It’s transforming Minnesota’s food companies and economy.
Author: Kristen Leigh Painter | Published: December 17, 2017
Elke Richards drives two hours to Maple Grove every month to shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, both of which offer more organic groceries or minimally processed food than she can find near her home in Alexandria. In the summer, she goes to farmers markets for locally grown produce. For meat, she visits a local family farm that raises sheep and cattle using environmentally friendly land management practices.
Richards, a 34-year-old mother of two young children, first took interest in how and where food is grown more than a decade ago, when she was in college.
“I started looking at the footprints of how we get food to our plate in America,” she said. “It is really discouraging.”
Today, Richards is convinced that making healthier food choices for her own family is essential.
Millions of consumers around the world are making similar choices — to buy and eat food that is more pure and produced in ways less harmful to the environment. Those decisions in the grocery aisle are transforming the agricultural economy of Minnesota and the Midwest.
Farmers are under pressure from consumers and food companies to adopt new techniques that take less of a toll on the environment, and to take better care of animals they raise. Sales of grocery shelf staples such as Wheaties, Betty Crocker cake mixes and some packaged meat products are flat or in decline, forcing food industry giants such as Minnesota’s Cargill, General Mills and Hormel to rethink the kinds of products they sell.
Figuring this out “is the challenge of our time for the food and agriculture industries,” said David MacLennan, chief executive of Minnetonka-based Cargill. “You need a lot of other companies and governments and … local farmers to come along with you.”
Much of the food industry has rallied around the idea of “sustainability,” which in the most precise definition refers to the ability of a food system to last over time. But the word has become a broad banner for issues like animal welfare, soil management, fair farm wages or climate change.
In 2015, nearly three quarters of consumers said they sometimes or usually had such concerns in mind at the grocery store, according to the food research firm the Hartman Group. Sales of organic food, the most recognizable segment, have doubled in the past decade to about $47 billion in 2016, according to the Organic Trade Association. While organic represents only 5 percent of total U.S. food sales, it is growing much more rapidly than overall food sales.
With sales of the packaged food staples that dominate American grocery aisles stagnant or sinking, the food industry has no choice but to adapt. Doing so will require re-engineering complex production chains developed over decades to provide massive amounts of food at the lowest possible price.
“Big food companies that dominate the food world are really having to move faster,” said Kent Solberg of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota. “But the billion dollar question is if it can be fast enough and big enough of a change that the consumer will be responsive to it.”
Many of the changes start with how individual farmers treat the earth itself.