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Taking a long-term perspective allows us to consider potential bumps in the road ahead

Taking a long-term view can help food businesses be nimbler. It can, of course, help spot emerging market opportunities. But it’s also about being better prepared to navigate whatever comes round the next blind corner and the one after that. It might seem strange to mention long-termism and planning at a time when we can’t plan a summer holiday, let alone plan long-term investments – but some major companies are thinking ahead. Kraft Heinz, for one, is doing just that by investing in a new factory.

With the urgency of environmental and social challenges ramping up, now is a necessary time to plan – and most crucially, plan for flexibility. A nimble business is more resilient.

Where is your own business locked into one particular approach – potentially for years – with seemingly no possibility of changing course? Beyond your own operations and supply chains, in what ways is the wider sector in a straitjacket of sorts?

I believe intensive, industrial models of food and farming will struggle in the years ahead, particularly where there is high capital expenditure locking in one path with no room to ‘escape’. They risk becoming ‘stranded assets’.

In a world of rapid change, being agile is key. The pandemic has shown that some food businesses, large and small, can adapt – to survive, support and even flourish. But it’s also highlighted and exacerbated vulnerabilities. And sadly Covid is not the only shock to the system we’ll experience in our lifetime.

That doesn’t mean we should focus on today only. A clear long-term direction and sense of purpose are vital for any organisation wanting to survive and thrive. The paths to getting there aren’t set in stone – they will emerge over time. Taking a long-term perspective allows us to consider potential bumps in the road ahead, some of which might push us onto a different track altogether.

I recently looked at some fascinating scenarios work the Food Ethics Council did in 2009, which was at the time looking ahead at possible, plausible futures for 2022, almost the current day. Unsurprisingly, none of the scenarios have come to pass exactly as written, but all had elements that have come true.

Whether it’s the scenario where the dominant UK culture and food system treated food primarily as fuel, and included a key focus on ‘pile em’ high discount stores’. Or the ‘era of the gourmet chef’ with “‘Amazon grocery’ for most and high-end farmers’ markets for luxury experience” – which arguably we’re not too far away from.

The point is not to simply ruminate on how close to today’s reality those historic scenarios are. Scenarios are not intended to predict the future. What they do highlight is that seemingly unlikely futures can happen – and food businesses need to be on the front foot. Scenarios are one tool to help organisations in the sector better plan for an uncertain future, including avoiding paths that lock in one solution.

So, do some stretching. Wide-angle binoculars and gym shoes might just be the vital tools for food business executives in 2022 and beyond. We all need to be more nimble, but it’s not just about quick reactions: we must adapt in ways that lead us to a fairer food system and we need to proactively shape a better future.