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Retrogressive Consumerism: Consumer Demand and the Future of Global Food Security

| Food & Beverage | Podcasts
Posted By: Selerant

Show Summary

In this episode, we speak with Barnett Sporkin-Morrison, Agricultural & Applied Economist and Former Diplomat about a topic he is passionate about; sustainably feeding the world’s population by 2050. We discuss “Retrogressive Consumerism,” a concept he developed that looks at how consumers decide what food products to purchase, and how some of these decisions are not sustainable over the long term on a global scale. Barnett shares his thoughts on Genetically Modified Organisms and how the evolution of technology requires a transformation of how it is regulated and utilized. Finally, Barnett shares his outlook on the future, and how he believes international trade and food security are vital next steps in uniting the world’s population for a sustainable future.  

About the guest speaker

Barnett is a Wyoming native who lives with his wife and three kids outside of the rural-American town of Choteau (show-doe), Montana. He holds a Master of Science in Agricultural Economics and a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Business: International Agriculture from the University of Wyoming in the United States. Following his graduate studies, Barnett spent nearly seven years with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service - serving in Washington, D.C. and at the U.S. Embassy, Guatemala City. He is the Founder and Principal Consultant of the Rostov-Moray Group (www.rostovmoray.com), an agile consulting firm focused on helping clients develop strategies and refine ideas to achieve long-lasting success that produces economic, environmental, and social benefits.   

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Transcript

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Thank you for the invitation to be on the podcast today and it's great to meet you even though it's only virtually.

Suzana Tripologos:

Barnett, it's really great for you to be here. Let's get started. So I would like to hear a little bit more about you and your background and what led into your work around agriculture and economics.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Yeah. So I am native of rural Wyoming, which is kind of a redundant statement. I grew up in a county called Park County, roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, which when I graduated high school in 2001 only had 27,000 people. And it was an area that even though tourism and natural resource extraction were the main true economic drivers, agriculture was very much a cultural way of life. And during high school, being influenced by that, and actually looking at some different things throughout history, I began to understand that the agricultural revolution that began between 12 and 14,000 years ago was what really led to the end demands wandering. It allowed us to become sedentary in nature, develop into mass civilizations and do everything from sending a man to the moon to committing mass scale genocide. And I figured at that time that really to understand really everything that underpinned our world and drove our economies and our societies, it would be important to really study agriculture. And that led me into the study of agriculture and applied economics at the University of Wyoming at Laramie, Wyoming.

Suzana Tripologos:

I know you're real passionate about this and just based on seeing what your career path and what brought you to where you are today. And I know that you worked for the US embassy in Guatemala, which is fascinating, and you were focused on Feed the Future program. If you could share a little bit about that program and what you did in Guatemala.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Yeah. Between 2010 and 2013, I was stationed as a regional agriculture affairs officer or regional agriculture attaché at US embassy, Guatemala City covering the countries of Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the region you hear about in the news today referred to as the Northern triad countries really. And amongst the different things that I did, works of agriculture attaches are rather diverse. I also served two of those three years as an acting senior commercial officer, but specific to the FI, the Future Initiative, which was an Obama era initiative, we worked as a whole government approach in Guatemala as well as neighboring Honduras on really trying to fundamentally change direction of the country in relation to food security. At the time I was there in Guatemala, roughly 50% of children prior to that 1000 day mark, which is really pivotable time of human development with nutrition, 50% of children suffered from chronic malnutrition and there was a much higher index when talking about acute malnutrition or temporary malnutrition that wasn't occurring every single day.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And so one of the ways that USDA, amongst many different things that we were doing was working with the civil society, the private sector as well as the government of Guatemala to really push forward with the adoptions of advanced agriculture technology, which was something that their neighbor Honduras had done several years previous and really and focusing that on advanced agriculture technology was, I guess, a diplomatic way to talk about genetically modified organisms or genetically engineered crops.

Suzana Tripologos:

Was there something specific that you could share with us that you were surprised to see while you were there?

