As Earth's population grows and the global food supply faces new challenges, the food industry also needs to adopt innovative strategies to avoid crises. Fareed Zakaria, the host of the CNN program "Fareed Zakaria GPS," addressed the Institute of Food Technologists' 2013 annual meeting in Chicago Sunday morning with a call to address these international challenges.
Zakaria focused on a topic he refers to as "the rise of the rest," assessing the impact of growth around the world in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere. Population booms can reshape markets and food availability, but the Harvard-educated Washington Post columnist remained upbeat with his words of encouragement to food scientists and technologists.
"For most of human history, the world has been run in a sense by a very small number of people," Zakaria said. "What is happening right now is everyone is getting in on the act."
He cited collaboration among scientists as evidence that the food industry should know about. Ultimately, connectivity and a more geographically diverse pool of global leadership represent sources of great optimism for him.
"You know this because you see it and sense it happening in the laboratories of China and India," Zakaria explained. "This 'rise of the rest' that I've talked about—this huge phenomenon that we are living through—is the diffusion of knowledge. And the diffusion of knowledge is happening on a global basis, and it's happening everywhere almost instantly."
Zakaria urged the audience at IFT 2013 to understand global shifts in power and demand holistically and by paying attention to the new strengths and advantages that an increasingly globalized society can offer. He offered Wikipedia as an example of a new tool that has helped the world improve access to knowledge but may be viewed as damaging if its impact is measured in terms of negative consequences on global GDP.
Meanwhile, Zakaria pointed to massive open online courses and STEM education resources that are now available to the developing world, capable of unlocking new human capital in Africa, India and elsewhere.
"We don't know what this is going to produce," he said. "But the one thing we can be sure—is if we recognize that these challenges are challenges of growth and abundance, we will approach them with the right attitude, which is to take them seriously but to recognize that these are enormous opportunities, not just challenges, and finally to recognize that human beings have solved problems like this before and that we have many more resources at our disposal."
Zakaria then offered a few key insights during the general session's question-and-answer period. He fielded queries about the impact of digital communications on food companies and organizations, as well as his one biggest concern for food right now.
HOW FOOD ORGANIZATIONS SHOULD DEAL WITH THE DIGITAL AGE
"There's an enormous amount of information in the world right now," Zakaria stated. "There is, I would say, less knowledge and even less wisdom. Almost any theory about anything can be proven with a footnote to some website."
That wealth of information and publishing capabilities mean more voices are present in public discussions, but they also mean that organizations with respected voices may be evaluated in new ways.
"There is something extraordinarily enriching and empowering about the Internet and the knowledge it produces, but we have lost some of those gateways and gatekeepers and channels through which quality was assessed," he said. Accordingly, cultivating positive reputations and dependability among consumers can be more important than ever before.
"In order to do that, you have develop a reputation for being scrupulous and being honest -- and being absolutely willing to tell it like it is not matter what," Zakaria explained. "Most of the time, what you get on the Internet is very self-interested in terms of this kind of evaulation, and so to the extent that you can do that and you can develop your reputation like that, you might well be seen that way. You can see it in economic numbers, for example. You are now beginning to get certain groups and institutions that are viewed that way and are viewed as being serious and honest and having integrity."
WATER: THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE RIGHT NOW
"Probably the most important issue that has to be tackled is this issue of water," Zakaria said. "I don't think that we think enough about how we are going to solve this problem. We tend to do it without thinking about the process,the inputs that you need. I saw a recent study that said it takes 27,000 tons of water to produce a certain amount of chocolate in the world—much less for other things."
Again, he called on everyone listening to look at larger systemic issues.
"I think we have to approach this now from a holistic point of view," he stressed, "rather than looking at a specific product and saying, 'Can we quadruple the supply of this?' Yes, we can quadruple it. But where are you going to get all the associated ingredients and processes for it."
COLLABORATION BETWEEN FOOD SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Asked how he thinks scientists and technologists can better collaborate, Zakaria once more cited practices in Asia, where resources and diverse perspectives are fueling alternative approaches in lab work.
"[A phenomenon] that we could all take more advantage of is this bottom-of-the-pyramid research that tends to be done in countries like India," Zakaria said, "where they're trying to solve a similar problem that we are, but they're doing it in a very different way because they have very few resources, and they're trying to figure it out with a population that has much less disposable income."
"Science works best when there is a kind of collision of ideas—of different perspectives," he explained. "Innovation really works best at that intersection."
ZAKARIA'S FAVORITE FOOD
In closing, Zakaria accepted one final question about his personal dietary habits. Asked to name his favorite food, he stopped short praising an individual commercial product. He did, however, offer some insight into how his own tastes have changed over time.
"I think I'm probably reflective now of my socioeconomic class, but I find myself eating way more fruits and vegetables," he admitted. "I was the kind of kid who think every now and then looked at a vegetable."
Now, he estimates that if he were to break down his daily menu "it's about 90% vegetarian."
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