Revisiting the pyramid, grandma and other things

The coronavirus has taken our world by storm. There has been little time to react and it will take more time to adapt. In a matter of days, our economy and societies have undergone an acid test like they had not in a long time. Important questions, many of them existential, have had to be asked. Perhaps, the most personal and intrusive one is to decide what is essential and what is non-essential, and by what, the question really has come down to who is and is not essential. This one is rather traumatic, because for many it has meant that they lost their jobs, part or all of their income, with all the implications about their livelihoods, security, sense of purpose and future.

Those who know me know that I look at many things through Maslow’s pyramid of needs. To me, the current troubled times that we are going through and how people cope -or not- with it, is very much the same as revisiting Maslow’s pyramid. Until a few months ago, the world economy seemed to run on all cylinders and although a recession seemed to be overdue, as one tends to happen every decade or so, there was very little that indicated that the economy would slow down drastically. The stock markets where like a fun fair. Then, everything freezes over. The topic of essential vs. non-essential sent us right back to the pyramid. All of a sudden, the lower layers of the pyramid took precedence. Physical security and security of food and shelter became obvious again, and the more superficial matters had to step back a bit.

Not only did many household budgets take a painful hit, store shelves were often scarcely filled. This pandemic has shown that our economic model is really built around quantitative growth and abundance, but should conditions change drastically, it is not as agile and resilient as we may have liked to think all this time, especially when nobody really wants to have inventories. Empty shelves did not remain empty for just a couple of days but it took more like a couple of weeks for some products to reappear in satisfactory quantities, and some items have hardly reappeared at all even a couple of months into this crisis. Shelves were empty, and yet farmers dumped their products, in particular dairy farmers literally pouring milk down the drain. An outrageous food waste has been taking place, in a time where food banks are overwhelmed and can get enough to help the ones in need. There is some thinking to do about connecting the links of the value chains, because it shows very little value and does not behave like a chain, either.

The small pop-and mom shops actually did rather well in this mayhem. They adapted quickly to ensure social distancing. They took orders for pick up and for delivery, and actually prepared them without errors. Most of all, they showed no disruption of supplies. The small meat store had meat and the baker had bread. They may be a bit more expensive than supermarkets, but the value of not wasting time and risking contamination to find only half of what is on your shopping list outweighs the slight price uptick. Grocery chains did not perform anywhere this level of service. At least, here I am talking about the part of the world where I live. Online ordering, pick and delivery have been subpar, and that is for those who actually were able to set up something. Orders were incorrectly filled and even after so many weeks, it is rather cumbersome.

A look at what flew off the shelves is quite revealing and a confirmation of our revisiting Maslow’s pyramid. Remember the trendy times from before the Corona Wars? Yes, it feels like an eternity but in fact it was not that long ago. When it came to food, many of us had been convinced that the good old-fashioned foods that previous generations, all the way back to the early times of agriculture, had become about irrelevant, that farming was going to be revolutionized, mostly by people without any background in agriculture. Cows were farting and that was unacceptable to some billionaires, as clearly the debonair ruminants were up to kill us with their gasses. I wrote my thought about that in previous articles. We had to give up animal products altogether. Sure. Then, the virus came and we stopped flying around in planes, we have to work from home and forget about morning and evening commute, our factories had to shut down and our energy use dropped dramatically. Then, all climate monitoring showed the same thing: greenhouse gasses emissions dropped significantly and the quality of our air improved, and all of that with the same numbers of cows and farm animals. Understand me well, some animal farming systems will need to change dramatically to adapt to a climate friendly approach of agriculture. We were supposed to all become vegetarians and vegans, and yet the most striking thing I could see in grocery stores was that meat, dairy and eggs were about all gone. People hoarded the recently forbidden fruit and apparently were proud to do so. With most of the staple animal products gone, what was left in the stores, then? Well, the sections with plant-based animal products surrogates were still aplenty even though the shelf space for those is usually rather small. No shortage of soy- and pea protein burgers, but no ground beef. No butter except the fancy expensive more “natural” ones, but plenty of margarine on the shelves. No milk today, but lots of soy and almond milk. No regular eggs, but no shortage of the expensive ones produced with special feed, supposedly healthier for us. On the protein side, consumers left massively the higher layers of Maslow’s pyramid, forgot the trendy products and hypes of all sorts to rush back to the basics.

Other categories that showed an amazing comeback are flour and pasta. What a change of heart! Here, too, consumers went back to the basics. Baking and cooking have been among the most popular activities during the pandemic lockdown. What happened to carbs and gluten? Weren’t they supposed to be the incarnation of all evils? Weren’t they supposed to make us fat and sick, to a point where self-proclaimed sometimes questionable dieticians and marketers worked really hard to convince us to not buy any of those staple products but instead choose for the much more expensive gluten-free alternatives that would fill their pockets? Well, not only the pasta, flour and baking sections in the stores were desperately empty because the staples products were back in favour, but the amazing part was that the shelves with gluten-free and other carb-alternative diet products were left about untouched. Flour is back, and so is bread and baked goods because 1) they are fun to make, 2) they are cheap to make and 3) they are good for you, of course with moderation that is. That is the stuff I am advocating on my other blog, “The Sensible Gourmet”. Take a look at it is you have time and you will see the many advantages of preparing food yourself. Baking and cooking are so much more than just that. They are an act of love and they are a unique way of connecting people and generations. This is what we are witnessing here. The need for social contact and love, the second layer from the bottom in Maslow’s pyramid is as popular as the bottom layer about basic physical needs. Baking is just a trip back to grandma’s kitchen. It is a reminder of our childhood and the atmosphere of grandma’s kitchen and the complicity that it brought around the stove. It is a reminder of the happy moments of tasting warm dough and making a mess with chocolate cream. In the current uncertain times, it is a safe haven where love and comfort bring us a badly needed protection from a harsh reality.

But the journey into nostalgia is not only limited in the kitchen. The poorly agile supply chain to large grocery stores and empty shelves showed that food supply is not a given. This has not gone unnoticed and if baking and cooking are popular right now, so is gardening. People transform their lawns into veggie gardens and those living in apartments buy and grow herbs, tomatoes or strawberries in pots on balconies to find some sense of food security. Empty shelves and long distances bring a reflection of where food should be coming from. There is a renewed attention for local food production, this time not some much as a trendy phenomenon, but for food security reasons, which in turn is becoming trendy. As usual with such issues, the conversation is more about a philosophical “we-should” approach but nobody really addresses the important part, which is how to make it work financially and for the local producers to be competitive, especially when many consumers are going through a violent financial crunch. Other questions would be to figure out who the farmers would have to be and where they should farm, as there used to be a lot of farming around cities, but the farms got bought, paved and developed in the past, so they will never come back. Urban farming could be a possibility, but so far, except some fancy expensive greens or massive subsidies, urban farms hardly survive. As someone who has a garden, I can tell you that growing your own food has advantages. I do not have to worry about residues, as I do not spray any chemicals. I also can tell you that the cost of a seed is much lower than buying produce from a store, but the untold reality about gardening is that to have a garden, you need to buy one and that if you look at it from an economic point of view and were to calculate your cost as if it were a commercial operation, you will have to include the price of the land on which you have your garden. Nonetheless, gardening is a great hobby. Personally, I find it very soothing to work the ground and take care of the plants with nobody around. It probably feels like a bubble or a cocoon and I can imagine that this is also part of the renewed interest about gardening.

So here we are. We revisited Maslow’s pyramid of needs. We took a trip back in time to grandma’s kitchen and garden. Grandma (at least both mine who were born in early 1900s) knew scarcity. She knew the value of things and would never waste anything. She would not throw food away, as it was too precious, and the same thing is true about everything, being bits of candle, bits of soap, water or old socks that would be repaired. About this, it was interesting to see a run on sewing machines in France recently, as they were on ad. Grandma knew what sustainability meant, even without a university degree on the subject. It was engrained in the way they were raised. Other things that my grandmas used to telling me to do were to always cover my mouth and nose when sneezing, wash my hands after touching things from others, in particular money. Sounds familiar? After all, they had grown up in a time when there were not many vaccines, tuberculosis and long ailments were shortening many lives and they also had been through the Spanish flu.

The coronavirus has hit abruptly and showed we do not really have a contingency plan or a preparedness plan, another problem has been lingering for some time. Climate change could have even much more devastating effects and although we have been warned times and times over, our actions to adjust have been very meek. Perhaps the virus should bring us to think about the next crisis and how to absorb the shock, if we really can or want to.

