This is not the first time I have written on this subject; perhaps the title should be ‘The Return of Groundhog Day’. Regardless, I think it is worthy to revisit the consistently disturbing trend of our words indicating a desire to improve supply chains while our actions suggest a lack of total commitment. Why might this be? I have a theory: Food supply chains are complex and more than just the distribution of food from a producer to a consumer. They are influenced by geopolitical biases and non-tariff trade barriers, by cultural norms and expectations, by how mobilised and/or empowered a consumer base is and by how motivated governments and their regulators are to peel back the layers and expose how vulnerable their country’s food systems actually are.
There are good reasons why the true nature of food systems remain hidden – including political instability, the influence of lobby groups, corruption, fear – and these reasons will continue to propel us to talk, gather at conferences and invent new ‘solutions’. But I must confess: I am a cynic. I’m writing from yet another international conference with an impressive array of speakers, of whom some are truly inspirational. Many are making a difference within specific sub-populations or regions but the topics they are covering are not new. Sure, some of the suggested solutions are novel-ish, but none will keep us from repeating the same conversations about how we feed a growing population and ensure food supplies are safe.
Why am I so cynical? First, I have heard it all before … in fact over and over again. I have seen energetic entrepreneurs bounce onto stages and proclaim how their truly innovative solutions are going to make everything better. Missing, without fail, are people who have lost a child through malnutrition or a foodborne illness that occurred through lax hazard control measures – people who would surely have a wealth of questions for these bright young things on the stage. Second, even at prestigious conferences like the one I’m attending in Milan, the people who are decision makers – in some economies the private sector, in others (specifically, China) the correct government officials – go unrepresented. Until we recognise the different drivers found in different economies we have no shot at making something that is truly safer on a global basis. If we are, as the conference program suggests, ‘dedicated to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals’, then we should ensure that the correct people from the most populous and growing economies are in the room.
Perhaps, if we want to get serious about making change, we need to get uncomfortable. Sitting here in Milan with good coffee constantly on-hand it is easy to romanticise about how a particular solution might benefit the world. What if instead of straw bales with colourful cushions designed to make conference attendees consider the importance of farmers, we actually sat in a wool shed, or fruit packing shed, or on a coffee plantation? Would we act and/or think differently? I think we would, and might generate more effective solutions. Two of the more inspiring speakers at this conference – Howard Schultz from Starbucks and Seth Goodman from Beyond Meat – attributed their success to personal needs they understood and acted upon.
I do not mean to belittle enthusiastic speakers at the conference who are presenting what they believe. To move forward we need to be exposed not only to new ‘solutions’ but to also be reminded, in real-time, about what the need and drivers look like. We also need to leave behind any arrogance that assumes that a solution generated in one part of the world will meet the needs of every other place on earth.