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MUNICH – The CIES World Food Business Summit distinguishes itself each year by reaching beyond the aisles and fresh food departments, beyond supply chain questions and parochial concerns, and considering critical issues from unusual points of view.

The first day of this year’s summit was no exception, built around the theme of “Growth & Sustainability.”

What other food industry conference, for example, would offer Patricia Glyn, the South African adventurer and writer, telling the audience about her almost 1,400 mile walk from Durban, South Africa, to Victoria Falls, retracing a trek taken by her ancestors back in the 19th century. But it wasn't just a travelogue. Glyn used the trip as a way of explaining to an audience of blue and gray-suited executives the impact that the industry can have on the natural environment. She spoke of Botswana, a place where the cattle outnumber the people, but that is suffering because of overgrazing that is having an enormous impact on the nation’s ecology. She noted that it takes 100,000 kilos of water to create just one kilo of beef, and that enough water goes into the making of one hamburger for 17 showers, and suggested that if such usage continues it will be unsustainable. “We are robbing our children of their future more through what we eat than what we drive,” she said.

And what other food industry conference would have an airline industry executive – Andrea Debbane, vice president of strategy and strategic programs at Airbus – to exhort the audience to get ahead of the environmental activists. It is easier to create a positive opinion from the beginning, she said, than to try to change someone’s mind once they have a negative opinion of you. “Establish the facts, and lead the dialogue,” she said.

Debbane also suggested that the industry has to find its positive story and tell it in compelling terms. In the airline business, for example, she noted that more than 2.2 billion passengers flew by air last year, and that the industry was responsible for 32 million jobs and eight percent of global GDP. The food industry has to find its own narrative, and tell it in compelling terms.

(One tangential note here. Debbane showed a slide in which she demonstrated where all the growth in airline travel came last year – it was up 177 percent in China, up 154 percent in India, and up 144 percent in the Middle East. And up just 25 percent in Europe and a mere eight percent in the US. That alone is a vivid illustration of where the economic power is in 2008.)

Robert Pickard, director general of the British Nutrition Foundation, offered a definition of dynamic equilibrium, saying that “nothing remains stable passively,” saying that stability only comes when opposite forces affecting something do so equally – but that there is nothing passive about it.

And one other comment that pointed to how the world is changing. Alex Thomson, the British newsman who is serving as the summit’s moderator, noted that he recently was talking to a friend in Afghanistan who raises opium (something everybody does in Afghanistan, he said). But this friend is changing his cash crop, Thomson said, and shifting much of his acreage to wheat – because he can make more money that way.

Now there’s a story you wouldn’t hear at many food industry conferences.

More tomorrow…

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