In the 1970s, the chef Alice Waters began the farm-to-table food movement in earnest after canned and processed foods hit peak levels in the U.S. It was a gut reaction to the commodification and mechanization of the food system, built on the premise that there had to be a better way to grow, package and sell food products.

The movement didn’t really take off until the mid 2000s, when consumers accepted the tenets of Waters’ movement and became increasingly conscious of the food they were putting in their bodies. Health and science had moved forward, consumers started conducting their own research online, and the culinary scene innovated to match these burgeoning trends. What followed was an explosion of local restaurants, greenmarkets and home cooking—all of which drove people to increasingly consider what they put in their bodies.

While the growth of farm-to-table opposed the packaged foods that ruled the previous century, it also came up against the international ascendancy of chain restaurants, even for celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck, who operates dozens of restaurants and has licensed his name to food courts and airport kiosks. Farm-to-table was about eating better, buying less and supporting local organizations—not about global domination.

While the food industry is often ahead of others because it sells products that people physically consume, the consumer goods space—fashion, apparel, beauty, CPG and more—is following behind its edible sibling. While mega brands—from P&G and Calvin Klein, Gap to Unilever, and Zara to J.Crew—ruled the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st, they are now facing fierce competition from smaller upstarts, many of which are digitally-native and sell direct-to-consumer. While there is not conclusive data that proves causation, these mega brands are shrinking while smaller brands are growing.

Comparing these two industries leads to some interesting insights:

  • Many purveyors in the farm-to-table world are small businesses, whether they are farmers, restaurants or other suppliers. Few have raised money, let alone from institutional investors, and they build their businesses slowly and locally. Direct-to-consumer brands, however, have by and large raised significant amounts of money from bigger institutions, attempting to scale quickly and deliver to an endless array of zip codes. These brands’ aspirations are anything but local.
  • The shift to farm-to-table food led to higher prices for most consumers, both in the supermarket and at restaurants. Both entities raised prices to protect their margins, which are already razor thin and might be declining. Direct-to-consumer brands, however, are able to offer lower prices to consumers while ideally delivering better quality items and higher margins for themselves. The pricing effects of these respective shifts are inverted.
  • Despite these differences, consumers seem to be embracing both trends. They are also more open-minded to the product offerings of younger brands, as opposed to older brands offering similar or the same products as they always have. And, interestingly, both industries have turned to smaller retail footprints, often pop-ups, to test their concepts, whether it’s pop-up restaurants with guest chefs or smaller stores with shorter leases to test out new products and locations.

Yet it’s striking that a similar development across two industries has led companies and investors down two different paths: direct-to-consumer is about quickly scaling far and wide, whereas farm-to-table is about staying local and growing slowly, if at all. The presence of billions of dollars of investment in the consumer goods space is most likely driving this difference in expansion and speed, but it is unclear if direct-to-consumer will net out to be worthwhile from both a company-building and an investment perspective. When it comes to the farm-to-table movement, which has been starved for money, some rebalancing of dollars in its favor might be opportunistic—and needed. It’s likely that the low margins of the restaurant industry are keeping investors away, but as people spend more on good food, this should slowly evolve.

Finally, the question we always focus on is what is getting built and how long will it last? From a longevity perspective, the farm-to-table movement and the businesses within it seem to have more staying power than their venture-funded, direct-to-consumer counterparts, simply because the former get to control their optionality and the expectations around their businesses. But given the positive impact that eating more healthy and ethical food has, versus just buying more stuff, a tradeoff—on fewer investors and less global domination, but higher local impact—might be one worth making.