Jan 12, 2021
We welcome special guest, Futurity CEO Jack Bobo. Jack finds himself at the intersection of food, technology and design harnessing science, policy, values and communication. Bobo supports businesses that are enhancing the healthfulness and sustainability of the global food system. His study of food technology and consumer attitudes and trends helps to create a better understanding of the future of food.
A Futurists Thoughts on Food with Jack Bobo, CEO of Futurity
But, you know, you need a diversity of players to be able to do those kinds of analyses to because of all the trade offs, you know, again, that's what it comes back to, is that on a single dimension, organic might look good on multiple dimensions, then it's going to be more complicated, doesn't mean it looks bad, but it's certainly more complicated conversation.
Something to chew on is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of Global Food Systems produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Maureen Olewnik, coordinator of Global Food Systems. I would like to welcome today a guest host, Dr. Jim Stack, Professor of Plant Pathology, and Director of the Great Plains Diagnostic Network.
I’m Scott Tanona. I'm a philosopher of science.
Today's guest is Jack Bobo. Jack is the CEO of futurity, a food foresight company that works with food and agriculture organizations to better understand emerging food trends and consumer attitudes and behaviors so they can position themselves to thrive in an ever more complex world. Jack previously served as the chief communications officer and Senior Vice President for Global Policy and Government Affairs at Intrexon Corporation. He is a globally recognized thought leader having delivered more than 300 speeches in 50 countries on the future of food, the role of science and technology and sustainably and nutritiously feeding the world and how to build consumer trust. In 2015, he was named by Scientific American, one of the 100 most influential people in biotechnology. Prior to joining Intrexon Jack worked at the US Department of State for 13 years as a Senior Advisor for global food policy, food security, climate change, biotechnology and agricultural trade. Prior to his career at the State Department, he was an attorney at Cromwell and moring LLP, he received a JD, a Master of Science and Environmental Science, a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology and chemistry, and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Indiana University. Again, I want to thank you so much for joining us. This is a real treat for us and I think is going to be a real treat for the listeners that we've got on our podcast series. I'd like to welcome you duck Bobo to the something to chew on podcasts here at Kansas State University. And we'd like to start by asking you to give us a little background on yourself and what brought you to the high level of interest in the food system.
Well, thank you, thank you for allowing me to be on this podcast. I'm really excited to be here. So like some of your previous guests, I'm going to go way back. I'm going to go back to when I was growing up in southern Indiana. And I didn't grow up on a farm but I did have a cornfield that it came all the way up to my backyard. And my family we had a family garden at my grandmother's house. And unlike many of the gardens today we grew corn, peppers, green beans, cantaloupe, strawberries, watermelons and pretty much everything you can name and my mother canned everything. And I like to tell people that we were all organic, because we had child labor, which was me and my brothers. And so I didn't grow up with a bit of an understanding of what it meant to produce the food you eat. But I certainly never thought that I'd be working in food and agriculture. When I grew up. I went to Indiana University and as an undergrad I ended up with degrees in psychology, chemistry and biology. I was as indecisive then as I am now was a Peace Corps volunteer in Central Africa, came back and got a master's degree in environmental science and a degree in law. Well, that led me to the US Department of State where I worked for 13 years on global food policy. And I always Thought I'd work on environmental policy. But once I got into the food world, I realized that really, there's nothing more important than agriculture in terms of the impact on the environment. So if I really wanted to try to have a positive impact on the environment, food and agriculture was the place to be. Well, after that, I spent a few years working for a biotechnology company that was working in food and agriculture as well. And for the last year and a half, I started my own consulting firm, where I work on the future of food. I work with food tech startups and big food brands, helping them understand what is the future of food look like? Where a consumer trends and attitudes going? And how does one get ahead of the trends so they don't get run over by them?
Great. Well, thank you for that. Thank you for that overview. That's quite a background. And it's interesting to hear that you that you kind of started your professionalism, professional focus on things, internationally, looking at things that were going on in, in various parts of the world, and probably in very poor parts of the world, where, where food and food availability was more of a challenge than it is here.
Yeah, absolutely. I was a volunteer and gap on in Central Africa. And I was a science teacher, but I was in perhaps the most isolated corner of the country. And certainly, food insecurity was a everyday reality for the people and the students around me.
And I think the natural first question is, so what is the future of food?
