Proceedings of a Workshop
Innovations in the Food System: Exploring the Future of Food
Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief
On August 7–8, 2019, the Food Forum of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine hosted a public workshop in Washington, DC, to review the status of current and emerging knowledge about innovations for modern food systems and the extent to which they are or could be designed to optimize environmental, health, social, and economic outcomes. The 1.5-day workshop included an opening session that provided a broad look at food systems, case studies in food system evolution from the federal government and private sector, and a closing discussion. The rest of the workshop was organized into six additional sessions, which focused on “game-changing innovations” and their implications for food systems, including those in 1) food production and processing; 2) alternative food production; 3) food distribution; 4) food marketing and food value chains; 5) food data and analytics; and 6) food access and affordability. This Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief summarizes the key points made by workshop participants during the presentations and discussions and is not intended to provide a comprehensive summary of information shared during the workshop.1 The views summarized here reflect the knowledge and opinions of individual workshop participants and should not be construed as consensus among workshop participants or the members of the Food Forum or the National Academies.
TAKING A BROAD LOOK AT THE FOOD SYSTEM
The workshop began with an opening session moderated by Jennifer Otten, University of Washington, which focused on taking a broad look at the food system. The opening session was intended to answer two key questions: 1) What are innovations within a food systems frame? and 2) What does it mean to use systems thinking in addressing food systems innovations?
Kate Clancy, an independent food systems consultant and visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University, began by describing the value of systems approaches in addressing innovations in food systems. She noted that given the complexity of food systems, a 2015 Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council (NRC) report, A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System, recommended using analytic methods and an understanding of complex systems for exploring them (see Figure 1).
Clancy explained that the 2015 report was built on a report titled Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century, which stated: “The transformative approach to improving agricultural sustainability…would facilitate the adoption of production approaches that capitalize on synergies, efficiencies, and resilience characteristics associated with complex natural systems and their linked social, economic, and biophysical systems” (NRC, 2010, p. viii). Clancy noted that the report was focused on agricultural production, but its emphasis on examining economic and social dimensions also applies to other food system elements.
Clancy defined food systems thinking as “a set of synergistic analytic skills used to improve the capability of identifying and understanding systems” (Arnold and Wade, 2015, p. 675). As she explained, the value of a systems approach is that it makes one consider more variables, and is useful for acknowledging trade-offs and multiple potential solutions, anticipating unintended consequences, making predictions, and targeting intervention points. The 2016 United Nations Environment Programme report used the term “food systems approach” in its conceptual framework to describe the connections among variables and how they lead to outcomes relating to multiple goals and possible synergies (UNEP, 2016). Clancy suggested that
1 Presentations, videos, and other materials from the workshop can be found at http://nationalacademies.org/hmd/Activities/Nutrition/FoodForum/2019-AUG-07.aspx (accessed September 23, 2019).
systems thinking can best be used to recognize the effects across the full food system; consider health, environmental, social, and economic domains; quality, quantity, distribution, and resilience dimensions; appropriate analytic methods; and systems domains and complexities, including heterogeneity, interdependence, and adaptability. She noted that systems thinking may be particularly useful for complex problems involving multiple actors for which solutions are not obvious. Clancy concluded her remarks by highlighting the benefits of interdisciplinary research of learning across fields, building trust, and setting boundaries, and the challenges of transaction costs and different paradigms.
Roni Neff, Johns Hopkins University, focused on “the future of the future of food systems.” Neff outlined the breadth of our food system, noting that it involves 52 percent of U.S. land, 80 percent of water, and 16 percent of energy use, along with nearly one fifth of jobs. She described that the food system is globally interconnected, and key issues affecting future food systems are climate change, food waste, food insecurity, chronic disease, and innovation. As Neff explained, Meals to Come: History of the Future of Food points out that although only the most dire or innovative issues get attention, most progress is incremental (Belasco, 2006). It also notes that future predictions say as much about our current state as they do about the future. Neff pointed to three ways to look at the future: 1) classical, with the future evolving from the past; 2) modernist, with unprecedented breakthroughs; and 3) recombinant, a combination of the two.
To set the scene for the upcoming sessions on “game-changing innovations,” Neff defined innovation as “a new method, idea, or product.” She explained that it is different from an invention, which is something that did not previously exist, as innovation can be more gradual and sequential. She defined “game-changers” as purposeful innovations that could significantly change our food system and our society. In addition to technology, Neff pointed out that human behavior may also be important for advancing ideas. She concluded with an example of a food system innovation from her work: direct-to-frozen seafood, which may increase consumption by making seafood more affordable, safer, and less perishable, although unintended consequences could include a need for more freezer space or electricity.
INNOVATIONS IN FOOD PRODUCTION AND PROCESSING
Session 2, moderated by Helen Jensen, Iowa State University, was the first of several focused on game-changing innovations and their implications for food systems, specifically in food production and processing.
