Future needs, future actions

From food production to the supply chain, the impact of climate change is likely to influence the future shape of the foodservice sector, as Howard Riell outlines

Will the future of foodservice be determined by climate change? Few issues carry larger implications. And for foodservice entrepreneurs and executives, factors such as labor, energy, the economy, the supply chain, food sourcing, consumer, corporate trends and more will each help shape the future. Just ask those whose business is the future. 

“Climate change will touch every aspect of foodservice, from production through distribution to service and even demand,” says Tom Cheesewright, futurist, principal of IO Communications in the UK, and author of the book Future-Proof Your Business. “Shifts in temperature and rainfall will disrupt productivity and yields and move the growing areas for some crops. Until we adapt, prices are likely to be volatile, and there will likely be long-term changes in the cost of key crops.” Businesses will need to have more diverse supply chains, he adds, to maintain a consistent menu “and even so are likely to need to be more adaptable to changes in availability, quality and cost of ingredients.” 

Another futurist, Barry Thomas, global customer and marketing leader for New York City-based Kantar, a data-driven analytics and brand consulting company, says there are signs across the world of what’s coming. “Climate change impacts restaurants in big ways,” he says. “We can look to western Europe on key signals coming here [to the US]. For example, we will see more restaurants mandate stronger sustainability metrics to suppliers, which then get labeled on menus in interesting ways.” 

Thomas, who leads Kantar’s foodservice practice, says more brands in the industry will be “questioned about their impact on the planet in terms of food waste, sourcing, carbon footprints, food production impacts and greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Meanwhile, futurist and demographer Kenneth W Gronbach, president and CEO of KGC Direct LLC in Bonita Springs, Florida, suggests that “because so much of what will be considered green, healthy and climate-friendly will be determined by 140 million Generation Y, Millennials and Generation Z under 40, foodservice had better take them seriously.” Menus, service and marketing “will need to reflect an overt green consciousness. It doesn’t matter that foodservice does not buy into global warming; their customers do, and therefore becoming green is an imperative.” 

“The impact will be felt in several different ways,” predicts Martin Kruse, senior executive advisor and futurist for the non-profit think tank Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies in Denmark. These include supply chain, food prices, regulation, consumer behavior, brand exposure, packaging and new technology. Climate shaming, climate-positive diets, and consumers shunning beef and lamb “are already seen here in Europe,” Kruse reports. 

“Consumers are also pushed by high-end restaurants here in Denmark to appreciate new textures and new tastes, new products that are more sustainable.” Packaging may need to change, with a move towards non- plastic-based or bio-based plastics. 

Another factor is that environmental legislation will proliferate and will need to be taken into account, according to Ken Morris, futurist and managing partner of Cambridge Retail Advisors in Boston, Massachusetts. “Temperature shifts that move land and sea animals into new territories are bound to trigger reactions and legislation that will impact foodservice. There is already a shift in the lobster population in southern New England as the water warms, for example.” 

Carbon cost 

The demand to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture will see changes in production methods, Cheesewright foresees, and consumers “are likely to be more open-minded about the use of genetic modifications to enable crops to thrive in changing conditions.” 

The higher reliability and lower fertilizer requirements of urban/vertical farms in controlled conditions will further offset their higher expense, he feels, “making hyper-local produce much more attractive, particularly for salad leaves, herbs, mushrooms and even tomatoes and fruits.” 

Distribution will also be affected, according to Cheesewright. Higher carbon taxes and consumer consciousness of the carbon cost of produce “will lead us to rethink long-distance supply chains for foodstuffs.” Fruits and vegetables from foreign climes “might be more of an occasional luxury than a supermarket staple, so we may seek them out when eating out – or frown upon those serving them. The race is on to replace diesel engines and generators in the world’s cargo ships that carry most of our produce internationally, but it is a huge challenge.” 

Heat will likely be the big challenge in a service context, Cheesewright adds. “Heat waves like this summer’s will become more frequent. That makes kitchens an unpleasant and potentially even more dangerous place to be.” Many restaurants may switch gas for induction hobs and electric grills to reduce temperatures and carbon emissions. “Long- term, these will likely also be cheaper options, though sooner in Europe than the US”. Energy bills for air conditioning “won’t be shrinking any time soon, as establishments seek to keep customers comfortable.” 

What customers want will also be subject to change, influenced by the climate. “Consciousness of the carbon cost of produce will rise, and palates may shift with the temperature,” says Cheesewright. “The trend towards lighter, fresher cuisines such as Nordic and Pacific Rim may become established as a long-term preference.” 

Prepare for all eventualities 

Working at the coalface of the industry, FCSI consultants have a direct view to the impacts of environmental changes on the sector. 

“Almost every aspect of foodservice will be impacted by climate change,” says Foster Frable FCSI, founding partner and president of Clevenger Frable LaVallee in White Plains, New York. “Water use in warewashing and food prep, trash and waste management, reducing food waste at the source and in use, cooking methods – in particular, electric replacing gas – air-frying versus deep-fat frying, new refrigerants, return to using bag- and-box and draft beer and wine to replace cans and bottles, and eliminating disposables.” 

“The future of foodservice will be tremendously impacted by climate change – and it has already started,” says Chris Tripoli FCSI, hospitality specialist based in Texas, US. “Product availability, type and price are being determined by type of changes to fertilizers and feed.” 

The longer-term influence of the changes in climate are likely to be dramatic and the sector must prepare, says James H Petersen FCSI, president of C.i.i Food Service Design in Michigan, US. “The way things have been going, I’m concerned that there will simply 

be fewer people eating,” he says. “Restaurants and institutions along the coasts should prepare for eventual abandonment, and those on the anticipated ‘new’ coasts [should] prepare for more customers and staff availability, as entire demographics change. I hope I’m wrong, but the relatively sudden and extreme changes to climates and water levels internationally have begun much sooner than anticipated and may bring population relocations within years instead of decades.” 

However, not all of his colleagues share the view. “Foodservice will not be affected by the variations in the weather. What will affect foodservice is how people react towards the matter,” says Tim Agosti, FCSI, principal of Arctic Food Service Design in Alaska, US. 

“Labor availability, economic policies of government, availability of energy all affect how foodservice is delivered. Consumer and corporate trends affect what is delivered, and this affects food sourcing, with farmers and food manufacturers reacting to demand.” 

Key to foodservice businesses thriving is flexibility and agility – fortunately many already learned this during the Covid pandemic. “We have learned that restaurants also have to be ‘grocerants’ and grocery/ retail needs to double up as foodservice – and foodservice needs to be take-out, delivery and even bartenders, and on and on,” says Arlene Spiegel FCSI, president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates in New York. “So, we need to design our businesses and develop our teams to be prepared for all eventualities, even the unimaginable ones.” 

There are likely to be much wider ranging impacts of climate change beyond foodservice and spilling over into “commercial food in any, and all capacities,” says Rudy Miick, FCSI, founder of The Miick Companies in Colorado, US. 

Miick, who sits on a number of Ph.D councils that are looking at water, land and energy says he has learned that “we have plenty of water if used right. We have plenty of food, or land to produce food, if we choose, and energy sources. What is needed is a shift in the power structure and game and perspective of the players. Possible? Yep. Probable? Not likely,” he concludes. 

Howard Riell

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