Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Business' Role in Social Problems: Villain or Hero?

Business strategy scholar Michael Porter recently presented a TED Talk entitled “Why business can be good at solving social problems”.   While I admire his optimism, he tends to ignore some very fundamental business strategy frameworks that not only contributed to the social problems he’s talking about but would ultimately usurp any ambition to resolve them.  I present three of his main messages and then discuss what I believe he fundamentally overlooks.

1.  Business as Source of Problems:  Porter motivates his talk by remarking on the growing consensus that business is seen as the main contributor to today’s societal problems rather than the solution.  That said, he appears to struggle with “why we’re having so much trouble dealing with these problems”.  I’m fascinated by this because he fails to connect these social problems to the very frameworks that he devised three decades ago.  Back in the 1980s[1], Michael Porter started building an iconic name in business strategy when he flipped around the industrial organization (IO) model that associated firm conduct and performance with industry structure.  In this economic model, firm returns are a function of certain industry conditions such as entry barriers faced by entrepreneurs, the number and relative size of competitors, the existence and degree of product differentiation in the industry, the amount of power buyers and suppliers have in the industry and the number of substitutes available.  As business scholar Jay Barney explained in 1986[2], the IO model was developed to assist government policy makers to achieve “socially optimal levels of intra-industry competition” by devising regulation that would structure industries in ways that maximized benefits for society.

In his development of a normative theory of competitive strategy, Porter and other strategy scholars turned the policy objectives of this model upside down.  Rather than use this model to assist policy makers to keep industries more competitive, strategy was born with the idea that business, in their effort to generate greater profit, should focus on creating or modifying industry characteristics in ways that generate higher returns.  In effect, firms should create higher barriers to entry, reduce the number of competitors, reduce buyer power by increasing product differentiation, eliminate substitutes, and reduce supplier power by achieving market power or holding suppliers hostage.   We see this behaviour all the time as part of routine business practice.  The blatant irony in Porter’s talk is that the main reason why societal problems persist today is that business graduates enter management with an injection of competitive strategy thinking that advises them quite explicitly to appropriate the value that would have otherwise gone to society.

2)  Business as Part of the Solution:  Porter spends a lot of time explaining why business has to be part of the solution.  To do so, he tends to revert back to the bare bones of capitalism that Adam Smith introduced in the 1700s.  The whole point of capitalism is to represent an efficient mechanism through which resources can be allocated to address social issues/needs.  Porter explains that, unlike other actors in society, business is the only actor that can generate the wealth needed to scale the solution to social problems.  Profit, he states, is “magic” because it allows business to reinvest capital into a solution to a societal problem so that it can be sustained and scaled.  He brags that other actors in society, be they non-governmental or governmental organizations, are completely dependent on the business enterprise to generate this wealth that would then be distributed in the form of taxes to governments and donations to NGOs. 

While he acknowledges the unprecedented growth of NGOs in recent decades, he doesn’t at all attribute this growth to the fact that the conventional non-governmental actor – business – has failed to do its job as Adam Smith had intended.  Ironically, Porter advises that we go back to business as the solution, as it was originally intended, even though his teachings have instructed business on how to usurp this system for its own ends, which created the NGOs in the first place. 

Porter explains that NGOs and governments have not always appreciated the connection between social and economic value.  In his 2006 article entitled Strategy and Society [3], he explains that “if governments, NGOs, and other participants in civil society weaken the ability of business to operate productively, they may win battles but will lose the war, as corporate and regional competitiveness fade, wages stagnate, jobs disappear, and the wealth that pays taxes and supports nonprofit contributions evaporates” (pg. 83).  His point is that NGOs fail to grasp the idea that healthy societies need healthy business, explaining that “no social program can rival the business sector when it comes to creating jobs, wealth, and innovation that improves standards of living and social conditions over time”.  He explains that governments and NGOs forget the “basic truth” that “by providing jobs, investing capital, purchasing goods, and doing business every day, corporations have a profound and positive influence on society.  The most important thing a corporation can do for society, and for any community, is contribute to a prosperous economy”.  Porter appears to criticize non-business actors for not acknowledging the role of business in society, almost to suggest that had these non-business actors realized this, we wouldn’t have the problems we have today. 

