Farmers need to consider marketing as well as production issues
as well as production issues
By Marg Land
Fruit and vegetable producers need
to start thinking beyond what they do to produce a crop and instead
plan to market in a rapidly changing world, according to a leading
health innovation researcher.
Fruit and vegetable producers need to start thinking beyond what they do to produce a crop and instead plan to market in a rapidly changing world, according to a leading health innovation researcher.
Dr. Alex Jadad, director of the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation, explained to attendees of the recent Ontario Processing Vegetable Industry Conference that today’s rapidly changing world is being shaped by two forces: the Internet and genetics. In order to survive in the marketplace, growers need to be aware of these forces and the four trends that have grown from them: healthy eating, confusion, globalization and integration.
Using the long-standing food pyramid, developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture decades ago, Dr. Jadad said that many are beginning to question its effectiveness as a guide to healthy eating. Recently, the centre for public health at Harvard University put that into words by publishing a paper expressing doubts about the legitimacy of the food guide, considering it was developed by a government agency responsible for agriculture, not health.
Perhaps grain and corn were featured so heavily in the pyramid because there was a surplus of wheat and corn at the time the pyramid was developed, hypothesized Dr. Jadad, stressing these were not his thoughts on the issue but rather what is being discussed within the health community.
In light of the recent controversy of the food pyramid, a new food guideline was recently released in the U.S., which is not in the form of a pyramid at all. Featured strongly within the new guidelines are fruit and vegetable consumption, with women being urged to increase intake by 50 per cent and men by an additional 40 per cent.
But not all vegetables are created equal. Starchy veggies like potatoes and sweet corn are not being recommended, while dark greens, orange vegetables and legumes are being stressed instead.
“If you currently grow (sweet) corn, you might have to start rethinking things,” said Dr. Jardad.
Consumers are feeling lost in this rapidly changing world atmosphere and are constantly being bombarded with mixed messages. They want to eat healthy but they don’t always have the time to make a “from scratch” meal so they turn to processed foods for healthy choices. But at the same time, they are being told to eat “heart healthy” and cut back on salt consumption, which can lead to high blood pressure.
“And 75 per cent of a salt consumption comes from processed food,” explained Dr. Jadad. “Who is the bad guy here? You are.”
He added that Britain currently has a National Salt Awareness Day held once a year, a day when advocates and politicians inform the public about the dangers of high salt consumption.
“Food companies are being treated like the tobacco industry,” he said, adding that observing social change in Britain can act as an accurate barometer for future changes in North America. “How are you going to regain this trust that has been lost so quickly?”
Consumers are also confused about the role of genetically-modified food in society. They have concerns about how GM foods may affect the development of allergies, their overall impact on children’s health, environmental damage and the possibility of gene transfer.
Dr. Jadad explained that while there is little evidence of harm from GM foods, the public is still uncertain abou t their benefit to consumers. Research has been limited by unclear questions and measurement problems, especially in the area of the benefit of public consumption.
“Public perception of benefit is low.”
But while it may be low for GM food, it is also low for organic food – a fact that doesn’t seem to matter in that industry’s case. The organic industry continues to grow by 20 to 30 per cent each year in the U.S. without any clear proof that it is healthier for consumers.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about public perception,” said Dr. Jadad.
He stressed that it wasn’t just food processors who had to struggle with fickle public opinion; vegetable producers also needed to be aware that the tide of consumer opinion could easily change.
“You feel sheltered. You grow these crops and the big companies buy them. But whatever happens to (the purchasing companies) in the outside world is going to effect you.”
With the food industry representing at least 25 per cent of the world’s economy, Dr. Jadad said it’s easy to understand the rapid consolidation of supermarket and pharmaceutical chains as everyone fights for a bigger piece of the economic pie. But with consolidation comes an increase in distance, figuratively, between the food industry and the farmer.
“There’s a changing relationship between processors and producers as the industry follows the money.”
Imagine a supermarket where you walk the aisles with your trusty cell phone or Palm Pilot in your hand. As you find an item you want, you point your data collector at it. It scans a special miniscule microchip inserted on the packaging and enters it into a database that decides whether this is a healthy food choice for you, based on personal health information that has already been recorded.
Sounds like fantasy? Not to Dr. Jadad who says purchasing habit information is already being collected at supermarkets now as most groceries are scanned and a great deal of consumers purchase with debit or credit cards.
Society is also closer to this world of integrated grocery shopping with the recent embracing by China of IP version 6, a new generation of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, said Dr. Jadad, adding that with this increase in IP addresses, each person in the world could have two to three million Internet addresses.
Link this technology with radio frequency identification (RFID), and an Internet of “things” isn’t too far away, said Dr. Jadad.
“It’s time to start thinking beyond what you do to produce food,” he said.