Tag Archives: ProFood

From Fast Food Nation to Pro Food Ventures

In 2001, Houghton Mifflin Company published a book by Eric Schlosser titled Fast Food Nation –The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Much like the work of Upton Sinclair in his 1906 title The Jungle, Mr. Schlosser, an award-winning investigative journalist exposed how the explosive growth of fast food in America had “hastened the malling of our landscape, widened the chasm between rich and poor, fueled an epidemic of obesity, and propelled American cultural imperialism abroad.”

For a handful of people, this book provided enough incentive to act, but nowhere near the critical mass needed to show up on most radar screens. That started to change with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published in 2006 and the 2009 release of Food, Inc., a food documentary incorporating much of the work of Schlosser and Pollan. Still, unless you were seeking out information on America’s industrial food system, and specifically how it was negatively impacting health, regional economies, and the environment or global trade, you probably had no idea that there were significant problems with America’s abundant food system.

TIME Magazine changed that with its August 21, 2009 cover story titled Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food. TIME brought the story of industrial food to mainstream America through its 40 million readers and Web users worldwide. As America’s most trusted new source, it shifted the balance of the debate about our need to reform our food system toward the sustainable food advocates that have been waging a noble, but slow campaign. Here are some highlights from TIME describing how ripe the time is for innovations in how we grow, sell and prepare food in America:

  • “…our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy.”
  • “And perhaps worst of all, our food is increasingly bad for us, even dangerous.” • “…obesity adds $147 billion a year to our doctor bills.”
  • “With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil — which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills — our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later.”
  • “…quantity of fertilizer is flat-out scary: more than 10 million tons for corn alone — and nearly 23 million for all crops.”
  • “…about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we’re breeding more of those deadly organisms every day.”

When you consider this was presented to at least 40 million Americans, a vast majority who don’t know where their food comes from, you get a sense of how this single article will likely impact the evolution of sustainable food. The TIME article’s author specifically states, “So what will it take for sustainable food production to spread? It’s clear that scaling up must begin with a sort of scaling down — a distributed system of many local or regional food producers as opposed to just a few massive ones.”

As sustainable food discussions move into the mainstream, so will the opportunities for entrepreneurs and existing companies to bring to market innovative approaches to selling higher quality, healthier foods to increasing percentages of consumers, businesses and institutions. As these companies grow, they have an increasingly realistic chance to break the near death grip that industrial food has put on America’s food system:

  • Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta.
  • Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2% of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67%. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.”
  • Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of >80% of country’s beef and three of these same four companies joined a 4th in processing >60% of country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide >50% of our chicken supply. Same for turkey meat.
  • Food Processors: The Top 50 U.S. processors accounted for $326 billion or ~25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs, Danone, etc., and you fast approach a majority of the market.
  • Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On global scale, the USDA reports “Top 15 global supermarket companies account for >30% of sales.”

There are already examples of sustainable food innovations throughout the food chain, from Will Allen’s Growing Power to an alliance between Good Natured Family Farms and Ball Food Stores, to name a few. Early pioneers, with dirt on their hands, lessons learned and progress made, played a critical role in blazing trails for new ventures. Some of those companies have grown dramatically, e.g., Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ: GMCR; market cap of ~$2.5 billion). Others have been acquired by larger companies, e.g., Stonyfield Yogurt (acquired by Groupe Danone), Ben & Jerry’s (Unilever), Burt’s Bees (The Clorox Company). Still others have remained independent.

The next wave of ProFood start-ups will have the advantage of leveraging the many lessons learned by these pioneers. Unlike earlier sustainable food entrepreneurs, this next-generation will also have the benefit of a growing number of mission-driven investors showing up sustainable food conferences, e.g., Slow Money Alliance and New Seed Advisors, looking to drive sustainable food forward.

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Pro Food: Slow Food with Entrepreneurial Twist

With my recent introduction of the term “Pro Food“, and a definition of its core principles, several readers have questioned how Pro Food differs from Slow Food. Rather than try to answer this question on my own, as I am only somewhat familiar with Slow Food, I am opening it up to others to help decide.

Pro Food is primarily focused on driving entrepreneurial interest in solving the complex food system challenges we face. By attracting such talent and energy to sustainable food, from farming through retail to home cooking, it is my belief that the money will follow to support their efforts (new post coming on this subject).

Pro Food is not about debating the current problems by taking one side or the other. There is plenty of that already happening, and is my belief that the valuable time and energy being spent in such debates can be put to far better use if it is directed toward finding innovative solutions to our food problems.

For 20 years, Slow Food has been successful in reestablishing links between food and terroir. The most successful event at each Terra Madre convention in Bra, Italy, the birthplace of the movement, has always been Salone del Gusto. This event features local foods from around the globe, prepared and presented by the artisans themselves. In Europe, where the movement was born, the emphasis has been on reviving the culinary expression of local cultures.

When Slow Food crossed the pond to America it took some time to find its feet as our unique food cultures have endured decades of pressure to homogenize, thanks in large part to the dominant industrial food system. Every region has its specific culinary traditions, dating back in some cases to before the founding of the nation. In addition, our immigrant newcomers brought their respective food traditions with them, but soon found the need to adapt to locally available food stuffs.

Slow Food USA Vision: Food is a common language and a universal right. Slow Food USA envisions a world in which all people can eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the planet.

Slow Food USA Mission: To create dramatic and lasting change in the food system. We reconnect Americans with the people, traditions, plants, animals, fertile soils and waters that produce our food. We work to inspire a transformation in food policy, production practices and market forces so that they ensure equity, sustainability and pleasure in the food we eat.

Slow Food USA recently started addressing food policy issues in earnest, sparked by Slow Food Nation, its first national convention held last fall in San Francisco. Policy-making efforts have been spearheaded by other organizations, working just as diligently to remake our food system, including Food Democracy Now!Roots of Change (specific to California), Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), and Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), to name a few.

Pro Food stands apart in its efforts to revitalize the entrepreneurial side of the American food system, with the express purpose of reestablishing the link between food and source, bringing together eaters and farmers in new, innovative ways. This specific focus will make it possible to re-inject business sense into the sustainable production, distribution, preparation, and consumption of local foods with entrepreneurial savvy, adapted to each level of the entire chain.

Further information on Pro Food and Slow Food:

• Every Kitchen Table: Pro Food Is…
• Every Kitchen Table: Closing the Farm to Plate Knowledge Gap
• Slow Food USA: Good, Clean and Fair
• Slow Food USA: From Plate to Planet
• Slow Food International: What We Do

I look forward to your comments regarding these two important efforts dedicated to solving our food system problems, in what I believe are unique and complementary ways.

Do you agree?

Every Kitchen Table is supporter of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Fridays

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