Future approach of genetics in agriculture

July 30, 2009

Where we will decide of our future...

Genetic engineering, that we just mentioned, and traditional breeding and will be increasing intertwined in the future, as they will join their respective areas of expertise into combined genetic improvement programs. Actually, we can expect that these two disciplines will be merged into only one unified science of DNA. We can expect to see an increased number of joint ventures and mergers between genetic selection companies and biotech companies in the future.

So far, genetic engineering has been mostly known to the public opinion thanks to the development of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and this has been a very controversial area. Genetic engineering will move from a support activity to, for instance, herbicides, to address much more real problems and bring much more real solutions to the challenges of the agriculture of tomorrow. GMOs have served the sales of herbicides produced by the same companies quite well, but of course, this will plateau rather soon, and there will be a need for something else to impress the financial markets. It should not be a surprise to see these corporations specialize in biotech completely, and divest their chemicals “heritage” at some point in the future. The real problems to solve include a broad range of topics. They include technical performance and yields of plants and farm animals. Genetic engineering will help increase the efficiency in the conversion of nutrients and water. It will help plants and animals to have a stronger resistance to diseases, in order to avoid severe production losses. It will provide alternatives to antibiotics, to herbicides and pesticides. It will find ways for plants to absorb or fix the nitrogen of the air to reduce the use of mineral fertilizers. Another area of research will be influencing the quality of final agricultural products, in particular producing healthier foods, and have plants produce medicines.

To solve such problems, the people in charge of such programs will have a very heavy moral responsibility towards society, as the choices they will make will affect the longer term and our ability to survive. The success criteria will go much beyond the financial performance of these companies. This will be translated in the type of bonus packages that the executives will receive. One can wonder whether the correct structure for such companies is to be publicly traded, since stock markets tend to induce a very strong preference to the short-term financial performance. The reflection on such programs will need to go through a serious test of “what ifs”. As per now, money still is the main driver, especially in the arguments of the producing companies and countries. For instance, they reiterate that the decision of the European Union to limit the production and use of GMO will make food more expensive in these countries. Then let’s ask ourselves what if the EU is wrong in their decision? Well, production systems and agriculture would not change much; their food might indeed be more expensive than somewhere else. The people will buy smaller cars and travel less far for their vacation. This is not a very threatening situation if you ask me. What if the ones in favor of GMOs are wrong and the EU is right? The debate is indeed very emotional and political, but this is simply because we lack long term testing of the effects of GMOs to have certainty. This is why the GMO producers have such a hard time convincing their opponents.

More than one species, a whole ecosystem

A better understanding and predictability of long-term effects is paramount in agriculture and food production. Agriculture is not just about producing a particular crop, it is also about managing the total ecosystem that a field is. Actions in genetics need to guarantee the long-term balance of these ecosystems (in which weeds, although of no economic interest, are a part of), because once an ecosystem has been altered, it has been changed forever. Genetic improvement programs must ensure to preserve, in whichever form, genetic diversity and survival of vegetal and animal species, because once extinct, they are lost forever. Long-term fertility of soils is another highly critical part of the protection of our food supplies, because once sterile, the land is lost forever.

So, as you see, we are facing many challenges and genetics is a key element of our food systems. By shifting away of rather superfluous projects, even though they have been quite lucrative for the producers; and by focusing more on true improvement and sustainability of production systems thanks to technical breakthroughs, a combined breeding and genetic engineering will bring constructive solutions. All it will require from the stakeholders is vigilance.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The future price of meat and fish: up

July 17, 2009

With a world population increasing strongly and an agricultural area that will not grow accordingly, the law of offer and demand clearly indicates that agricultural prices will increase in the future. This is true for agricultural commodities such as grains, but the increase will be even stronger for animal products, such as meat, poultry, dairy and fish.
This will be the result of an increasing and very likely quite aggressive competition between the need to feed people with the basic commodities, the need to feed farmed animals and possibly for some time the need to produce biofuels.
Since it takes more than one and even several kilograms of animal feed to produce one kilogram of meat, the feed conversion ratio (FCR) will affect by which factor the price of the various animal products will increase.
Efficient productions like chicken will be successful and will remain quite competitive pricewise against other sources of animal proteins, thanks to its low FCR, to its low water use and to the good agricultural value of its manure. In the aquaculture sector, efficient productions such us tilapia and pangasius have a bright future ahead, as they can help feed a large population for an affordable price. In general, aquaculture has the opportunity to fill the huge gap left by depleted wild fish stocks, although it will have to solve some issues in order to be successful (see my article titled “The lessons of intensive animal husbandry to aquaculture“). In terms of price, the scarcity of wild fish will make these quite expensive for the future.
Less efficient species such as pigs and beef cattle will see the price of their products increase relatively much more. Pigs also have the disadvantage of producing low quality manure, which will limit the level of intensification. However, pork plays an important role in some cultures, and therefore, it will still show a reasonable volume growth, with geographical variations.
A high FCR species such as beef cattle will probably undergo the most dramatic change. Higher feed costs, linked to a relatively high capital need will probably push a number of farmers to shift to other more efficient productions. Highly intensive systems such the feedlots will also undergo major changes, as regulations on the use of antibiotics and hormones will make them financially inefficient. Further, their high impact on the environment because of the manure will also work against them. I do not expect the 99-cent beef burger to be here for all that much longer, burgers will continue to exist, but just quite a bit more expensive. On the other hand, I can see good possibilities for specialty beef products, such as grass-fed beef, but customers will have to pay the right price for it. Grass is the animal feed that we all seem to underestimate, yet it covers vast areas of very often fragile soil, and cattle is one of the few species that can transform it into high value protein.
In the aquaculture sector, a carnivore species such as salmon will also meet its own limitations. Although, salmon feed has shifted from mostly fish oil and fishmeal to a much more complex mix of vegetal oils, this production will see its production costs rise strongly. I expect salmon to become a luxury product again.