Well, well, that's a good question. And I've got a futurist answer, which is futurist don't predict the future. What we do is we try to help organizations understand what does what are the possible futures that are out there, and work with organizations to try to figure out what's your preferred future, and then develop a path to get there. So it's less about predicting, and it's more about understanding what's possible, and try figuring out what's the best possible outcome we can have. And that might be by working with dairy and livestock, but also with the newer plant based and alternative protein companies.
Also, so then it's gonna be hard for me to wrangle some more answers out of you, if you don't want to predict things which everybody wants. Right. But so yeah, plant proteins are obviously, you know, old trend. What are the other kind of new-ish things coming up that are maybe maybe instead of predicting what the future is? What kinds of possibilities do you see opening up that, like the average consumer may not be aware of?
Yeah, well, so, what I worry about more is less the opportunity, I see that there's tremendous opportunity with alternative proteins, but also just improving the livestock sectors that we have today. I mean, now you have facial recognition for cows that are making our productivity, you know, better and improving the health and welfare of the animals, you've got robots out in the fields that are, you know, waiting for companies, you have, you know, these alternative proteins, where you can produce eggs, proteins through fermentation. So there are a lot of exciting things happening just across the food chain. But what I worry a little bit about is how the food industry in some ways is going after each other. The alternative protein companies plant based company, as you're talking about how 10 years from now, we're gonna see the end of the livestock industry. And then the livestock industry responds by talking about how Ultra processed these other foods are. And what I worry about is that what these companies are doing is they're really undermining consumer confidence in our food system. And I think that's important because people are really worried about really small risks are food has never been safer in the history of the planet, and people have never been more scared. And I think that undermines the confidence and people just don't enjoy food as much as they once did.
And what else plays into the role of the that lack of confidence? Is this Are you concerned about concerns about like pesticides and GMOs and things like that as well?
Well, I'm not worried about them, but certainly concerned about people's worries.
Yeah. Yeah, well, because, you know, if we're looking at places like the United States and Europe, in many parts of the world, those technologies are beneficial farmers that are using some of those technologies really like them, but the biggest benefits are often in other places. So if you're a farmer and you start using a herbicide tolerant crop or a BT crop that's insecticide resistant, you know, you probably save a little bit of money or you save a little bit of time. But if you say take that same technology to South Africa, or China or India, all of a sudden you end up with 70% yield increases and dramatic reductions in pesticide poisonings. And so the real benefits are in other parts of the world. And we often don't see that. And so I worry about the lack of innovation being available to people in other places. Recently, within the last year, Europe has developed its Farm to Fork strategy. And it really builds on these kinds of concerns, because they're hoping to go to 25%. Organic for all of the agricultural land in Europe by 2030. And this sounds like a good thing. And you will end consumers think about it, I'm sure that they're pretty excited about it. But under the Well, based on the research from the European Commission, organic production in Europe is about 36%, less productive than conventional agriculture under real world conditions. So if they move to 25%, organic, that's going to cause an 8% reduction in production in Europe. And the country that sends the most food to Europe is Brazil. So Europe is planning on exporting its environmental footprint to the most biodiverse country on the planet. And so that's where it's not really about right or wrong, or good or bad, but there are real choices and consequences at play.
So you work with a lot of different country companies. And as you mentioned, in your TED talk, the world's gonna add quite a few more people to the planet, this entry. And I'm wondering as you work with those companies, are they just tracking markets and market development? Or do they have a vision for what the food systems should look like, say 3040 50 years down the road?
Well, that's a good question. And many of the alternative protein companies, they do have a vision. And unfortunately, often that vision doesn't include much of a role for the livestock industry. And I think that's part of what's creating this tension is this expectation that they're going to usurp the role, or they're going to replace animal agriculture. And I think they're, they're mistaken in that because, as you said, we're going to add another two to 3 billion people to the planet in the next 3040 years. And that means that we're going to need to increase production of food by at least 50, or 60%, if not 100%, in areas of like protein. And so there's this huge market opportunity for everybody. The alternative protein industry can grow to be a trillion dollar industry in the next 30 or 40 years. And that wouldn't require the elimination of any animal industry at all. And so instead of talking about how they're going to replace what's there, they should talk about meeting this future need, because that's big enough. And, you know, it's an opportunity, and it's not the sort of problem that's going to create the pushback that can slow down new innovations.
