Old World Trends Won’t Feed The Masses

This issue features an insightful piece by Sharon Olson, a respected industry consultant whose work, including many pieces for DELI BUSINESS, is invariably thought-provoking. Sharon went to Italy to visit Expo Milano 2015 and walks us through this fascinating event, with an eye on lessons for supermarket deli executives, which might be drawn from this extraordinary exhibition.

The piece is very useful as a guide to retailers looking for what is “on trend.” Yet the report on this world-class event also reveals the almost schizophrenic attitude of thought-leaders and policy-makers towards the future. The entire exhibition was supposed to be focused on providing an opportunity whereby “140 participating countries show the best of their technology that offers a concrete answer to a vital need: being able to guarantee healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone” – that is, the world population of nine billion people that is expected in 2050, up from the 7.3 billion in the world today.

Yet we wind up, as Sharon chronicles, with this: “food items were packaged in limited quantities on-premise rather than combinations received pre-packaged by vendors” and “Old World was clearly the hot trend.” There were items “packaged in butcher-type paper with a wax seal,” plus restaurants that featured “traditional dishes and menus based on very modern trends with items based on anti-aging, detox, and other diet concepts.”

The overall conceit was well-expressed when Sharon quoted Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation and the chief creative for the USA Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015: “Research indicates consumers are increasingly interested in knowing where their food is from, how it is made, and what impact it has had on the environment.”

Of course, that research was not done where the main population increase is expected to occur, which is overwhelmingly in sub-Saharan Africa and India. Indeed the advanced western countries, where such research studies have been done, would all have flat or declining populations, the only variable being how many immigrants will be allowed in.

We have a deep dilemma. The people who imagine and execute events of this type love artisan workers producing artisanal products; they rejoice in local food and celebrate provenance. They want to know that all is produced in a sustainable manner; they want to know the people who worked on their food were well paid and well treated; they want to know their farmer and they want to eat seasonally.

Why should they not? This is all delightful. And this columnist, no less than anyone, enjoys walking the Farmers Market and listening to fascinating stories of how some heirloom apple variety has survived on a farm from Great-Grandpa’s day while eating special batches of goat cheese on artisanal bread.

Yet, none of this is likely to have much to do with increasing food production sufficiently to feed an extra two billion people. And advocacy of these techniques and standards is irresponsible if not joined with an injunction that these are pleasures for rich countries and rich people, not solutions to food shortages.

We have undergone changes in the food system before. Recently it was the “green revolution,” which involved research and development and technology transfer that dramatically increased food production. Indeed Norman Borlaugh, who spearheaded the effort, won a Nobel Prize as he may be responsible for saving more lives than anyone in history.

India, for example, was on the brink of massive famine, so the introduction of IR8, a high-yielding rice variety, plus the addition of synthetic fertilizers, changed the picture. In a 20-year period, India went from a major rice importer to a substantial exporter, and the price of rice dropped by more than 50 percent.

Now the future lies in the extensive use of genetic engineering, irradiation, cultured meat and the use of many more such technologies. These technologies certainly will help farmers. In Hawaii, for example, almost the whole crop is now a genetically modified variant as the industry was being wiped out by Papaya Ringspot Virus.

Indian farmers are now exporting mangos to the USA, which would not be enterable in the USA for phytosanitary reasons, except for the irradiation treatment.These technologies will also help consumers.

It is a sentimentality that leads people to focus on wax seals and local agriculture when the need is for dramatic increases in production.

We have seen this before. Indeed in the very DNA of America, there is a battle between the Jeffersonians, who imaged the virtues of an agrarian society with diffuse power – and the Hamiltonians, who saw progress in a strong central government. There is little question the Jeffersonians won the hearts of Americans, yet the Hamiltonians wrote our future.

So with food, we will rejoice at the Farmers Market with its heirloom products and artisan producers, but the food that will feed the two billion yet to come will be the product of the most modern technology. There is no alternative.