Gary Fread looks at the consumer trends affecting the food industry in Canada
I was recently asked to comment on some of the changes occurring in the food and beverage sector by someone doing some research on it and gathering input. They wanted me to comment on several key consumption trends that they saw as significant and what some of the drivers of those trends were. That took me back to my earlier comments here about consumer trends and how they will affect our industry. As I thought more about it, it brought me back to what’s happening globally in general, not just with regard to food, agriculture and fisheries. It took me back to a number of books I’ve read over the past several years. Let’s have a look at them.
First, we must agree that the world is changing globally in many ways, and not just having a population increase to nine to 10 billion in the next few decades. The first book I was reminded of was The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future published in 2010 by Laurence C. Smith, a professor at UCLA. In it, he talks about four global forces shaping our future: 1) demographics, which is leading to a much more complex population and market mix all over the globe; 2) resource demand, leading to less available resources in all areas, but very much so in food related resources; 3) globalization, leading to increasing international trade and capital flows; and 4) climate change, which will make it very different, and likely more difficult, to produce the food to feed nine billion people.
That book was followed up by Al Gore’s The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, published in 2013. His six trends echo Smith’s. They are: 1) a deeply integrated global economy, which will affect trade, consumer markets, etc.; 2) planet-wide electronic communications, which is making it easier to communicate what’s happening in the market place, etc.; 3) a new balance of political, economic and military power, again having a big impact on trade; 4) rapid, unsustainable growth, again having impact on the availability of resources with which to produce food; 5) a revolutionary set of powerful new technologies, giving us remarkable abilities to make biological, biochemical and genetic changes, often of uncertain benefit to humanity and the environment; and 6) a radically new relationship between the aggregate power of civilization and the Earth’s ecological systems, again good or bad?
Everything we do in the food and beverage sector needs to keep those trends in mind so we can avoid continually making the “global value chain” worse and worse.
The environmental element in all those trends has become a key issue for the food sector. Is the fish you’re eating Marine Stewardship Council certified? If it was bought in our largest food retailer in Canada, it must be. Is the tea or coffee you’re drinking Rainforest Alliance Certified or Fairtrade Alliance Certified so you can be assured we’re looking after the environment and workers in those sectors?
And so, we’ve had a number of books published addressing environmental issues. The first I recall reading was Toronto writer Sarah Elton’s Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens – How Canadians Are Changing The Way We Eat, published in 2010. In it she talks about how the foodies, 100-milers, gardeners, chefs and others are creating a new local food order that has the potential to fight climate change and feed us all. She followed that book with another in 2013, Consumed: Food For A Finite Planet, in which she details her travels all over the world to observe how farmers from India and China to France and North America are reacting to these changes, as well as discussions with scientists about whether or how local farming can feed the world.
And now I’ve just completed a book by Dan Barber published in 2014, The Third Plate: Field Notes On The Future Of Food, in which he looks at the world’s food system and how it must evolve. Again, he talks about different ways of producing food that use less water and chemicals and which go back to a more organic and natural system.
Now one may or may not agree with the points of view expressed in these books, but for me they definitely highlight the consumer awareness of and concern about environmental and social responsibility issues (i.e. food safety, ethical treatment of animals, etc.) in the agriculture, fisheries and food processing sectors. It seems to me that the Greenies, as I refer to them, will be one of the major factors in how the food system develops over the next few decades. We need to pay attention and act accordingly.
The second area relates to what I call the Healthies. More people, all over the world, are becoming more and more aware of and concerned about the effect of food on their health. This stretches from the aging boomers to the millennials who are just starting families with normal concerns about the effect of food on their kids’ health. Again, there are more and more books being written on topics in this area. Just go to your bookstore and have a look.
A couple of examples include Dr. William Davis’s 2011 book Wheat Belly: Lose The Wheat, Lose The Weight, And Find Your Path Back To Health. It speaks to the effects of wheat on our increasing weight problem and resulting health issues in our society. You may or may not agree, but it does indicate a now commonly held point of view.
And then there is Dr. David Perlmutter’s 2013 book Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers. I just finished that one and am still sort of “digesting” it.
And yesterday, I was in the bookstore and ran across a book called The Hunter Farmer Diet Solution by Dr. Mark Liponis, that focuses on different types of metabolism in individuals that may lead to the need to focus on either a low-fat, grain-based diet or a high-protein and veggies diet.
Once again, all this tells me is that consumers and scientists are putting plenty of focus on the healthier aspects of food and its complexity and differences from consumer to consumer. Our sector better be up to dealing with this.
But having said all that, I think that both the environmental and health concerns do provide opportunities for the sector. Let’s build those into our strategic plan. We can do it!
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]