So does their vision, focus on markets? Or food security outcomes or health or life outcomes? I mean, and I don't mean that in a data set, and just what are the drier, they're developing their strategic plans?
Yeah. So if you look at a lot of these, it's really focused on the environmental benefits. So let's just use plant based proteins as an example. So you have Impossible Foods You have beyond meat. And those products are, by and large, intended to reduce the impact of agriculture on the planet. But what's interesting is if you look at why people are buying those products, 95% of purchasers are doing it for health reasons. And I think that there's an interesting disconnect there if the reason you're producing a product is because of its environmental benefits, and the reason people are buying it are because of what they have a perceived health benefit. And then when you go and do the nutritional comparison, you find out that it's not actually nutritionally better at all. I think there's a risk of consumers being turned off about, you know, whether or not those products are delivering on what they want.
How do you approach industry with this type of a dilemma? How, what is the discussion with companies that are kind of working against one another, and trying to put things out in such a way that it's going to be benefiting all?
Well, so part of what I do is I always tell people my personal mission is to de escalate the tension in our food system, so that we can all get about our business of saving the planet. our own way. And so give you a concrete example of putting that into practice. Back in 2017, there was a lot of conversation around clean meat, which is the lab grown or cell based meat. And I gave a talk at the new harvest Conference, which is sort of the research arm of the cell based lab meat industry. And I encourage them to kill the term clean meat. Now, after my talk, there was a lot of pushback the people at the conference, were not terribly happy that I had told them that they were calling their product, the wrong thing. But I worked with the companies in that space over the next nine months, and help them to understand that the use of the term clean meat was implying that the other meat was dirty or unethical. And that that might not be a particularly good way of marketing your product. If you're trying to tell people you're evil, stop being evil and consume my product. But that might not be a good message for the consumer. And over the course of that nine months, I was able to convince all of the companies in the sector that they would drop the term clean meat and took about a year and a half. But pretty much all of the organizations that are working in the space and you know, moved away. And that's why you hear more about cell based meat or cellular agriculture today.
The challenges that are around the world, from a food perspective are incredibly varied. You know, what you were facing what you were discussing was going on in Europe, as opposed to some of the activities happening here, as opposed to what was going on in Gabon when you were there, and is probably still some of the situation there? How do you? How do you get your hands around messaging, some of the futuristic ideas or thoughts that you have, when you've got such variability worldwide, in different areas around the world?
Will, I think it's, it's not as hard to come up with good messaging, the trouble I have is convincing people to stop using the bad message. You may have run across the Eat Lancet report that came out a couple of years ago. And it's an example of a report that, you know, had a lot of positive aspects to it, it was talking about how people need to shift some of their diet so that we're eating a more balanced and nutritious meal. And many of us are eating too many calories. But there was the language they used was frankly, you know, somewhat off putting or offensive to a lot of livestock producers. And the message never really got put forward. So we never ended up having an important conversation about, you know, what our global food system should look a lot like, because it sort of quickly degenerated into, you know, two different sides. Now, as an example, I was working on the Rockefeller Foundation's food vision prize, I was a judge, and then later a mentor for two of the 10 finalists. And each of the finalists. In their proposal, were pushing for reduction of animal agriculture and moving to these alternative proteins in their food vision for the future. And what I told them was, if their goal was to improve the planet, and to improve health, and they were saying we want to reduce animal protein by 30%. I said, Well, why don't you just say that your goal is to reduce the impact of protein production by 30%? Well, maybe that's going to happen because of plant based proteins and cell based meat. But if the livestock industry can deliver the environmental benefits that you're asking for, why not let them have a seat at the table. And so instead of saying a reduction of 30%, in animal products, saying the reduction of 30% of you know, the impact completely changed the dynamic of that conversation, and they at least were able to realize that, you know, they had these biases in their mind that, you know, they were looking for a particular future, and that the language they were using wasn't going to help them to get there.
So that's, that's really interesting. I was going to ask, because you've been talking a lot about language and the importance of language for consumers and for producers as well. Right. And in some cases, some of what you're recommending is just a shift from one kind of language to another that might make it more palatable or, or better convey what's actually happening, right sort of with. So but but in some cases, like this is a case of not just a change in language, but it's a it's a shift, maybe a subtle shift, but a shift in goals, right, sort of an I wonder, right, sort of to, to instead of reducing, right, the impact of certain animal production, to just reduce the impact sort of overall right of you know, whatever, it's a shift, right. So I'm wondering, like, how much of the tasks for getting the different actors in the food production system? and the consumers right to together, like on the same page and something that works well for all of us and is sustainable. You know, how much of it is like, look, we actually have the same goals in mind, we just have to be talking about it in the right way. And how much of it requires some shifting, you know, and what we're trying to accomplish?