Becca Jablonski, Colorado State University, spoke about the food systems linkage to rural economic development. She explained that because the majority of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, most municipal food plans are urban focused. Many of these plans deal with food procurement issues, for example, trying to leverage the buying power of institutions (e.g., jails). Jablonski made the point that food systems develop strategies involving rural–urban linkages, as the farms and ranches that feed urban areas are usually located outside of metro areas. She explained that a 2012 national survey of urban farmers found that only 28 percent had a primary farmer earning a living from the farm and about the same number of urban operations have economic motivations in their missions (Dimitri et al., 2016). She described how farmers may “win” from local foods as consumers are willing to pay a premium, but she noted that producers also have higher costs of production when selling through these markets, especially due to labor needs. Accordingly, profit margins vary significantly for farmers selling through
local food channels. Going forward, she recommended that urban food policy councils include the farmers and ranchers who produce, raise, and process the food. Jablonski concluded by highlighting some of the work that she and her colleagues are doing in Colorado to try to facilitate meaningful engagements between Denver’s food system stakeholder and farmers and ranchers. Through this process, she hopes that urban food policies can be leveraged to create viable market opportunities that not just meet urban food goals, but also support farmers, ranchers, and rural communities.
Anu Ramaswami, Princeton University, spoke about urban food systems modeling, addressing four topics: 1) interdisciplinary framework; 2) the urban agriculture lever; 3) innovations and trade-offs within urban systems; and 4) partnering with cities and policy makers. Ramaswami described how she is part of the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network, a multidisciplinary group of researchers focused on food systems, among a broad range of issues. The group uses the social–ecological–infrastructural urban systems framework, which focuses on demands within a city and transboundary flows where issues produce effects outside the city borders. She noted that many cities have food action plans with objectives addressing health, equity, economy, and other priorities. However, quantifying the benefits of local agriculture may be difficult due to questions such as what constitutes local, whether industries within a city limits are also considered, and whether the demand is only for fresh products (i.e., a tomato) or also when the product is embodied in another product (i.e., tomato sauce). Research by Ramaswami and colleagues found that 21 percent of the cities or urban areas could be self-sufficient in their embodied demand for milk and eggs, with a slightly lower percentage for vegetables and fruits (Nixon and Ramaswami, 2018). Ramaswami noted that the limitation on local self-reliance comes from the way supply chains are aligned today, rather than production. She next described innovations in modeling and sustainability analytics by presenting a transboundary environmental footprinting, which showed how food, water, and energy systems are interconnected both within the boundaries of a city and in transboundary supply chains. Ramaswami noted that the framework also allowed modeling the impact of policy changes to improve issues such as nutrition, urban agriculture, or greenhouse gas emissions and identifying and prioritizing trade-offs.
Dawn Jutla, Peer Ledger Inc., spoke about blockchain and its implications for the food system, defining blockchain as “a set of computer science technologies, particularly from distributed data management, peer-to-peer networking and cryptography, which enables us to, when put together, provide a digital encrypted set of transactions within a distributed shared ledger environment.” As she explained, previously clearinghouses retained transaction information, and there was the potential for multiple versions at different party sites. Jutla described how blockchain uses a single distributed ledger with identical copies for multiple parties that automatically update and cryptographic methods, which provide consistent data, transparency, and traceability through the supply chain, helping to guard against fraud.
Jutla believes that blockchain can bring important capabilities to the food industry. For example, she noted that blockchain may be able to create new business models using “smart contracts” that embed the rules of buying and selling within the industry. Blockchain may also allow one to record, clear, and settle in a single transaction, removing inefficiencies in the payment system. To address food safety, Jutla explained that blockchain allows for tracing of a contaminant and identifying everyone who has touched the product within minutes, a process that could otherwise take days or weeks. It also allows for permanent recording of a company’s policies and practices at each step in the supply chain. Blockchain can also be used to provide information to the consumer about where their food came from and how it was processed.
INNOVATIONS IN ALTERNATIVE FOOD PRODUCTION
Session 3, moderated by Naomi Fukagawa, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), explored innovations in alternative meat production and their implications for food systems.
Jan Dutkiewicz, Johns Hopkins University, focused on how alternative meat production may impact the food system. Dutkiewicz explained that the United States is generally a meat-eating nation, due in part to the historical success of the American meat industry in providing cheap protein, and embracing technologies such as refrigeration and long-range transport that allow centralized production to reach distant consumer markets. He added that cheap food production creates a number of externalities, including labor, environmental, and animal rights concerns.
As Dutkiewicz explained, a set of innovators are focused on creating a plant-based product analogous to meat that competes with conventional meat on factors such as taste, price, and habit, but with a lower ecological impact. “Compared to a conventional beef burger, a [plant-based] Beyond Burger uses 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, emits 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and uses 46 percent less energy,” he stated, citing a University of Michigan life cycle assessment (Heller and Keoleian, 2018). According to Dutkiewicz, the alternative meat market is the fastest growing segment of the U.S. food sector, and the technology offers broader opportunities to shift away from monocrop agriculture if products can be developed that draw on the nutritional and protein profiles of plants that could be incorporated into alternatives.
