I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a conversation with Dr. Robert Lustig, Pediatric endocrinologist and Professor of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, Erin Wiggins, Director of Digital/Physical Transformation of Health & Wellness at Walmart, and Carter Williams, CEO of iSelect. The conversation was part of the 2020 Crusonia on the Delta Food is Health Digital Forum.
We covered an array of topics regarding the current state of our food system and its connection to our health, and at the end I asked each of them to choose a single word that captures their view of the food system and the change needed over the next few years. The three words they chose were not necessarily surprising, but as someone who has worked in this industry for a long time, the combination of words they chose, and who chose each of them, really struck a chord with me.
The road ahead is complex and Daunting.
In the U.S., we spend more on healthcare for diet-related illnesses than we do on food itself. Two thirds of Americans are overweight or suffer from obesity. 800,000 people in the U.S. die from cardiovascular disease each year, 20% are under age 65. Cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and other diet-related illnesses are often comorbidity factors, as has been the case with many COVID deaths.
Dr. Lustig is an expert on the impacts of sugar and overly processed foods on health, especially for children. He shared the alarming stat that fatty liver disease, normally thought of as an ailment of older adults, is being observed in children as young as 5.
As a professional in this industry, I understand that our food system has deep, entrenched economic and operational roots across a very complex supply chain. From farm economics dependent upon commodity crops across over 180 million acres in the U.S., to the fact that the average American consumes approximately 152 pounds of sugar a year, often unintentionally in foods they did not consider sugar-laden. Changing this is a little bit like turning the Queen Mary around in Lake Winnipesaukee.
It’s significant to me that Dr. Lustig, an academic public health professional, recognizes the complexity of enabling this change and chose the term “Daunting” to describe the challenge ahead of us. It will require new thinking across the agri-food supply chain, from the kind of crops farmers grow to the way food products are developed and processed. But it will also require unprecedented collaboration between the agri-food, public health and healthcare industries. Despite the old adage “you are what you eat,” our agri-food and healthcare industries have not evolved that way.
The need for change is Essential.
I realize that as consumers we have a responsibility to make good choices, but I also appreciate how constraints of time and money can impact those decisions. It’s hard when healthy choices cost too much and are harder to access and prepare. It’s also hard when they don’t taste so great.
The agri-food and healthcare industries can make healthy choosing easier by creating more nutrient-dense ingredients that require less additives and processing, by making healthy foods more affordable and enjoyable, and by creating more incentives to make the right choices.
Food retailers, by virtue of their position between the whole agri-food supply chain and the consumer, have a unique and essential role in this evolution. They can use their influence to educate and shape consumer behavior, and they can serve as a conduit between consumer expectations and manufacturers in their supply chains.
For that reason, I was encouraged that Erin chose the word “Essential” to describe the change needed. If there is any entity that needs to recognize the importance of this challenge and their role in it, it is food retailers. It won’t be easy for them to navigate but knowing that champions like Erin in a company like Walmart see this as essential and are implementing programs to flex their influence is encouraging.
The time for change is Perfect.
There’s a well-known Chinese proverb that says the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now. We are potentially at a “flip the switch” moment for the future of food. There is real hope for the daunting and essential challenges we face and, more than that, real progress.
Carter is a bold, innovative thinker who hangs out with bold, strategic innovators. His firm iSelect hosts this conference to catalyze new thinking around what he calls “Food System C.” While Food System A focuses on efficiently grown, “cheap” calories and Food System B focuses on high-cost, higher-quality calories, Food System C combines the best of both worlds to make high-quality calories more scalable and affordable (and delicious).
iSelect supports innovators across the agri-food industry working to rethink our food system – building on what works well and boldly reimagining what doesn’t. Carter chose the term “Perfect” because he sees the landscape shifting on multiple fronts with momentum that can catalyze a new way:
- Consumers, and the companies serving them, are increasingly more concerned with nutrition and sustainability and are demanding more transparent and traceable food options.
- Healthcare and insurance providers are becoming more attuned to the connection between food and health and pursuing more preventative programs.
- Innovators (like Benson Hill, which I work for) are developing more biologically based improvements to food so farmers can grow the kind of crops and ingredients consumer want.
- And investors are recognizing the correlation between Environmental, Social and Governance performance metrics and financial growth supporting innovation in sectors that can contribute to food and health.
To be fair, many big thinkers in the agri-food space have been championing this kind of change for many years. One difference that underscores the opportunity before us today are advances in technology and data that support these shifts in new, exciting and accelerating ways. It is a positive “perfect storm” – consumers, companies, innovation and technology aligned to make this happen.
How quickly can we turn the ship? How quickly can we get to a place where good food is more accessible and affordable than bad at scale? A place where our investment in healthcare is more about preventing diet-related disease, not just treating it. And one where food production benefits farmers and manufacturers while also being more sustainable.The need is most certainly Daunting, Essential and Perfect. The one word I would add to the mix is “Urgent,” sharing Carter’s optimism that the work is underway.