The lurking menace of weeds – Farmers’ enemy #1

Here is quite an interesting article from the FAO about the cost of weeds in agriculture.

 the more weeds, the less yieldAccording to their numbers, weeds limit crop yields to such an extent that the world misses yearly the equivalent of 380 million of wheat a year, or in money $95 billion. My first reaction was that there is an untapped market for herbicides producers, but the article describes ways of getting rid of the weeds that do not require the use of chemicals.

Compared with the medical cost of obesity in the US of $147 billion a year, or the contribution of the US meat and poultry industry of $382 billion per year to the economy, or the TARP funds for the banks of $700 billion, or the estimated financial toxic assets losses worldwide of $4 trillion, the $95 billion does not seem that big a number after all.

Yet, 380 million tonnes wheat equivalent represent, according to the FAO, half of the 2009 expected world wheat production!

Assuming simplistically that with this wheat we would feed people only a diet of bread, this could feed decently more than 1 billion people! This is all the more amazing as the FAO currently estimates the number of hungry people in the world at 1 billion. Clearly, there should be some possible solutions if policies and politics were targeted at the right goals.

Always interesting to put numbers in a different perspective…

Asia faces food shortage by 2050 without major water reforms

Here is an article from Science Daily illustrating very clearly the issues I brought up in my earlier article “Managing water is paramount for the future of food production“.

According to Colin Chartres, Director General of the International Water Management Institute: “Asia’s food and feed demand is expected to double by 2050. Relying on trade to meet a large part of this demand will impose a huge and politically untenable burden on the economies of many developing countries. The best bet for Asia lies in revitalizing its vast irrigation systems, which account for 70 percent of the world’s total irrigated land”.

Innovation and tradition shape the future

Tradition in food can be quite resilientIn order to understand what changes are ahead of us, we need to realize that opposite forces are engaged in shaping the world of the future. As we all know, accepting change is always a slow and sometimes a difficult process. There are those who see the possibilities and those who see the drawbacks. The first train was going, supposedly, to get cows stop giving milk, but we now know that cows love to watch trains passing by. Probably, the first caveman who drew a picture of an animal on the wall was considered by some as a great magician and probably by others as pure evil. As such, such a struggle is very useful, as on the one hand it shakes immobility and open new doors, and on the other hand it prevents us to rush into the unknown without thinking first.

Change is part of our lives and that will not change. The problem that we face about change is actually about the pace of change, more than over the change itself. Over the last century, this pace has just increased steadily, thanks to more and more efficient technology.

If we look back the lifespan of the oldest living person, which brings us back to the end of the nineteenth century, just take a minute to think of all the changes that have occurred since then. There was no car industry, no antibiotics, no commercial airlines, no TV, no internet or cell phones, no supermarkets, just to mention a few things that we take for granted nowadays.

Although such a change is dramatic and has affected the way we live today, it has been a process that has needed time. Usually, it is said that more than 60% of the products that exist today did not exist 10 years ago and if we extrapolate this to decade to come, we can expect some even more spectacular changes.

Innovation is in constant motion and technology helps us to conceive and to use much faster than by the past. Yet, it is interesting to see that even with such a pace of change, traditions still play a very important part in our lives. Even with lots of modern gadgets, most cultures keep their specific characteristics. Their respective values do not evolve as much as our “things“, these just become part of the culture. This is an important point when it comes to innovation: what you offer must meet a need, if it does not, it will either fail, or at best be a fad.

Having a look at the future, you must wonder what the underlying trends of innovation are since it started. I can see several major constant areas of innovation:

  • Reducing physical labor.
  • Helping us live better and longer.
  • Increasing efficiency.
  • Helping communication.
  • Increasing mobility.
  • Offering more leisure and entertainment.
  • Making some people a little wealthier.

What could this mean for food production in the years to come?