With respect to lab-grown meat, Dutkiewicz called the products “disruptive,” noting they are indistinguishable in taste and at the DNA level from conventional meat products, but with a dramatically reduced ecological impact and more efficient value chain. He noted that many of the major meat and pharmaceutical companies are already investing in the technology; however, issues related to production at scale, technology, and time line for mass-market release and return on investment still
need to be addressed.
James Reecy, Iowa State University, spoke about the science and implications of in vitro meat. While lab-grown meat currently costs about $50 per serving, Reecy believes it will eventually become cost competitive with other protein sources. He explained that this process would harm far fewer animals than conventional meat. Based on several assumptions, as few as 14 head of cattle per year could produce the same amount of meat as 39 million head through conventional agriculture. Given that most innovation related to lab-grown meat is proprietary, it is unclear how cell-cultured meat will be scaled up. In addition, Reecy pointed out that by-products, that is, spent cell culture media, would still be produced through lab-cultured meat. He noted that efficiencies in dairy production have already been realized using existing technology, as four times as much milk is produced in the United States as in 1950 using only half as many cows, reducing the environmental impact. Similar efficiencies have also been realized with meat production. Reecy believes that to be competitive, the in vitro meat industry will have to increase its production efficiency on an ongoing basis. While the environmental impact of in vitro meat would be less than that of traditional agriculture, Reecy pointed out that there may be concerns with the growth hormones used to get the cells to grow. The nutritional profile of in vitro meat could also be superior or inferior to traditional meat, based on multiple factors.
Michael Hansen, Consumer Reports, spoke about consumer concerns regarding alternative meat products, and defined three basic categories of these products: 1) traditional plant-based products; 2) “high-tech” versions of traditional plant-based products, such as the Beyond Burger; and 3) plant-based products with genetically engineered inputs, such as the Impossible Burger, which is made with genetically engineered plant-based heme iron. Hansen compared the ingredients, nutritional qualities, and climate impact of the Beyond Burger, Impossible Burger, Amy’s Organic California Burger, and a ground beef burger. With respect to ingredients, the Beyond Burger has many highly processed components, including protein isolates, and is not organic. Hansen noted that the ground beef burger has a small number of ingredients and can be a non-genetically modified organism (GMO) or organic, and that the Amy’s burger contains primarily organic vegetables. Regarding nutritional quality, Hansen noted that the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger have more sodium and similar levels of calories, fat, and saturated fat as a beef burger. According to Hansen, the Amy’s burger is slightly “healthier.” With respect to climate impacts, Hansen continued, the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger involve about 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional, industrially produced meat. However, Hansen pointed out that grass-fed, ecologically sustainable meat produced through regenerative agriculture yields negative emissions.
Hansen explained that the Impossible Burger contains genetically engineered soy leghemoglobin, which was approved in 2018 as Generally Recognized As Safe by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for use as an iron source and flavor and color additive. However, Hansen questioned the safety of soy leghemoglobin and the yeast proteins used in the product, as both are new to the food supply and the heme B iron could increase the risk for colorectal cancer. He noted that the short feeding studies that the FDA reviewed acknowledged several statistically significant adverse effects; however, these were explained as minimal or irrelevant. Hansen disagreed with these conclusions and suggested that more longer term studies are needed.
Hansen also commented on animal-cultured foods, agreeing with previous speakers about potential safety problems such as contamination, growth media, use of hormones, engineering, and concerns with existing research being mostly proprietary. Consumer Reports conducted a June 2018 survey of more than 1,000 respondents on the best terminology to use to describe the product, finding that the top choices were “lab-grown meat” and “artificial/synthetic meat,” and that “clean meat,” “in vitro meat,” and “cultured meat” were less popular.
INNOVATIONS IN FOOD DISTRIBUTION
Session 4, moderated by Jensen, focused on innovations in food distribution and implications for food systems.
Michelle Miller, University of Wisconsin, spoke about innovations in logistics. She began with a history of food distribution, explaining that in the past 50 years there has been a change from corner stores to big-box stores as supply chains consolidated. This was an adaptive response to the increasing risk in the system as gas prices became more volatile. Weather volatility is a new stressor on the horizon. Consolidation trends have reduced competition while disadvantaging regional food systems and creating unintended environmental disruptions. Miller noted that increased concentration in distribution has crowded out midsize companies, in particular, and suppressed innovation. She described the food system as a complex, adaptive, self-organizing system that can be understood using principles of diversity, flow, non-linearity, and aggregation. She noted that fruit and vegetable production has largely moved to the “fruitful rim” states on the West Coast and Southeast to lessen seasonal volatility. This has increased efficiency, but reduced diversity. Miller explained that the Midwest—and particularly Chicago—is critical for warehousing and overall food flow across the United States. According to Miller, food supply chains are non-linear, needing to adjust for seasonal production, using geographic-based routes, and different segments of the supply chain. These segments are first mile (farm to processor or warehouse), over-the-road or regional (distance to wholesale market), and last mile (within the destination city). Each segment requires different logistic considerations and holds opportunities to improve market access and food access.