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Guatemala is in enigma and enigma in many ways. There's many different things that were surprising to me from traveling throughout almost every entire rural area of the country and seeing people from very different cultures within the Mayan communities that spoke very different languages from the people that were just 20 miles away from them. But one of the things that always struck me was the level of subsistence agriculture that still existed and how many families, millions of people in rural areas that were still trying to satisfy much of their own household food security by their own food production.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And that's something that's not unique to Guatemala. It's found within many developing countries throughout the world, even some mid tier developed countries, but it was interesting to see that and I guess the biggest interesting to see that there were people in Guatemala that had money, that lived behind high world homes that would romanticize about that Campesino culture and never wanted any of that to change. They felt that they should be still growing older corn varieties and other things that had been around for, in some cases, 50 years. That was probably one of the things that was most surprise... Well, amongst many things, that was something that was the very surprising to me to rather see a romanticization of this subsistence agricultural sector.

Suzana Tripologos:

So Barnett, can you describe the term you've developed, retrogressive consumerism?

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Yeah. I'll give a little context of it. It was something I developed after a meeting in Guatemala when I was a diplomat. I had incredible access to the ministry of agriculture. He was a close personal friend of mine as well were several other vice ministers, but some mid-level bureaucrats. And I use that term nicely, bureaucrat, but mid-level government officials within the ministry of agriculture Guatemala invited myself and Carla Te who was our locally employed agricultural specialist at the embassy to a meeting to discuss about seed registration Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And they wanted to throw me into this ugly American situation or ugly American sitting there telling them that they needed to have genetically modified crops grown in their country even though my fellow Americans did not support the technology and were in the streets. I was trained to be a diplomat as a diplomat. And so I was very diplomatic and just tried to explain to them that those individuals that they saw marching and protesting California were benefiting from the fact that because of the food system in United States, we don't have 50% of children suffering from chronic malnutrition as well as we have a free and open democracy. And the first amendment of our constitution said that those people could go to the streets as long as they were peaceful in nature and as long as they had the proper permits, they could protest anything that they wanted. That the message they should be taking for from that is what happens in a developed country that has proper agricultural policies, proper civil rights and proper essentially a sound civil society.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

It shouldn't just be an attack to say these people are protesting against GMOs. So therefore in a country with corruption, with a country with low development indicators and 50% of children in chronic malnutrition, we should also be saying no to the technology. And so that concept of retrogressive consumerism was really developed in the context of looking over the next, now we're down to 29 years until 2050 comes around, which we're going to see anywhere from nine to 12 billion people inhabiting our globe. And we need to produce more food with less available land, probably less water resources as well as changing global environmental conditions. And that as we see this population growth, we're going to see an increase in global incomes and we're also going to see an increase in the number of people that live in urbanized areas.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And as people increase your incomes, you're able to value more what we call credence attributes. And so credence attributes, food products, usually behavioral economists or agriculture economists, we bifurcate food and beverage products into two different big attribute groupings. And of course, there's some others out there, but the big ones are experiencing credence and experiences the fact that food and beverage are experienced goods. You can't really fully understand a product and how it really matches your own utility function or your own needs and wants until you consume it, right? You taste it, you have the touch, taste and feel and some people, how you digest it, how you feel the morning, that all goes back into that experience.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

On the credence sides, those are the things that you can't touch, taste and feel. They're the things that you can't experience. So these are things such as GMO free, organic animal welfare friendly, regenerative or carbon neutral. As long as you hold everything similar in processing and ingredients normally, somebody's not going to be able to tell the difference between whether a cow was massaged and fed a grass diet versus something that came... It's just it's going to be hard to tell. It's much more held in marketing and other things. And as we see these incomes increase globally, more and more consumers are in the value credence attributes. And there's a tendency for people when they're in urban environments to feel disconnected from agriculture and that they have a tendency to romanticize about how things once were and try to place value on certain things on the credence attributes side that are not necessarily moving agriculture, the food supply chain into where it needs to go by 2050.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And within this CPG firms and others, oftentimes see consumers have this increased willingness to pay for credence attributes so they change product lines, they change ingredients, they change contracting standards to demonstarte to the certain cluster of consumers that maybe leading the way that we are now providing you what you want. We're going to charge you more for the product because after all we're publicly traded companies, largely publicly traded companies that are respondent to shareholders and we need to produce profit and we're going to follow your willingness to pay into a direction that may or may not actually move us in the actual direction we need to go by 2050.