What drives me absolutely bonkers about this rhetoric is that Porter’s referral back to basic capitalism ignores the very fact that despite this model being introduced in the 1700s, business strategists in the last few decades have advised managers on how to avoid creating value for society and to instead appropriate value from society.  Porter is silent on this and instead offers a Utopian solution that suggests that business should really do this because it makes business sense to do so.  But if it did, then why are so many businesses resisting?  Porter blames this on short-termism.   The reality is that since Porter’s scholarly work in the 1980s, business has grown quite effective at taking his teachings to an unprecedented level.  For instance, why bother pursuing the arduous task of addressing societal issues when you can create an industry structure that generates more profit?  Why bother meeting consumer needs when you can manipulate those needs or at the very least reduce consumer power and choice to products/services that allow you to capture more profit?  Porter essentially taught business to manipulate those very structures that were meant to encourage them to address social needs.  Interestingly, when we line up the key time periods when things when irreversibly ‘south’ for society, we see a rather striking correlation with the timing of Porter’s teachings (see adjacent figure below). 

3.  False Tradeoff.  Porter ends his talk by highlighting the false tradeoff that tends to exist in the minds of managers between profit and social good.  For instance, it is costly to create a safe working environment or to reduce pollution.  He argues that the reality is the opposite by referring to the proverbial low-hanging fruit where businesses can save on costs if they pollute less because they are more efficiently using resources or if they create a safe working environment because there are less accidents and productivity levels increase.  To Porter, there is a fundamental synergy between business and societal goals. 

No doubt there are many examples of business demonstrating this sort of synergy.  Scholars and practitioners have been talking about social entrepreneurship quite extensively for over a decade; much of what Porter is referring to is not new.  But let’s try to understand why these sorts of examples are not dominating business behaviour.   Again, it is important to go back to the fundamentals of strategic management that Porter helped establish.  One of the primary reasons social entrepreneurs and NGOs struggle is because they are typically up against a system that is rigged against them.  Consider entrepreneurs in green energy.  Despite climate change and our dependence on fossil fuel sources of energy representing a major social issue, these entrepreneurs are up against a very aggressive lobbying effort to erode any political effort to regulate fossil fuel intensive industries or to subsidize green energy initiatives.  Or consider Better Place, an innovative company that aims to establish a transportation platform that would replace the internal combustion engine.  There is no doubt that despite the fact that many of today’s social issues can be traced to oil, there have been and will continue to be a small group of very powerful interests that will work hard to make sure this business model doesn’t happen. 

Now where does this behaviour come from?  Remember how the industry-conduct-performance framework was meant to assist government in regulating industries so that they remain competitive and committed to societal interests?  Well corporate political activity, a branch of business strategy, studies how companies work to manipulate the political landscape in ways that favour their interests.  This is precisely what Michael Porter advised companies to do when he suggested that business should work to create favorable industry environments.  By favourable, one can easily extend that to favourable political environments.  Rather than sit passively and hope that such a regulatory environment will emerge for your business, managers have learned to create such environments.  This sort of behaviour takes place all over the world as many activists refer to crony capitalism and the realities of our plutocracy.    

As a business strategist myself, it’s repugnant to see Michael Porter standing up on TED touting the need to unleash the power of business and the capitalist system as if society was unaware of what this system was intended to accomplish, completely ignoring that it was his teachings and frameworks that played an important role in derailing this system.  The core issue is not that the model is wrong.  I agree with Porter that business can be a critical actor when it comes to social issues because it does have the power to generate the residual capital to reinvest and scale the solution to some of our most intractable problems.  The issue is that the power imbalance among societal actors, alongside the neoliberal ideology that dominates our global economy, has allowed business to usurp this model to achieve its own ends at the expense of society.  Before we arrogantly present business as the hero, we should first discuss how and why business has been, and continues to be, the villain.

[1] Porter, M. (1980). Competitive strategy:  Techniques for analyzing industries and competitors.  The Free Press:  New York, NY.
[2] Barney, J (1986).  Types of competition and the theory of strategy:  Toward and integrative framework.  Academy of Management Review, 1194): 791-800.
[3] Porter, M. & Kramer, M. (2006). Strategy and society:  The link between competitive advantage and corporate social responsibility.  Harvard Business Review (December: 78-92).

Monday, September 9, 2013

CIBC Run for the Cure OR Run from Prevention?

This year, CIBC celebrated its 17th anniversary as the title sponsor of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure.  In 2012, they raised over $3 million in support.  CIBC’s homepage invites people to join them on October 6th to “Invest in a future without breast cancer”.  They play a significant role in encouraging local and national communities to raise funds for “the cause”. 