Miller explained that key factors that shape supply chains include who owns the product and pays for the distribution at each step along the supply chain; the amount and diversity of supply to be transported; and the distance of each segment. Miller referenced the book The Great Mindshift, which claimed that, with sustainable agriculture, typically only an ecological approach is used, but organizational and technological responses are important to consider (Göpel, 2016). She noted that barriers to innovation may include scale disconnect, ownership issues, a lack of equitably shared risk and reward through a supply chain, and asymmetrical access to information and technology. Looking toward the future, Miller envisions system redesign to improve regional food access while reducing waste and energy consumption. This may be possible by a return to regional supply chains, increased interest in public food terminals that meet public and private goals, open-source technology with compatible platforms, and technological innovations to improve information flow such as machine learning, distributed ledgers, and multitenant applications.
Claire Sand, Packaging Technology and Research, LLC, spoke about innovations in food packaging. She began by acknowledging that packaging will always have an impact on the environment, but it can be reduced. She explained that food packaging has multiple purposes, including preserving the moisture content of the product and ensuring food safety. Sand identified three opportunities for design innovation: 1) recycle-ready packaging, made of chemically recyclable polymers; 2) single-component materials; and 3) redefined packaging, such as interior packaging that is recyclable, but provides for a shorter shelf life inside a large outer paper package to be opened by the retailer. This master packing is already being done in the meat industry. Sand also described two types of science innovation: active packaging and intelligent packaging. Active packaging fulfills a function such as moisture and odor containment or reducing bacterial growth. One type of active packaging absorbs oxygen, which negatively affects food, and emits CO2. Sand explained that another example is the use of edible antimicrobials, such as cinnamon, in packaging to reduce microbial growth and increase product shelf life. Intelligent packaging may have time, temperature, microbial, or oxidation indicators that inform the consumer how fresh the product is or by when it needs to be consumed. Sand concluded by explaining that her company recently completed a large study on food waste and packaging and found that the impact on the environment of food waste is much greater than that of packaging.
Brent Heard, University of Michigan, spoke about sustainability implications of the use of connected autonomous (self-driving) vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) in food distribution. Heard opened by stating that self-driving vehicles and drones have the potential to either improve or worsen food system sustainability, depending on how they are used. Heard defined sustainability as considering economic, social, and environmental impacts. He expects that the food distribution industry will be an early adopter of self-driving vehicles and drones because of their ability to help cut food losses by reducing food distribution and storage times, allow for 24/7 service, and lower marginal costs. Heard expects that autonomous trucks could replace long-haul trucking and that both drones and self-driving vehicles could be used in the last mile of the supply chain to deliver food to the customer. As modeled in the academic literature, Heard noted that connected autonomous vehicles could provide efficiency and environmental improvements by optimizing routing, speed changes, transport time, and other technical improvements, and reducing road fatalities. However, the environmental benefits may not be realized if autonomous vehicle distribution replaces rail or water transportation or the trip length or trips taken significantly increase. Heard expects that distribution companies adopting autonomous vehicle technology will see increased profits due to efficiency savings, the potential for increased sales volume, and reduced driver wages. He notes that the reduction in the need for drivers could result in unemployment for truck drivers and related businesses such as food and lodging stops along the highway, and while new jobs would likely be created in their place, they may require different skills.
For last-mile food distribution, bringing food to the ultimate consumer, Heard described research finding that the environmental impact of a drone compared with truck delivery varied based on the size of the package and the drone. Although Heard expects that drone delivery will raise similar profit, employment, and safety considerations as autonomous vehicles, flights in neighborhoods could also raise zoning and urban planning issues as more warehouses will be needed to support drones’ relatively short delivery range. He noted that the regulatory scheme for drone flight is still being established and that drones also raise social acceptability issues, including the noise they produce and their military associations. He explained that use of self-driving vehicles for the last-mile supply chain also has the potential to stimulate increased grocery home delivery, reducing burdens of grocery retailing and increasing options for healthy foods in places with limited access. However, Heard acknowledged that if changes in delivery mode lead to increased consumption of foods produced with high greenhouse gas emissions, any gains from delivery could be more than offset. He concluded by stating that while self-driving vehicles and drones could improve sustainability if used under the right conditions, these benefits may not necessarily be achieved.
INNOVATIONS IN FOOD MARKETING AND FOOD VALUE CHAINS
Session 5 Moderator Christina Khoo, Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc., explained that the session would explore additional topics in food flow, including food value chains and food marketing.
Christian Peters, Tufts University, spoke about land and water as fundamental natural resources for supporting food
systems. Peters began by displaying a series of maps showing that U.S. farmland had shifted west between 1860 and the middle of the 20th century, when it became concentrated in the central United States. He noted that, worldwide, increased food production is due primarily to increased productivity of the land and more efficient use of water, rather than increased area of farmable land (Waisanen and Bliss, 2002).