The current crisis has led us to look for more security but will we learn from it and will it last? The question is what this will mean for the future? How will retailers adapt, if they do? How will supply chain adapt? How will food producers manage a transition to a 5-foot economy, as the Dutch government calls it? How will farmers and food producers find the work force of the future? What products should have priority in the future of food and agriculture, and will the marketing realign along grandma’s lifestyle or will we feel compel to revert as soon as possible to the pre-coronavirus times? These are critical questions to ensure that we will keep having food supplies secure and affordable. I will come back on these questions in future articles.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Life around the virus

I looked up in my books what I had written about my concerns regarding epidemics, as it is a topic that I raised quite a few times at conferences and other assignments in the past. To me, high density of people and animals are just a disaster waiting to happen as I also believe that sooner or later some epidemics will be passed from animals to humans, and there are suspicions that the current coronavirus may have originated from animals. Here are excerpts from Future Harvests, the book I published 10 years ago.

[…] the high density of human population with a high density of farm animals causes issues of manure smell. There are also fears of animal diseases and potential risks for public health in the case of outbreak flu-related epidemics […]

[…] In the mixing of urban and agriculture, one activity will require special care, though. As the risks of epidemics and of transmission of viruses between humans and farm animals exist and increase, local governments will need to set up appropriate measures to prevent diseases and their spreading. A high density of people, together with a high density of animals, could have catastrophic consequences […]

So, I am not surprised with the CoVid19 pandemic, all the less so as I found initial reactions from developed countries rather inadequate. Pretty much, their message sounded as if it were merely a Chinese problem, or even an Iranian one and their claim was that the chances that the virus comes here was low (look up for their early statements). With the little bit of understanding of diseases that I have gathered from my years in intensive animal husbandry, I found that kind of statement a bit cavalier, to say the least. Considering the mobility level of people and the speed at which virusses propagate, I would not share their optimism. I believe that their assessment was biased with some prejudice and some superiority complex. I won’t go into much details about my thoughts about this here, but I was much more prudent. The world can say a big thank you to China for acting swiftly and with determination like they did. I am sure that there was quite some denial going on from Western governments, as is usual with such things. same thing would be true about the attitude of financial markets that were more concerned about GDP issues than the actual lives of Chinese citizens, but as we saw, reality started to catch up and they went from denial to depression at record speed and might – just only might yet – be close to acceptance. Governments have reached acceptance, but not quite all of their citizens, though.

The current crisis brings some interesting information to light. In particular, satellite imaging and monitoring of greenhouse gasses emission levels since transports and economic activity has slowed down show a noticeable reduction. Interesting because, with such correlation, it will be hard to claim they are not related. The crisis also brings up some reflection of the organization of work, communication and economy. Something to chew for futurists.

For how contagious the virus might be, I believe that it is fair to state that we are not dealing with the Black Death here, neither are we dealing with the Spanish flu, well as long as we are disciplined and use our communication tools effectively. About that, of course and as with everything these days, everyone on social media seems to be an expert on everything, although we must realize that having an opinion and being an expert are two very distinct concepts. A few days ago, a news outlet in the region where I live here in British Columbia came with some weirdly cooked up math to explain why we would have thousands of death soon, while there are no recorded cases in the region and Canada has very few cases altogether. That article was complete nonsense written by a so-called journalist with clearly zero understanding of viruses and how diseases spread. Fortunately, after some strong rebuttal from people who know about the stuff, they came out with apologies in good old Canadian fashion (sorry, eh!) stating that it was poor journalism. Indeed it was and totally counter-productive, too. I just hope they will fire the bozo who wrote that piece. He has no credibility any more. In my opinion (I have one, too), the only advice to give would have to be about the precautionary principle because it is always safe. A better advice to the self-proclaimed newly found experts is to just admit they know nothing and are not qualified to give advice and shut up. Just leave it to the true experts.

As far as I am concerned, the epidemics has affected me in my work, as a number of speaking engagements have been cancelled. Pity, but c’est la vie! I am just going to enjoy life at home for a while. Anyway, it’s time to do some work in the vineyard. I read a couple of great books, both about the dehumanization of the work place and of education by the introduction of so-called rational management methods and metrics of all sorts. The books are from the beginning of this century and they are spot on, as I can see happening around about every day. One is in French, from Jean-Pierre Le Goff, “La Barbarie Douce” (The Sneaky Barbary), and the other is in Dutch by Jaap Peters, formerly from E&Y, titled Intensieve Menshouderij (Intensive Human Husbandry). Too bad they are not in English, but if you speak the languages, I strongly recommend them.

To fill the gap, and because I am not one of those types plugged on their digital umbilical cord day in and day out, I have started a book of poems about food and agriculture a few weeks ago and since when I decide to go after something, I turn the turbo on, I am about finished with the writing. There will be between 85 and 90 poems. Originally in my previous post, I had mentioned 70 to 75, but hey that’s me, I like to perform above expectations. even when they are my own. Now, I have to read them again and edit them. That is the tedious phase. The writing has come out nicely and I think it will be a good book. I will keep you posted soon with the preface and the list of poems.

In the meantime, enjoy life, protect yourself and others and you will see that this, too, shall pass.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

 

 

My next book will be a little different

Over the past few weeks, I have been avidly writing a book of poems around the theme of food and farming. It is now rather advanced and I should be publishing it late Spring 2020. There will be about 70-75 poems. It is a refreshing diversion from my regular activities of food futurist, which tend to revolve around technologies and consumer trends, although I have managed to find some poetry about the future of food and agriculture and those topics. Surprisingly, there is poetry with drones, sensors, data and artificial intelligence. I have been experimenting with different poetry formats such as haiku, villanelles and limericks. It is a lot of fun to do and it good to use both brain hemispheres in harmonious balance and have them fully connected rather than grow one at the expense of the other, which would be like having one huge biceps and the other one all skinny.

Some poems treat of serious matters such as hunger, suicide among farmers, food waste or environmental matters, but most are rather cheerful, like the villanelles and humorous like the haiku and the limericks. It is full of bees, birds, fertile fields, winemaking, gardening, calves, little lambs and piglets. There is also a section that I call “Destinations” that focus on some countries and their food cultures that I particularly like. I am thinking of making a French version of the book when I am finished, as the poems are in English.

I came up with poetry in an unexpected manner. A former member of my team in my time in aquaculture here in Canada, recently died suddenly at a much too young age. Of course, I was stunned as his passing away was the last thing I had expected. He was a great professional and very instrumental in the turn around that I led here, but most of all he was a gentleman with great human qualities whom I held in very high esteem. After hearing the sad news, I started to write my thoughts in the form of a poem about him. Why did I use poetry? I have no idea but it came naturally. “His” poem will be in the book. But after writing that poem, I felt the urge of keeping writing poems, this time around one of my passions, which is food and farming.

That is the story. I will keep you posted with the next steps.

Insects and worms

Here is a topic that I have started to address quite a long time ago, long before it got popular with the bobos. Actually, it became popular only after the mainstream media got knowledge of the UN FAO views on insects as a source of food for people in the future.

Yuk vs. Yum

The main thing I hear regularly about insects and worms is the “yuk” effect. Yuk is mostly a western countries’ issue. In Asia and Africa, insects and worms are actually quite popular. I can understand that crawlies might not look as appetizing as a steak, but I always like to bring some perspective by showing other foods considered delicacies in western countries that are not all that different from insects, such as lobster, shrimp or snails. People are willing to pay a steep price for those. There is a difference, though: the flesh ratio of lobster, shrimp, langoustines, snail, crab and similar creatures is much higher than that of crickets, for instance. It is also true that Westerners prefer meatiness, while many Asian cultures like crunchy and having to chew and suck the flesh out of the shell or off the bones. Nonetheless, insects are not all that bad. Worms are actually much meatier than insects and why would they not follow the path of snails. As you may know, I was born and raised in France, which is often viewed as a country of snail eaters. It is true to same extent, but here is some history about snails as food in France. First thing to realize is that snails were eaten commonly in times where other animal proteins were not abundant and expensive. Those who could not afford meat would look for alternatives. Snails were one option. Another was… guess… frogs found in ponds! But the French would not eat just any snail. After all, they were French and therefore discriminating about food. Two types of snails were popular because of their meatiness: the “Petit Gris” (Little Grey) and the Escargot de Bourgogne (Burgundy Snail), the latter being rather big and meaty. As you probably know, the British would be disgusted at the idea of eating snails (the “yuk” thing), until the wealthier decided that it was fashionable to eat “escargots” instead. Yes, it tastes much better when you say it in French. So maybe all that needs to happen is for the snobs, bobos and other hipsters to decide to eat exotic insects and worms in the language of their (the insects’ and worms’, not the snobs’) country of origin. And they already do but it is a small niche. I can find some insects around but the price per pound is even higher than caviar, so no thank you! That is what frustrates me about many of those start-ups. And understand me well, I am all for innovation and entrepreneurship. I believe money should be the reward for a job well done, not the end for just a promise that has not yet materialized. Despite all their nice claims to save the world, the environment and being so incredibly responsible about everything, they are actually interested primarily in trying to score financially and be sold to a large corporation that will be willing to overpay for their shares based often on a concept that still needs to prove itself, but after all why not. But to do that, they actually lock themselves in small niches in such a way that there are only two ways to move forward: one is to stick to high margin pricing and have little growth possibilities, the other is to slash the prices to get more volume moving but often transforming the specialty into a commodity. What other reason would there be to focus on Western markets that say “yuk!” while there is a huge potential in Asia and Africa but for lower margins? You guessed it: pleasing the shareholders who want sell their shares and cash in as soon as possible.

