Westminster food and nutrition forum seminar - Joanne Denney-Finch

Date : 08 March 2011

How will the food chain of the future differ from today?

Food is the world’s most important industry. It employs around a third of the world’s population and 3.6 million people in the UK. More than three quarters of UK land is in farming production.

Food is the UK’s biggest manufacturing sector and has grown by nearly 5% over ten years. British food exports were up by 12% last year. Food retailers account for just over a half of all retail sales.

And British food retailers and wholesalers are winning internationally including in China, India, Brazil and Russia.

So food is vital for the economy, vital for the environment and vital for human health.

Today, I’d like to look to the future, giving you my vision of the food system by the end of this decade.

This will be a vision, rather than a forecast - the type of future we could all aim for.

And I’ll start where I usually start, with shoppers.

We recently asked a thousand food shoppers about their hopes and expectations for the future.

This helped us to build a picture for the year 2020. Let me paint it for you.

This will be a time of great transparency.

As shoppers, we’ll have a world of information at our fingertips through our mobile devices.

When we pick up a product and swipe it over our phone we’ll be able to compare prices, see how popular the product is with other shoppers, see how, where and when it was made, learn more about the ingredients and the company’s ethical rating.

This will further empower shoppers and also give companies more ways to differentiate ensuring that competition is around value and values, not just price.

The bolder, braver companies will progress further and faster on their ethical standards and reap the reward of greater customer loyalty.

Bricks and mortar stores will still be popular in the year 2020 but even more of us will be shopping online.

And we’ll look back with fondness at the relatively cheap price for oil in the year 2011.The need to conserve fuel will be a strong influence on our behaviour. Some people will join a car pool, travelling to shops as a group.

Some will shop less frequently and buy in bulk, but others will buy more on foot from local stores.

Some will join local online buying groups to get a better deal and share delivery costs.

Even more people will be growing food in their gardens.

And this variety of responses will help to promote a vibrant market with a mix of store formats, both large and small.

Many of us will be living in zero waste households. All of our food packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable. And new forms of packaging will help us to keep our food fresher for longer. The majority of food factories and food stores will also be zero waste.

Waste will be rooted out at source where possible, with the remainder feeding anaerobic digestion plants to produce energy.

Food companies and farmers will have made other great strides towards sustainability. There will be a new wave of greener, smarter farming inputs. And precision farming techniques will get more output per unit of input, including water.

Food related carbon emissions will be cut well ahead of government targets. And global deforestation will have been halted and in reverse.

Obesity and other dietary problems will be on the decline. The health and food sectors will be working as partners. The “quiet revolution” of step-by-step product reformulation will be paying big dividends.

Nano techniques will help to deliver the same flavour with fewer calories.

And there will be a greater emphasis on the quality of meat and fish rather than the quantity.

Relationships through the food chain will be stronger.

The need for security of supply will have led to more partnerships giving farmers more confidence to invest.

And finance will be channelled into farming as the growing world demand makes this a very smart bet.

Manufacturers and retailers will help their farmer suppliers to exchange best practice.

And growers in the developing world will be helped into a virtuous spiral improving yields, earning a surplus, investing and raising yields again.

Every part of the chain will have sharpened its skills in technology, sustainability, marketing, leadership and teamwork. And our highly skilled sector will be the career of choice for the brightest young people.

So that’s my vision.

I don’t underestimate the difficulties involved but these are endlessly discussed, unlike the good news which so often gets overlooked.

And various statistics give me hope for the future.

UK Fairtrade sales are over a billion pounds up by 40% on last year.

British retailers have halved the amount they sent to landfill over 5 years.

British food manufacturers have cut carbon emissions by 21% over ten years.

And British farmers have cut their energy consumption by 22% over that same period.

At a company level there are hundreds of inspirational examples.

Time only allows me to mention a few.

Tesco has cut the number of carrier bags it issues by more than half.

3663, the foodservice company, cut carbon emissions by 85% by converting cooking oil to biofuel.

Kraft removed 2,000 tonnes of packaging through its Kenco refill packs.

Heinz helped its tomato growers to cut water usage by half.

Coca Cola has improved its global water efficiency by 13%.

All of Unilever’s palm oil for Europe is now from sustainable sources.

Pepsico has halved the salt in its potato crisps and reduced the saturated fat by over 70%.

Nestlé has reformulated over 7000 products to raise nutrient levels.

And United Biscuits has cut the saturated fat in McVities digestives by 80%.

Other landmarks are in sight.

Sainsbury’s will soon generate enough electricity from waste to power a town of 20,000 people.

And a group of 50 international food companies, through the Consumer Goods Forum, has pledged to help put an end to deforestation.

The trailblazers are finding that doing the right thing also makes good business sense.

Marks and Spencer estimated at the outset that their Plan A programme would cost them £200 million but in fact it’s delivering a profit.

And at IGD, we’re playing our part.

We’ve worked with 35 leading companies to take 160 million miles of HGV traffic off the roads, conserving 80 million litres of fuel per year.

We’re now helping a similar number of companies to eliminate 75,000 tonnes of food and packaging waste at source and to divert another 150,000 tonnes away from landfill.

That’s equivalent to 15 million wheelie bins.

And the IGD employability pledge to offer high quality work experience, apprenticeships and other work opportunities has been signed by 25 companies so far.

So food is the most important industry and it’s moving back to the centre stage.

Transformation is happening around us with Britain so often the trailblazer developing solutions that other countries and often other industries can use.

If we can keep rising to the challenges, building skills and working as a team when we need to there’s every reason to feel optimistic about the future for food.