You wouldn't know it in the countries where most meeting professionals live and work, but much of the world has been in the grip of record-high food prices that have set off a crisis across the developing world and food riots in 30 countries.
Food costs are a constant point of interest for meetings. But for nearly a billion people living on less than a dollar a day, higher food prices mean starvation, not a shift in menu choices.
The complexity of the food system goes beyond a 500-word column, but you can still connect the dots to the North American meetings market.
- Rising food costs were a catalyst for the protests sweeping dictators out of power in the Middle East and North Africa, driving up oil prices along the way. A more stable, democratic region will be great news for global governance, even great news for meetings and tourism. More immediately, though, oil prices could stifle the economic recovery and leave our industry vulnerable.
- Food production problems are aggravated by wild weather patterns that will become wilder still as climate change accelerates, and food shortages will translate into higher prices. From the economy that brought us peak oil, who knew that the next threat on the horizon would be peak Arabica coffee? So a stable food system is yet another reason to begin drastically reducing our industry’s carbon footprint.
- Although food insecurity—defined as households that are uncertain of having enough food because they can’t afford to pay for it—is a global issue, you can probably find it within walking distance of most major meeting facilities. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 50.2 million people—including 17.2 million children—lived in the 14.7 percent of U.S. households classified as “food insecure” in 2009.
The industry’s response to food supply issues will hinge on whether we see this as a matter of deprivation or local pride.
Facilities that stake their reputations on luxury and opulence might be surprised at the market for simplicity and distinctiveness. By some measures, nearly 41 million lifestyle consumers in the U.S. are concerned about health, sustainability, and social justice. There is customer loyalty to be gained by matching our supply chains with their expectations.
Local and nearby sourcing reduces the fuel we burn and the carbon we emit to put meals on the table, and can bring massive cost savings: When the Portland DoubleTree switched from frozen Atlantic to fresh Pacific salmon, costs plummeted from $21 to $6 per pound.
And ultimately, adjusting menus and supplier relationships to anticipate future shortages amounts to intelligent risk management. If we can foresee disruptions in basics like coffee, sugar, and chocolate, why would we postpone what might be a long search for alternatives?
The last time the western world got serious about optimizing food production, the Second World War victory garden was the result. Today, on a very small scale so far, hotels are re-enacting that experience by building relationships with local farmers or planting their own vegetables. By localizing our production and simplifying our expectations, how far can we go to insulate ourselves from a growing crisis, and help others to do the same?
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, Ontario, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.