When Jack Bobo left his last company last April, he discovered that there was a lot of angst in the food world about how companies and products fit into the future of food. This led him to start working with food tech startups and big food brands to help them understand what the future of food looks like and where consumer trends are going. By understanding the forces that are shaping trends, companies can get ahead of the trends instead of getting run over by them. As he officially launches his new blog on his site, Futurity - Where Food Meets the Future, we sat down with him last week to catch up, and to learn about his new endeavor.
Michael Stebbins, GMO Answers: Given that introduction, tell our readers a little bit more about your history and background.
JB: Jack Bobo, Futurity: I grew up in a small town in southern Indiana. My family had a large garden where we grew most of our own food. My mother canned corn, green beans, pepper and made jams and jellies from the berries my brothers and I picked. It gave me a good appreciation of what it takes to produce food. I did my undergraduate studies at Indiana University in biology, chemistry, and psychology and then traveled to Gabon in central Africa where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years teaching science to middle school students. I returned from Africa with a strong desire to work on global environmental policy to protect the world’s rainforests. I got a Master's degree in environmental science and a degree in law. I went to work for the U.S. Department of State in the office of Global Food Policy for 13 years, eventually serving as the Senior Advisor for global Food Policy. During that time, I had the opportunity to travel to more than 50 countries to talk about the future of food and the role of science in sustainably and nutritiously feeding the world. After that, I was the Chief Communications Officer and Senior Vice President for Government Affairs for Intrexon Corporation, which was on the leading edge of synthetic biology in plants and animals, but also for human health. And then, as you mentioned, I started my own company, Futurity, last April.
MS: And how does that background help you with what you do today?
JB: My experience at the State Department and at Intrexon gave me the opportunity to work with farmers and scientists around the world working to improve the global food system. I participated in international negotiations related to environmental treaties as well as trade agreements. I gained a keen understanding of the food system and the challenges of sustainably feeding the world. However, I also came to understand the importance of consumer attitudes in shaping the food system and why it is critical that businesses and governments build trust. Without trust, it’s impossible for new technologies to solve problems. Science tells us what we can do, but the public tells us what we should do.
MS: What’s up next for you?
JB: Consumers have never been more scared of the food they eat and suspicious of companies and the government that produce or regulate that food. And yet, our food has never been safer or more abundant. How do we get consumers to be less fearful and more hopeful about their food?
MS: What issues do you hope to cover with your new initiative?
JB: I like to tell people that my personal mission is to deescalate the tension in our food system so that we can all get about our business of saving the planet in our own way. Last year I delivered a TED Talk called “Why we fear the food we eat” that looked at the reasons why consumers are so fearful of food today. I am currently expanding on that topic through a series of 10 blogs to understand how our minds sometimes lead us to make bad food choices. For example, we all know that we shouldn’t go shopping for groceries when we’re hungry, but do we know why? It turns out that our brains get tired when they have to make too many choices and trying to make decisions when we’re hungry is particularly tiring. Once we become aware of the many ways our brains lead us astray, we can begin to take steps to protect against it.
MS: How does biotechnology, specifically GMOs, play into all these discussions?
JB: New technologies like GMOs sometimes make consumers nervous. This is particularly true when it comes to food where we have a strong preference for “natural” foods. This hesitancy to adopt new technologies can be traced back to how the mind processes information. The Naturalness Bias is a mental shortcut that generally leads to happy thoughts when we think about natural things. The word natural brings to mind things like fresh-baked bread or a glass of cool milk. It’s easy to forget that most of the bad things in the world are natural too, salmonella to the coronavirus, the natural world can be a scary place. The bias in favor of natural things and against manmade products can lead consumers to favor less safe products that have a natural label. For example, the demand in recent years for raw milk belies the real danger associated with this product. By understanding these tendencies we can better engage with consumers to help them focus on real versus perceived risks.
MS: What do you think the future brings, in say, a year, or 5-10 years? What're your predictions?
JB: The easy answer is more of everything. Over the next year, I think we will continue to see growing interest in plant-based foods, but also consumers pushing back on the processed nature of these products. A year from now the stores will be so flooded with plant-based products that they will begin to lose some of their allure. The world doesn’t need 10 plant-based burgers so some of the companies will find it increasingly hard to find a niche. The plant-based label won’t be enough to get attention. Over a longer time horizon, we will see a growing demand for protein and this includes animal protein. While many people in the developed world could stand to eat fewer calories generally, including meat, for much of the world there needs to be an increase in protein consumption. In fact, the world needs to double protein production by 2050. Some of this will come from animals and plants, but as we look farther out we will begin to see new proteins produced through fermentation. Given the need for more protein, there will be ample market opportunity for each of these protein sources.
MS: What events and speaking engagements do you have coming up to help spread the word about this issue and your new platform?
JB: In the next couple of months I will be speaking at Safe Foods California and the American Spice Trade Association in California and the Alltech One conference in Kentucky. I was supposed to speak at Food Industry Asia in Singapore but that event was pushed back to July due to concerns over Covid 19. I’m also looking forward to discussing these topics on podcasts like Risky Behavior with Dr. Taylor Wallace and Dr. Sweta Chakraborty. (now available on your favorite podcast streaming app)
MS: Anything else that you’d like to share?
JB: Readers interested in exploring the invisible influences of our brains can visit the Futurity website or they can watch my TEDx Talk. Hopefully, this will lead people to be excited about how our minds work and why they should feel good about the food they eat. Food should be a source of joy, not fear.
Jack's first blog post, Why We Fear the Food We Eat, is now available on his website. This is the first of a 10-part series on issues surrounding our food, so please check back regularly for the latest blog posts over the next few weeks, and follow Jack on Twitter at Futurity Food.