By Michelle Ferrier, Guest Contributor
The middle class may be getting the media to focus on the quality of food, but it is the quantity of food required to feed the world’s population in 2050 that is garnering the attention of scientists.
Preservation, logistics, and distribution leaders of global agribusiness such as Accenture, Sysco Systems, and CHIC Group Global of China tackled both quality and quantity at the Global South Summit on Wednesday. The summit brought leaders across agriculture and biotechnology industries to NGOs and government leaders seeking solutions to feeding the world.
Edward Zhu, CEO of CHIC Group Global of Shanghai; Rob Howell, Vice President of sourcing and supply chain services for Sysco Systems; Jeffrey Brecht, Director, UF/IFAS Center for Food Distribution and Retailing, University of Florida; and Rich Kottmeyer, senior executive and global agriculture and food production leader, Accenture spoke during the “Harvest to Table” session at the Global South Summit in Nashville on Wednesday.
The panelists examined the complex problem of how to grow enough food to meet future demands and how to get the food where it needs to be. Kottmeyer said to examine the problem like a pipeline.
“You’ve got this pipe and it’s allowing a certain amount of water to get through. We can improve the pipe, we can improve the velocity of the water through the pipe by optimization–or you can fix the leaks in the pipe,” he said.
The group discussed loss and waste and how science and technology are attempting to control for each.
“Loss is what is destroyed in the field by environmental conditions or decay from microorganisms,” Brecht said. “And there’s waste–food that is edible and is not eaten.” Brecht said different cultural standards in industrial and developing countries drives what is acceptable and palatable.
“In industrial countries, we throw a lot of food away more than lose product through loss,” he said. “In developing countries, they will eat the food that is available and that may not be perfect by industrialized nations’ standards.”
He explained that data granularity helps scientists see what’s happening in the system at the very local level, from seed to plate.
“Analytics now allow you to understand what is being grown as it is being grown,” Kottmeyer said. “We have to get to granularity–we have to get granular, because I want to connect people back to the farmer and the products and the ingredients.”
In China, Zhu said that data is used to bring traceability across the supply chain from farming to processing to distribution to the table. That data helps to solve some of China’s food safety issues, Zhu said.
Sysco’s Howell believes that here in the United States, distribution is not the issue. He said that with 170 distribution locations and a high integration with the highway and rail systems, his company can distribute products to consumers.
“Over the past 30 to 40 years, the number of consumers we have to feed has grown,” Howell said.
It is a matter of scale, as well as flexibility, because middle-class U.S. citizens also hold sway over markets. “What does the emerging middle class want to eat? How can we predict what they want to eat in 2040?” Kottmeyer asked. “We have to be flexible at the same time that we are innovating. We need to scale; we have to be flexible and optimize.”
In the U.S. environment, Howell said, a chef will make a decision tonight about what to serve tomorrow. “We have to get that to the table. We have to know what that customer wants to buy and help control supply and demand.”
“We’re aggregating this demand and the efficient way to move it from point of origin to the consumer,” Howell said. And reams of data help spot opportunities for targeted improvements.
“We believe strongly at Accenture that technology can help,” said Kottmeyer. “Monsanto proved this in India–they were able to get incredible yield improvement. The same holds true in supply chains. It’s all about getting modest, incremental change.”
The Global South Summit is an annual C-Level leadership event held in Nashville, Tennessee to address major innovation-based opportunities that create abundance. The inaugural event was be held November 13 to 14, 2012 and focused on healthcare and food innovations. The inaugural event also served as the formative Global Food Summit setting the agenda for the Sustainable Food Project, Expo Milano 2015.
Michelle Ferrier is an Associate Professor at Elon University.