When we talk about the future of food, we usually start with world population growth. Estimates say we’ll pass the 8 billion-people mark around the spring of 2024. The worry for decades has been if we will be able to feed all those hungry mouths.
The number of hungry mouths may not be the problem. A 2002 United Nations study showed that global agricultural production would exceed the population’s needs just six years after we hit the 8 billion mark. How we distribute and sell food in the future could be far more important – and more interesting.
“Oil isn’t cheap,” Katie Camden says when asked about the future of food distribution. “Plus, over the next 10 to 20 years, it’s not going to get any cheaper.”
Camden started her career in neuroscience, but then she moved into the food business. She and her husband, Micah, have a string of successful and unique restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. He’s the chef; she’s the brains. She refines and iterates each operation like a ruthless engineer, optimizing each step in the production and the distribution chain.
Camden is the go-to person when it comes to the future of food. She’s all business. Her no-nonsense perspectives always provide a clear vision for where she sees things going. She has strong opinions.
“The cost of just moving food – especially over long distances – is always going to be expensive,” she explains. “It’s really the limiting factor. It’s not a food problem. It’s not even a farm problem. It’s an oil problem.”
Even with the recent shale gas boom in the U.S., the long-term cost for oil is not projected to drop. On the contrary, it has risen from around $25 a barrel in 2002 to $100 in 2013. The race to renewable and alternative energy will continue over the next few decades.
So if oil and transportation are the real limiting factors, then what should we do? What are the opportunities?
“More food retailers and restaurants will look to local farms and food producers,” Camden believes. “I don’t just mean small farms but all farms that are nearby. Retailers will base their operations on what’s available locally,” she says.
One of her most popular chains is Little Big Burger, a series of purposely small take-out restaurants that serve high-quality hamburgers from only locally sourced beef. “We’ve looked at opening our hamburger restaurants in Texas and Colorado because of their amazing local beef,” she says.
In Camden’s view, the next 10 years will see more local businesses working with local farmers to source food. She says it will go beyond that to the very issue of what’s available from those producers. “That will drive those businesses,” she predicts.
The business of food retailing is just plain hard, with notoriously low profit margins and stiff competition. Retailers are always looking for the newest innovation that will differentiate them. Because of this, hints to the future can be found in the aisles of your local market, as well as in your email in-box, in your smartphone, and in the mass of data being created.
Affinity card programs are nothing new. Those little cards are scanned at supermarket checkouts to get special discounts. Soon, those cards will be paired with high-tech data analytics and real-time shopper tracking. Something really different is emerging: a hyperpersonalized shopping experience.
It isn’t complicated. With your permission, an affinity card tracks everything you purchase. The store offers up coupons that fit your habits. The deals land in an in-box or smartphone app, giving automatic savings at checkout.
It gets interesting when stores cross their data with other information about you. They not only can give discounts on what you are about to purchase but also can make suggestions based on other activity. You might be tracked in real time as you move through a store and are offered suggestions based on health history, social network, and your favorite movies.
Tomorrow Belongs to the Shopper
Most of us don’t realize the power we have when we make those seemingly mundane decisions in stores. Long before crop shortages plague the global supply chain, consumers will vote with their purchases. That sentiment will drive the future, and the real opportunity lies in the imaginations and aspirations of average people all over the world. The interesting question is how can farmers start to participate in that conversation?