Why collaboration is key to feeding the world.
When it’s time to eat, most of us don’t think about all the logistics and relationships required to deliver the dish we are about to devour. But feeding the world’s population is a complex process involving a number of actors, from scientists to farmers to drivers to bankers. Indeed, the food system is the largest segment of the world’s economy. It also needs to adapt to increasing threats brought by climate change, geopolitical forces and population growth. Ray Goldberg, emeritus professor of agriculture and business at Harvard University, speaks to Knowl[email protected]ton on the journey in his new book, Food Citizenship: Food System Advocates in an Era of Distrust. Here are the excerpts:
What motivated you to write a book about the global food system?
The ability to understand the change-makers of the food system is important because most people don’t have the opportunity to know the women and men who are the change-makers. Because I’ve had these men and women in class and in seminar for 25 years, trying to work with each other and understand each other in private/ public, not-for-profit and consumer advocate groups, I felt that the public and the rest of the academic community should know more about these people.
You coined the term “agribusiness.” When did that word really start to come into use?
John Davis and I were asked by Harvard Business School to describe what the food system is. Historically, everybody looked at it as a functional operation in a vertical structure, from the seed to a loaf of bread. But they never looked at it as a global system of interdependent, interrelated activities, and there wasn’t a name for it. We decided that we had to create a name. So, Davis and I thought about it; we recognised that every part of the food system is somewhat of a business, and we called it agribusiness.
The irst line of the book says the global food system is the largest segment of the world’s economy. Is there wide recognition of its importance?
This is not fully understood by the public. The reason is that they think of [the food system] as either farming or a supermarket, but they never look at the total vertical structure that holds it together and the coordinating mechanisms that help it adjust. I felt that it was important to enable the reader to not only understand the vertical system, but more importantly to understand the people in that system and how they work together or don’t work together.
How much do business schools teach about the food system?
Since we created the agribusiness programme at Harvard Business School, there have been more than 100 different programmes created throughout the world. In addition to that, the students need to be multi-disciplined in nature because it’s not just food or business. It’s health, economic development, the environment and natural resources. If you don’t get the food system right, you don’t have economic development.
Do multinational companies often think they are simply helping out by providing some resources rather than fully understanding their role in the process?
[There is this] illusion. If they are big, if they are multinational, they have all the knowledge in the world. The first lecture I gave at Wharton was about Nike and the problem they have with child labour. It’s unbelievable. A company of that reputation [can] make these kinds of mistakes? The engagement with the private sector was also creating opportunities for these companies to understand they have to change their core business, and that change will not come without access to relevant knowledge.
Why has there not been enough discussion about these topics?
First of all, I think that it took a revolution for the medical community to realise that nutrition was more important than popping pills. It took a while for the medical schools to realise that the food system was more important than the pharmaceutical system in terms of health. … [A] person can use food as well as pharmaceuticals to cure the problem they have.
How is technology playing a role?
Technology is playing a role in several dimensions. It’s not only playing a role in health in terms of identifying diseases and relating it to the individual human or plants or animals. It’s also playing a role in evaluating land and water usage that can produce unique crops that have pharmaceutical properties, which are then enabling the farmer to make a better living by developing something that’s not only food but something that fights diseases and improves the health of the consumer. In addition, the science is in its infancy in terms of productivity, in terms of providing alternatives to meat and using cell cultures so that we don’t have to use so much land and water to produce animals and poultry. A whole revolution is occurring that changes who are the major change-makers, but also what they do.
The most important thing that I think you should realise is that the food system has changed from being a transactional operation to a collaborative operation. It’s not just how much cheaper you can buy something or how much more you can sell something for, but how you work together to make the system more effective and more responsive to consumers’ nutritional needs, economic needs, and doing it in a way that improves the environment.
NEW BOOK Ray Goldberg, professor of agriculture and business.