The objective of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation is to raise funds for breast cancer research, education and awareness programs.  According to their website, Canadians raised over $30 million in the CIBC Run for the Cure in the past year.  The $274 million in funds raised over the years is allocated towards “breast cancer research, health promotion, advocacy, education and awareness programs”. 

It is no doubt incredibly important that we fundraise for causes that fight cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other debilitating diseases that are so destructive to our society.  The money raised for these types of causes is truly remarkable and indeed a testament to our society’s commitment to eliminating these diseases. 

That said, a common focus of these sorts of fundraising initiatives is on the cure for the disease and less so on prevention.  Does this tendency represent a distraction, inhibiting us from separating cause from symptom? 

Focusing on the cure permits us to ignore the underlying causes of the problem.  Rather than deal with how our behaviours cause cancer, we presume that cancer is inevitable and donate to find a cure.  We see this sort of logic among both individual everyday donors and companies like CIBC.  When we think about cancer as a symptom or outcome of certain behaviour, it starts to become clear that while our efforts to donate might find a cure for cancer, the fact that our behaviour hasn’t changed is likely going to produce another cancer-like disease.  Study after study associates cancer with those chemicals and pollutants that we blindly purchase and that fall under the radar of regulatory bodies.  In the book “Slow Death by Rubber Duck”, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie uncover a wide range of products and behaviours that are likely associated with our cancer rates.  David Suzuki released the "Dirty Dozen", a group of cosmetics that possess the most cancer-causing agents such as carcinogens.  But rather than putting ‘our dollars to work” by creating a demand for things that don’t carry these properties or investing in companies that don’t use them, we put the money we save by buying the inexpensive and toxic-abundant things towards the cure.  As irrational beings, this logic seems completely rational! 

This same argument can be applied to companies like CIBC who support cancer research or the grocery industry who supports diabetes research.  Rather than think about how their own behaviour causes these diseases, they focus on using their profits to help find a cure for the symptom.  I wrote about this very concept in a critique of the grocery industry’s sponsorship of diabetes research despite the fact that 90% of the products in every grocery store tends to be processed in ways that have substantial health and ecological impacts, particularly obesity rates.  Ignoring the cause and focusing on the symptom simply makes good business sense because it allows companies to avoid disrupting a status quo that is largely dependent on low-cost highly toxic processes while having a marketing campaign like the Run for the Cure to repel those who might criticize their contribution to the problem.  If CIBC were serious about fighting cancer, they would focus on incorporating cancer causing criteria into their financing decisions.  So in addition to the creditworthiness of a company they are thinking of financing, CIBC would incorporate the extent to which this company or the project they are financing engages in activities that are known to be linked to cancer.  Similarly, Loblaw, in their commitment to reducing diabetes, would decide what products to put on their shelves based on the degree to which the food and beverage manufacture (their supplier) is using ingredients that are particularly responsible for obesity.  So why don’t they do this?  Well, it boils down to economics and the important fact that those who have the power to punish these companies (i.e. consumers and investors) don’t evaluate them on the everyday decisions made that contribute to these issues and instead evaluate them on how much money they’ve contributed to a particular cause. 

Ironically, another force against a greater focus on the causes of cancer are the fundraising institution itself.  While organizations like the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation are truly remarkable, they tend to represent an institution that encourages activists to mentally disassociate their everyday behaviour from donations.  They do this because if donors really thought about the underlying causes of these issues, they would soon realize, as already mentioned, that it makes more sense to change the criteria used to purchase products or invest in companies.  This means that rather than putting your money towards finding a cure for cancer, it would make better sense to support businesses that make efforts to avoid the use of those ingredients that are linked with cancer or investing in firms that avoid the use of these cancer causing processes.  But encouraging this sort of allocation of money would shift the money away from the foundations. What is more, if these foundations were serious about prevention, they would isolate themselves from the very large donors that have made them so successful.  Unfortunately, we don't yet have as many multi-billion dollar companies that engage in processes that prevent cancer-like diseases as we do multi-billion dollar companies that take the easy road and focus on treatment.