Anyway, human nutrition is only part of the equation. Just like snails were an alternative for lean times in France, the consumption of insects and worms in parts of today’s world are also an alternative to other animal protein too expensive to buy. You can bet that when given a choice, many insects and worm eaters will choose for a juicy steak. Human consumption of food is not all that much led by sound rational nutrition. If we were all rational with food we would 1) eat balanced meals, 2) we would not overeat day after day to get ourselves in debilitating diseases and 3) we would not waste some much food. So, we are not rational, and that is the main difference between human food and animal nutrition (except for pets, for which we have decided to introduce the same irrationality with the same consequences for our furry friends). Animal nutrition is all about meeting properly the nutritional needs of the animals, never let them overeat and not waste any feed because it just costs money to the farmer. Actually, animal nutrition should be an example for humans in many respects. The difference between humans and cows, pigs, chickens and fish is that the animals do not put any psychology in their food. They eat to live and they do not live to eat… mostly. This is why I have said for years that I think insects have their highest potential as an ingredient for animal feed, well, as long as the price is competitive with other alternatives.

Here are some clues why feeding insects and worms to animals makes perfect sense. First, here is some wisdom from anglers. What bait do they use when they go fishing for trout for instance? They use a decoy that looks like a fly, because they practice fly fishing, and they use the fly because fish eat flies, and other insects! It is just this simple. Fish feed producers are currently going this road. Another example is about a customer of mine when I used to work in the poultry business. He was from the UK and when the “mad cow” disease hit in the UK in 1996, discussions turned about eliminating meat and bone meal from animal feed, as the suspect reason of transmission was the use of contaminated meat and bone meal produced in rendering plants containing sheep infected with scrapie, a disease. Meat and bone meal was used because it has a high protein content, good nutritional value and it worked fine for many years. Nonetheless after the mad cow crisis, meat and bone meal had to be removed and my customer told me with a straight face (remember that he was the managing director of a poultry company) that there was no reason to put meat and bone meal in chicken feed because chickens are vegetarians. Isn’t that a disaster to have disconnected people from Nature (I wrote an article a long time ago about this topic)? Chickens are vegetarians. Yeah, right. Anyone who has seen chickens roaming around a farm yard will tell you that they eat worms and insects. They are not vegetarian at all. Actually, in spite of many claims of people opposed to animal farming and meat, it is difficult to find a species of monogastric (one-stomach species, like humans, pigs or poultry) that does not consume animal protein. Usually, all the species that they mention as being vegetarians are polygastrics (digestive tract consisting of several stomachs, like ruminants) which have the ability that monogastrics do not have to eat grass and other cellulose-rich materials and being able to transform them into meat and milk as I mentioned in my article about “cow farts”. Anyway, back to my friend (because we became good friends –we are still in touch from time to time after 20 years or so) from the UK and his vegetarian chickens, I replied that not only chicken do eat worms and insects but worms process dead material, kind of like a rendering plant. Well, that was a bit awkward and the real reason came up. It was much better to tell me that his customer would not want chicken meat from animals fed with meat and bone meal and that it was final, and that he needed me to go along with that. Although not quite rational, that was a better reason than the bogus vegetarian chicken argument. His customer, a leading UK retailer had strong views about animal feed. Among their arguments was that feeding ruminants, which are vegetarian from nature, with animal protein was comparable to cannibalism; or that using fish meal could be acceptable only the day they would see a cow grabbing a fish out of the water to eat it. Such arguments were partly emotional of course, but had some rooting in good old-fashioned common sense, which I would never blame anyone for using. So, use good common sense and also solid factual science to feed yourself. It is not mutually exclusive and it does not stop anyone from being a true gastronome. You can take me as an example of that, as it is another brand of mine, The Sensible Gourmet!

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

What’s ahead for animal protein?

As I explained in previous articles about protein, the future of animal farming looks rather good, actually. This does not mean that current productions systems are perfect. They are not, and many changes are necessary. Four drivers are going to make animal farming evolve towards systems that meet future requirements in term of environment, health, sustainability and consumer demands. They will not affect only farms, but the ways entire value chains are organized and even future flows of animal protein in international trade.

Two pillars of sustainability are externalities and the necessity to close the loops. Strangely enough, these two fundamental topics rarely ever get mentioned. Yet, they will define the future. I mentioned externalities quite a few times on this blog and if you are interested to read what I say about it, just do a search on the search window on the right side of this page. Basically, externalities are the long-term economic effects and in particular long-term costs of repairing the damage that any human activity causes. Closing the loops is simply following the basic principle that nothing ever disappears or get created, but that everything gets transformed. These two pillars of sustainability are going to force us to review how balanced -or not- productions systems are. Greenhouse gases and minerals balance from manure will force a change in location of animal productions, in regard to the location of production areas of ingredients for animal feed, feeding programs, logistics of both feed ingredients and animal products, in particular in terms of transport. Distance between markets will be only one part of the equation. Transportation systems will weigh even more. Will trade rely on road transport, rail or water ways? Different transportation systems have very different carbon footprints and this will affect the future of some industries depending on how they are organized and where they are located. It will also force countries to invest heavily in their infrastructure, which is another topic that is too often ignored and yet so critical for the future. Of course, infrastructure is not as sexy as tech start-ups and more importantly, it does not have the same appeal for investors. After all, infrastructure is an expense that benefits all, while the current thinking about money is more about individualising profits. Yet, infrastructure will have more impact than tech. Location will also be influenced by water availability, as water will become an increasingly influential aspect of sustainability. Just as an example, California has been struggling with water availability for decades. Yet, it keep sending water-rich produce to other regions, thus exporting its already scarce water. On top of that, California produces about a quarter of American agriculture. See the danger ahead? For the future, the economic paradigm will shift from “producing where it is the cheapest to do so” to “producing where it is the most sustainable to do so”.  The main reason for the shift will be externalities as we will have no choice but internalizing the externalities (sounds fancy doesn’t it?… try to place that one in a cocktail party when you have a chance).

Location is one of the changes, but of course when it comes to greenhouse gases, there will be other solutions to reduce the impact. Feed programs are one, and gas capture from manure will be another one. Tech and innovation will play their roles in those areas. Markets will do to, and I expect manure to become a highly valued co-product, and not a by-product anymore. Just as manure is a side effect of intensification and high densities, so are diseases. Last year saw the huge outbreak of African swine fever in China, which so far has lead to the destruction of 25% of the world’s pigs. That is the perfect example of what can happen again. It is not the first outbreak. There have been other ones before of the same disease and of avian influenza. The risk of diseases and their huge cost will also contribute to a readjustment of location of animal production, in terms of production centers, in terms of density of farms and also of densities on the farms themselves. So will the prospect of possible transmission of diseases from animals  to humans.

