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Asking More Commentary: Perspectives from Mendoza College of Business

Commentary Post - Scott James

The future of food

October 19, 2010

Note: This column was published originally on the Forbes.com CRS blog.

Several items in Forbes' Special Report, “2020: What Happens Next,” caught my eye, all related to the future of our food systems. Surely in North America we can always count on access to good food, right?

By now you’ve likely read about the delicacy of the just-in-time system we’ve created over the past several decades. It is a brilliant system from an operational perspective, but relies on inexpensive oil as well as instantaneous communications. When one or both of those are interrupted, like during a natural disaster, the weakness of the JIT system is exposed. When we’re talking about food, any interruption to the 3000-mile Caesar Salad has immediate and dire consequences.

Look at the numbers: American grocery shelves only have three days of food available at any given time, and American citizens only have five days of food stored in their homes. Not good. This is a scenario crying out for resiliency to be built into it so we can better withstand shocks to the system.

But if we look beyond emergency preparedness to the everyday business of creating and distributing food, we find an interesting solution in Oregon, a Portland-based company called Food Hub. Food Hub connects regional and local (not national or international) buyers and sellers of produce. Buyers include large-scale professionals at grocery chains, independent restaurant owners, and you and me, buying for our home grocery needs. Food Hub has created an online marketplace that leads to offline face-to-face relationships with both large and small scale farmers. It even includes those of us with pea patches in our backyards (this modern victory garden is tended by a Seattle area CFO).

The Forbes 2020 team of experts and authors predicts that by the year 2018, 20% of all food consumed in U.S. cities will come from rooftop and parking lot farms. Read that again: 20% of all food in the US. That is an enormous number. In addition to making our cities more resilient, the health benefits, for both our bodies and our planet, of consuming food that is grown within a small number of miles of our homes or work places, are significant. Keep reading through the 2020 report and you’ll find food security noted in several other sections, ranging from phytomorphic machines due in 2013 to Chinese water wars predicted in 2020 (for drinking and crop irrigation). For a present-day look at water wars, look no further than our own western states; the American dust bowl is back.

Who will be the winners and losers as this trend continues? Outfits like Food Hub will win as the über-networkers are looked to by both buyers and sellers in the food equation. We’re seeing organizations like Whole Foods Market dedicate more of their valuable shelf space to produce that is measured in the tens (not thousands) of miles. We’re seeing Safeway and Albertsons busted by the Wall Street Journal for trying to fake it. As U.S. citizens begin to opt out of the food system en masse, garden supply companies like Peaceful Valley are also in position to benefit.

Where do you think you will you get your food in the future?

Scott James (MBA ’99) is the founder of Fair Trade Sports, the first North American distributor of eco-certified fair trade soccer balls and footballs.