Social and business analyst Stephen Alexander reviews the message of the current Food Inc. documentary film and reflects on future trends of an increasingly globalised food industry.

WHILST enjoying the usual delicious Pomadora’s meal at a Maleny Film society evening recently, I commiserated with a fellow member who groaned about having to sit through a documentary called Food Inc. that promised to change the way we regard what we eat, rather than be entertained by watching a good foreign film on a Saturday night.

So sitting near the back, ready if necessary to make a quick exit, I was pleasantly surprised by the treatment of the subject and the logical rationale of the narrative. The clearly structured story articulated one of the most important problems challenging the USA – its ability to survive and prosper in the 21st century as it watches its population’s health dramatically decline.

There’s an explosion in chronic disease, where over 33% of the population are now drug-dependent for life. Also, the recent advice given to President Obama by his own cancer panel (set up by the Bush administration), that over 41% of the whole population will now get cancer, raises deep concerns about the ability of that country to maintain an efficient workforce or even a standing army.

More alarmingly, this report found that the true burden of environmentally-induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.

“With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States,” the report states, “many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.

One such ubiquitous chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), is still found in many consumer products and remains unregulated in the United States, despite the growing link between BPA and several diseases, including various cancers.”

This problem is compounded by the various government agencies which seem to be working on behalf of the food sector rather than their stated position of protecting the consumer. This is the case even when products are proven to cause serious harm. This may be either through contamination with pathogenic bacteria, as a result of feeding unnatural substances to animals, such as animal offal to cows, or where untested chemicals, including known carcinogenic agents, are introduced either in the production of vegetables or meat or as part of the the processing of food required by the retail market for cost, flavour and shelf-life.

I was surprised to see the true extent of how the whole of the food chain revolves around the use of heavily subsidised corn-based by-products that feature in almost every product on the shelf or via a fast food outlet.

I finally understood why processed and fast food is so much cheaper than the cost of natural ingredients, and why wholesome food is now beyond the reaches of the financially distressed in the US.

The most enjoyable part of the film was hearing from some of the organic pioneers who had, over the years, built up strong local farm business outlets or had grown their cottage industry products, such as organic yoghurt, to the point where the likes of Walmart had even started stocking these products due to strong consumer demand.

The main message of the film was that the consumer is the problem in that they buy highly processed foods in preference to our traditional natural ingredients for home cooking. Consumers are also the solution in that ultimately suppliers will have to bend to their demands.

The point is that if consumers do demand something better and if a critical mass demand change then the entire industry will yield to this pressure as demonstrated by Walmart.

The film argued, as a principle, that sustainable organic production would be a pre-requisite to fix generating consumer demand for healthier food by introducing community and school gardens which are proving so successful around Australia.

I reflected on my own experience with multinationals which strongly supports the notion expressed in the film that both politicians and corporate directors live in fear of the consumer, voter or shareholder sentiment. Even the slightest movement in confidence can escalate events and ultimately shift the balance capital of power.

For example, I was invited on a couple of occasions to meet Charlie Bell, the then global head of McDonald’s who wanted to better understand the dynamics of his consumer groups who were starting to express their own power on the internet.

I was actually impressed with how open and observant Charlie was so I expressed my disgust with the whole fast food industry’s impact on the environment, plus my keen personal desire to see them change their own production and processing practices, or go bust.

Charlie also understood the concept of “swarming” where groups of kids in the USA agree on mass to do something, which might be to attend an event, collectively purchase a particular product, or, more alarming for McDonald’s, to boycott something due to a common sense of outrage.

I also advised that as consumers themselves go global through mobile tools like social networking they can start to form powerful common interest groups that will ultimately have equal or even greater power than say a government, the size of Australia’s, in terms of influence on multinationals.

The buzz phrase for this is demand aggregation where a trusted broker acquires the informed consent of a group to act on their behalf with full legal representation.

Charlie thought that as McDonald’s moved towards a growing demand for more healthier and non-burger meals they hoped to avoid a similar situation.

His dilemma, and that of every international corporation in the processed food game, is how to balance what they want against what the consumer wants in order to make money and expand market share.

In the end I recommended that they let the core business find its own destiny, which I suggested would be a gradual transition to consumer trends for organic. My proviso was that because his company would always lag behind they would, at some point, be taken over by the next “McDonald’s”.

They could then migrate their customers to new electronic loyalty cards that in themselves were the new type of bank cards for e-cash transactions. This would enable them to become the first low coast global family bank.

The reality was brought home to me that the larger the corporate, the more rigid its structure and the smaller the steps it can take. At the end of the day there will be a compromise between these massive global structures and the emergence of aggregated consumer clusters.

What is open to debate here in Australia is what as a region do we really want as opposed to what we may say we want. Also, what are we prepared to do in terms of life style change and the way we prioritise how we spend our disposable income?

I suspect that this growing demand for better food in Australia will create a tipping point. That point will be reached when the true cost of cheap food starts to hit us and our dependents. And that will be caused largely because of increased cost of medications and drug-dependency to cope with the swell in debilitating chronic diseases. Certainly food for thought.

Stephen Alexander has been a futurist and mentor to business and governments for more than 20 years. He specialises in strategic planning, human resourcing and community capacity building. He is a resident of the Sunshine Coast Hinterland