Peters next spoke about the transdisciplinary study of food systems as a way to understand the sustainability of natural resources such as food and water. Transdisciplinary research involves partners from multiple disciplines (including academia and elsewhere) working together to address a common problem or solution. Peters shared an example of the Eastern Broccoli Project, a USDA-funded initiative involving academia and industry partners working to create a regional food network for broccoli as a model for other specialty crops. Peters explained that broccoli-growing areas range from Maine to Florida with many locations in between, depending on the weather and time of year, creating a year-round supply. He described how the study found that the savings in transport costs resulting from broccoli no longer needing to be distributed from the West to the East Coast compensated for a small increase in production costs. Peters concluded his presentation by explaining some challenges associated with transdisciplinary projects, such as difficulty with framing and consensus, integration of research methods across disciplines, and engaging practitioners. He also noted that in the past 10 to 20 years, public agriculture research funding has leveled off or decreased, while private-sector funding has increased.
Jill McCluskey, Washington State University, spoke about innovations in supporting contracting in supply chains and how universities and plant breeders can fit into the supply chain. As consumer expectations for quality and variety have increased, she explained, there is a continual need to develop and market new crop varieties and improve existing ones. In Washington State, apple growers pay assessments to grow specific varieties, funds that are used to support future agricultural research and extension. Universities can also obtain revenue through patenting the intellectual property rights from university-conducted research. As McCluskey explained, profits are maximized using a two-part tariff with a fixed license fee and per-unit royalty when there are a large number of licensees, such as with a new apple variety based on a major innovation, or a per-unit royalty when innovation is low. She shared an economic model that could be used to determine the quantity of output to produce, and production methods that maximize profits for both the innovators and licensees, noting that a research invention following this model is the Cosmic Crisp apple. In 1997, a lottery was held for growers in Washington State to be able to plant the first trees, which matured in 2019. McCluskey noted that the Cosmic Crisp innovation was intended to increase demand, and therefore, price. However, she expressed concerns that the large volume of apples being produced has the potential to erode the higher prices.
Brenna Ellison, University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign, opened her presentation by explaining that there are multiple channels through which food is moved to consumers. They range from direct (producer to consumer) to intermediary (potentially involving agents, wholesalers, distributors, and retailers in between). She explained that direct marketing strategies are more commonly used by smaller producers with local distribution, although large retailers are also increasingly eliminating intermediaries. She noted that when intermediaries are involved, the producer uses labels to communicate information and values directly to the consumer. Challenges with labels are that most have multiple claims competing for attention, consumers may not understand the meaning of the claims or know which to trust, and many are conflicting or duplicative. Ellison explained how research shows that consumers are willing to pay more for a product with a specific attribute, such as local or organic, but research rarely considers the larger purchasing context. She then pointed to findings from her research showing that consumers perceive the same product differently depending on where it is sold. Ellison found that healthy products carrying the organic label, such as produce, are typically purchased based on perception of taste. However, less healthy products labeled as organic, such as cookies or ice cream, are perceived as more healthful.
As an example from her research, she described how a nationwide survey of more than 1,000 consumers was conducted to determine which of seven claims related to livestock production across four products resonate most with consumers. The top three labels were no growth hormones, non-GMO, and humanely raised (Ellison et al., 2017). Ellison pointed out that while all poultry and pork products are prohibited from using added growth hormones, most products contain this label because consumers care about the information and do not know this fact. She was surprised that organic was considered the least important claim, given the popularity of organic products. Her key takeaway was that many factors play into consumers’ food purchase decisions, and taste and price are the ultimate drivers of decision making. Although labels can be useful in differentiating among products, to make a difference, consumers must be able to understand and use them relatively quickly.
EXPLORING CASES OF FOOD SYSTEM EVOLUTION: FEDERAL PROGRAMS AND THE PRIVATE SECTOR
The final session of Day 1 of the workshop, moderated by Otten, explored two case studies of food system evolution, one from government and one from business.
Tricia Kovacs, USDA, explored how food systems are evolving within federal programs. She began by clarifying that seemingly simple initiatives, such as farm-to-school and direct marketing, involve multiple complexities with incremental
changes. Kovacs explained the evolution and purpose of the Farmers Market Promotion Program, to provide locally and regionally produced agricultural products directly to consumer markets, and the Local Food Promotion Program, which recognizes the role of intermediaries in moving local agricultural products to consumers. She noted that USDA Rural Development also has the Local Agriculture Markets Program (LAMP), which has mandatory funding and combines the farmers market and local food promotion programs with value-added producer grants, requiring collaboration across federal agencies. LAMP also provides Regional Food Systems Partnership Agreement grants, allowing funded food systems partnerships to apply on behalf of partner entities to leverage funding from outside partners. As Kovacs explained, all three of these programs are authorized through the Farm Bill, and in the future, USDA hopes to streamline their grant awards.
Kovacs explained that another federal program, Local Foods, Local Places, is managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and provides for placemaking through health and food considerations. At least 92 communities across the United States have received strategic planning support and facilitation through this initiative. Overall, there are at least 30 USDA programs relating to the local food supply chain, with an interagency workgroup to coordinate USDA staff involved in these initiatives and an interagency grant workgroup focused on grantmaking and assessing impact. There are also cooperative agreements with outside researchers to develop resources and tools for stakeholders outside of the federal government. Select data sources Kovacs described include the Local Food Marketing Practices Survey, the Census of Agriculture, and the Agricultural Transportation Open Data Platform.