Next to such production issues, consumer demands will also change the way animal products are produced. The pressure for better animal welfare is increasing and will not weaken. It is just fair and it also makes a lot of economic sense. In my times in the pig industry, the poultry industry and in aquaculture, I did quite some research on the topic and the numbers spoke chapters. Treating animals with the proper respect pays off big time. Yet, I also faced a lot of resistance when I tried to show my conclusions by then. I guess that it did not fit in the thinking of the times. The future proved me right, though. The need for better animal welfare will also contribute to a change in production systems, housing and feeding in particular. Animal densities on farms will also be reduced. This trend is already taking place in Europe and there are more and more farming programs that go in this direction. And so do government policies. Along with animal welfare, environmental concerns from consumers will also push towards more “natural” methods of farming. Intensive animal husbandry is not going to disappear but its excesses will. The problem is that too many people tend to associate intensification with efficiency but it is only true to a point. When we reach that point, any incremental intensification does not lead to incremental efficiency anymore and the further we pass this point, efficiency actually decreases and externalities increase substantially. The future will be about finding the optimum between intensification, animal welfare, environmental impact and long-term effects. Next to that, as consumer markets mature, especially when people already eat more than they really need, demand shift from quantity to quality and we will see more and more quality programs appear. It will be good for consumers, for health, for the environment, for the animals during their life and for the profit margins of farmers.

As the graphs from my articles Cow farts, or quite a bit of hot air?  and What’s ahead for plant-based foods? show, demand for animal products is expected to increase and a number of products will do quite well. As I mentioned in the same article, ruminants actually play a important role in the management of grasslands and I mentioned their importance for a healthy environment, I believe that responsible animal production systems will help mitigate climate change. Of course, this means that the necessary changes be carried out as I mentioned earlier on in this article. I also believe that animal productions will play an important role in economic development, especially in developing countries and in regions where the population is expected to increase the most. It is nice to expect that the urban population will increase, but it is essential for a prosperous future that we also make sure that people in rural areas can be prosperous and that we do not end up with a demographic desertification of regions that can contribute to a prosperous future. Just as animal productions, although they were intensive and have had a negative impact on the long term, have helped many European young farmers stay in their regions and make a decent living for themselves, it can play the same role in rural areas in developing countries. It is true that mistakes have been made in the past and grave ones. We cannot change the past, but we can learn form past mistakes and make sure not to make them again. Productions that I expect to be successful and popular as economic development tool are poultry (meat and eggs) and aquaculture. Poultry and chickens in particular have the advantage to have a short production cycle and this helps farmer getting a quick cash-flow, which is essential to limit the need for capital. Aquaculture can have the same advantage with fast-growing species but less with species that have a longer production cycle as capital requirements can be heavy, although this can be attractive to investors. Two big pluses for aquaculture are the strong deficit between supply and demand and the health aspect of aquaculture products. The world is quite short of healthy seafood.

I see many areas of success for certain types of animal productions and I have summed them up in the following illustration. In particular, I would like to emphasize is my expectation for the future to see a surge of grass-fed beef with special breeds in semi-intensive systems in which there will be a minimum amount of high energy feed and no hormones at all. For all productions, I expect to see more and more of old-fashioned “authentic” products and recipes, and also a lot of “happy animal” products to be marketed more aggressively than has been the case so far.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Happy Holidays!

Time flies and 2019 is coming to an end. For me, it has been a good year. I have had very interesting assignments with really great organizations and people. From that perspective, 2019 might very well have been the most interesting of my 10 years as “The Food Futurist”. I am also in the process of launching another venture: The Sensible Gourmet (see at the end of this posting to have a glimpse of what I have in mind).

The end of the year is always a good time to reflect as things slow down and almost everyone is taking a break. The end of the year is also the time of COP conferences. For 25 years, world leaders have gathered to do I am not sure what. This year was no different, or maybe it was after all. Previous years always saw the same theatrics at play: disagreements, slight extension and a miraculous last minute non-binding agreement but at least some sheet of paper that would make us believe that it is worth organizing the next conference. This time, this did not even happen. Santa did not bring a shred of hope. Of course, many will blame politicians for the failure. I do it too because it is easy. Yet, should the politicians be the ones to blame? After all, we have the leaders we deserve and we either chose them or let them take that position. Is it that they could not agree or is it possible that there might be a different reason and perhaps a much more sinister one than their being poor leaders? As a highly empathetic person, I always like to try to put myself in the other side’s shoes and even play devil’s advocate. I am sure that they, and their advisers, are all aware of all the reports about climate change and the many challenges that we face. They cannot be that ignorant and stupid. I believe that their problem is not so much about finding agreements as it is about finding workable solutions. We have to be realistic. Even though technology and innovation will bring solutions, our problem is not as much of a technical nature as it is of a behavioral nature. As a futurist, no day that passes by without crossing paths with news of technology and innovation. Purely from a technical point of view, we already have all the technologies to fix all the problems, and we will have more technologies coming our way. The problem is that most of them are not financially competitive, or not competitive yet. One of the reasons is that we have not and still do not include externalities (a very important concept that I have addressed regularly in this blog, books and conferences) in the cost of the goods we produce and consume. That additional cost can be included through regulations and fiscal incentives or penalties, but it takes time. If technical solutions face a financial challenge, so does our behavioral problem. We overconsume, and to add insult to injury, we waste a lot. We waste, energy, water, food, resources, clothing, electronics,  etc… You name it and you can be sure that we waste a lot of it. Reducing waste will mean a relative slowdown in production and therefore an industrial slowdown, and the same thing is true if we decide to consume less. The “3 Rs” have different impacts from a production capacity and thus economic point of view, at least as long as we rate our economies from a quantitative growth point of view instead of a qualitative growth point of view. One of the Rs, recycling, is popular. Why is that? Recycling means that the only thing to change is the source of raw materials. From that perspective, industrial production processes hardly would have to change. It gives an impression that the system would not have to change much, and we know how much we tend to dislike change, regardless of what we say. It is always OK for others to undergo the change but when it hits us personally, it is a different story. Just look at all the demonstrations a bit everywhere around the world to realize the validity of my point. A second one of the Rs, reuse, although less popular is not perceived as too much of a threat. After all, it does not imply a reduction of industrial activity, and the growth of population would mitigate the stagnation. Then, there is the third R, the one that we mention but we would resent from a quantitative growth point of view: reduce. The word says it all: it implies a shrinking of the economy, at least the current economic model. Our economic system is about always more. Reduce goes in the opposite direction. Yet, from an environmental point of view, it is probably the only effective approach. The Great Recession of 2008 was a period when actually, greenhouse gas emissions were showing some change of trend, because consumption was slowing down. “Reduce” works, indeed. A couple of months ago, I read an article from The Guardian and it basically said that the best way to save our future was to stop buying stuff. I agree, and I believe that it is true but how to do that and not end up in a major economic depression? It comes down to have a transition plan, and we do not have that and I wonder if we have any idea of how to do that.

Because of the financial lag for better alternatives, jumping ships without a proper transition would result in short-term economic hardship and politicians do not want that. They want happy people. And people do not want that, either. They do not want to lose their jobs, and politicians know that, too. Who is willing to volunteer to lose their livelihood to save the environment? Nobody wants to do that of course, unless there is some compensation. Just as politicians do, all individuals try to protect themselves from adversity. It is just human nature. How to transcend the fear of loss into a desire for sacrifice, because sacrifice there will be? The question is just when and who. What is needed to answer this question are 1) a conviction that it is meaningful and useful and 2) a sense of hope for the long term. In an increasingly individualistic world, this is difficult to make happening because it requires altruism. One might think that the Holiday Season is the perfect time to ponder about altruism, but that spirit has become a nostalgic thought, really. Nowadays, Christmas is about buying more stuff. The causes of our future challenges are behavioral and collective, and therefore so are the solutions. We may blame the politicians because finding scapegoats takes away some of the guilt from ourselves, but we allowed those politicians to be where they are and we all (well many of us) want always more, so each of us really are responsible twice for the problem. And since we are all responsible, we all have to bring our share of the solution. Waiting for others to do it for us won’t cut it. Doing nothing is not really an option. In the end, the choice is simple: willing to make sacrifices today or having to make much tougher sacrifices soon.

I can understand that reducing consumption might not always be easy but reducing waste is. I have made a comparison between the Canadian average (since I live in Canada) and my household on a per capita basis. In my home, we generate 87% less garbage going to the landfill, waste 99.9% less food, use about 70% less water (and I have a garden and little vineyard that I need to irrigate!), use about half of gas and electricity of the per capita Canadian average. I will give you that I always have been a frugal type but I live quite comfortably. All it takes is a bit of discipline, some organization and planning, simple common sense and some basic sense of money, because reducing waste and consumption saves quite a bit of money that we can use for more useful things.

