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Reporting In from the FMI MarkeTechnics Conference…
DALLAS -- Okay, so what exactly does a discussion of the mapping of the human genome have to do with food retailing technology?

It’s simply really. And it isn’t specific just to industry technologists.

In a fascinating discourse Sunday morning, Juan Enriquez, senior research fellow and director of the Harvard Business school Life Sciences Project, told attendees at the Food Marketing Institute annual MarkeTechnics conference that it was as simple as understanding the science of map making. “We are,” he said, “in the mapping of the human genome where Columbus was in terms of mapping the world,” which is to say we know very little compared to what there is to be known.

But, he said, starting the process of mapping the genome is critical because it creates power in a knowledge-based economy. The fortunes of nations and cultures are shifted based on their willingness to map out new territories and express what they know in language; it is why, Enriquez pointed out, Europe became dominant five hundred years ago, despite the fact that until that point China was a far more thriving culture. It is why, he suggested, the US dominates today -- because it has been literate in the digital language of the time.

“Some people still want to say that evolution is just a theory,” he said, suggesting that this reflects a willingness on the part of some people to stop learning. Today, Enriquez said, we know that 1.27 percent of the gene code is the only difference between humans and monkeys -- and understanding what goes into that 1.27 percent and why it evolved that way is critical to remaining fluent in a knowledge-based economy.

“The rich nations aren’t the oil-rich nations of the world,” he said, suggesting that he could take a couple of thousand people from a few US zip codes and move them to Barbados, and turn that island nation into a world power (and one, we’d assume, in which all the smart guys would have beachfront property).

Focusing on the implications for the food business, Enriquez said that “an orange is like a floppy disk,’ with a code that, if properly understood, can be rewritten so it has immense practicality in creating a health-enhancing, disease-fighting fruit. Addressing concerns about this technology, Enriquez painted a portrait of inevitability -- this will happen, he said. The only question is whether the US will be literate in the language and aggressive in its willingness to map and explore. If it does not, he suggested, the alternative is to become irrelevant.
KC's View:
While the Enriquez presentation did not specifically go in this direction, we think his message about the need to expand the knowledge base and explore all possibilities needs to be heard in all sectors of the business. While these issues are not as profound as those he addressed, they do have a day-to-day applicability that requires consideration.

Too often in the food industry, retailers give initiatives just a few months to succeed before pronouncing them successes or failures. Think of meal solutions. Loyalty marketing. Or e-commerce.

These issues, and others like them, are viewed as ends, and ends that need to be achieved quickly or not at all.

But they really aren’t that. Done right, they should be constantly evolving explorations that never end. Sure there’s a cost. And sure, the return on investment isn’t always immediate.

But not to explore, not to invest, means that companies and the industry run the risk of becoming irrelevant, of becoming illiterate in the language and knowledge base that really mean something to consumers.

In this case, the power may not shift to Barbados. It may shift to Arkansas…or to some other entity and place not yet on our radar screens.

So how is mapping the human genome critical to the food industry?

Two ways, really.

It is critical because it will forever affect the way food is grown and manufactured, and its impact on the human race.

And because it illustrates the power of the knowledge economy, and fragility of the position held by any company or industry that does not embrace its importance.