Farmers should weigh options to respond to changing food preferences
By Nate Birt and Sara Schafer
On a recent trip to Silicon Valley, Horsch Maschinen GmbH founder Michael Horsch took his children and senior management on a quest. They had three objectives: Learn about the latest in change management, study how artificial intelligence is advancing, and probe the eating habits of California’s tech professionals.
Horsch smiles as he recounts walking into office kitchens, opening refrigerators and taking a peek.
“They are flexitarians,” Horsch reveals. “The flexitarian movement is the biggest movement in the history of human diet change.”
Horsch isn’t bluffing. He’s the founder of one the world’s largest shortline equipment manufacturers, producing seeding, planting, tillage and application equipment.
A fundamental shift is coming for the majority of American diets, Horsch says. Rather than relying on hamburgers, French fries and other dietary staples that have pushed obesity and other chronic health problems to record highs, people will increasingly eat less red meat, much more vegetables and a little chicken.
Changing Demographics. One major group is behind many of these changes, says Mary Shelman, a food and agribusiness thought leader and the former director of Harvard Business School’s Agribusiness Program. It’s those darn millennials.
“Millennials today are the largest demographic segment in the U.S.,” Shelman says. “Born between 1980 and 2000, millennials today are having families, enjoying increasing incomes and have different expectations of what they want in food.”
She points out people in this demographic view food differently than other generations in three ways:
1. Food is health. Millennials are more aware of health qualities of food and read labels—not just the calorie count. They look to see if products are processed, organic, etc.
2. Food is adventure. For the older generations, Shelman says, food got you through the day. Now food thrill seekers can enjoy a different type of cuisine every night.
3. Food is identity. Millennials want to support brands with a purpose that aligns with their beliefs. “Millennials don’t trust big brands,” Shelman points out. “But they are quite brand loyal when they find smaller brands they believe in, and 37% of millennials purchase specific products because of the cause a brand represents.”
Additionally, this demographic is a large consumer of social media and TV channels such as Food Network. In fact, 70% of millennials take pictures of their food, she notes.
Shifting diets have already taken root in Europe, where grocers such as Lidl have begun reducing ingredients such as sugar and other food additives. Horsch thinks retailers will increasingly stock more produce and other processing-free products, because consumers demand it and will push back with lawsuits if their families, children in particular, develop obesity linked to a poor diet.
If U.S. farmers fail to be proactive by reshaping practices to meet the needs of consumers and the environment, their fate could be similar, he says. Although Horsch says there is no evidence organic food is healthier than conventional food, there is reason to believe some organic practices have a lower environmental footprint. “Probably the future is a cross between organic and conventional farming,” Horsch quips, then adds: “I’m only raising questions. I’m not saying that this is the answer.”
The food system has fundamental problems that must be addressed honestly, Horsch thinks. Part of the solution lies in openness and public discourse about what the future of food should look like. Farmers from all production practices can learn from one another and work toward a food system with greater profitability and more consumer awareness.