Consumption per capita will decreaseWhat will a higher price mean?
There again, simple economics tell us that this will influence the level of consumption per capita. The price increase will moderate the level of consumption and the price differential between the type of protein, as well as health concerns, will cause a shift between the respective consumption of the different products. In Western countries, people consume quantities of animal products that are substantially higher than what they actually need, and this has led to many health issues. The decrease in consumption will help make people healthier, and reduce the burden of health costs in that part of the world.
In developing countries, the situation is different, as consumption trends show an increase of consumption of animal products, from rather low levels, though. In these countries, consumption per capita will increase, but will not reach the levels that Western countries have shown, simply because prices will be too high to get to such levels.
The decrease of consumption per capita that we will see in developed countries does not mean that the meat industry will get into trouble.  Less average consumption per capita in the West will be more than compensated by the growth in emerging countries, where population numbers are significantly higher, and this will lead to a higher global demand of animal products. The main change is that the consumers will be distributed geographically rather differently than they are today. This also means that production will be located in different areas than today.

Just as a teaser: if Western countries consumers were to reduce their meat consumption to just the necessary maintenance needs, it would free volumes enough to cover the maintenance needs of meat for the whole population of China!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Poultry husbandry of the future

July 14, 2009

Here is an article by Bernd Meerpohl of Big Dutchman on poultry husbandry systems of the future. Not surprisingly, he did not present any revolutionary new developments for year 2034, but I miss some aspects that I believe will be important for the future.
Markets will be different, just because the consumers will not be located in the same as now. Different markets with different needs will mean further evolution in breeding strategies. We will deal with energy and environment in a different light, and this will affect production systems. Climate control, lighting systems, transportation, distance between producers and consumers, bird catching and bird processing, packaging systems will all evolve because of the need to preserve energy, food and water, as well as increase efficiencies.

World Nutrition Forum: The future starts now

July 8, 2009

Here is an article reporting about the World Nutrition Forum held recently in Austria.

It presents the future of animal productions quite along the same lines as I think.

Efficiency, innovation and location will become the key components for the future.

Efficiency will act as a “natural selection” between the species farmed, as an increasing need for protein combined with a limited volume of feedstuffs and water will decide what productions can grow the most and which ones might not be able to do so. Poultry is definitely a winner thanks to its low feed conversion ratio and to its relatively high water use efficiency, pork is uncertain, and cattle will have the toughest time, although cattle is the only production that can transform cellulose into animal products, so the production systems will likely change and offer a different kind of future for beef.

Location of production will follow the location of the consumer markets. With a population increasing strongly, as well as their standard of living is improving, Asia will become a very active production area. This probably will also be the result of a need to reduce transport costs, as well financially as environmentally speaking.

Innovation, as I have mentioned in previous articles, will be a key driver for the future of animal feed and of animal productions. I am quite glad to read that the industry is fully aware of this need, and also that they see their future in “creating value” more than just “cutting costs”.

Although the conclusions of this forum are quite encouraging and positive, the next step might be the challenging one: how to turn these great ideas into systems that will work and will ensure the long term future of the production side as well as of the consumption side? It will all be in the proper planning and execution that this will succeed.

G8 shifts focus from food aid to farming

July 6, 2009

Here is an interesting article from the Financial Times describing the new approach from G8 countries towards food security. It connects with my previous posting, and shows how strategic agriculture is becoming. It is also nice to see that some world leaders look at this issue in a more sensible manner than in the past, shifting from “give a man a fish, he will have food for a day” to” teach him to fish and he will have food every day”. Well, that is if we manage to replenish our oceans, which is a topic on which I will write in the future.

Of course, it must be clear that if they choose this new approach, it is because they have an advantage in doing so.

The competition for the control of food has started

July 2, 2009

A couple of recent articles (Foreign cropland deals and Professional investors look toward overseas farmland) show clearly how much action there currently is about securing food sources in the future. Many players are involved, from countries buying or leasing foreign land, to investment firms and hedge funds.

Agricultural commodities have become quite hot and are expected to become even hotter.

In the future, we can expect to see more of such land acquisition, we will see more alliances, like the “Black Sea Wheat Pool” in which Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are supposedly joining forces to build a strong wheat sort of OPEC. Although considering the relationship between Russia and Ukraine about natural gas, one can wonder what will happen with this.

Taking control one piece at a timeWe must expect strategies about food supplies that will remind us of what we have seen about oil supplies. Politics are going to play an increasingly important role. After all, we can live without oil, but not without food. There will be aggressive moves from countries that are not self-sufficient, first friendly like the land purchases and leases, but there probably will be a point when this might not be enough and regional conflicts will happen. Some exporting countries will also take a more aggressive stance on prices and on availability, but they also will have to be aware that too much arrogance might end up in serious tensions.

In my view, we are going to see very interesting tactics that will include food, energy, trade agreements, diplomacy and military threats as part of the whole bargaining process.

Similarly, we can expect to see more tensions between private firms involved in food and governments. Locally, we can expect nationalizations of land and factories. More regulations of the markets will take place, probably after excesses from privately owned money, investors and businesses will create another “bubble” with agricultural commodities futures contracts, that will end up destabilizing food markets in a somehow similar manner as the financial world has acted for many years before it faced a meltdown.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.