The annual jamboree that is the CIES World Food Business Summit is usually a pretty boisterous affair.
Not this year. At last week's Growth and Sustainability-themed event in Munich, it was as though someone had been told they'd got a serious illness and had a 10% chance of survival. The mood was subdued and the tension palpable as speaker after speaker spelt out in apocalyptic terms the challenges facing the global food and drink industry.
"Food is the new fuel" was how one commentator summed up its predicament. But that was too simplistic. "Food is the other fuel" would have been the more accurate assessment. For it is over-consumption of oil and food - coupled with the pressures on supply posed by climate change, soaring demand, biofuels and diminishing natural resources - that have sent prices skyrocketing and economies nose-diving.
Had food retailers exacerbated the problem - and jeopardised their sustainability agendas - by pushing for ever-lower prices? Perhaps, but as a feeling of futility was replaced by a spirit of cautious optimism over the course of the summit, it became clear that it was in the industry's power to help restore the delicate balance between supply and demand and lead the way out of crisis - if it acted quickly.
From the off, the usual retail detail made way for bigger picture stuff. Gareth Ackerman, the summit's chairman and chairman of South African retailer Pick n Pay Holdings, talked of the importance of delivering against sustainability's triple bottom line of economic, environmental and social targets.
"We must make profit, grow and save the world," he said without irony. "We cannot go on doing business as we have. One of the catchphrases my father has used for many years is that "doing good is good business". This is totally appropriate right now."
No-one was pretending it would be easy. With some experts now predicting oil will reach $250 a barrel, the drought so acute in Barcelona that it has been forced to bring water into the city and farmers in Afghanistan switching from opium to wheat crops to cash in on soaring wheat prices, a perfect storm has been gathering.
But in light of the challenges, sustainability made "good economic sense", said German chancellor Dr Angela Merkel. The industry needed to scrutinise its supply chains more rigorously, she added, her words prescient in light of Panorama's exposé of Primark this week.
As Primark found out, the loftier your stated CSR goals, the harder you fall if cracks are detected. Like clothing manufacturers, food producers would find themselves in the firing line, warned Andrea Debbané, VP of communications strategy and strategic programmes at Airbus.
"Remember when tobacco was the evil of all evils. Today it is the aviation industry," she said offering some sobering advice. "Don't wait to be targeted. The industry did not react early enough to the warning signals. It's like a tsunami scenario. We could see it but didn't react. We didn't have a voice for our industry. As a result there are serious discussions in some countries about restricting domestic flights and privileging other modes of transport."
She called on the industry to "work together and be proactive". "Find a brand champion," she added. "In our case it's the A380 - it's the most efficient plane flying - and be innovative. "
Businesses didn't have to be the strongest to fittest to survive, but they did need to be the most responsive. Professor Robert Pickard, chairman of consumers' association Which?, drew an analogy with honey bee colonies. "When a piece of litter is dropped into a beehive, it is moved to the entrance and ejected by the bees operating as a collective. CSR is in every individual honey bee."
Failure to act collectively would have dire consequences. Africa had seen some of them, said South African adventurer and broadcaster Patricia Glyn. Pointing the finger at the cattle industry for destroying the Botswanan countryside through over-grazing, she described meat production as "one of the most pressing environmental crises that we face".
"We are robbing our children of their future more by what we eat than what we drive," she argued. "That's the inconvenient truth. We are constantly exhorted to change cars but the single-most useful thing we can do to help the planet is to stop eating meat or cut down radically on our consumption."
Her message was not met with universal applause. Mark Price rejected the inference retailers should edit consumer choice. "You have to let the consumer decide," said the Waitrose MD. "Our role is to be educator, not censor."
Echoing Pickard's comments, he likened Waitrose to a peacock in a survival-of-the-sexiest twist on Darwin's theory. "Supermarkets have grown out of the fit model. We operate the sexy model. We invest in the quality of what we do, the quality of the products we sell, the quality of the service we deliver and the quality of the environment we sell in."
Whether a supermarket operating the fit model could pursue a meaningful sustainability strategy given the level of investment entailed was questionable, he said. "In most models capital employs labour. In our model, labour employs capital."
Sourcing more food locally was one way in which retailers could deliver against the triple bottom line and help support suppliers in a sustainable way, he added, flagging up Waitrose's "market town" trial.
It would also give them a competitive advantage. "We're doing this not only because customers want it and it's great for suppliers, but because it's difficult. It will be really hard for our competitors to do," he said. "In 1985, we became the first to sell organic. We now have 20% of the market in the UK but our brand has only 4% of the grocery market. I think the same will happen with local."
For those with a different pricing policy, the tensions implicit in trying to ensure fair treatment of suppliers simultaneously with low costs for consumers were never far away, however. REWE Group's CEO, Alain Caparros, questioned whether true collaboration between retailers and suppliers had ever really existed. But things were starting to change, he said. "The old era of antagonism is coming to an end. For both sides, there has to be a clearly defined goal: added value for the consumer."
Some consumers would understand and be able to cope with rising food prices, others would not. But a paradigm shift was taking place, said Serge Papin, CEO of French co-operative Système U. "Last year, for the first time, we found people were consuming less in volume. They were making choices because of the cost of petrol. The challenge is to adapt. The industry has been geared towards stimulating the supply side. We were saying if you want a low-price pack of coffee, you have to buy eight packs. People are saying: can't we have just one pack?"
Others agreed that pricing policies would have to be rethought as the need to keep prices low for consumers clashed with the need to increase prices paid to suppliers. Pricing wasn't all that required a rethink: the whole sustainability agenda would have to reassessed in light of mounting economic, environmental and social pressures. The message was clear. If the prognosis for the planet was not good, neither was it terminal - but the time had come for action.n