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Change is Not Optional: How Large Food & Beverage Companies Can Engage with Disruptive Technology

May 10, 2017

Editor’s Note: Tod Christenson is Food & Beverage Segment Lead at Antea Group, a global environmental consulting firm and founding member of the Inogen Environmental Alliance. Christenson has over 30 years of experience advising clients on driving sustainability throughout their supply chains.

Recently Christenson and his colleagues at Antea organized Inogen’s WorldView conference in New York to discuss the implications of emerging, disruptive technologies on the environment, health, safety and sustainability (EHS&S) of the food and beverage industry. (AgFunderNews editor Louisa Burwood-Taylor made one of the keynote presentations during the day.)

Here Christenson offers recommendations to large food and beverage companies in how to approach new innovation.

With technology set to disrupt the food & beverage industry, it’s becoming clear that, for companies that wish to survive, change is not an option. The truth of the matter is that you could be the Blockbuster or the Netflix, but there is no middle ground.

Tod Christenson addressing the Inogen WorldView conference in April.

At the recent WorldView conference, AgFunderNews editor Louisa Burwood-Taylor talked about some of the very cool technology ideas coming into the industry. Innovations like indoor agriculture, farming automation, big data analytics, and biotech and genetic engineering are all becoming a reality as we speak. There is a lot to be excited about, and we’re seeing some technologies that could really make a difference in terms of resource protection, environmental impact, and eradicating food waste or hunger. But for the “big dogs” in food and beverage, this kind of talk can feel unrelated to the scope of operations and supply chains you’re dealing with, which then leads to the temptation to try and opt out. I’m here to say–don’t.

The Long Road from Idea to Reality

As Louisa pointed out, “Eight of the 10 biggest food & agriculture companies could disappear in the next decade.” How do you make sure you are not among the eight? Cutting-edge technology is all well and good for small startups, or tiny labs coming up with new and exciting ideas, but what if you are a large (or very large) global brand, firmly entrenched in operations all over the world?

In particular, issues of scalability and time to implementation can make this kind of big change seem intimidating or downright impossible. As the expression goes, it takes time to turn the Titanic around, and no one is saying it’s easy. But the biggest mistake would be to try and sit it out–to decline to participate in the innovation and disruption going on all around you.

Portrait of a Leader

So what can you do? It will take some tough prioritization. What matters to your organization will be different to what matter to another, but there are some concrete steps larger organizations can take to embrace change in a way that makes sense for them.

    • Adopt and invest in promising technologies and innovations that make sense for your business. By actively seeking out solutions that show promise for issues that you have prioritized, you can not only have skin in the game, but you can be part of the conversation and ongoing development. (The added benefit of this approach is that you have additional lead time to fully understand the tech and how it might be applied in your organization, rather than being surprised by a new idea once it begins to make waves.)
    • Start small, but keep an eye towards scalability. You don’t have to go all-in on every passing idea, but you also want to be careful not to be too content with running limited pilots. If you are seeing success, have the courage to expand and grow adoption in the organization. This can also serve as a sort of “scalability truth test” that will be invaluable to the solution’s broader acceptance in the market, and can put your company ahead of your competitors.
    • Share information with peers and across industries. This is a case where we all do better when we all do better, and knowledge is power. Being open about your successes, challenges, and methodologies opens the door to greater efficiencies for everyone, and helps underline the authenticity of what you are working towards and why.
    • Be the adult in the room. Bring your industry expertise — including regulatory knowledge, past trial and error, historical perspective — to bear when otherwise that knowledge might be lost. The people working on these disruptive technologies do not necessarily have much industry experience or the depth of environmental, health and sustainability expertise that an established organization has. But those perspectives are crucial to developing solutions that are workable long-term in the real world. 
    • Don’t just point out barriers; be part of breaking them down. There’s a danger in being the one to point out all of the problems with a new idea while failing to offer any solutions or alternatives yourself, both in terms of public perception and organizational stagnation, as well as resistance to change. Instead of writing off these kinds of farming innovations as impossible, leading organizations like yours can put some force behind addressing the root cause by leveraging their size, relationships, and reputations in a way that smaller players never could.
    • Help promote and accelerate promising ideas and support learning and change in the industry throughout the value chain. To see the impact of innovation at scale, behavioral change is needed in many capacities, from the farmers all the way up to consumers, and yet it’s notoriously difficult. With your resources, access, and knowledge, you are in a position to help make inroads and support adaptation and adoption in a meaningful way.
Facing the Future

As tempting as it might be to retreat to familiar positions and try to wait out the disruption facing food and beverage, there is a better way. (No one wants to be the Blockbuster here.) Instead, choose leadership–there is a vital role for established companies to play in the current and coming disruption for those smart and canny enough to act.

What do you think? How should the existing, established food & beverage companies engage with food and agtech startups? Email [email protected].

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