Thomas McQuillan, Baldor Specialty Foods, provided a private-sector example of food system evolution and described how his company was successful in achieving zero organic waste to landfill companywide. McQuillan explained that Baldor is a distributor of produce and specialty food, which also owns a fresh-cut produce operation. In 2015, Baldor executives became concerned about food being wasted through food production. They wanted to use it to address the high rates of food insecurity in the surrounding Bronx neighborhood. He described how in response, the company launched the Imperfect Produce program, which resulted in the capture of 4,000 cases of tomatoes being sold to chefs or donated to people in need the first year. The company has a goal of moving 1 million pounds of produce in 2019. McQuillan used an analogy about wasting gas to illustrate the point that Americans waste a lot of food without considering its impact on the environment. He explained that Baldor was successful in meeting its commitment of saving 150,000 pounds of organics from landfill by using the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, which lists the most to least preferred methods of food waste reduction. Some food is donated to non-profit organizations to aid the food insecure, while other leftovers, such as vegetable peels, may be sold to chefs for use in recipes. Inedible scraps are given to farmers for use as animal food or compost. McQuillan proclaimed that food is an asset to be consumed by humans or animals or used for compost, but never wasted. He suggested that a culture change and regulations may be needed to restrict comingling food with waste.
INNOVATIONS IN FOOD DATA AND ANALYTICS
Jean Halloran, Consumer Reports, opened Day 2 of the workshop by highlighting messages from the first day’s sessions. Khoo then moderated a panel on innovations in food data and analytics, including tools to help mitigate food waste across sectors and nutritional implications of food waste.
Steven Finn, Leanpath, focused on scaling food waste prevention through measurement, data, and analytics. He noted that as it is simply unsustainable from social and environmental perspectives for the world to waste 30 to 50 percent of the global food supply annually, there is increasing momentum behind Target 12.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which calls for cutting global waste in half by 2030 and reducing food loss along supply chains. Finn noted that to achieve the reduction outlined in Target 12.3, it is important to shift attention to preventing the occurrence of food waste (i.e., source reduction) as opposed to the traditional focus on downstream recovery efforts. The keys to reducing food waste in the food- service sector at scale, Finn said, involves tracking and measurement with automated tools in order to drive operational and behavior change in kitchens. He explained that two key areas of food waste need to be addressed in the food service sector: 1) preconsumer kitchen waste due to overproduction, spoilage, and trimming (which is controlled by kitchen staff); and 2) postconsumer “plate” waste (which largely controlled by guests, but also influenced by portion sizes).
Finn noted that Leanpath has enabled clients to prevent more than 40 million pounds of food waste since 2014, the equivalent environmental impact of removing the annual emissions of 27,000 cars and saving more than 16 billion gallons of water. He explained that the measurement gap exists related to food waste, as many organizations do not understand how much food they are wasting. By tracking each occurrence of excess food in their kitchens with Leanpath, organizations first establish a baseline level to track progress because what is measured is managed. The process of tracking with integrated hardware and software tools creates a cloud-based database that allows organizations to analyze the causes of food waste and take action to reduce waste in the short term while preventing its recurrence in the future. At the same time, the process allows organizations to drive behavior change among staff, connecting frontline food service workers to the food waste challenge and creating a culture focused on food waste prevention. He described the business case for food waste prevention, explaining that
wasted food “costs” organizations in five ways—the cost of food itself the utilities and water costs involved in production, the labor costs of production, lost sales/profit from the waste, and disposal costs. Additional benefits include reduced environmental externalities in the form of greenhouse gas emissions and reduced water consumption, creation of a more engaged workforce on meaning, and positive societal recognition for sustainability leadership. Delivering on food waste prevention, Finn noted, requires behavior change at scale, and metrics influence behavior. Leanpath provides a suite of customized tracking devices designed to meet the needs of each site, allowing food service organizations to view and slice data in myriad ways to drive food waste reduction. A new product, Leanpath Spark, allows organizations to engage consumers in the food waste reduction process as well, displaying impactful waste data and messaging to drive behavior change at the consumer level.
Norbert Wilson, Tufts University, spoke about mitigating food loss, primarily produce, and how food labels influence food waste. Loss occurs at several places along the supply chain, including at the consumer level, along transport, and on the farm. Wilson began by highlighting the wide variation among crops in the amount that is lost, including the marketable product left on the field and the amount that did not meet grade. Using strawberries as an example, he explained that growers must consider plant maturity, product quality, price fluctuation, and labor availability when deciding when to harvest their crop. Innovation has focused on creating new crop varieties that can better survive pests and diseases and thrive with varying water levels. Innovations in shipping can also help crops like strawberries last longer once picked.
Considering charitable innovations, the ancient tradition of gleaning is still practiced, with the largest organization having recovered 28.5 million pounds of produce last year. However, accessing farms often presents challenges. Another innovation, but in the for-profit sphere, involves commercial peer-to-peer mutualization systems, organizations that aggregate and sell product that would not otherwise be sold or marketed in a manner similar to a community support agriculture program.