Cognitive psychology suggests that we tend to gravitate towards simple associations rather than complex ones.  Cognitively, we see a direct connection between donating money to finding a cure for cancer and the cure itself.  In other words, more of A leads to B:  the more we donate, the greater chance we’ll find a cure, at least in theory.  But we struggle to draw connections between things like cancer and the underlying complexity of the causes.  This is partly because no one variable explains cancer and also because the distance between the change of behaviour and the change in outcome is perceptually greater.  The Run for the Cure campaign allows me to see an almost immediate connection between my donation and the contribution to a cure for cancer but rewarding companies that sell non-toxic toilet paper or non-Teflon frying pans is more difficult to draw a connection with eliminating cancer.  On top of this, the low cost of products higher in toxicity is an especially difficult barrier to overcome. 

But the good news is that there is information out there for the average consumer to use to make these decisions.  And yes, the cost will be (perceptually) higher but that’s because there were hidden health and ecological costs associated with the production of things that cause cancer that are not worked into the shelf price.  We just struggle to see the connection between saving a few bucks on toxic soap and the health costs we will endure down the road individually and as a public health care society.  So perhaps we should rethink how we contribute to the elimination of a disease like cancer or, at least, spread our contribution across both treatment and prevention.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Exxon CEO Claims to Know What's Good for Humanity

Yesterday, CEO of ExxonMobil Corp, Mr. Rex Tillerson argued the following to his shareholders when defining the relentless pursuit of oil production: “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”  He added, “We do not see a viable pathway with any known technology today to achieve the 350 (parts per million of carbon) outcome that is not devastating to economies, societies and people’s health and well-being around the world”. According to the Globe and Mail, Tillerson made these comments in response to environmental activists’ demands for greenhouse gas emission targets. 

Since when did Rex Tillerson develop the expertise to comment on the welfare of humanity, or people’s health and well-being?  The very fact that he sees no connection between environmental destruction brought on by oil production today and in the future and people’s health is one thing but the fact that he believes that he is well-positioned, as an executive of an oil and gas company, to publicly comment on the “well-being” of people is another and, in my view, astounding. 

A quick glance at his credentials, Mr. Tillerson earned a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1975, at which time he started at Exxon as an engineer.  According to Wikipedia, Mr. Tillerson held various positions in Exxon, domestically and internationally until becoming Executive Vice President of ExxonMobil Development Company in 1999.  He was elected chairman and CEO on January 1st, 2006.  I was unable to find any background information on Tillerson that would lead one to suggest that his views on what is good or bad for humanity should be taken seriously and/or is backed by a trail of work and sound science that would permit him to make such judgments. 

Tillersman’s comments are particularly striking for a number of reasons but for the sake of space, I'll focus on one.  Notice the assumption that what's best for humanity is an unfettered flow of oil.  This is a loaded statement because it overlooks any ability on the public’s part to innovate outside of oil and suggests that if we don’t allow oil to continue unabated, we’ll de-evolve to our caves.  The hypocrisy is so vivid when you consider that in the same article Tillersman talks about our ability to adapt when he says “or do you want to talk about what’s the path we should be on and how do we mitigate and prepare for the consequences as they present themselves”.

Just a week or so ago, Seth Kursman, VP of communications, sustainability and government affairs at Canadian softwood lumber company Resolute explained, in reaction to the failed talks with environmental groups, that environmentalist demands “would have affected thousands of people’s lives”, adding. “for us to accept that, it would not only be inappropriate, it would be downright irresponsible”.  He expressed his disappointment that a workable plan could not be reached that would balance conservation efforts with social and economic considerations.   Since when did a softwood lumber company develop the expertise to comment on the what does or does not represent social and economic value to a community?  I'm struggling to understand how expertise in lumber production is transferable to expertise on socio-economic welfare.  Am I missing something?  

Canada’s Ezra Levant, along with a number of oil sands executives and conservative pundits such as Kathryn Marshall (spokesperson for EthicalOrg.com), constantly argue for the importance of exploiting the oil sands because it is the ethical oil source.  They argue that doing so would represent an opportunity to combat tyrannical governments, oppression, and human rights abuses that tend to pervade in those regions where oil tends to exist.  Since when did oil and gas companies and their puppets become experts on developing country governments and human rights?  As I mention in a previous post, Kathryn Marshall shows her deep concern that President Barack Obama has not kept his promise to the American public to wean the US off of oil coming from the Middle East.  To justify her ends, she points to the president’s broken promises to his people, the government's complicity in supporting despotic regimes, and his failure to look out for the country’s best interests.  How sincere of Marshall.  I didn’t know that the spokesperson for Ethicaloil.org had such expertise in US politics and knowledge of the American people. 

