards.” That may be a factor in some sectors, but not all. And what are we doing to collaborate with our grower partners? Why aren’t we looking more at a value chain management approach? Or I hear “The regulatory structure in Canada gets in the way.” Yes, maybe there are issues in this area, but why aren’t we working together more as a sector, from “farm to fork,” to develop a collective stance to influence regulators to make those changes for the good of the sector? Let’s stop blaming government and others and just make it happen.
And I hear, “Why do we have to be globally competitive?” Well, food is a global market, and despite the “local food” initiative, which I definitely support, it’s going to continue to be a global market place. And we’re getting more competition from developing countries. So yes, we have to be globally competitive.
The competitive advantage
To be competitive, you must have innovation to create the products the changing market is looking for, and you have to continually adapt to that changing market. You need to look for and adopt new technologies to improve your ability to make those products to meet consumer demands, improve your costs and sustainability.
You need to provide those products at a price the market is willing to pay and equal to or better than your competitors. This requires continuously improving productivity to improve your internal work processes and to extend that up and down the value chain by collaborating with your partners in that chain.
Finally, you need to be able to do that over time, meaning you must have good sustainability. This requires great focus on excellent food safety, improving your environmental performance and reducing the costs of energy and waste. It will mean, increasingly over time, having a high level of corporate social responsibility.
Doing all of the above will mean you will have the ultimate level of sustainability: sustainable profitability, and yes, global competitiveness. But it’s our job, not government’s. Let’s change our attitudes to “We can and will win with the help of our partners in the sector.” Let’s change our behaviour and stop butting heads with our value-chain partners and start working collaboratively with them for the benefit of all. Let’s use our industry associations to work together with our peers to improve the sector. Yes, we’ll still compete with some of them, but with all of us on a much firmer footing.
Yes, we can do it. We can be globally competitive.
Gary Fread is president of Fread & Associates Ltd., consultants to the food industry. He has spent 25 years in management positions in the food processing industry, with a background in sales, logistics, purchasing and technical areas. He has worked with Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup and Morrison Lamothe, and is the past president and CEO of the Guelph Food Technology Centre. He is active in many food industry associations and organizations, serving on the boards of several. Contact him at [email protected]