As the largest food company in Canada, “we think a lot about the future of food,” Loblaw's Galen G. Weston told a crowd of academics, non-profits and others attending the inaugural Arrell Food Summit.
Weston was speaking on the third and final day of the conference, which took place at the University of Guelph and downtown Toronto. The event, organized by the Arrell Food Institute, was meant to be a “meeting of minds” on the matter of sustainable food development in Canada and beyond.
Speaking on the trends at play at Loblaw’s “end of the food industry,” Weston identified “lifestyle” and “technology” as two trends related to food that he believes are going to impact every aspect of the industrial food system: the way people engage with their food, what they eat, how they eat it and “what they pull out of those of us trying to figure out what types of products people need and what types of products people want.”
A growing appetite for plant-based proteins is one example of consumers’ lifestyle focus. Noting the decline in beef consumption in Canada over the past 30 years, the rise of free-from (antibiotic, hormone free, etc.) meats and now a shift to plant-based foods, Weston said the vegan grocery shopping market today is worth about $1.5 billion. “People are making choices about their lifestyle and understanding the impact on the planet of what they eat and they have a view of the benefits of more plant proteins and vegetables in their diet.”
And Loblaw, Weston said, is leaning into the trend. He announced the company would launch 30 vegan products under its President’s Choice label next year. “We see an opportunity, because there is consumer interest, to accelerate, to amplify that consumer interest,” he said.
On the subject of sustainable proteins, Weston took the opportunity to tout the company’s recent launch of President’s Choice Cricket Powder. The retailer teamed-up with Ontario-based Entomo Farms to bring the attention-grabbing product to market. Weston admits that while the cricket powder generated a lot of interest at launch, it is not a mainstream product, “yet”, but that it is available in just about all of Loblaw’s stores. “It’s about expanding people’s scope of appetites, exposing our consumers to new ideas, new forms of food, and in this case new forms of protein.”
On the tech side of things, Weston turned the discussion to food distribution. Loblaw operates the largest transport fleet in Canada and has taken steps over the past year towards its goal of reducing its carbon footprint 30% by 2030. The retailer grabbed headlines last November when it announced its purchase of 25 electric trucks from Tesla. But the goal is more profound, said Weston, than the headline of partnering with Tesla.“We actually see a future - three to five years - where we could have 50, 60% of our entire transport fleet running on electric only. While not a 100% zero carbon, Weston said,“it's a massive step forward for an industry like ours.”
Technology, of course, is also having a “massive impact” on how food gets from the farm to stores, but also from the store to customers’ homes. The technology backing online shopping and meal kits is helping consumers make better, more accurate choices and are helping them think about meals as opposed to grocery lists, creating an opportunity to “vastly reduce food waste, where it is most prevalent, the home kitchen,” said Weston.
Technology is also helping bring food production closer to home. Using strawberries as an example, Weston said 10 years ago greenhouse-grown strawberries tasted terrible, looked terrible and nobody wanted them. Today, thanks to technological advancements “we have some of the best-tasting strawberries in the world coming out of greenhouses instead of coming out of the ground in California.” Loblaw’s domestic strawberry purchases are now upwards of 50%, said Weston, whereas the retailer used to be restricted to buying the berries during short conventional growing seasons.
Weston said to accelerate its local program, Loblaw was committing to purchasing $150 million more on locally-produced food by 2025. The focus is on foods the retailer previously imported and that aren’t typically grown in Canada, but that appeal to the country’s diverse consumer base. Loblaw’s produce procurement team is working with growers to expand the assortment they can actually grow in this country and that greenhouses are a huge part of the strategy because of Canada’s short growing season. Technology, Weston said, was going to continue to enable those kinds of advancements.
“Imagine a greenhouse or a vertical farm parked right next to one of our distribution centres or on the roof of a store,” said Weston. In this scenario, the distance from where the product is grown to the store where it is sold drops to zero, removing carbon emissions and allowing for improved efficiency.
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Vertical farms can also help improve access to food for Canadians living in remote areas. In mid-May, Loblaw announced it was donating, through its President’s Choice Children’s Charity, a vertical farm to a high school in La Loche, Sask. The unit is purpose-built for northern environments, uses 95% less water than a typical farm and students will able to produce up to 1,000 heads of lettuce or 6,000 plum tomatoes each week that can be used for the school’s lunch program and potentially the wider community.
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The idea could be “massive” said Weston, adding that a lot of “very creative” people are working on similar ideas to address the problem of food deserts in Canada’s North, where it is difficult to send trucks out over vast distances to deliver small orders. “The more you can actually produce product in these communities, we think is going to be the best way to improve the nutritional content of the diets of people that don’t have the level of food security that we enjoy right here in Toronto.”