Likewise, in July of 2010, Pierre Duhaime, the now shamed former CEO of SNC-Lavalin, explained in an article that the exploitation of the oil sands is critical because it is a “major contributor to employment, investment and income”.  He added that the government revenue of $19.6 billion gained from oil sands production in a given year “can pay for the schools, hospitals, roads and services that sustain our living standard”.  Since when does an executive in the oil and gas supply chain have the expertise to comment on employment, investment and income at a national level?  And are you Mr. Duhaime well positioned to comment on our living standard?  I don’t see anything in your CV to suggest that you have expertise in providing views on what living standard we should be aiming for, let alone sustaining. 

Of course, I haven’t yet mentioned the obvious conflict of interest screaming out to those reading these views.  What’s most disturbing is the façade these influential people exhibit, a façade that disguises the real objective to increase production of the finite natural resources to enhance their bottom line, salary, and bonus.  Because they know how the public will react to such a self-serving objective, they need to translate this desire into something that resonates with the public, even though they are not at all qualified to make such claims.  I feel sorry for these people because they have to resort to making spurious connections between their core business/expertise/interest with the public interest to self-justify their own individual interests. But that’s just it, because these public ends (e.g. health care, well-being) are so disconnected from the means of their core business, they completely miss the fact that there are multiple ways in which to achieve these ends, thereby overlooking the self-fulfilling prophecy they’ve just created.

The unwarranted claiming of expertise is not limited to business.  Scientists and environmental activists have also been known to put forth views on topics on which they have no expertise.  Bill McKibbon, a well-known Canadian environmentalist, talked about how oil sands development is "starting to do real damage to the country’s character”.  He added that “Indigenous groups have explained over and over that the tar sands are damaging traditional ways of life, not to mention life and health”.  I’m sorry Mr. McKibbon, since when were you qualified to make claims about Canada’s character?  If you’re not qualified to do so as an environmental scientist, which I doubt you are, on what empirical basis are you able to make these claims?  Do you have evidence that Canada's character is being damaged by this industrial development? Likewise, climatologists too often push the limits of their expertise when they get into discussions of the need for certain kinds of renewable energy such as Andrew Weaver’s view that we should focus on nuclear energy to simply move away from coal based on his notion that because renewables are far from mainstream commercial viability, nuclear is the best way to go despite the non-carbon implications.  Why is the media giving a climatologist the public platform through which to comment on energy policy? 

It’s downright insulting in my view to listen to these influential individuals - that the media unfortunately props up - put forth views without the backing of any credible competence or reference to empirical research in the area upon which they base their view.  Their perceived power makes it difficult for the layperson to step back and question whether these individuals have any right or competence to make comments in this regard. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Loblaw Response to Bangladesh Disaster Hollow

The garment factory collapse in Bangladesh was one of the most tragic industrial catastrophes in recent decades.  Over 1100 dead textile workers have been recovered, making it the largest textile industry tragedy and the second worst industrial disaster after Bhopal where 2,259 people died in 1984.  This particular catastrophe hit home to Canadians because one of our major corporations, Loblaw, sources garments from this factory for their Joe Fresh line. 

The public’s response to the tragedy is one of shock and horror, with many consumers pleading ignorance that they were completely unaware of the conditions surrounding the making of the very products they wear.  Some have promised to boycott the Joe Fresh line to voice their dissatisfaction with the conditions in Bangladesh.   Perhaps not surprisingly, the general public has a short memory when it comes to the working conditions of those manufacturing their garments.  Issues of unfair and unsafe working conditions in Asia have been around for decades with Nike taking a brunt of the blame back in the 1990s when they were boycotted for purchasing from suppliers employing children and paying workers below living wage. 

In response to immense social pressure and a potentially damaged brand, Loblaw and other retailers have promised to do everything in their power to prevent these conditions from continuing.   Scholars in corporate social responsibility have identified four major approaches through which companies respond to social pressures.  A reactive approach is one where companies deny responsibility for social issues by claiming that they are the responsibility of someone else, typically government.  A defensive approach is one where the company admits responsibility but fights it, doing the very least that seems to be required.  Their approach may be based primarily on superficial public relations rather than positive action.  An accommodative approach is one where the company accepts responsibility and implements what is demanded of it by relevant groups.  Finally a proactive approach is one where the company goes beyond industry norms and anticipates future expectations by doing more than what is expected.  