Suzana Tripologos:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). So you were talking about companies and the credence attributes. So how can a consumer trust or what trust mechanisms are in place? So for the average consumer, when they're really basically trusting the company to give them that information, whether that's being able to trace back in the supply chain where their food is coming from, where the ingredients are sourced, can you share a little bit about what maybe some trust mechanisms that are in place today?

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Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Yeah. So traditionally trust in the marketplace is that magical black box that everything passes through. Without trust, just economic activity can occur, but on food and beverage in particular over the past decades, mainly it's been third party certifiers that have stepped into that space to provide certification or emblems on a food or beverage product to say that this product meets certain standards. Going back 20, 30 years ago in food literature, oftentimes intermediaries, grocery chains, distributors would actually use kosher symbols as an indicator of quality because you actually had to have listing of ingredients, they had to be demonstrated to somebody, you had to have an audible basis.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And over time, it moved away from that to things such as USDS Organic, Fairtrade. And these are things to see in the marketplace and recently we're a new wave of CPG firms as well as others that are trying to produce their own certification standards within this race to capture the willingness to pay of consumers. So looking at concepts of regenerative agriculture, carbon neutrality. They're produced instead of working together, which some companies are working together, but others are trying to uniquely define their product line by establishing their own systems that then they may pay somebody else to do a third party audit of.

Suzana Tripologos:

So how does technology play a role in that when they're trying to get that information or certify it or get it to the consumer? Is there any technology that you can share with us, how would that play as a role in this?

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Yeah. So one of the things, looking back at really food and agriculture over the past 50 years is the technology that's going to make a defining difference I think moving forward is really traceability. I first worked on traceability systems and tried to show how we could use that to extract more willingness to pay from consumers for beef now over 16 years ago at the University of Wyoming, which was kind of ahead of its time on that. And what we were trying to say 16 years ago is the same as I say today, is that if you can trace a product from point A all the way to point Z for food safety reasons, for quality control, for anything that usually is related to sanitary or phytosanitary or animal health reasons, there's no reason why we can't take that same information from point A all the way to point Z to provide more information and data to consumers.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Now, one of the issues though with that, and I mean, these are things Hyperledger technology blockchain, yet these are only catch phrases in a way because there's been different ways that we can trace things anyways, it's just that blockchain maybe provides another layer of third party auditable in a trust mechanism. But one of the issues with the concept of retro aggressive consumerism is that companies as they open up their supply chain, because if you're providing information from point A to point Z on where the products are coming from, how they're manufactured, where they're sourced from, what type of shoes the people in the fields are wearing, you actually are opening up your supply chain, you're democratized it in a way.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And that's one of the things with understanding the perils of potentially going down the root of retrogressive consumerism is that if you open up your supply chain to the consumers, you potentially open up as you're democratizing your supply chain, you're opening up to mob rule and potentially a certain gamut of the population is going to express something, whether through social media, through consumer decisions or through activist heads funds or something that a company needs to stop doing X, Y or Z within their supply chain. Now in many cases, this could be positive and actually improve supply chains, improve wellbeing, improve safety, but at other times it can be negative on what the companies actually decide.

Suzana Tripologos:

And that you raise a good point and I think that consumers have a lot of information coming at them and now we're even seeing like this traceability and being able to look at labels and know where it was sourced by scanning a QR code, et cetera. But I want to shift gears and ask you what you think about, you said about GMOs, and what do you think the actual consumer perception is of GMOs? I'd like to kind of expand on this a little bit because you mentioned like in Guatemala, they rely on the GMOs to sustain and have food versus here in the US, you have people protesting.

Suzana Tripologos:

And so it leads me to think do people really know what GMOs are and what they do? It's interesting to see when you go to the average consumer on the street what they think and what they actually know about GMOs and to your purpose about feeding the world, there may be a misconception about GMOs and how it's necessary for certain countries to sustain and to be fed. So what do you see as a solution to this challenge that we've been talking about here?

