‘The future of food’

“The future of food” was explored by 54 speakers over three days in November and December in a conference staged by the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA). As a first-time event, the conference had a little difficulty figuring out where to look for such divine inspiration, but it did provide several moments of insight.

“A decade ago, we were focusing on lowfat products and nothing else. Genetically modified crops were just beginning. China and India as potential markets were unheard of. Baby Boomers were not yet feeling old. And a blackberry was just that,” said Richard Lenny, president/CEO of Hershey Foods, said in an introductory speech.

And most of those topics came up during the next three days. Talk of emerging markets focused not just on future consumers but also on ingredient suppliers and potential competitors. The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) were mentioned often. Genetically modified crops were debated daily, with opinions ranging from “Frankenfoods” to solutions for world hunger. And there was a lot of thought about how far and how long can we continue the healthful evolution of foods.

Speakers included two food company CEOs — Lenny and Stephen Sanger, chairman/CEO of General Mills — representatives of foreign food associations, “futurist” Faith Popcorn, academics and government and regulatory officers.

In one interestingly succinct moment, members of panel were asked what would be the biggest coming upheavals in food. Answers included:
  • Healthier oils, especially for brain and heart functions.

  • More tailoring of products (especially crops) for their specific end use.

  • Energy.

  • Sustainability of numerous resources.

  • What’s the next big threat? Will it be bird flu? Agro-terrorism? Something else?
“Where does food end and pharmacology begin?” was the question posed by Scott Gottlieb, FDA’s deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs. Over the three days, answers varied from the addition of healthier genes to crops to nutrigenomics, the design of foods for specific genetic profiles, to nanotechnology. One speaker said he had heard of a grocery store offering DNA profiling so customers could choose foods ideal for them.

Steve Gundrum, president/CEO of independent product development firm Mattson Co., told of the three-team “ultimate cookie” development contest we chronicled in our October issue ("Quest for the ultimate cookie"), which featured novel, software industry-like processes.

Some other bullet points:
  • Food as a powerful national resource:
  • The past year proved how OPEC has most of the world over a barrel because of oil. The U.S. has an abundance of food and is capable of producing even more, which could be used as strategically as energy.

  • Scarcity of water:
  • Whether it’s irrigating crops, hydrating livestock or mixing ingredients, water is a critical ingredient in the food chain. But water can no longer be treated as a given, much less a low-cost ingredient.

  • China:
  • Wouldn’t you love to have customers in China? But how do you feel about ingredient suppliers from that huge market? How do you feel about low-cost Chinese competitors exporting here?
GMA has commitments from sponsors to stage the conference again, probably annually, but a date and location have not been announced.

Editor's Note: For more information on GMA's Future of Food Conference, visit www.futureoffood.org.

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