With respect to logistics, Wilson explained that fruits and vegetables, in particular, can be lost due to failure in the cold chain, leading to lower quality, shortened shelf life, and possibly food safety concerns. Innovations such as forced air tunnels and cold walls used to cool products, temperature monitors, and management strategies such as “first expired, first out” can also help to optimize shelf life and reduce food loss. He also shared an example of a non-profit grocery store in a low-income community in Boston that sells products that are about to expire or would otherwise be wasted.
On the consumer end of the supply chain, Wilson pointed out that date labels and package size impact food waste. Legislation to standardize date labels has been introduced at the state and federal levels. Wilson described research finding that the words “best by” or “use by” preceding the date on the label impacted food waste in either a positive or negative direction, depending on the product and the consumer.
Brad Rickard, Cornell University, expanded on the issue of date labeling, addressing the nutritional implications of food waste mitigation. He explained that there are four areas of economic work related to food waste: 1) measurement; 2) information and industry initiatives, such as behavioral nudges; 3) determination of the optimal level of food waste, given the costs involved in reducing food waste to nearly zero; and 4) the impact of reduction in food waste on future prices and production. Rickard also shared a framework for how changes in food waste or loss could impact price, quantity, and available nutrients. Based on cost, the majority of the $200 billion in global food waste is composed of fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat. However, broken down by nutrients, most of the food waste is added fats and sugars. On this, Rickard remarked that if food waste were to be reduced, people might consume more added fats and sugars, reducing the nutritional quality of their diets.
Rickard and colleagues conducted consumer research on how different date labels would affect their likelihood of discarding 15 different products from nine food groups one day past the date. Considering date only, “use by” date, “best by” date, “sell by” date, “best if used by” date, and smart labels that identified the freshness of the product in combination with the “use by” and “best if used by” date labels, the research found that the impact of the label depended on the product (Wilson et al., 2017). Rickard further pointed out that changes in food waste based on date label changes would impact nutrient availability of foods in the household. He presented data across each food category for the “best by” date label, highlighting that, overall, nutrient availability in the household would fall. More specifically, households would have more cholesterol, protein, and calcium because meat and dairy products are some of the most likely to be wasted and have relatively fewer carbohydrates and sugars. Results were similar for use of both the “best if used by” label and the color-coded biosensor.
INNOVATIONS IN FOOD ACCESS AND AFFORDABILITY
The final session focused on innovations in food access and affordability. Neff, session moderator, opened by explaining that the session would focus on equity considerations, a recurrent theme throughout the workshop.
Nevin Cohen, City University of New York School of Public Health, spoke about the way food access is conceptualized, measured, and addressed. He opened by explaining that food access is used to describe a wide range of conditions involving diverse social movements focused on food sovereignty, food system control, and environmental justice activism. Cohen stated that hunger and food insecurity have been conflated with food access due to technological innovations that facilitate identification of food deserts and legal approaches that frame hunger as market failure and point to policy solutions like retailer
subsidies. He presented the view that supermarket access is inadequate to fully explain the reasons for hunger and poor nutrition. Cohen explained that the research is flawed in several key ways, including that small ethnic grocers are often not included in the studies, supermarkets also have many unhealthy options, retail sales data are not considered, most studies are cross-sectional rather than longitudinal and do not capture changes over time, and most research takes place in major U.S. cities. “Food environments and the way people interact with them are much more complex,” Cohen stated. Cohen also pointed out methodological limitations with measuring what people eat, noting that self-reported dietary intake data are subject to recall bias, and body weight is often self-reported.
With respect to innovations to increase food access, Cohen and colleagues focused on designing strategies that use technological and social innovations to address the economic conditions and scheduling constraints that impact people in low-income communities. He described three types of interventions: 1) social supermarkets; 2) food buyer’s clubs; and 3) meal kits. Social supermarkets are non-profit or socially oriented ventures that provide both community services, such as nutrition education, and lower priced food in low-income communities. The stores may rely on donated food and services, negotiated discounts with utility companies and suppliers, and/or investor financing. Another example is a food buyer’s club, a collective that gathered shoppers’ experiences with food purchasing and has encouraged neighborhood residents to take advantage of a pilot project allowing people who receive Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to use them at online grocers. Cohen also described an example of an inexpensive meal kit that is marketed to low-income consumers. The company keeps costs down by using conventional distributors, volunteer assembly, and no refrigeration. In conclusion, Cohen recommended shifting toward theories of food access that focus on social practices, considering social inequities and racism, and measuring food access using multidisciplinary approaches.
Reverend Dr. Heber Brown, III, Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, Baltimore, MD, focused on asset-based approaches to advancing food and land sovereignty among African Americans in rural and urban communities. Brown defined food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems,” putting people who produce, distribute, and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies (La Via Campesina, 2013). He suggested using the term “food apartheid,” which considers the racial, geographic, faith, and economic aspects of a food system, instead of “food desert.”