At first blush, it appears that Loblaw is taking on an accommodative or even proactive strategy in light of their recent commitments to provide financial assistance to injured workers and families, rehabilitation efforts for injured workers, as well as a joint program with Save the Children Canada and Save the Children Bangladesh to “provide life skills and workplace support for garment industry workers and their families”.  The company also committed to joining other international retailers to source garments from regularly inspected individual factories and to make the reports public. 

So far so good…impressed? 

I would argue that this approach is not accommodative or proactive but at best defensive.  The response by companies like Loblaw is meant to communicate to their consumers that they will not stand for conditions like these in their supply chain.  Yet the mere decision, however many years ago, to source from a place like Bangladesh is an explicit position enacted by Loblaw that it is interested and willing to exploit a labour market that represents a huge cost saving to the company.  But this cost saving is not some fluke opportunity for an international retailer.  It is instead an outcome that is completely dependent on particular worker conditions enabled by poor regulatory and legal institutions and citizen desperation.  What is more, these sorts of conditions are not new to the textile industry.  As already mentioned, these issues have been around for over 20 years with case after case of major brand names demonstrating complicity in some unethical supplier behaviour.

So, to me, companies like Loblaw fail to demonstrate responsibility in their decisions until they are forced to as a result of some tragedy that could irreparably damage their image.  But until that happens, we will see no valiant effort to address worker rights.  What we see now in their response is merely an attempt to distract the consumer and the broader public that they are at best complicit as a result of their strategic decision to reduce costs by sourcing from an exploitative supplier context and that the lessons learned by their peers well before Joe Fresh even existed were completely ignored for the sake of shareholder wealth creation.  

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Who Stole My Bread?

I was born with a piece of bread in my tiny little hand, ready to eat it with a fork full of pasta in the other.  As a 3rd generation Italian, eating bread is as instinctual as breathing.  That’s why my Italian heart broke when I read "Wheat Belly" by William Davis along with the growing concentration of warnings by medical professionals about the dangers of wheat in our diet.

So What’s the Big Deal?  Studies are still somewhat preliminary but wheat is showing linkages to a range of health implications, most notably obesity and type-2 diabetes.  Davis blames wheat for the reason obesity has remained so pervasive despite our efforts to exercise and cut down on calories and fatty foods. To understand this, we need to consider the glycemic index (GI) of foods processed from wheat, which is a measure of the ability of a given food to raise blood sugar (glucose) levels after being eaten.  The higher the GI, the easier it is for our bodies to increase sugar levels that are then stored as visceral fat…leading to the proverbial wheat belly and, yes guys, “man boobs”.  Wheat has an alarmingly high GI.  Consider this:  whole wheat bread (something that is supposed to be the healthy option) has a GI of 72 while white bread has a GI of 69.  But here’s the kicker – a Snicker’s Bar has a GI of 51 and table sugar has a GI of 59.  Are you starting to see where I’m going?  Other health implications associated with wheat include heart disease, cancers, cataracts, wrinkles, aging, and mental illness although scientific evidence of these is a bit more scant.

How Did Wheat Become Unhealthy?   Wheat wasn’t always bad for us.  When our grandparents were younger (before the 1960s), wheat fields used to have stocks that were 4-5 feet high.  But over the last several decades, in our quest to increase consistent wheat yields and reduce costs to feed the poor, we hybridized the wheat grain so aggressively that we genetically transformed its composition.  Using excessive fertilizer to boost production, we dramatically increased the size of the wheat seeds, making them too heavy for the 4-foot stock, which buckled and killed the plant.  In response, the green revolution changed the genetic composition of the wheat so that it was shorter and bulkier to withstand the heavier seed head.  That’s why the wheat fields of today have stocks that are 2-3 feet high (see picture).  But unfortunately no animal or human testing was done on this new hybridized strain before entering the food system.  So while a majority of the planet can now access cheap wheat, we’re starting to pay the price.  The breads, cookies, and pancakes of today although similar in taste, smell and appearance to those our grandmother used to make have very different biochemical properties.  The processing of this strain of wheat results in a super carbohydrate that is very easy to digest and turn into sugar, hence the really high GI index.