Perhaps, there is hope after all. All the companies that I follow on LinkedIn post many articles and announcements about how sustainable they are or will be soon. Of course, they must deliver and their claims must be true. Because, it is the holiday season, I will do as if I believe all of what they say. In the meantime, I am going to start thinking of how I will treat my family with a nice Christmas Eve’s dinner. One of my predictions is that cooking and home economics will make a strong comeback because it (meaning proper cooking) helps reducing food waste, it helps making healthier meals, it saves tons of money, has many social benefits and is among the nicest things a human being can offer to his loved ones. It is good for people, the environment and for the wallet. Cooking is going to be one of the most sophisticated skills to show around. Wait and see!

My idea for the dinner is (you’ll have to look up a few things because it is French):

  • Smoked salmon on toast with a shallot and dill sauce
  • Duck magrets (fillets) in a cherries, honey, port and balsamic sauce accompanied with Sarladaise potatoes and mixed vegetables
  • A chocolate “Bûche de Noël”
  • Accompanied with a selection of the wines I make from my vineyard

Enjoy your time with your loved ones and see you again in 2020!

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

What do consumers really want to know about food?

My previous article about what consumers know about food is only part of the equation. What is as important is to know what they want to know and why. When it comes to knowledge of food, consumers can be divided into three main groups. There are those who know about food and most are always interested to learn more. Then, there is the (large) group of people who do not know. Some are willing to learn. Usually, they are confused by all the contradictory points of views that they hear or read and they just do not know who they should believe. This open-minded sub-group gathers people from all walks of life. They may have their biases but they are willing to change their minds. Another sub-group among those who do not know much about food gathers people who do not know and do not care as long as their food is safe, tastes good to them and has the right price. Then there is the third group, the difficult group of those who think they know but don’t. Usually, they are not willing to learn because, well, they already know it all and they are certainly not looking forward to have their certainties challenged. This group can be divided into two sub-groups, too: those who think they have the monopoly of science and those who think they have the monopoly of morals.

In this article, I will focus on the people who have the willingness to learn about food. What would be the point of trying to spend time if that willingness was not there? Also, all I can tell is my personal experience when meeting with people who are asking questions about food and where it is all going. Actually, I always found that the conversations I have had with people asking me about food and agriculture went quite well. I guess the secret for that is to not try to force people into any conclusion. Let them decide for themselves. People do not like being told what they should know and believe. It is a very normal reaction, and that is why so-called “educating” the consumer will never really achieve much. Just have a relaxed talk without any particular agenda other than to listen and respect each other’s point of view.

Further, even though marketing experts always like to define specific areas of attention, the mapping of consumers is not all that useful when it comes to the food conversation. Of course people are concerned about health, environment, origin of product, production methods, etc… When you look at what consumers want to know, it really comes down to two main issues. One is “How do I know that my food won’t make me sick -or worse?”, and the other one is “Can I trust the food producer?” These two issues are quite interconnected and not easy to address for food suppliers. The first issue, which really comes down to the topic of food safety is work in progress. There has never been full absolute food safety in the past and it will not be possible to guarantee that in the future, either. A large part of food safety issues actually happen in the consumers’ homes because of poor food handling. Many consumers do not know the basics of proper food handling. But even at the producer’s level, no production system is immune. Problems happen just as well with industrial production as with farmers’ market type of food. It happens with large producers just as it happens with small producers. This is where the issue of trust plays an important role. Consumers want to know which suppliers they can trust for food that does not contain anything harmful or/and weird. In previous posts, I have raised the issue of trust many times and mentioned how difficult it is to earn. Why do some food producers earn trust and others not? It has been the idea of brands since day one: the consumer can recognize the producer easily and know that the product is reliable every time. In our world flooded with information, rumours and stories of all sorts, and with a reach like never before, this is not sufficient anymore. If the question of how to earn trust is often difficult to answer, another way of looking at it is to do what I like to do when I cannot get an answer: to look at it from the opposite angle. The question then becomes what makes consumers not trust a producer? I am sure that you can make a list of reasons very quickly. Here I can give you a few: not knowing the producer, bad or unknown reputation, unreliable quality, regular problems, hiding information, not answering questions, lying to the customer, saying one thing and doing another, etc… It has a lot to do with quality of the product and quality of the communication, and consumers want to know what the quality of both is.

Traceability and transparency address those concerns to some extent. They are certainly helping by creating a much required communication and openness. However, the question remains whether food suppliers are on the same wave length as what consumers want to know. Traceability and transparency are not new concepts. They were part of my dealings with my customers some 25 years ago, and I still have the same reservations today as I had by then. I can state without any doubt that traceability is essential but I would like to see it become a proactive tool, instead of about just recording history. I remember telling one of my customers by then that I thought that traceability in order to be able to explain on rather short notice what went wrong was really short changing the customer. With today’s mass digitalization, which makes getting the information about the records even quicker, I believe that my point has become even more important. Traceability cannot just be about finding out the cause of a problem after the customer has found out. I always have considered that the customer can never be the quality control of a supplier. If producers have traceability systems that allow them to tell within moments what went wrong, then the system has to be able to prevent the problem from happening. The traceability system has to be connected with the quality assurance system. With the rise of sensors, internet of things, data collection software and artificial intelligence, the traceability system must become the frame for quality assurance and the high-tech devices will have to allow a real time 100% quality control on physical, chemical and biological quality criteria. It will have to be able to shut down the production line as soon as a deviation from the quality standard occurs. Traceability will move from “writing history” to “making (clean) history”. There are already a lot of possible quality defects that are prevented from being sent to consumers but it has to be even better in the future. Ideally, the objective must become zero recall, because even if recalls help prevent problems from getting worse, their incidence is creating a feeling of insufficient safety.

Regarding transparency, I believe that there is a disconnect between what food producers are doing and what consumers are looking for. Of course, the best way to be fully transparent is to put every bit of data and information in the system. From a consumer’s point of view, what is transparency really about? Do you know anyone who wants to check every detail of the production of what s/he buys? Consumers might be interested to know from which farm their food comes from. They might be interested in knowing the farmer’s name and see pictures. Will they want to be interested in digging as far as to know when chickens were born and when, what feeds they ate during their life and where the feeds came from and what they were made of and where the ingredients used for the feed came from and when they were produced, or would they really be interested in knowing the genealogy of the chickens and look up for where the parents and grandparents were raised, or have the production details in the slaughterhouse? I doubt it. In my opinion, the highest value of transparency for consumers is that the food producer has it and is willing to show everything if questions arise. In other words, the producer is not trying to hide or misrepresent anything.  After all transparent means exactly that: you can see for yourself through the window and you do it without having someone telling you what and where to look. More than the content of information presented, it is the food producer’s attitude that matters. The role of social media also amplifies the need for transparency, but it also may contain some pitfalls for producers. A recent survey by Deloitte shows that Millennials and GenZ assess producers by their values a lot and that their loyalty will be to the values and not to the brand. I believe that values are going to be a critical aspect of how consumers choose from whom they will buy their food, and anything else. The combination of social media with heightened sense of individualism (some would say narcissism) and yet at the same time a strong trend towards polarization and tribalism around sets of values and beliefs means that food producers will have to navigate skillfully in the future.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

How much do consumers really know about food?

Perhaps it is a case of multiple copy-and-paste events but I was surprised to read and hear recently in several occasions something that intrigued me. According to some research, millennials would know a lot more than their parents and previous generations about food and how it is produced. It surprised me because I wish I could bump into millennials who know something about food. Actually I wish I could bump into people from any generation that would have some significant knowledge of food and agriculture. I also disagree with those who claim that people have never known as little about food and agriculture as nowadays, but those have their own hidden agenda.

The main reason marketers are interested in the millennials is that this group has much more money than previous generations, or at least that is the thinking. Since the world population has more than tripled since 1950, representing an increase of more than 5 billion people, it is no surprise that millennials represent a financial force. However, one should look at the average individual financial situation of a millennial compared with previous generations. If the group has more money as a whole but less on an individual basis, their consumption pattern might not be as expected. Also, it would be wise to compare between regions as the boost might be different depending on whether they live in emerging countries or mature developed countries. 

So, have I been sleeping too much lately or do I meet the wrong people? Or is it a matter of confusing terms as it seems to happen more and more. Do millennials have more knowledge about food, or is it perhaps that they have access to more information? As Einstein supposedly said, “Information is not knowledge” and this might be truer more than ever in today’s world where we are constantly buried in information, some of it being accurate and most of it being not so, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. It would be good to think about several concepts that we tend to consider synonyms while they are quite different: data, information, fact, knowledge, truth and wisdom. I will try to explain the difference by using a very food and agriculture related metaphor.