Yes. So I think this is actually one of the areas where futurism has a role to play. Because often, when people are looking at the future, they're sort of saying, Well, what do I need to do today, what needs to happen tomorrow in order to get to a very specific future that they've already imagined. Whereas, you know, there are actually lots of possible futures that could be sustainable, that we could achieve in different ways. And that it's actually really helpful to start with a vision for the future, you know. So, for me, I have a vision for the future that is both sustainable and nutritious, so that people are nutritiously fed and that food is sustainably produced. So I have a very clear vision of what I want that future to look like. But I actually am very flexible about how we get there. And so one of the fathers of Futurism, Bob Johansen, he always says that the future rewards clarity, and punishes certainty. And what he means by that is, it's really important to know where you're going, but you'd never, you shouldn't be so fixed on how you're going to get there, because reality is going to intervene. And so it's a little bit like, you know, somebody is traveling down the highway, and they know where they're trying to get. And all of a sudden, there's a detour. And they just stopped because they don't know how to get there. Well, people who are flexible are gonna say, Well, you know, let's just go off on this, let's get out Google Maps, and we'll find another way of getting to our goal. And so having that flexibility about how you get there is really helpful to organizations, it's helpful to companies, and not being so fixed on what it's going to require.
So, so that's good. I wonder. And I'm sure there's, there's lots of ways in which we kind of have a similar vision, and maybe if we just shift and act towards it in a different way, we can sort of get on the same page. But I wonder, sort of maybe to kind of a question that Jim was asking earlier, if, if the, if the visions are enough aligned to get us there, or do we does the futurist require also work? You know, in helping us with that vision, right? Not just Yes, yeah. We're all working to write but sort of, have you considered this goal even right, nevermind, you tour the power the path, right, but sort of even where we're aiming for.
Yeah, and that's why, you know, in the visioning exercise, you know, one builds different scenarios to try to understand, you know, the range of possible futures. Because if you just start out and sort of write down what that future is, then, you know, you're really limiting yourself. Because there, there are all sorts of, you know, ideas that could be brought to the table. And so really, you know, it should be the result of a process. And part of that is going out and looking at sort of the signals of the future, you know, what, what's happening around the world today that, you know, could suggest new opportunities in the future. And that's, that's going to be important, because, again, you know, we don't quite know, what the world's gonna look like, you know, even 10 years from now, let alone 20 or 30. I think it would, you know, if you look back at 10 years ago, well, what companies, you know, exist today that you couldn't live without, that didn't exist at all, you know, just 10 or 15 years ago. And, you know, it's really pretty shocking, you know, that, you know, companies like Google and Facebook and Instagram and all these things that people spend all their time on, you know, didn't exist, you know, not too long ago.
If I could follow up on Scott's thinking there. industry, government, academia, all these sectors are contributing to the research and technology development that drives progress. But on the government and academic side, a lot of that is influenced by policy. The policy determines what the priority priorities are going to be, what initiatives we're going to pursue. And I'm wondering, you know, maybe somewhat based on your experience at state, but now that, you know, you've had time to reflect on that and interact with the industries that are driving progress. Do you think we have the policy right, or should be policies, right, to realize some of these goals or are there specific policy challenges we need to address.
