Tag Archives: Innovation

Is Buying Food Locally More Important than Eating Local Food?

One of my favorite times of the year is upon us – The Harvest Season.

This weekend, my family will trek out to the Wellspring Harvest Fest – A good ol’ hoe down and celebration of the season!  Wellspring Farm is the community supported agriculture (CSA) program we have supported for the last four years, and the Fest is an incredible celebration of the season’s bounty, where the Wellspring CSA community gathers to eat incredible food, avoid rotten tomato on our faces in the infamous tomato toss (might need to renamed the “late blight” toss this year), tour the farm on a hay ride and add our own painted touches to the farm’s annual Harvest Fest sign.

In a couple more weeks, we will be joining many people throughout Vermont and I believe the country in an “Eat Local” challenge, where for one week my family will commit to eating as much locally grown or raised food as possible.

These celebrations, while wonderful opportunities to connect with our local/regional food community, also make me think about what we will do over the remaining 50 weeks of the year. Will conventional food thinking settle back in? It seems likely for most people, making the challenge of building up regional food economies all the more difficult.

Does it have to be that way? Are there things we can do to support regional food throughout the year, especially in regions where the growing season is short and/or the breadth of products grown and raised are narrow?

There is one thing that immediately jumps to mind. Raise the importance of “Buy Local” to the same level afforded “Eat Local,” since without a thriving farm-gate-to-your-plate regional food infrastructure, progress toward more sustainable food systems will be slow going. Seems easy enough…on the surface, but rebuilding and strengthen regional food economies will be the farthest thing from “easy.”

Over the last 50 years, America’s food landscape has changed considerably, especially in terms of how power and control over the food we eat has concentrated in the hands of large-scale, and often global corporate interests. Here’s a snap shot that I’m betting most people haven’t seen before:

  • Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta. And while most of Monsanto’s press is about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the company has quietly bought up a large number of seed companies to gain access to a rapidly expanding seed patent portfolio. Dupont is following suit.
  • Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2 percent of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67 percent. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.” What is especially problematic with this trend is that farms in the middle have all but disappeared, which are the types of farms that will be needed to support regional food systems.
  • Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of over 80% of the country’s beef and three of these same four companies (along with an additional fourth) process over 60% of the country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide over half of the country’s chicken supply. Same for turkey meat. Large scale meat packing operations don’t do regional well (prefer CAFOs) or local at all.
  • Food Processors: Euromonitor International reports that the packaged food industry is worth almost $1.6 trillion. While there’s some debate about how accurate that number is, consider that the Top 50 U.S. processors alone accounted for $326 billion or nearly 25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs (which Kraft is attempting to gain control of in a $16.7 billion takeover), Danone and others, and you fast approach a majority of the market. Leaves little room on food retailers’ shelves for local or regional processed foods.
  • Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at the top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On a global scale, the USDA reports that “The top 15 global supermarket companies account for more than 30 percent of world supermarket sales.” Serious concentration that is buying up or crushing regional food chains and killing off mom-and-pop stores left and right.

With this in mind, take a couple minutes to consider your local food retail landscape.

How many locally or regionally-owned food stores or member-owned food cooperatives are there? If any, how much impact do you think they have on your region’s food economy? In other words, do they represent enough demand to support regional farmers, distribution, processing, etc.? Check out their shelves next time you shop there (or make a special trip if you haven’t shopped there before). Where do you think that food is coming from?

As each of gets a clearer picture, which may seem bleak at first, you should also see tremendous opportunities to change how consumers interface with the food they eat.

For example, imaging developing innovative, regional food retail formats open every day (v. once-a-week farmers markets and CSA programs) that provide consumers with real choices in the food they buy. Such choices, financed by our three votes per day (i.e., breakfast, lunch and dinner), will empower every one of us to buy more of the food we eat from local sources. This increasing demand for regionally grown, raised and processed food, as well as other sustainable foods, will justify increased investments in the infrastructure needed to provide more regional foods to consumers every day. Instead of spiraling down, as is the case with the industrialized food system, we will be spiraling up.

Ultimately, the choice of how we spend our food dollars is up to us. But until we have more convenient (e.g., open seven days a week), transparent (e.g., origin labeling) food retail options to choose from, do we really have a choice? Not as much choice as we deserve, so let’s get started in changing that.

Your first task – after finishing your successful “Eat Local” challenge this harvest season, assuming you participated – is to increase your financial support (i.e., spending our food dollars) of local and regional food retailers.