Concerned that many of his congregants were suffering from diet-related diseases, Brown initially considered establishing a partnership with a fresh food market nearby, but decided the prices were too high. Instead, he rallied the congregation around creating a garden on a small plot of land adjacent to the church. Brown was grateful that the partnership with the congregation was the solution for the community and noted that older members were particularly pivotal in maintaining the garden. He realized that African American communities have many assets such as land, parking lots, commercial kitchens, and classrooms that are frequently underused, and he saw opportunities to connect these assets, resources, and people in a systemic response to the systemic problem of food inequity. Brown learned that, historically, African Americans had organized to create their own grocery stores. He described several historical church leaders who led initiatives to use the church’s land and assets to cultivate and provide food for the congregation, furthering food sovereignty in the community.
Brown also articulated how his group, the Black Church Food Security Network, organizes the resources of the African American church community for an asset-based approach to food insecurity. In collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Brown has a goal that the church gardens will overtake the food apartheid in the city of Baltimore.
Rhonda Gonzalez, Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, discussed initiatives focused on food quality in the food bank/food rescue sector. The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona serves five counties as a food bank—sourcing, warehousing, and distributing food—and a food pantry, delivering food in partnership with 350 to 400 partner agencies. Gonzalez noted that for the past 20 years, the organization has considered how to move from a charity organization to a justice organization and better incorporate clients’ perspectives in their work. A university partner conducted client surveys and identified their top priorities to be nutrition, cooking, and managing chronic diseases. As Gonzalez explained, the organization also helps to reduce food waste by obtaining unwanted produce from distributors in Mexico. To address nutrition, their food distribution practices align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, focusing on nutrient density, food variety, and healthy eating across the lifespan (HHS and USDA, 2015). The organization is currently defining what this means, considering that the majority of their food supply is donated, and has formed a nutrition advisory task-force. The organization is also educating internal and external stakeholders on why they are focused on health. A student from a local college analyzed the nutritional quality of their food donations, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) bags and other donated food, and found that it was high in sodium and low in whole grains and certain vitamins. Gonzalez explained that they are working to empower clients through nutrition education classes, recipe sampling, and partnerships with nearby Federally Qualified Health Centers serving similar populations. In partnership with the University of Arizona, the organization has also completed phase 2 (of 3 phases) of developing a model TEFAP food box, is assessing clients’ dietary quality, and asking their preferences regarding which products to provide in the boxes. The study found clients’ current diets were low in greens, beans, seafood, plant proteins, dairy, and whole grains and high in added sugars and fats. They wanted items in the TEFAP boxes that would help them make a meal and alleviate their overall grocery bill.
CLOSING DISCUSSION: EVOLUTION AND REVOLUTION OF FOOD SYSTEMS
In the closing session of the workshop, moderator Fukagawa asked each of the panelists to share their key takeaways from the workshop. Khoo shared that she gained an appreciation of the complexity and interdependence of food systems and the importance of using data and analytics to understand the ripple effects of a change to one part of the system. Jensen also appreciated the focus on the integrative, holistic nature of the whole food system and emphasized the importance of considering trade-offs. She noted that many innovations were taking place in the private sector. Neff highlighted the contrast between the urgency of the issues and the time and money required to implement appropriate interventions. Halloran liked the idea of social innovations in addition to those involving technology. Fukagawa appreciated the emphasis on transgenerational and transdisciplinary interactions focused on improving people’s well-being and food access. She noted the importance of reaching within communities.
Otten asked audience members to share their takeaways as well. Considering the systems perspective, one audience member asked if food waste is reduced and food access increases, whether production would decline as well to correspond with lower demand. Neff responded that an alternative to reduced production could be increased exports. Other speakers emphasized the importance of food waste reduction, echoing Finn’s comments in an earlier session about the importance of prevention. The point was made that people are more willing to discard food when they put less effort into maintaining it. Another speaker noted the importance of involving diverse voices in developing solutions within the food system to ensure they work well for all people.♦♦♦
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DISCLAIMER: This Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief has been prepared by Melissa Maitin-Shepard as a factual summary of what occurred at the meeting. The statements made are those of the rapporteur or individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all workshop participants; the planning committee; or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
*The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s planning committees are solely responsible for organizing the workshop, identifying topics, and choosing speakers. The responsibility for the published Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief rests with the institution. The planning committee comprises Yvette Cabrera, Natural Resources Defense Council; Naomi Fukagawa, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Jean Halloran, Consumer Reports; Helen Jensen, Iowa State University; Christina Khoo, Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc.; Roni Neff, Johns Hopkins University; and Jennifer Otten, University of Washington
REVIEWERS: To ensure that it meets institutional standards for quality and objectivity, this Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was reviewed by Ihouma Eneli, American Academy of Pediatrics, and Robert Post, Chobani, LLC. Lauren Shern, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine served as the review coordinator.
SPONSORS: This workshop was partially supported by the National Institutes of Health; the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with additional support by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; the American Heart Association; the American Institute for Cancer Research; the American Society for Nutrition; Cargill, Inc; The Coca-Cola Company; Conagra Brands; General Mills, Inc.; Keurig Dr Pepper; Mars, Inc.; Nestlé Corporate Affairs; Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc.; PepsiCo; and Unilever.
For additional information regarding the meeting, visit nationalacademies.org/foodforum.
Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Innovations in the food system: Exploring the future of food: Proceedings of a workshop—in brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25645.
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