  • high tech agriculture - photo BayerMore technology to improve efficiency of water use, fertilizer use, animal feed use, land use, energy use (objective: zero waste).
  • More mechanization, automation and robotising, especially in software more than hardware, working on precision (intelligent technology).
  • Greater focus on health and natural solutions for food and for agriculture/aquaculture/fisheries (objective: zero residue and zero contaminants in water, air, soil, and food).
  • Projects to repair environmental damage and include agriculture/aquaculture/fisheries in environmental management (restore and maintain sustainable food production).
  • Policies, and politics, to increase food production (disease control, regulation, more government intervention at strategic level, incentives).
  • Redistribution of markets with geographical shift of production and consumption areas.
  • Shift from convenient to practical food solutions (bulk meal components).
  • More education on agriculture, food and nutrition (balanced diets, food safety, traceability).

While such changes will come over time, consumers will still be looking for some level of tradition in foods. This can be about authenticity, regional specialties and recipes, or choosing to buy directly from farmers. Obviously, this is not a rational process, but it is more about the perception of “true” and “natural” production systems. After all, nostalgia is a constant of human emotions, too.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Kraft Foods reduces global plant water use by over 20%

Here is an illustration of what I wrote in two previous articles (Managing water is paramount for the future of food production and Sustainability: As Natural As Balance). Read the article about Kraft Foods at http://www.meatinternational.com/news/kraft-foods-reduces-global-plant-water-use-by-over-20%25-id1718.html

CNN: In-vitro meat – Would lab-burgers be better for us and the planet?

Quite the future!Here is an article I found on CNN about in-vitro meat. Of course at this stage there is no way of knowing whether this has a future or not.

There are some interesting arguments brought up in this article, that can make some think that in-vitro meat is a possible alternative. Yet, they do not mention anything about the cost of producing meat in such conditions, but my guess is that it will not be cheap, and certainly not cheaper than the lesser meat cuts it is supposed to replace; and the production cost of in-vitro meat is probably its main challenge for future marketing purposes.

My view is that animal protein will become much more expensive in the future (see my previous article “The future price of meat and fish: up”), and that Westerners do not need to eat as much meat as they currently do, anyway.

The irony is that in-vitro meat has the support of some environmentalists, while it depicts a situation where humans would almost not be in touch with nature anymore when it comes to meat. So much for natural food!

I will leave it up to you to decide what to think.

Organic foods not nutritionally superior. So what?

A bit of emotion, a bit of reasonA recent study from the UK concluded that organic foods are not nutritionally superior to “regular” foods. Of course, it did not take long for reactions to be published. The pro organics reject the protocol used and therefore the conclusions. The pro “industry” reacted satisfied. All of this is not surprising, and for a simple reason: people choose their foods greatly based on psychological reasons. Let’s face it the debate around organic food is largely about lifestyle and choices.

However, is the result of this survey a surprise? Not really, because in terms of nutritional value, the differences in production systems are not that different. When it comes to food safety, especially residues of chemicals, then it probably is a very different story.

What can affect the nutritional value of foods are the growth period and the timing of the harvest. Produce that grows fast and that is harvested before full ripeness contains relatively more water and therefore there can be a dilution of nutrients per kg of product. This is also true for meat products.

I do not believe that the real debate between” organic” and “industrial” should be so much about nutritional value as it should be about food safety. As consumers get more educated and have more choice, they will give the preference to something more natural and harmless, simply because it is common sense and the safe thing to do. On the other hand of course, agriculture must be in a position to offer affordable products. Organic foods are more expensive and this is what limits its market share to mostly well-off city residents.

If organic foods want to become the standard to feed people, it will have to work on its production costs and price. Retailers are playing a very important role in this, as they more and more dictate to suppliers how food should be produced. This is currently very obvious with seafood and the requirement set by supermarkets to buy only sustainable seafood.