Imagine data as a field of potatoes. There are plenty of plants and potatoes in the field and you are going to harvest. All you do is to collect all the potatoes from the field and eventually bring them to a place where you will sort out what you have harvested. At that stage, potatoes are just like data. It is raw units without any processing of any sort. All you can tell at this stage is how many potatoes you have, what they are and what the total volume is.

Once the potatoes have been harvested, you are going to look at them in more detail. You are going to sort out the small ones from the larger ones. You are going to sort out the ones that may have been damaged or are not proper to send to market. Depending on the criteria that are useful for you, you are going to distribute your potatoes into small groups according to various qualities and uses. Each group or package has a particular relevance. You want to make these groups in such a way that they are useful, practical and to make something good out of each group. Each group contains information that either your customers if you sell the potatoes or the person who cooks will use to decide what to do with the potatoes. Are they for mashing, for frying, for sautéing, for baking, etc…?

Once the potatoes have been sorted out, you have information and that information could fit on a label. If the label is accurate, anyone using the group of potatoes will have some knowledge of what the bag contains, but they will not have all the knowledge. Will other users know when the potatoes have been harvested, what variety they are, how they have been produced and by whom and if they are safe to eat? Here is why regulations, traceability and transparency increase the amount of information to the user who will use the batch of potatoes. As long as the information is correct, it equates to some knowledge. If the information in incomplete, so is the knowledge. If the information is incorrect, it is neither knowledge nor truth and can lead to wrong decisions by the user. If the information is incorrect on purpose, it is deception and even fraud (think about the case of horse meat that was labelled as beef in Europe a couple of years ago, the numerous cases of fraudulent fish names or the fact that many honey pots might contain more corn fructose syrup than honey but labelled as if it were all pure honey). Here is a case for information vs. misinformation vs. disinformation vs. deception and lies.

So imagine that the gossip mill now says that your potatoes have been contaminated by some disease or some creatures roaming in your field. How can you tell and how can the user of your potatoes tell? You grew the potatoes and you sorted them out, so you can tell if there were signs of disease, such as for instance black spots. You grow potatoes and you know what kind of disease of defect that may mean. How do you know and how do you translate the information (presence of black spots) into the knowledge of what the cause is? You know from experience, and that is exactly the difference between information and knowledge. Experience can be your own or someone else’s that you consult on the problem at hand. You and they have gathered experience into knowledge. Experience links information and facts into knowledge and understanding. Acquiring knowledge is a learning process. Reading information is not. So, what will happen with the person at home buying a bag of potatoes and finding black spots? If they do not have the experience, their imagination can go wild and they will enter their interpretation into the gossip mill (aka as social media). Many people without knowledge will forward the posting. Since they have no knowledge of potatoes they will not know if they should or not blow life in the gossip, but since something “weird” happened, how could they resist the urge to share and they will forward the information to the larger community and add their own comments such as “ew!!” , “gross!!”, “unacceptable!!”,  “shame!!” or even “boycott Christophe’s potatoes because they are weird and probably not naturally grown, etc…” and that is how a simple little problem can spin out of control and how ignorance and basic human nature attraction for gossip will change the fate of my growing potatoes.

Information is one thing and knowledge is another, but what about the truth? If I come with facts to explain what the deal is with my potatoes, two things can happen: people will believe me or they will not. Trust is an essential part in having customers believing the explanation. If people do not trust me, there is a good chance that they will not believe me. If they trust me, that is not a guarantee that they necessarily will trust me. Trust is always difficult to earn. It is difficult to earn the first time. It is incredibly easy to lose. To regain a second time, it is much more difficult than it was the first time. Trust depends on other people’s beliefs and it depends on the ability to convince. But when you take the broader picture of the gossip mill, in which other people will bring arguments against my explanation, there is competition for trust, whom do they trust more, me and my explanation or the social media mob? People do not necessarily trust those with knowledge, they trust those they believe. That can be dangerous. After all, it is easy to have an opinion. Everyone can have one on everything. having an opinion is not the same as to be an expert. No knowledge is required to have an opinion. usually, all it takes for people to give their opinion is to believe they know. Perhaps, this is the worst when it comes to information: people who think they know but don’t. I come across quite a few of those.  Beliefs always weigh more than facts, and that is why facts alone are not helpful when it comes to telling the true story about the potatoes. Being disappointed by my potatoes would not be a rational experience. It would be experienced by the users as a breach of confidence in the produce and the supplier. The first step is to connect at that emotional level of the disappointment. Only by connecting emotionally is it possible to gradually bring the conversation to more rational aspects. The other important part in regaining trust is to make sure to not disappoint again. People accept one mistake but they do not take well the same mistake when it is made again.

So, do the younger generations know about their food is produced? They may truly think that they do, but that is not the same as actually knowing. I also have mixed feelings about opposing generations. It is likely that millennials have different concerns, different values and different beliefs than their parents and grandparents. Yet, I have the strong feeling that I see more variation within a generation than I see between generations. Millennials may be exposed to a lot of information, but do they sort out the information in a rational way or do they simply choose the information coming from people they believe or who share the same values? I believe (I won’t be bold as to say I know) that the latter prevail. The difference may not be that one generation knows more about food and agriculture but that they are more concerned about it. That is not the same and it has little to do with knowledge. I also suspect that the concern is not just about food but it is more of an existential concern in times of uncertainty. It always seems that people are more critical about their food when they are pessimistic about the future. When everything goes well, those concerns do not seem to weigh as much.

What effect it will have on future food and agriculture depends largely on whom future consumers decide to believe. Psychology plays a very important part in food choices and I do not expect that to change any time soon. It has advantages but also disadvantages. Is it wise to think this way? Wisdom is the ability to discern the truth from beliefs to make the right decisions. The future will tell if wisdom will go in parallel with information.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

What’s ahead for plant-based foods?

Over the past year, there has been quite a bit of talk about alternative proteins and in particularly the so-called plant-based products. Let’s face it; the hype (which I already mentioned in my previous article about cow farts) has been very well organized to inflate what has been going on in the markets. Probably, it is part of the culture of “disruptive” tech start-ups. They are quite good at using social media, making the wildest claims about how they are all going to change the world. When it comes to food, what will happen before you know it is that there will be no need for farms anymore. Just take a look at Sci-Fi movies and it is there! Yeah, right. The problem, well one of the problems, I have with this is that I have heard it before. Actually, I heard similar things before today’s disruptors were even born. In the 1970s, after the Apollo programs, we would not eat traditional foods anymore. No, our meals were going to be contained in pills. Yeah, right. It did not happen. Around the turn of the century, we had the new economy, not just a new economy, but the new economy thanks to dotcoms and internet. The old economy was history, for ever. Yeah, remind me how the dotcom bubble burst and how a few years later the old economy demonstrated it was still alive and kicking through its Great Recession. More recently, we all heard that Amazon was going to “disrupt” retail so much that brick and mortar retailers were going to go down. Yes, Wal-Mart was finished. Not. Actually, Wal-Mart is doing quite fine and for a simple reason. Solid businesses follow what is happening in their markets and they make the proper changes. And that is exactly what happened with most retailers around the world. They went digital and they started to sell online and deliver to customers. Similarly, e-books were going to kill paper books and online diplomas were to mean the end of universities. Well, paper books and bookstores certainly have had difficult times but they did a nice comeback. And universities are still very much alive, while the MOOCs are the ones that seem to have left the building. There is more to life than digital versions of the original products and services. Silicon Valley and co suffer of a good dose of hubris. Maybe, they should attend to that before it might become their demise some day.

The thing with so-called disruption is that the only businesses that actually get disrupted (in the true sense of the word, not the trendy sense) are the ones that are asleep and not paying attention. They would have died anyway. The businesses that are awake adapt. That is pretty basic business stuff. Since I got started about disruption, I would just say that I do not like that term because as I mentioned earlier, it is taken in its new trendy meaning, which really means nothing else than innovation and change, but those words are too mundane. I will agree that disruption sounds more dangerous. It makes you feel like a rebel and a threat. Yeah, isn’t it something that we all fantasize over when we are kids, being a tough rebel?

Let me be clear, I am all for innovation and for having implemented changes in a number of businesses; I know that it is a constant of life, but I am interested in change that is a natural evolution toward real improvement. I am much less interested in gadgets and made-up hypes that have as primary goal to fill the pockets of a few. I guess I am not easily impressed and it is not because something is the flavor of the month that I forget about my good old well rooted-in critical mind.

