The food system is in transition, with disruptors including global warming, food insecurity, new regenerative farming methods and new technology. We talk to sustainability consultant and former Director of Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer, Mike Barry, about his thoughts on the changes.
Mike Barry has a warning for the food industry. The disruptors are coming. And he's seen it happen before.
"Seven years ago I was sat with the leadership team of one of the world's biggest car companies. It was a black tie dinner and they were laughing their heads off at the thought that Tesla would ever overtake them.
"Now Tesla is worth more than the largest car manufacturers on the planet put together."
That leadership team, Barry explains, thought they'd succeed in terms of sustainability if they reduced CO2 emissions.
"But what they failed to recognise is that the basic product - a diesel car - was about to be replaced by the electric car. And I would contend that the food sector is entering the same level of transformation."
The food industry is, Barry says, the most vulnerable sector on the planet to the problems caused by global warming. While transport and energy are big greenhouse gas emitters, the effect of climate change directly on the factory or generating plant is typically minimal. On the other hand, in the food industry the impact is more direct, with weather severely impacting biodiversity and output from crops.
“We know that the food system is running on fumes. Now it's having to feed more people under more pressure, climatically, driving down yields around the world,” explains Barry.
“At the same time, we can see that geopolitical turbulence can very rapidly disrupt this thinly stretched food system even further. It’s why we need to build more resilient, regenerative and productive systems.”
However, he sees a positive future. “I believe we spent the last 20 years making existing business models less bad. Less carbon, less plastic, less human rights abuse. When we talk about regenerative systems, we want to go beyond that and do better, make things better. Better for people, better for the planet.”
So, how can this be achieved?
Innovative regenerative approaches
Experimental approaches to food production, which are currently small scale, could help make the food industry in 2030 look very different from what we see today.
For example, Barry foresees the cellular cloning of meat moving from the lab and into the mainstream as well as getting more affordable. He also believes the personalisation of diets is set to increase.
But he predicts that one of the biggest changes will be the growth in indoor farming – with vertical farms in particular bringing food production closer to city centres.
“London, for example, will have 50 or more large vertical farms compared with the couple of small-scale ventures that currently exist. There’s no reason why new blocks of flats shouldn’t have a small vertical farm built on the roof or in the basement, with the produce being supplied to the block’s residents or them picking their own.
“While I was working there, Marks & Spencer were being supplied with herbs grown in old bomb shelters. These indoor farms also protect more from geopolitical disruption and from extreme weather events.”
But what about regenerative and organic farming? Barry foresees these kinds of farms having a place alongside existing farming methods, and small-scale producers selling to their local communities in farmers markets.
“There will be a mosaic of solutions,” he says.
Growers are often the ones who find themselves squeezed by the pressures the food industry is under. While Barry is hopeful that the changes ahead will benefit farmers he also says businesses will have to support them better.
“We need to help farmers run their fields more efficiently, more productively, with less waste, less fertiliser, less pesticide, which is better for the environment.
“Shared value will need to recognise the value of regenerative agriculture systems that require less fertiliser or antibiotics, improve the soil and biodiversity, but which may result in lower yields for farmers, hence the need for support.”
Standards and values are also an issue. Barry calls for initiatives to be built into contracts setting out, for example, that children of cocoa farmers need to go to school instead of working in the fields, as Nestlé has done.
Building trust between the food industry and consumers will become all-important in the new food system.
“To take food indoors or to personalise it against DNA profiles, you need to be trusted. Trusted by consumers, by society, by the regulators that govern you – by everyone,” Barry says. And this trust has to be built on firm foundations.
“With social media, once the genie is out of the lamp you can’t put it back in. It can take years to build trust, which can be shattered quickly and easily. So you’ll have to be honest about where and how the food is grown.”
Consumers will also be looking to their supermarket for answers about the provenance of food. And if they don’t get them, they may go elsewhere. “There is growing evidence that a diet and a plate of food that's good for the planet is also good for your health and wellbeing. Consumers who can afford it want to choose what they eat along these lines.”
To create a regenerative system, Barry strongly believes that everyone needs to move forward together, with farmers and food manufacturers building partnerships with retailers to achieve the best outcomes.
Competitor businesses may even need to come together to proactively lobby for food standards and good environmental regulation and laws.
“The food system is very complex, so it can be about following the right pathways. For example, knowledge sharing about best practice,” Barry says. To do this, food businesses and the food industry can set up hubs where best practice can be shared and suppliers educated. Digital tools can also play a role, allowing farmers to see how their yields, fertiliser and antibiotic use, and crop spraying compares with others to help them make improvements.
“Organisations need to work together to follow the same standards so no business is unduly advantaged or disadvantaged – and so there are no free riders out there while your business makes the effort to change.”
Tips for business leaders
Most businesses will need to learn to walk before they can run towards their goal to be more sustainable. These are the things Barry suggests businesses should do first
- Decide the direction you want to move in. This should come from the top - from the board and the CEO. They need to articulate the business case as well as the environmental and social benefits.
- Engage the leadership team and upskill them so they can be active participants in both day-to-day and long-term decisions
- Put in place support structures for suppliers