My expectation for the future is that retailers will get more involved in agriculture and will impose on suppliers more restrictions on what kind of products they may use for crop treatment, more restrictions for better animal welfare. The market standards of the future will become “sustainable”, “natural” and “traceable”; not for emotional reasons, but for rational reasons. There will be pain to accept for producers to meet these requirements, and in the end the commercial negotiations will decide what the market price of “natural” foods will be.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Nutrition basics should be taught in school

When food costs twice!A recent report showed that the annual medical cost of obesity reached $147 billion (see article). On the other hand the contribution of the meat and poultry industry in the US is $832 billion annually. Therefore, we can expect ongoing arguments between economic interest and health care costs for a while. The simple fact is that too many Americans do not eat a properly balanced diet and that should change.

The most efficient way to improve eating habits is by understanding nutrition and educating children at an early age about health and food, and about diseases caused by either unbalance or excess. Food safety is not only about bacteria or residues, but also about handling food properly and eating right.

People know actually very little about proper nutrition. The average person may have some ideas about how many calories he/she needs on a daily basis, but it hardly goes much further than that. Only few people know how many grams of protein they should consume on a daily basis. They know even less how many grams of fat they need. When it comes to carbohydrates, the situation is just as confused and confusing. Most people do not even know how the different groups of carbs (starch, sugars and fibers) are metabolised and what ratio between them they should consume. The result is a diet that has negative long-term effects.

If the FAO estimates the daily calorie needs at 1,800 for an average human being, the averages in developed countries are much higher, reaching about 3,500 on average for Western countries and even 3,800 in the US. The same conclusion is true for protein and other nutritional elements. It should be no surprise then that when people eat twice as much as they should, they get twice as big as they should, too. The reality is that in developed countries, people do not eat what they need, but they eat what they want. And they want too much.

Balanced nutrition is not difficult to understand, but someone needs to teach it. As parents have about as little knowledge and understanding as their kids do, schools would be quite well inspired to put nutrition on their curriculum. After all, schools are the places where future generations are educated to do the right things in the future, or at least it should be part of their mandate. Helping people eating right is part of creating healthy and prosperous societies. Sick societies will not be leaders. Of course, including nutrition in the curriculum is not enough for schools. They must also provide foods and drinks that contribute to healthy eating. Offering kids access to junk foods and junk drinks in vending machines may generate revenue for schools, but it works against helping kids to have a healthy diet. If they have the choice, kids will not spend their lunch money on water and broccoli. The responsible adults in charge must help them make the right choices. Offering treats is not to schools to decide, but only to the parents.

For more on similar topics, please visit my other website The Sensible Gourmet

Copyright 2009 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Rebuilding fisheries is a must for the future

Rebuilding fish stocks will be good for us allAs everyone knows, fish stocks have been depleted to levels that are not acceptable. This is the result of short-term thinking combined with highly efficient but stupid fishing methods. Not only fish is a high value food source, but oceans are complex ecosystems that we cannot afford to lose. Although aquaculture claims to be the way to compensate the supply of wild fish, this is only true within limits, as some aquaculture species are fed with fish meal and fish oil, and replacement of these products is also limited by the quantities that agricultural crops can supply, and consequently their price.

As one of the points that I mention in my presentation “Twelve trends for the future of food production” (under Presentations tab), we can expect that programs will be set up to rebuild wild fish stocks and bring the volumes back to levels with which sustainable fishing methods and quotas will help provide us with more secure supplies. This will be some sort of a stimulus plan for seafood with all stakeholders involved: government, fishermen, aquaculture industry, retailers, food service and consumers.

A recent report published by the Pew Charitable Trusts has reviewed the possibilities and the economic impact of rebuilding fisheries in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean, as well as the downside of doing nothing. A Canadian research has worked in a similar direction and tend to show that rebuilding fish populations is possible, citing a number of successful cases (see article).

All that comes out from these reports is that the situation, although quite serious, is far from lost, but it requires political will and organization to make it happen. This is exactly why all parties involved from whichever country concerned will have to act in a coordinated manner.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.