And if you can’t find one, then maybe you or someone you know should consider opening one yourself.

Happy Harvest!

Agriculture 2.0 – The First Sustainable Agriculture Conference

On September 17, 2009 at the New York Marriott Downtown in New York City, eight sustainable food growth companies will be pitching their businesses to investors attending NewSeed Advisor’s Agriculture 2.0 conference – reportedly the first sustainable agriculture investment conference.

The brainchild behind this inaugural event is Janine Yorio, who after 12 years working in finance has “committed to applying her insider knowledge to an industry with integrity, one that revolves around people and which contributes to the greater good of mankind and mother earth.”

For sustainable food entrepreneurs, while the opportunity for you to formally present at Agriculture 2.0 has passed, there are still plenty of reasons to attend if you can. For example, there will be much to learn from your peers at the eight companies highlighted below. You will also have the opportunity to meet with venture capitalists, private equity investors, high net worth individuals, government officials, entrepreneurs, academics and farmers – all focused on alternative agriculture.

Not a bad way to spend a day.

Visit www.newseedadvisors.com for more information and to register. You can also reach Janine on Twitter (@newseedadvisors).

Brief Profiles of Presenting Companies:

  • Good Natured Family Farms (Kansas City, KS) – Good Natured Family Farms was started to give small family farms a market for their products by banding together to product quantities required to sell to local food retailers, without going through middlemen. The alliance now has more than 100 sustainable family farms distributing dairy, meat and fresh produce to Hen House Markets and Balls’ Price Choppers in Kansas City and the Mercantile in Lawrence, Kansas.
  • Bio Soil (Hattiesburg, MS) – Bio Soil Enhancers has been working with bioremediation (using microorganisms to return the natural environment to its unaltered state) for more than 20 years. The company is leveraging its experience to increase crop and garden output and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides through organic means.
  • HQ Sustainable Seafood (Hainan, China) – HQ is an integrated aquaculture and aquatic product processing company, with operations based in the environmentally pristine island province of Hainan, in China’s South Sea. Its mission is to increase profitability through the introduction of zero-toxin products while respecting the environment and communities in which it works.
  • Sky Vegetables (Needham, MA) – Sky Vegetables is in the rooftop farming development business. Never heard of that? Imagine the rooftop of your favorite grocery store being home to a hydroponics greenhouse, wind turbine and/or solar panels, composting systems and rainwater harvesting. Next, imagine the food grown in the greenhouse traveling “downstairs” to be sold to consumers.
  • Marrone Bio Innovations (Davis, CA) – Organic pesticide manufacturer that screens naturally occurring microorganisms to identify those with novel and effective pest management characteristics. They then use their “efficient process” (lab and field testing, fermentation process development, scale-up and formulation), to develop them into products in approximately three years and for approximately $3 million, compared to new chemical pesticides, which take at least $180 million and up to 10 years to discover and develop.
  • Farm Power (Mount Vernon, WA) – Farm Power facilities utilize anaerobic manure digesters to harvest methane gas from manure, which is burned to create electricity for sale, while sending the processed manure back to farm partners as an organic fertilizer free of pathogens and odor. Capturing methane has the added benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by thousands of tons per year.
  • Dakota Organic Prairie (Harvey, ND) – Dakota Prairie offers organic flours specifically developed to meet the needs of food manufacturers. Its product line includes white, whole wheat, rye, soft, gluten-free and spelt flours, along with cracked grains, whole grains and bran flakes, which provide “a home-baked taste and texture that is full-flavor, hearty and wholesome.” The company is passionate about quality and organics, and utilizes a state-of-the-art computerized European mill to ensure consistency.
  • Vital Farmland (San Francisco, CA) – Farmland LP, a U.S. private equity fund, acquires conventional farmland and converts it into certified organic, sustainable farmland. Its investors benefit from the security of owning farmland while participating in the growth and profitability of the organic market.

Related Links:

Seeing Through Food Industry’s “Personal Responsibility” Smoke Screen

I grew up in a home where family meals were the norm. Nearly every night, nine of us would crowd around the kitchen table to enjoy a home-cooked meal together, recount our days, laugh and argue, celebrating each unique personality’s contribution to the whole. Each meal made the fabric of our family stronger. Those experiences have stayed with me as I’ve grown and started a family of my own, where I happily continue the tradition of sitting down together nightly to share a meal and exchange stories.