So let’s go back to the plant-based protein products. First, they are nothing new, even if the current business owners want to make us believe that their products are jewels of high-tech. If so, how come that so many companies are going in the very same market on such short notice? The answer is simple, those products are not difficult to replicate. Plant-based alternatives are not new and they have been around for a couple of millennia for some of them such as tofu, koftas and falafel. Soy burgers have been around since the 1930s, really becoming mainstream in the 1980s.

What makes the current ones so different? Honestly, not that much at all. So why the hype? For two reasons mostly. One is the use of social media which are great tools to inflate whatever message you have and that so many people are willing to relay for you without even knowing what they are talking about. But it makes them feel part of the tribe for as long as it lasts. The other one is that this time big money has been invested in those companies and wants to cash in big, so they are putting their resources and their relationships at work to reach that goal. When your product is the talk of the day every day in every media outlets, it sounds like it has taken over the world. It’s just good old-fashioned smoke and mirror tactics. Just find out which billionaires and venture capitalists have put money in these companies and you will realize that it is a beautiful exercise in investor-driven social-media-led push marketing for a production-driven commodity business. Here in Canada, we have seen the exact same pattern with cannabis stocks after the country legalized cannabis sales a year ago. A lot of hype was aimed at having money buying stocks so that the founders could make great capital gains. It almost sounded that because of the new legislation, every Canadian would splurge on pot, either breathing it or eating and drinking it. Yeah right. As if making something legal would inevitably turn people into addicts. Pot users could already find all they needed before the legalization, as is the case everywhere in the world. So, the market was already well defined. Nonetheless, cannabis stocks shoot up like rockets because when greed kicks in people get gullible. Actually, I suspect greed is as addictive as drugs. Early investors sold on time with big fat capital gains and one year later, the share price of cannabis stocks are stagnating to low levels again. I expect something similar to happen with plant-based protein stocks. It is already kind of happening already, especially with Mr. Big Bucks-who-blames-cows-for-farting-for personal-gain having sold his Beyond Meat stocks quite conveniently before they started to stumble.

What is ahead for plant-based meat alternatives?

The first thing to think about is what those products are. What do they mimic? They mimic beef burgers mostly and sausages to some extent. They do not look as much like fresh beef burgers as they do the basic sad frozen ones. My point here is that they look like cheap commodities. And the thing about looking like a commodity is that it makes your product a commodity. The fact that so many other companies can replicate similar product in such a short period of time just confirms that it is a commodity and certainly not a niche specialty. The first rule for a niche to resist competition is that the product/service is quite difficult to replicate and match. Clearly, that basic first rule does not apply here. The only product that escapes the commoditization risk is the plant-based shrimp. Shrimps are a commodity but there is such a shortage of seafood compared with demand, shrimp prices are high and should remain high for a while. Imitation shrimp profit margins should be more resilient.

The second thing that comes to mind is the price of plant-based protein products. I can give here only what I can see in the stores around where I live in Canada. The regular price for a half-pound package of plant-based burger is CAD7.99 (that’s CAD15.98 per lbs). That is about twice the regular price of a pound of ground beef, but I can buy ground beef on ad for CAD3.99 and even from time to time CAD2.99. The price gap is quite big, and that will have to change if the plant-based burgers want to gain substantial market share. I believe this is starting to happen with a Canadian brand of plant-based burgers advertising last week at CAD4.99 for half a pound (that’s down 40% from the regular price) and this week the American brand was for sale at CAD5.99 for half a pound (25% down from regular price). Price drop has to be compensated by additional volumes to achieve profit margin goals. Here a word of advice to the CEO of that American company who expressed not being interested in hearing about his competitors (weird statement but what the heck, who can you fear when you think you are God): pay attention to your competitors because they want to take a slice of the pie and possibly your entire pie with it; their growth will not be your growth. Prices start to show some action and the big meat companies who are about to enter have not made their mark yet. That is going to be fun, because the hype created this idea that the market potential is huge and they are ramping up to produce large volumes. The meat and poultry industry has a long history of overcapacity, oversupply and profit margin destruction. I suspect that they will bring some of that experience in the plant-based imitation meat. I think things are going to be interesting. Prices are going to go down and raw materials (soybeans and peas) probably will increase in price to match demand. Prices down plus costs up is the perfect equation for squeezed margins, both for plant-based and animal protein by the way. The ones who will benefit the most are the crop farmers to some extent, but mostly the producers of protein isolates (the raw material used to produce the imitation burgers), the highest margin will be in the health and wellness protein supplement sector, basic low-cost plant-based burgers should well because of attractive pricing, and perhaps the consumers to some extent.

But for consumers, a couple of other things will play a role. One of them is perception. Do they like the product? And with perception comes value. Will the perceived value be higher than the price gap between the imitation product and the original beef? Perception is not just about the product but also about the company. So far, producers are perceived as small start-ups, which is often translated by consumers as small, brave and pure. If they knew actually how much big money and Big Agriculture is behind, I wonder how that would affect perception, and this time will come because, after all, are we not in a transparent food system by now as all food corporation like to claim?

Plant-based burgers producers brag about the many places where they have their products offered to consumers, but being on the menu of a restaurant is not the same as having consumers actually buying it, but they present it as it were, and stock markets react accordingly. There has been a lot of buying out of curiosity because of the hefty social-media hype but the perception is a different story. I have read many reviews and I cannot see any significant trend one way or another. There are those who praise the product and there those who trash it. Online reviews are notorious for the amount of fake reviews and I am sure there are plenty of those on both sides for obvious hidden agenda reasons. Fact is however that only after a few weeks in the trial, the Canadian restaurant chain Tim Hortons removed the plant-based burgers from its locations except in British Columbia and Ontario. Plant-based burgers “opponents” mention a number of characteristics they do not like: high price, highly processed products, high sodium content, long list of ingredients and some ingredients they can hardly read and have no idea what they are. I will make a mention of sodium content here. In the stores around my place, I can find only one Canadian brand and one American brand. I compared the sodium content of their products with regular potato chips. Here are the numbers: potato chips 230 mg sodium for 50 g product, Canadian brand imitation burger 540 mg sodium for 113 g (that’s 239 mg Na per 50 g of product – slightly more than the potato chips!!); and American imitation burger 340 mg sodium for 113 g product (that’s 150 mg Na per 50 g of product – that’s two thirds of the potato chips sodium content). Why don’t they add sodium and let people decide how much salt they want to put on their burger? I know the answer to that question but I will let you figure it out. I rarely buy potato chips but when I do, I buy the half sodium ones, which are lower in sodium than even the American imitation burger. You can make the same comparison with what you find in your stores and draw your own conclusions.

The third thing to expect is the push back from the animal protein producers, and that has already started. There are many fights about definition of meat and dairy. Let’s face it, the producers of plant-based products know very well that if they advertise to carnivores with an herbivore undertone, it will not work very well, so they try to make their products look more carnivore-like. There are also fights about environmental claims about benefits of plant-based vs. animal protein, many of them unsubstantiated. Altogether, plant-based products keep many lawyers busy. The fact that there many legal battles does not bode well. In France, there is an old saying: “better a poor agreement than a good lawsuit”. It will be interesting to see how that will translate for the future of plant-based. Of course, bold statements such as the plant-based sector bring the US meat and dairy sectors to complete collapse by 2030 is not a great way to make friends. Plus, please refer to the beginning of my article for why existing businesses are much more resilient that newcomers tend to think, but hey they have to attract investors’ money after all so no claim is bold enough.

Regardless of all the fights and arguments, the market will decide and as usual markets will decide on price and value. The value will be about money but also about health and environmental aspects as well. The question, though, will be whether the price differential will be worth it. I indicated prices earlier. In terms of potential market share, from reliable sources I have found it sounds like plant-based might represent 2% of the protein market in 2020 and perhaps reach 10% in 2030 in the USA. To gain more market share, plant-based imitation meat products would probably need to be offered at half the price they are now at least, everything remaining equal, further. If they don’t adjust their pricing, they will be happy to amount to 5%. Also and because the market could be crowded, plant-based protein producers will have to differentiate themselves from the competition and the characteristics that I mentioned earlier will weigh more, and so will the use of GMO ingredients or not play a role. Of course, there is a good chance that, as usual with the food industry, they all will try to differentiate themselves the same way, thus shifting their universe a bit to the right but all offering more or less the same.