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Part of it, specifically on the discussion of GMOs, right? Much of what we've seen, there's people that talk about... There were many people that would demonize a company called Monsanto, which no longer exists anymore. It was taken over by Bayer. And really what Monsanto and other large multinational companies did when they introduced genetically modified crops, they really followed correct decision making in many ways, if you're trying to run a business. Many entrepreneurial circles within companies, there's buzzwords about consumer mindsets, about being consumer focused, about trying to find problems in the marketplace and develop solutions and really leaning towards innovation, which is having an idea and property disseminating it in the marketplace, not just creating an idea.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And when you put yourself in the shoes of those companies, 20 or 30 years ago, what they said is their customer were agriculture producers and farmers. They weren't focusing on intermediaries, they weren't focusing on fruit companies, they weren't focusing on consumers. They were focusing on their customers who were buying seeds, buying herbicides and trying to produce crops. And so when they define, they really designed those first additions, I would say, or first generation of genetically modified organisms, they were things that had disease tolerance and they were things that had herbicide resistance or tolerance. And these are things that they knew were problems that agriculture producers were facing and agriculture producers were willing and interested in paying for that solution. These companies, some were private sector, but are privately owned, but many were publicly owned and they did what any publicly owned company with a profit focus would do is design a product that meets a problem in the marketplace.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Now, having said that, one of the problems is that they weren't necessarily focused on the end consumer within that agriculture supply chain at the time. And so their risk communication and risk management practices and even decisions that the US government took in other countries were really focused on looking at the beginning of the supply chain or the end. And what I really see over time as we look over the next 29 years towards 2050 is the companies that are going to define themselves in actually getting more consumer adherence to genetic modification or genetic engineering, which has changed leaps and bounds over the past 30 years is the people that can really find that nexus in solving problems that agriculture producers need to have solved, but also addressing problems that your average consumer have identified and providing them with at the solution.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And so that's shifting gears from being focused solely on so providing added value to an agriculture producer to maybe meeting some of those credence attribute demands that consumers have of taking a crop such as corn. There's a very large privately held company that has worked on this. They're open and public about it, but they're not on social media every day and on the news talking about it. They're not hyping it up, but they're trying to find a way to inoculate corn so that it doesn't need to have nitrogen anymore. And that would be an amazing game changer on corn production within our world to make it far more efficient.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

There's other companies that are trying to make crops or even trees and other things that can sequester far more carbon than they're naturally able to do so. And so these are things that we could potentially see a real true benefit on an environmental side, social side as well as an economic side, a triple bottom line approach if companies are looking up and down that supply chain and understanding that these credence and experience attributes that are at the end consumer need to transcend the entirety of the supply chain.

Suzana Tripologos:

So it seems like what you just outlined is something to get us on track. And as we see the technology change for GMOs, one other question I wanted to ask you was, as it relates to the past of GMOs, where it's going and that kind of the shift in the last 20 years of where it was, where it is today, do you think that we're on the right track? I mean, it sounds like there's a progression happening, more people know about it and how they work and what they do, but do you think we're on the right track and can you expand a little bit more about that? The timeframe that we've been working with GMOs.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Yeah. I think one of the things that's key and I can relate it back to a historical example, there is a considerable amount of academic literature looking at the introduction of cold storage refrigeration during the early part of the 20th century about how refrigeration was seen as this great new invention that would enable transportation and shipment of goods throughout the world that were otherwise perishable. But it actually wasn't extremely well received by consumers internationally at first. And part of it was the concern about large trust at the time of actually using refrigeration to actually manipulate the markets in a bit to play with supply and demand and to... They were accused of hoarding products and then releasing them slowly over the year to maintain higher prices. And much of that distrust about refrigeration was not about the idea of keeping things cold itself, but it was about the fact of who held the technology.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And so one of the things when we talk about genetically engineered crops or modification, I think part of it, of consumer hesitance towards it or the ability to create. For instance, Monsanto was created as this giant behemoth that was supposedly doing very bad things. But the reality was is that some people find themselves when giant companies, when very large companies control technology, they feel disassociated from it and it seems something as far as the man has it, but I don't have it. And I need to not like this because this is somebody that's trying to extract all this income from the world and there's all these different arguments that can out there in the stratosphere or social media and the list goes on.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And I think one of the most powerful things when we look at advanced agriculture technology moving forward and this is not even genetically modified crops, but we look at companies like Perfect Day that's done some genetic and engineering to yeast that can convert sugar to whey protein and all the fermentation companies that are coming online, mainly focused in the alternative protein space that there needs to be more, I guess you could say democratization of the technologies themselves. When public sector institutions, land grant universities, public sectors throughout the world are able to really begin to research and develop these new technologies, I think that it builds more trust when there's both public and private development of these.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And that's one of the reasons why we have to be careful over the next 29 years as we look towards how we do regulation and we have to really look into a risk management and risk communication of these things is that sometimes if consumers are driving a retro aggressive mindset, they may want too high of levels of risk management and too high of levels of really regulation, which is driven our European friends across the pond have fallen to the precautionary principle, which has caused an immense amount as you're probably familiar with some of the work that you've done, an immense amount of trade concerns on ingredients and other things. If we want to do business in the European Union is that if we overregulate things, the reality is is that many of the public sector institutions will be the ones that are pushed out because they don't have the funds to actually compete in that overregulated space and it will only be the large companies that are very profit centered that have the ability to do so.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And this has been seen in different geographies around the world where groups such as Oxfam and others were very in front of getting strict legislation on genetic crops and certain geographies only to find only the very largest multinational companies could meet any of those regulatory standards and the public sector who were trying to do things that were maybe transcending that supply chain even 20 years ago were pushed out of the marketplace. And so it was kind of self creating this cycle of things that people didn't realize was actually occurring.