Yeah, well, I always tell people, I'm a science optimist, I'm convinced that science and technology consume can address many of the problems we have. But I'm a regulatory pessimist. I'm not at all convinced that the scientist will be allowed to go there. And so, I think that goes to your point that, you know, I think that there is a real risk that we don't achieve our goals, because the policies, you know, don't allow us to go there. I mean, I think that's pretty clear. If you look at what's happened in Europe, over the last 20 years, you've had an exodus of science scientists working in biotechnology in many fields, because you know, if you can't, doesn't help if you can do research in a lab, if you can never bring a product to market. And it's very hard to understand, you know, what opportunities never came to be, you know, because you can't quantify, you know, the discoveries that weren't made or the products that weren't commercialized. But there's certainly a cost to it. And I think that, you know, we need to try to find a way of figuring, including that more in these conversations, that goes to what I was talking about earlier, in terms of local sustainability. And you see that in the UN Food System Summit, that's going to happen next year, as well. There's this emphasis on local sustainability, regenerative agriculture and other things. And I think we forget that, you know, it's a continuum, local sustainability is about using less water, fertilizer, insecticides and other things. But global sustainability is about being more intensively preparing producing products, so that you have less of an impact in some distant place. And because consumers think about sustainability, in terms of local, and companies and organizations, often things in terms of global, there is that disconnect in terms of how they're, they're envisioning, you know, how we get to a sustainable future. And right now, you know, in many places, there is a very strong push for policies that will prioritize local sustainability. And they're really just going to be exporting their environmental problems to other parts of the world, that are even less capable of, you know, absorbing those impacts. And I think, you know, that's, that's why it's important that, you know, we have close conversations about these issues, so that we, you know, keep a proper balance, you know, it's about trade offs. It's not about, you know, one being right, and the other being wrong. But, you know, we need a balance of both.
Any wisdom on how to influence policy development?
Well, you know, I think that, you know, researchers at universities, and the work that you do, certainly has an impact on what people are thinking about in Washington, DC. But in my experience, many universities don't take advantage of the power they have, you know, we seldom see researchers, you know, coming and knocking on the door, saying, you know, the fact that you're opposing these technologies, or it'd be the fact that we don't have a regulatory path for Gene edited animals are, whatever it might be, means that we're just not going to do any work in that field, you know, that instead, the research, just go do something else. And so again, nobody ever hears about the problem that, you know, they just ignore it, or they walked away from. So I think the research community needs to be far more engaged in these conversations than they have been historically. Otherwise, it's going to be consumers that are driving the policy. And, you know, frankly, you know, consumers have never cared more nor known less how their food is produced. And because they care, they're asking for policy changes, but because they don't understand it, those policy changes may not result in the kind of change they actually want. And so I think we need a broader spectrum of voices in the conversation. So I absolutely think there's, you know, there's a role for industry, the private sector, university researchers really need to, you know, spend a little bit of time looking at how they can influence these policy conversations.
Yeah, thank you for that. I agree with that assessment. I think we're a bit challenged right now, in deriving a set of policies that unleash the capabilities that are clearly there, but in a manner that doesn't create more problems than it solves.
Well, one area where I think universities could use of health as in science communication, which of course is what this podcast is all about. But by and large, I don't think there's enough of an emphasis on the role of science communicator. At most, you know, big research universities, people aren't necessarily rewarded for it. I know they are more now than they were in the past. But we need, you know, a lot more science communication than we've had.
So I, yeah, I agree, we need more and better science communication. And this is across the board, not just in areas of food. But I wonder how much I mean, I hear this a lot. And I worry sometimes not that we're doing this. But I worry sometimes that we sort of then put the onus on the scientist, and I'm wondering, to communicate more to communicate better. I'm wondering, sort of, if you could say something about some of the other factors, you said that consumers never cared more, but knowing less about their food, where, where it comes from maybe how its produced, I forget what you said. But there's a lot of factors here, some of it is sort of the media at large, some of it's sort of the way our food is advertised. Right. And that is not on the scientists, you know, that's on people, maybe we're doing the advertising, right. And there's, just so many factors here. I wonder if you could sort of talk a little bit about what you think, that interplay there is and what other what other ways there are of getting consumers to better understand and not just the local impact, but the but the, you know, the science behind the behind food production and, and the global issues and global impact of different production.