If going plant-based protein is more efficient than meat, and it is because it removes one layer in the food chain, then it would only be logical that plant-based be cheaper both in price and in cost, but it’s not because unfortunately most “future of food” products are not meant to cater the hungry poor. So, here is another price to keep in mind: the price for a pound of cooked beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils is around CAD0.99 per pound. If you wish to switch to vegetarian, using the wholesome grain in the first place without industrial processing is quite a financially attractive proposition and I believe that they will be winners for the future from a global perspective, not just the US market with its First World solutions for First World problems. The thing is that the First World does not seem to know about cooking anymore, in spite of trendy flashy kitchens. The market will also decide which businesses succeed and which ones fail. Start-ups little gods or not, the percentage of failure remains the same as ever: about 75% of businesses do not make it longer than 3 years. Often, the reason is ignoring competition and not understanding that it takes much more than production methods to win over customers. As for the animal protein sector, what will be the consequences? I have written a few articles about the subject (do a search on meat and protein in the search bar on the right hand side of this page to get the list of articles). I will simply finish with a chart that show past consumption and estimates of animal protein consumption for the future based on UN FAO data and you will see that animal protein are really not expected to suffer from competition of alternative protein sources.

There will be plenty of room for everybody: animal protein, plant protein, processed or wholesome, as well as traditional products and all sorts of innovative alternatives. There is no need for cockiness, belligerent statements and inexact claims. The markets and future economics will sort out the winners. In the end, we all have to work together and the key will be about producing and consuming sustainably. Production systems will change. That is normal. And it is going to take the efforts of all 10 billion people and their food choices, not just from food producers.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The joy of independence and what’s in it for you

Perhaps, it has to do with unwinding towards the end of the year after a busy period, but lately I have increasingly been feeling a strong satisfaction with my activities about the future of food and agriculture. If the time of the year may play a role, I believe that it has a lot to do with the enthusiasm and the many smiles and conversations that I have had with my recent customers and audiences. They clearly feel happy about what I brought them and I feel happy about a job well done. As such, this is not a new observation, as it has been going on since day one I ventured on my own exploring how and where we will be getting which foods in the future. It just that now it reaches the level of bliss. I feel super-energized and I guess it shows. That is the kind of stuff that simply is contagious. I totally master the subject and the topics I deal with on an on-going basis. Last week, the chair of the conference for which I was the keynote speaker introduced me in about these terms: “often we get the feedback that they [the futurists speakers] don’t understand our business, well be assured that the one we have for you today, Christophe Pelletier, understands it quite well, and I am sure you are going to enjoy what he is going to say”. The presentation went very well and I guess I made many interesting points, as the following speakers made quite a few references to my presentation to emphasize their points.

You may ask where does the feeling of satisfaction come from? It is not just about mastering the subject. It is in the way that I reach that quality and to me the most important thing is my being independent, not just as a business but even more so as a mind. I do not think I could deliver the quality that I do if I were not so totally independent in my thinking. I put a lot of effort in exercising critical thinking. If forces me to be both open-minded and never take anything at face value, even (or more so especially) if the information that I review comes from so-called influencers. I am naturally suspicious of influencers. I double check about everything I read and hear. I also have a special ability to quickly do math mentally and see if all the information presented adds up. The words always sound great but when you quantify, you quickly realize that the numbers often do not support much of the story. When I was hired by BP Nutrition (which later would become Nutreco), and started my professional career, 32 years ago, I told my bosses that I had serious second thoughts on the use of antibiotics in animal production and I thought it could be dome with much less. I also expressed my concerns about housing systems for calves (boxes), for hens (cages) and sows (tethering). Needless to say that those were bold statements from a rookie to a solidly well-established agribusiness corporation to make. Well, look how much change there has been and still is on those issues. I was lucky to have open-minded bosses who were interested to hear why I thought the way I did. I was even luckier to have a boss in the pig department who let me lead a group of piglets that I would help toughen up by boosting their immunity system through tougher climate conditions. Those piglets were indestructible. They looked more grey than pink and looked rough at the edges but healthy as can be. By then, it was too early to initiate a revolution on antibiotics but I had shown the potential. Later in poultry, I also showed how the economics of animal welfare worked on profitability and demonstrated that proper animal handling was actually financially better.

The critical thinking and double-checking are areas in which I seem to differentiate myself from many other people in my field. I see way too much cases of copy and paste reports and way too many second-hand unchecked almost facts. My approach and my process are not opaque, on the contrary. I present it to my clients and audiences, so that they understand where I coming from when I say what I say. It allows them to also react and thus, we have a conversation which purpose really is about getting to the bottom of things. It is not about what I believe vs. what you believe but it is about what you know and what I know so that we get the best of both worlds. In a way you could say that my brain is an open source for my customers. It is not about influencing through a seductive story or a pre-decided assumption of absolute expertise; it is about convincing based on solid facts. My purpose is not to tell anyone what they should think. After all I have to walk my talk because I do not like being told what I should think, either. My purpose is to bring as many elements as possible to my customers to let them come to the most rational and sensible conclusions. I was just mentioning expertise and although I guess I am perceived as an expert in my field, I really do not know what an expert really is. My angle is to connect to the day-to-day realities of my customers and to present them with information and knowledge that is useful and practical to them. I do not do presentations that are catalogues of technologies or of trendy stuff, for better word. That is easy to do. You can ask your 12 year-old nephew to do a Google search of the future of agtech or the future of food and he will present you a list of items that would make him look like an expert, especially if it is a presentation that has a limited amount of time. Recently, a member of one of the audiences was telling me he appreciated my presentation style because it did not seem learned by heart and regurgitated mechanically like he was saying he sees happening too often. That was one of the nicest compliment I could get. Indeed, I live the future of food and agriculture and I have understood, processed and integrated all the knowledge that I share. It comes naturally. Actually, I do not have any cue cards to help me. All I do is to time my presentations but for the rest I talk in the same way I would if I had a one-on-one conversation. I also like to get eye contact with audience members. To me, it is an exchange with the audience. I maybe on the podium, but I never consider myself being on a pedestal. My mind is free. My mind tells a story that has no hidden agenda, nor does it tell what I might think the audience would like to hear or would not like to hear. It has happened that potential customers would want me not to address certain things they don’t like. That is a problem, because I am not trying to shock or upset, but I cannot add value if censorship comes in. I present objective facts for which I have background information. I welcome conversation. If you have a different opinion, let’s hear about it. Conversation is how we learn and improve, and it is true for me, too.

Being a free and independent mind is important, but having an independent business is just as important. I have no conflict of interest whatsoever. Nobody has shares in my company but me. Because I have an independent mind and I work in an objective and honest manner, I do not advocate any product, service or system whatsoever. I present my views on pros and cons, though. And I explain why I think the way I think, so that we can have a constructive conversation. I do own any share of any business I talk about, or if I did I would disclose it immediately. I do not have side function in any association and I am not on the board of any company that would influence my thinking or induce a bias in my thinking. If I did, I would disclose it immediately. That independence is what allows me to add value. My customers do not have to worry that I might be pushing any particular hidden agenda. Not every consultant can say the same, and let’s face it, it is easy to spot those who have vested interests in the story they tell. In particular, beware of organizations that include terms that imply some sort of intellectually authority such as Institute, Center, Forum, Think Tank or Foundation, or which names ends with “ity”, as those very often work for -or are part of- special interest groups, sometimes they are pro-this and sometimes they are anti-that. It does not matter on which side they are, they are not on the side of independence and objectivity. But they are a perfect fit for customers and conferences that want to push those particular agendas and/or preach to the choir, but let’s be clear about that when it takes place. Those are not my target group. The line between conflict of interest –or hidden agenda- and misleading is thin. I want nothing to do with that.

Related imageI remember the day I started my own business, 17 years ago. It was a strange mix of feelings. On the one hand, I felt rather alone. I remember having this visual of me all alone in front of a vast deserted area. It was like I was the only person in the world with nobody around to connect. It was a little scary to say the truth, yet I felt quite Zen. On the other hand, there was this intoxicating feeling of being so free that at last now I would be the only one to decide for myself what I would want to do and what I would not want to do, to decide what goals I would set for myself and how I would want to achieve them. It was a mix of solitude and yet of full control over my life. On the professional side of my life, I chose the purpose to be happy by making my customers happy, meaning adding value to them and help them succeed. I guess I do, because all my customers have actually found me through my blog, my books, my presentations and word of mouth. I have never had to do any cold calling ever. And that maybe what gives me the most joy: what I do is useful to my customers and they notice!

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.