How does this affect the daily consumer?  It may or may not come as a surprise, but wheat is everywhere!  Walk into your average Canadian staple Tim Hortons or American Dunkin Donuts and what you see before you is an explosion of wheat from the double chocolate donut to the latest and greatest grilled cheese on a Panini, to the wide assortment of muffins and bagels.  At home, the story is no different.  Gaze into your pantry and a majority of what you’ll find in there has huge concentrations of wheat including but not limited to breakfast cereals, pastas (god no!), potato chips, cookies, cakes, pies, cupcakes, pancakes, waffles, beer, pita, couscous, rye, unbleached flour, whole-wheat flour, barley, crepes, gnocchi, panko ,and sadly bread. 

This really sucks!  Believe me, I’ve been working my way off wheat for the last several months and it isn’t easy.  The hardest part is walking into a coffee shop or restaurant and realizing that 90% of what’s on the menu has wheat and the other 10% is typically a bowl of cheap fruit or a box of raisins!  Bloody hell!  And while these places are starting to offer gluten-free options, most people don’t realize that these foods are actually worse than eating the wheat. 

Gluten-free foods are particularly important for those people with celiac disease who are strictly intolerant of gluten.  For them, eating wheat can kill them.  So to meet the needs of these people, food producers have had to find replacement ingredients for gluten.  Enter things like corn starch, potato starch and tapioca starch.  But here's the problem, these starches have a GI index higher than whole wheat bread – upper 70s and 80s.  So going gluten free may make sense for someone with celiac disease, but it’s not the right thing to do for us who want to eat healthy.  The only non-wheat bread I’ve been able to find (and I’ve looked very hard) are those that have these starches in the ingredient list.

What are the Implications? Our highly industrialized and economic-centric response to feeding the planet has unfortunately come at great cost.  We only have so much land and with population levels expected to reach 9 billion before coming back down, it’s going to be harder and harder for us to eat healthy.  Just staying away from potato chips, chocolate bars, sodas, and candies is not enough anymore.  These were easy because they were meant to be a source of indulgence so they weren’t at all disguised.  But today and in the future, eating healthy means navigating a minefield of dangerous ingredients that we aren’t aware of yet, don’t have the time to learn about, or find it hard to ascertain what contains them.  I have no doubt that there is a direct correlation between unhealthy food ingredients and how pervasive they are in our food system.  This is the all-time market failure.  Wheat, soy and corn are the three most pervasive ingredients in our food system and all three have been heavily criticized because they have been so brutally hybridized and processed that they are no longer recognizable biochemically.  The sad thing is that we can predict the same outcome for those niche grains such as quinoa and millet which, at the moment are highly sought for as healthy substitutes.  But as demand grows and the industrialized food system gets their hands on them, we’ll see a similar manipulation of said grains thereby perverting the biochemical properties that took millions of years to specifically suit our genetic makeup.  Producers will then put these ingredients in everything from pancakes to muffins and nutritionists will support their consumption only to our chagrin later when we read “Millet Belly” or “Quinoa Belly” that tells us that their hybridization is what is explaining a new trend in human illness (see this very story on quinoa that just came out).

So who stole my bread?  The industrialized food system did and we, as consumers, are complicit because the only way that we can sustain ourselves in this finite planet with such high population levels is to sacrifice our health to get what we need.  That is why for me, the scientific evidence of the dangers of wheat are less important than the fact that we are starting to hit a wall in terms of what we can efficiently and safely produce to feed 7-9 billion people.  In other words, I’m not at all surprised that one of the most pervasive foods (wheat) in our food system is responsible for major disease.  You can’t manipulate nature to such an extent to radically increase production levels to unprecedented proportions and not pay a price down the road.  

This means that readers who want to remove themselves from the line of sight of the looming freight train will have to detach from the industrialized food system by creatively finding alternatives to what you're seeing in the aisles of the grocery store and in healthy recipe books.  For instance, how do you make homemade vegetarian burgers if you can't use bread crumbs or even panko crumbs?  How do you make homemade pancakes without wheat flour?  How do you make a sandwich if there is no bread?  In his book Davis tends to think that it's entirely possible and he provides some good advice on how to do so.  But there is no doubt that a serious lifestyle change needs to be made about where people are spending their disposable income.  If you want inexpensive food so that you can purchase more televisions, ipads, vehicles and the dream home, then, in my view, you will be a passive victim to a system that is inherently in conflict with the long-term health needs of our society.