Yes, so I'm, I'm just finishing up a book now, why smart people make bad food choices. And it certainly doesn't put the blame on, you know, the universities or others. A lot of it has to do with psychology. And, you know, a lot of the problems we have today weren't necessarily sort of intentionally brought about. But, you know, back in the 80s, there was this move towards, you know, looking at nutrients in foods, were we breaking down our foods really better understand, you know, its components and what its components do in terms of health. But once we started doing that, then it led to companies saying, oh, you know, fat is bad. So I'm going to give you low, low fat cookies, well, those low fat cookies still had a lot of sugar. But you know, health halos, our mind immediately jumped to the positive aspect of it ignored all the negatives. And so, you know, we have a lot of things that are happening all at the same time. And so when I'm talking to scientists, I'm encouraging them to, you know, communicate more when I'm talking to companies, I'm talking about the importance of trust, you know, that we need to, to build trust, because consumers aren't going to allow you to deploy new technologies if they don't trust you. You know, science tells us what we can do. But it's the public that tells us what we should do. And so we really have to be working at each of these levels. And, you know, it's not enough to try to communicate on a controversial issue. I think we all know that when it comes to things like GMOs, it's not an information deficit model problem. More information is not going to convince people that these technologies are safe and effective. What's going to change is whether or not people trust you. And I'll give you a concrete example. In, you know, the Impossible Foods, their product is a GMO hamburger, but obviously, it has not received a lot of pushback from the public. But imagine for a moment if Monsanto had created the Impossible Burger. Well, I think we all know that it would not have been a hit. But all of the journalists would have said it failed, because nobody wants a GMO burger. Well, that obviously isn't true. So why people think it failed, and why it actually failed are often different. The reason it would have failed is that nobody wanted a GMO burger from a large multinational company. And because they misunderstand what's going on in situations like that, they also companies like Impossible Foods misunderstand it as well. They think that consumers trust us because you know, we share their ethical values. And that's partially true, but it's only true as long as they're small. The moment Impossible Foods went into 18,000 Burger Kings was the moment that people push back on the fact that it was Ultra processed. No rich people cared that it was Ultra processed, but it was $20, a burger and high end restaurants. They only cared when poor people could afford it. And so you know, the relationship of companies to the consumer changes as they scale. So I just mentioned that, there are a lot of different things going on. It's not just our relationship to industry, it's relationship to the kind of industry the point that they are and their development. And so that's why I spend so much of my time trying to de-escalate that tension. Because it's not making people happier. You know, people are less happy, you know, then than they have been in a long time. People in the United States tend to be less happy than people in many developing countries that obviously have much More difficult circumstances. And that's because so much of the messaging that's going on is convincing people to worry about smaller and smaller risks. Because that's what we do as human beings, you know, we, we focus on hazards, we don't focus on risk.
And we're very bad judges of risk. I totally agree with that. And something else you said, is really interesting to me, too. And I think the way he was talking about how policy drives so much of what research gets done, and but you just talked several times about the ways in which at least certain groups of consumers drive, drive the future of food drive some of the innovations in food, right. So could you say something about what you think that interplay is between the well off people interested in sort of certain kinds of food products and the impact that has on our system overall?
Sure. Well, you know, it's interesting that if you look at 2019, the biggest diet trend of 2019 was clean eating, but the biggest IPO of 2019 was beyond meat. And so on one hand, you know, consumers believe that the most important way to a healthier life is to eat whole foods and simple ingredients. And yet, they're investing in companies that are fundamentally producing an ultra processed product. And so there is this disconnect that's happening. And the consumers that are pushing some of these trends, you know, they are focused more on health and wellness. And yet 85% of consumers are more value shoppers. And so trends often get pushed in a direction that doesn't necessarily reflect the needs of the vast majority. And I'll return to the Eat Lancet report, as an example, you know, they the report kind of demonized animal products, and that, you know, we're eating too much meat. And yet, if you went in analysis was done, the cost of consuming the diet that they were proposing, it was clearly more expensive than the diet, people were eating. And so, if money is not an issue, then you can eat healthy any way you want. But if money is an issue, then you need to take that into account. And too often when you have people from a certain socioeconomic status where money is not as much of an issue, they're balancing their environmental desires versus taste and quality and other things. But for many people, you know, they don't have the luxury of balancing those. And just to give one concrete example, there, there's a report that looked at, you know, do consumer, what do consumers worry about in their food? And how important are environmental issues? And the report said, like 65% of consumers said that, you know, environmental issues were very important in their purchases. But then when they broke that down as to well, what does that mean for you? Well, for most people, that meant that you were reducing pesticides, or you were making food more affordable? Well, my guess is that was not the same consumer saying those two things, you know, for some reducing pesticides equated to environmentally sustainable. On the other hand, some people thought making food more affordable, made it more environmentally sustainable. And obviously, those two things are actually, you know, in conflict, if you reduce pesticide, you increase cost, and, you know, so, you know, we have different parts of the community that are at odds. And, you know, only one of those is really at the table most of the time.
So, like, we've spent quite a bit of time talking about the foods that we eat, and you know, what's in people's diets. Another very important component of food security, or the future food is how food gets to the table. So the distribution technologies and systems. And I'm wondering if you've given as much thought to that, as you have to the rest of it, I'd just be curious what you think about the role of distribution in realizing this vision for safe, nutritious food in the future?
