Loading... please wait

It is increasingly recognized that our global food system is unsustainable. Expected consumption needs in 2050 will not be abated by production at its current rate given dual challenges of a growing population with an increased demand for animal protein, and declining soil quality. This is perhaps the single greatest challenge that the global community will together face.

Fortunately, a growing number of entrepreneurs, scientists, investors, and influencers are developing products to tip the balance. But, to truly fix our food system, we will need to create a consumer base willing to eat, and pay for, sustainably-produced food. Not just when it’s convenient, but at a level significant enough to change our food production patterns. To build this food movement, partnerships across companies, industries, governments, universities, and civil society organizations are necessary, and a deeper understanding of what moves the consumer is needed.

The James Beard Foundation Summit, held on October 23rd and 24th in New York City, convened a group of food system experts and innovators under the theme of Consuming Power to tackle this very subject.

“When a billion people do something, things change” – Jason Clay, World Wildlife Fund

The power of the consumer to demand a new, better, more sustainable food system is immense. Throughout the JBF Summit, experts agreed that the average citizen could disrupt the food production trajectory. The question then becomes: how can we influence people to consider elements like sustainability alongside taste, price, and nutrition? What are the tools or mechanisms available to shift behavior, and who controls them? 

Fortunately, we operate at a time when there is more known about what drives “the consumer” than ever before. Mike Lukianoff, Chief Data Scientist at Fishbowl, Inc., told the JBF Summit audience that we’ve accumulated more digital, social, sensory, and mobile data in 2017 than in the entire history of mankind. Now comes the hard part: what that data tells us about consumer purchasing and consumption patterns—particularly as it relates to sustainable or ethical eating habits—is still being deciphered.

According to market research conducted by the JBF Summit Team in partnership with Radius-Global, and presented for the first time at the Summit, 67% of adults have changed their eating habits in the last three years, with 70% percent of these people indicating a shift to more healthy foods. While a positive turn, that leaves 33%—or 79 million adults—unmoved by information campaigns and marketing. The industry needs to better understand that audience and take advantage of the enormous opportunities this segment can have to shift the food supply.

“We wrestle a lot with ‘what does real food mean?’” – Josh Anthony, Campbell Soup Company

One major challenge is that companies are still grappling with their role in the market cycle: do they build demand, or do they respond to it? Should they cater to the 67%, or seek to convert the remaining 33%? For some, like Pepsico, there is a clear calling to provide a diversified product set that ultimately moves the consumer to a more healthy, sustainable place. “It’s actually a very good business decision to invest in this [sustainability] upfront because you can’t change an agri-supply chain in two years,” said Dr. Mehmood Khan, Vice Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer at Pepsico. Whether providing soda with reduced sugar and developing a new suite of more healthy products or investing in supply chain assessment programs that identify and reduce labor and environmental risks, the company believes the industry must factor in long-term, innovative thinking to remain relevant. 

Others saw the role of the industry to provide transparency and information. Jason Clay, Senior Vice President for Food & Markets at the World Wildlife Fund, argued that we should “not tell them [consumers] what to think, but how to think” so that consumers can begin to make better choices for themselves. With more information and time, a strong market for more sustainably-sourced products may develop. However, if forced on consumers, there may be a backlash. For food companies facing slim profit margins in a saturated market, the early development of products that fit a more narrow, niche market—like alternative proteins and others trending over social media—may be too exposed.

We need to “start thinking about what’s possible on a large scale” – Chef Dan Barber, Blue Hill Group

We are increasingly seeing new products reach the shelves of the grocery store, like the burgeoning array of alternative proteins. Not only can these cut down on the carbon emissions associated with the livestock industry, but they can also offer accessible, affordable, nutrition-rich foods for food-vulnerable populations. However, we now need to focus on how this can be implemented—and accepted—on a much larger scale. 

The craft brewery industry serves as an example of a sustainable crop (barley is an excellent soil-supporting cover crop) that has a major market and can scale for impact. Alexia Howard, Senior Analyst at AB Bernstein, also predicted niche products like Justin’s nut butters, Skinny Pop popcorn, and KIND bars to take a larger market share. But creating the demand for a more healthful food (or, in the case of craft breweries, sustainably-sourced), will still take time. 

It may be too soon to hail the Impossible Burger as the new American dinner staple. However, progress in this direction is being made through everyday purchasing decisions by a growing number of adults across demographics and geographies. To continue movement in this direction, partnerships between policy makers and food companies, informed by the public, will be essential. Specifically, experts called for the creation of a platform where companies and stakeholders can come together and share data. Companies that identify sustainability as a pre-competitive issue should be celebrated, while industries should leave the laggards behind.



All sessions of the James Beard 2017 Food Summit were captured on Livestream. To sign up for JBF Impact Programs updates, including news about next year’s Summit, email Ashley Kosiak (akosiak@jamesbeard.org). To learn more about Concordia and our Campaign for a Sustainable Global Food Supply, watch our three-part video series. Part 1 highlights issues related to animal welfare, sustainable farming challenges and the role public-private partnerships can play, as told through the lens of the farmers. Part 2 and 3 explore how closed-loop systems that reduce transportation and eliminate food waste provide new mechanisms for people to enjoy produce.