For us, food is at the core of what makes us strong, happy and healthy as a family and as individuals. It isn’t about calories, nutrients, micro nutrients and so on. It’s about engaging our senses, strengthening our community by buying local foods whenever possible and sharing with our friends and neighbors. It’s about creating a healthy foundation for our growing children.

We knowingly spend a greater portion of our income on food than the average American household, which works because we forgo things that bring us less value, e.g., cable television, new cars, fancy vacations and more. This sort of conscious decision making is at the core of personal responsibility, and is something we work hard at every day. Living in a rural community, surrounded by farms and dairies and being outside the reach of most mainstream media surely helps.

But today, the individual’s ability to exercise personal responsibility has been severely compromised by our industrial food system. Yet defenders of the status quo consistently use “personal responsibility” as a smoke screen to cover the tracks of industrial food, tracks that run roughshod over the mirage of choice and personal responsibility.

It is clear that industrial food knowingly develops and promotes food-like substances that make us fat, spread diet-related diseases and disregard unsustainable impacts on our environment. Backed by hundreds of billions of dollars in product development, marketing, advertising and lobbying, along with government regulations favoring industrial food, there is seemingly nothing standing in their way.

Except for those who believe it is time to rein in processed foods. Our numbers are rapidly growing, making us increasingly capable of driving real, meaningful change, especially through entrepreneurial means (see Pro Food). These changes will take many forms, but here is one that I find particularly compelling.

First, we significantly reduce the number of highly processed food-like products (and the many empty calories they deliver). Next, we repopulate those now-empty shelves with whole and minimally-processed foods. Finally, with fewer processed foods, which take up considerable floor space in today’s supermarkets, we begin replacing these unsustainable retail dinosaurs with intimate, community-oriented food stores (<5,000 square feet), designed from the ground up, to help consumers expand in-home food preparation, what we used to call “cooking.” And with triple-bottom-line operating models (see Pro Food advantages), these new stores will sustainably balance people, planet and profits, something industrial food unfortunately can’t do without ultimately destroying itself.

Clearly, such changes would rock today’s industrial food system, but leaving it as is perpetuates the problems we face. As most major food companies are publicly traded they must increase sales, reduce costs or both, quarter after quarter, to increase shareholder value or face the consequences (Note: shareholders (owners) are not the same as stakeholders, which would include eaters, whose interests, beyond food expenditures, are secondary). This singular bottom line focus drives them to do whatever is necessary to maximize profit, which they typically achieve through sales of new products with high initial profit margins. That is upwards of 17,000 new “food” products are introduced every year.

These highly processed, engineered foods, never before seen, but often extending an established brand name, are not guaranteed financial success, so food companies invest tens of billions of dollars every year in sophisticated marketing programs and advertising campaigns to build demand, with a heavy emphasis on hawking heavily sugared wares to children and convenience to their ever more harried parents. Undeniably, these highly sophisticated product development and demand creation engines are significantly influencing consumers; worse, these campaigns are often coordinated to affect us in subconscious ways: the potent combination of food science and marketing at work!

Without continuous financial improvements, the value of food companies would suffer greatly. That isn’t happening. Consider that since 1979 (30 years ago) General Mills stock price is up 577%, while Wal-Mart has registered an astonishing 420,000% increase (from less than $0.12 per share to $49.14; hasn’t always been in food retail, but rapidly ascended to #1 in category). Then there’s Cargill with estimated revenues at $120 billion, which would make it a Top 10 publicly traded company. Clearly, food companies are meeting shareholder expectations, which doesn’t bode well for consumers, who are largely “responsible” for this financial success.

As for the significant financial pain and organizational upheaval the changes Pro Food envisions will have on the industrial food system, while the transition will be difficult, not sudden, America’s entrepreneurs will get a running start. And if there is one thing we can count on, it’s our entrepreneurs: the best in the world at picking themselves up, brushing themselves off and getting back to work.

The results of such a revolution in how we grow, process and consume food will be significant. Sustainable businesses will become the norm, offering rewarding careers for people interested in more than a single bottom line. Regional economies will begin rebuilding after being decimated for decades by large food retailers. Our food system, through hard work, sustainable technologies and a longer-term perspective, will regain its balance with nature. And, most important, food will become an enjoyable, enriching part of our daily lives, rather than just another accessory.

Join the Pro Food Revolution…already in progress.

Follow Rob Smart on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Jambutter