Yeah, well, certainly, you know, in the age of COVID, there's been a lot of interest in food supply chains. And I think there's a lot of concern about long food supply chains. I'm a bit of a contrarian here on that topic. You know, I understand why when we look at the bottleneck that was caused by meat processing, that people would be concerned about the consolidation of that industry, but it's, it's worth looking at, you know, what the alternative is, and if we go back, just two years, there was a swine fever outbreak in China. And as a result of that, you know, they had to slaughter half, you know, 500 billion pigs or something like that. And the reason the problem was so bad is because they had such a highly distributed processing, you know, backyard processing and other things that exacerbated the, last pandemic. And of course, in response to that China has gone massively in the direction of the more consolidated processing that we have here in the United States. And so, you know, there are always going to be those kinds of trade offs when we think about our supply system. But, you know, my view is that the, the global trade and the diversity of our supply system, you know, really strengthens it. And it's, it's fine to buy local, you know, it's good to buy local support your community, but it's probably unrealistic to think that that can solve all of our problems. You know, if you were to look at the environmental footprint of local production, you know, for many products, it's going to be greater than something produced far away. And the reality is, you're going to end up with a much less diverse, much less nutritious food palette, you know, if you do reduce, you know, the, the reliance on these global supply chains. So I think they're to our credit, and we need to improve them, we need to reduce the some of those risks. But you know, calls for, you know, increasing inventory so that we don't have the disruptions we had in the past, I think it's short sighted. The reason we have if you increase a inventory, what you're really doing is increasing slack in the food system. And slack is a lack of productivity and efficiency, and it means higher cost. And again, I'm personally more concerned about people on the lower end assist socio economic scale, and they're the ones who are going to pay for, you know, having the luxury of inventory that's going to be there when somebody wants toilet paper, you know, in the next pandemic, 50 years from now.
What about the energy aspect? That wasn't too provocative?
No, quite interesting. What about the energy aspects of that, you know, the, right now agriculture is being looked at as one of the primary drivers of climate change, and land use change. And if we're going to move more food over greater distances, in shorter periods of time, it's gonna take a lot more energy to do that. And if energy is one of the important contributors to climate change, how do we reconcile that, you know, we're going to move more food at the same time we want a better environment?
Well, you know, one there, it's always worth doing a lifecycle analysis to see whether or not something produced in New Zealand really has a, you know, a bigger carbon footprint, because the transportation, most of the time, that's actually not true. But I also think that, you know, when somebody talks about the carbon footprint of transportation, often the conversation then turns around, says, well, we should be doing producing food, you know, organically and regeneratively and other things like well, either we're going to look at the carbon footprint or we're not, you know, if the carbon footprint matters, then organic production loses every single time, regenerative agriculture is probably not going to win, you know, any of these conversations. My personal perspective is that, you know, we need a balance of both, that our food system is stronger because of the diversity, but that one solution is not going to solve the problem. So producing food in Brazil might reduce the global environmental footprint, unless you're deforesting land to expand that. And so you know, right now, you know, as I mentioned earlier, Europe, Europe is the number one export market for Brazil, Brazil's top export destination is Europe or sometimes China. And so, you know, it's not just, you know, the distance traveled, but it's, you know, where it came from, as well.
So some of comments that you've made over the last, you know, several minutes, really deal with one of the things I've focused on most heavily since I've been at K State, which is trying to get a good interdisciplinary activity going between different players. This is probably more of a comment than I'd like you to just speak to that it is really a question, but it's clear that interdisciplinary and bringing in many different facets of study, then looking at these questions is going to be critical in coming up with any kind of a solution. Could you speak to that?
Yeah, well, I think you're absolutely right. I mean, too often, we have You know, an analysis by, you know, one group that's, you know, has a vested interest in the outcome. And I think we need to have more of that multidisciplinary approach. I think organizations like the World Resources Institute, tend to do a pretty good job of balancing those. You know, but you know, other organizations have been a little bit disappointed, and, you know, their lack of concern about, you know, productivity as being an important factor. I've had conversations with the World Wildlife Fund and others, and they're not really convinced that productivity is that important. And, you know, frankly, I don't understand how they can view that because, you know, if we double productivity by 2050, and we need twice as much food, then that's great. But if we double productivity, and it turns out, we don't need any food, then we've just cut in half our environmental impact. And so there's a benefit. But, you know, you need a diversity of players to be able to do those kinds of analyses to because of all the trade offs, you know, again, that's what it comes back to, is that on a single dimension, organic might look good on multiple dimensions, then it's going to be more complicated, doesn't mean it looks bad, but it's certainly more complicated conversation.
