About seven years ago, I was invited to a think tank meeting in DC. The organizer was trying to fix the food system. He had a strong network, a strong reputation for negotiation and knew a lot of the stakeholders in the food industry.
Several attendees were from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and they decided that I shouldn’t be there.
So I was uninvited.
I pushed the organizer, promising that I would listen and that he didn’t have to worry. He hesitantly agreed.
I paid my own way.
I walked into the first day of the meeting. Someone from the industry said, “Robyn, we finally meet” in the most condescending voice possible.
I thought, “What the hell am I doing here? Why did I leave my family at home for this?”
And I spent two days listening and quietly speaking with attendees in the hallways.
On the first day, someone from the Food Marketing Institute pulled me aside and shared that she had cancer. She asked about food. Someone from Safeway’s leadership team had a child with autism.
But it was a senior executive from Campbell’s that made that meeting worth the trip. He was respectful. He was willing to sit at the table and have the hard conversations, despite the fact that we didn’t see eye to eye on everything. We stayed in touch ever since.
So when Campbell’s announced that they supported mandatory GMO labeling last year, he was the first person that I emailed. He was also the first that I emailed when I saw Campbell’s announcement that they are leaving the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
It takes courage to create change.
It is those quiet conversations, out in the hallways or at the end of a day, when no one else was listening, that proved that there was more that unites us than divides us in this work. Whether at that DC meeting or when the CEO of Nestle’s Frozen Food division called and said, “You can say things that I can’t say.” It is the candid and shared concerns, especially as they relate to the health of our families, that give so many hope that we can fix this.
We have our work cut out for us. Less than 1% of our farmland is organic here in the U.S. while Germany just announced a record that 7.5% of their farmland is now organic. We are late to this game on the global playing field and don’t have a supply chain to keep up with demand. Other countries are benefiting from our inaction.
There is a deep and real need to move beyond commodity-based agriculture if we are going to fix our food system, farm economy and the health of our families. There are new regulatory needs in light of the growing demand for organic and the skyrocketing rates of food allergies, diabetes and cancer in America.
And there are consumers who are serving as a compass, telling the industry exactly what they must do to meet the needs of all stakeholders and shareholders and ensure profitability.
Some companies like Campbell’s are listening. Some like Kashi are working to transition farmers to organic, while other processed food companies are so entrenched in a 20th century way of thinking that all you can do is to get out of their way as they take themselves out.
When Campbell’s announced in 2016 that they were breaking with the Grocery Manufacturers Association and going with mandatory GMO labeling, other companies quickly followed. Why? The Grocery Manufacturers Association no longer served the needs of its members. It spent millions telling consumers that their concerns were not valid, that thei voice had no merit, that the customer was not right. And the Grocery Manufacturers Association was wrong. Consumers, driven by growing concerns for the health of their families, are driving a massive change in the food industry.
And just as Campbell’s led and others followed in 2016, it will be interesting to see who moves next here, too.
Change does not happen in our comfort zones, and change at its core can seem hypocritical. But if you want change to happen, you have to lean into it and into any fear or butterflies. A friend once shared that those butterflies are your internal applause cheering you on.
It’s a good thing to remember as we rethink food for the 21st century. Less than 1% of our farmland is organic. Not a single food company in the United States benefits from that, not one. The economics don’t work.
Now more than ever, it’s time to build out a supply chain that allows American food companies to compete in the 21st century and meet the changing needs of 21st century families.
Let’s lean into it, dump the junk, and cheer it on.