Suzana Tripologos:

So as we inched towards this 2050 goal, right? The 29 years, what are you most excited about personally because you're in the space and you see what's going on and you see the direction that we're headed? You could share with us what you know you personally are excited to work on and what you're excited about.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Yeah. So part of the reason why I originally went into the study of agriculture and applied economics was it was more of a study of how world peace is potentially possible of really understanding if agriculture underpins everything, how we can use that. And I think that if companies as well as public sectors internationally can really focus on where we need to go as humanity to meet that need by 2050 and a really a true triple bottom line approach, economic, social as well as environmental, then we can start to work more broadly together as humanity in meeting those needs that we have. And that's one of my concerns, I guess, looking forward towards 2050 that if CPG firms, if other private, other companies really focus on trying to carve up that willingness to pay from consumers and reinforce unique brand rather than working together, that we have the potentiality of not doing everything we need to do as things go forward.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

One of the things that I'm hopeful for is that we're going to see continued international trade. I'm a large, huge believer in the value of international trade, both for American agriculture as well as global food security. It's what helps connect humanity together. And I think that as far as saying what I'm most excited about, it's hard to say. Really my hope that I'm excited for is that we can recognize that we can have what I would call a new common agriculture revolution that really unites, whether it's going to be nine or 12 billion people by 2050 with understanding that each of us, through our consumption decisions, we do have an effect on the environment and we can make consumption decisions that benefit the environment, it can benefit our economics and it can benefit society.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

What I'm hoping to do is that consumers really understand that they are a vital part of that agricultural supply chain, that they're not separate and distinct, that farmers aren't over on one section and they're over the other, that they're actually part of that supply chain. And I think that as that communication begins to be realized, that there's a huge potential for everybody to work together to do common good. The only concern I have in the back of my head is I had a teacher from the time I was in sixth grade till I was a senior in high school in my small town in Meeteetse, Wyoming named Rogers Brown. And one day when I was in middle school, he walked up to the marker board and he wrote the internet will be our society's tower babble. And that's something I've reflected on ever since that time when I was in middle school in a town of 300 some people of what he meant by that.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

And really, and that's just that concept of what you brought up into this that there's a lot of communication and other things that go out within social media and media in general and it's really up to us to try to figure out what is factual, what is right and how it is we can utilize that tool to not make us different and to not break us into different factions, but actually unite us around different causes.

Suzana Tripologos:

And we're pretty fortunate to have people like you who are so passionate and dedicated in this space and all your efforts for us to become sustainable and also to feed the world. And I want to thank you for your time today. I really appreciate all your comments and your insight. It was wonderful to talk to you and thank you again and hopefully we'll talk to you soon.

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison:

Yeah. No, I greatly appreciate the opportunity as well as being able to meet you virtually today.

Suzana Tripologos:

Yeah, it was great to meet you. You've been listening to the CPG Innovation Podcast. You'll find complete bios for today's guests as well as links to their work on our website. While you're there, check out past and additional content on fast moving consumer goods. Make sure to subscribe to our channel wherever you listen so you don't miss an episode. The CPG Innovation Podcast is presented by Selerant. I'm your host Suzana Tripologos. Thanks so much for joining us. See you next time.