Yeah, and in that discussion, even thinking outside of the use, the term that I should not use ever is the hard sciences, but looking at the the need for the social impacts, and understanding where those fit in, in dealing with some of this, the situations that you've discussed, I think, is is of critical importance as well.
Yeah, I think, you know, many Americans forget that, you know, before COVID Hit 40% of Americans at some time in the previous year, didn't have enough money to buy the food they wanted. So, you know, these are not, you know, problems for, you know, foreign countries, developing countries, whatever. I mean, these are, you know, realities for many people today, and it's obviously, you know, significantly worse today.
Right, and I think it's, it's not just a problem outside of the United States, I think there have been studies done certainly within our university campus and within our town and surrounding regions that show a fairly high level of people before, even before COVID that weren't, weren't able to purchase the quantities of food needed.
Yeah, I mean, I spend a lot of my time these days, you know, talking about, you know, behavioral sciences, cognitive psychology, behavioral economics, and I think, you know, the, those areas are going to have a big impact on our ability to, one figure out how to communicate these issues, but also how to reshape our food environment to begin delivering some better outcomes.
You think we're missing anything in the academic environment in terms of training those next generations of students that are going out?
I think that they're, you know, students are quite capable. And I think the challenge is just understanding, you know, what are the problems that are going to be and that's hard to anticipate. And so they're often I think universities are being squeezed in order to train people more like, you know, a technical school as opposed to train people how to think. And I think that the direction that we're going, you know, we need people that are have a good foundation and systems thinking, in addition to whatever, you know, specialization they might have.
I completely agree with that. We just published a paper on that idea.
You'll have to send it to me.
We'll do. I will just say, thank you so much, Jack, and very much enjoyed the conversation. And I did want to comment on your TED talk. What you did at the end, was very creative. enjoyed that very much.
Well, thank you. I wasn't at all sure that it was going to, to work. So it was actually louder in person. I wish they had sort of up to a little bit of volume on the video. But my fingers were crossed. They said, well, we'll just cut it out. If it doesn't work.
It was great. Thanks for joining us.
And hopefully everybody listening here now goes and watches that TED Talk and sees what's gonna happen at the end. Yes, this has been great. Thanks. I was wondering if there's sort of any one thing that sums up what you think either gay anybody worried about food systems from production to the consumer and should be should it be doing to to address all all the range of things that you've been saying?
Well, the one thing I think is important is that I am I often hear a lot that, you know, consumers are anti science or different groups are anti science. And I think it's worth remembering that, you know, I have never met anybody who's anti-science. I've met a lot of people who didn't trust the government and didn't trust industry. But they all love science. I think we sometimes, you know, confused that lack of trust with a lack of, you know, belief in science. And so we need to be aware that when somebody says they don't trust the science, you know, even if you know that that's not correct, it's probably we're trying to understand why they don't trust the person saying it, you know, instead of the thing that they're saying. But the last thing I'd like to say is just, you know, I would encourage, you know, students, scientists and others, to expand their networks, one of the things that, you know, I worry about is that people have not built a big professional network that's going to be there. And I personally don't look at networking as a job skill. I look at it as a life skill. And it's how you build relationships with people. And it's how you help people before you need their help. And if you're out there helping people every day, you can be confident that the day when the day comes that you do need somebody else's support, they'll be there. And it's never been more important because unfortunately, like my daughter, the kids today are going to be graduating into the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. And so, you know, there's never been a better time to reach out and you know, ask questions and you know, get to know other people.
A message. Thanks so much.
That is a great message. Yeah. Thank you so much. And with that, I think we will sign off and I and again, I so appreciate your coming on with us Jack and have enjoyed the conversation and look forward to getting this out to share with listeners.
Well, thank you so much for having me on. Really appreciate it. If I can be of any help, let me know. Thanks.
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Our music was adapted from Dr. Wayne Goins’s album Chronicles of Carmela. Special thanks to him for providing that to us. Something to Chew On is produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University.