By: Thomas Siebertz
On April 15 and 16 I had the pleasure of attending the Food Policy Conference hosted by the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, DC. It covered a lot of different topics such as the Food Safety Modernization Act implementation, immigration reform effects on the food supply, food safety issues, and nutrition. The keynote speakers included Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner of Foods and Veterinary Medicine of the FDA, Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the book “Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity” and Senator Mark Pryor, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development. There were also several different breakout panels and I would like to share a little about what I learned there.
The Future of Food Shopping
The way consumers are shopping and making decisions at the grocery store is rapidly changing. New technology makes it easy to compare prices, ingredients and nutrition information instantly. Retailers and food manufacturers are also using technology and social media to reach out to consumers and develop products more suited to their preferences.
Another cause of the shift in consumer behavior is the fact that dads (such as myself) are increasingly assuming roles like grocery shopping. Edelman PR reports that 33% of dads are taking the lead on grocery shopping and that they are a key player in effecting purchasing decisions and behavior. Price is also one of the top factors that influences purchasing and 79% of consumers say their budget determines many of their food purchasing decisions.
Technology enhanced grocery shopping is growing and has caused 54% of consumers to purchase traditional groceries online. While online sales are growing, I remain a fan of going to the store in person to pick out my fruit and meat so I can assess the quality for myself. Moving forward, Susan Borra, the VP of Communication of the Food Marketing Institute predicts consumers will use Kayak-like price comparison apps for food shopping.
Another interesting thing to hear about was the amount of money that goes into marketing towards children. The food industry spends more than $1 billion per year on marketing to kids, excluding kid’s meals/toy promotions. The panel also presented data that showed manufacturers pay a premium to display their products on the middle and bottom of the shelves-places where kids will see them.
It’s no secret that kids love to eat products with their favorite cartoon characters on them. My daughter goes crazy for Dora the Explorer snacks and because of this I leave the kids at home when I go grocery shopping. It is crucial that we teach our kids about eating healthy foods and everything in moderation.
How Immigration Reform Could Impact Our Food Supply
Maureen Torrey, a farm operator, gave a very informative and emotional talk on immigration reform and what the impacts are for food safety, human rights and public health. She discussed how 70% of our food supply is handled by illegal workers and that the US does not have a guest worker program which causes additional stress on the agriculture industry. The H2A Visa program that is in place only allows workers to work for 10 months out of the year but she needs people year round to work on the dairy farm. This prevents her from expanding her operations.
She believes the immigrant work force is extremely important because there are no alternatives. Torrey also states we are growing 18% of the worlds food supply on 10% of the land which is adding to challenge of having to feed 9.3 billion people by 2050. Without farmers and immigration reform we will have to rely more heavily on imported products.
Bruce Goldstein, Executive Director of Farm Worker Justice, states that of the two million farm workers in the US who do seasonal farm work, 85% were born in a foreign country and 55-75% lack authorized immigration status. This prevents workers from speaking up about poor conditions and demanding better wages. They also lack basic benefits like sick leave, vacation time and health insurance.
These practices are not sustainable, as a lot of the foods we eat and treasure are harvested by hand, not by machine. We need skilled workers to harvest these valuable crops. In order to feed the world, ourselves and to improve the lives of farmers and workers, we need to improve the immigration system.
Keynote Speaker Lester Brown
This interesting talk addressed a growing problem that is already affecting the US and the world- properly feeding everyone. Brown began by asserting that we are currently moving from food abundance to food scarcity. Some of the causes of this are increased affluence, grain use as biofuels, and climate change. Food prices have continued to rise for several years. We don’t truly feel the impact in more affluent countries because we’re purchasing products made with a low percentage of that raw commodity. However, in other countries, people are buying raw commodities, such as wheat, directly and an increase in price affects their ability to buy food. Rising food prices is one indicator that will tell us more about our future than any other.
A disturbing fact that Brown discussed is that many families around the world are forced to plan “foodless days.” When grain prices go up, these families may not be able to eat for several days. In Nigeria (20%), India (24%), and Peru (14%) families plan foodless days.
2007 was a key point in the transition to rapidly rising food costs. Russia and Argentina decided to restrict wheat exports, which dramatically tightened wheat available to other countries. Governments in importing countries began looking for land they could acquire in other countries, which has resulted in a global “free for all”. Essentially, food is the new oil and land gold.
We are in a very different situation as compared to the 1950’s, where the problem was controlling surpluses. The responsibility of food goes far beyond the USDA, as energy policy may have a greater effect on the future of food than food policy. This has escalated from a departmental issue to a government- and society-wide challenge. The talk was really fascinating and we also received a free copy of Brown’s book entitled “Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Security,” which I look forward to reading.
Did you attend the National Food Policy Conference? If so, what were some of your favorite sessions?