Ownership of food: the seeds of future conflicts

August 21, 2009

From an agriculture that mostly was producing locally for a local market with a straight forward production chain, the organization of food production has become more complex and structured over time. As we moved towards always more integration, traceability and globalized markets, the roles and bargaining positions of the different actors has changed.

bargaining power evolves

Facing the possibilities of more food riots in the future, if we are not in a position to make food affordable for all, we certainly can expect to see new power struggles emerge.

If we place ourselves in a scenario of food shortage, it is normal to assume that the power would be in the hands of whoever owns the food. But who is the owner, or better said who is actually in charge?

Is it the retailer? Is it the farmer? Is it the owner of the land on which the crops are grown? Is it the futures contract trader? Is it the seed supplier? Because without farmers, there is not much food in the stores; and without seeds, farmers cannot grow much food, and without food, no futures contracts to negotiate.

In the same way, who should decide where to the food would go? Does it belong to the country and the people who produce it, or does it belong to a corporation that prefers to sell it abroad? In a situation of shortage, this could lead to serious conflicts.
Corporations look primarily at markets and try to maximize their profit. That is their mandate.
Governments have a different look at things, as politicians want to have happy citizens, so that their position of power can continue. All they want is avoid social unrest.
Potentially, this can lead to new regulations and even to the possibility of nationalizations if companies and governments do not agree.

To get back to the example of seeds and genetics, there is a growing responsibility resting of the shoulders of breeding and genetic engineering companies. Not so long ago, let’s say a bit more than a century, there was much more genetic diversity in agricultural crops and farm animals. This diversity has shrunk quite significantly and we face the potential risk of not having the right genes available if we were to face a natural situation that would eradicate plants or animals as a result of inability to resist and to adapt to the new conditions these organisms must deal with. The genetic pool used to be a collective asset, but it has moved more and more into a private asset. About this, too, one can wonder who is in charge and who has ownership, and what could the consequences be.

As long as we are not facing any severe supply unbalance, the current situation will probably linger as it is a bit further, with the players having the most power trying to grow their position and influence other deciders to their advantage, but this kind of consensual vagueness about who is the owner of food will sooner or later cause some major shake-up.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The fish farming of the future?

August 21, 2009

Here is an article of the National Geographic about “Giant Robotic Cages to Roam Seas as Future Fish Farms?”

This article addresses a number of very interesting and valid points, such as the possibility to move to better farming environment, or getting farms closer to consumer markets.

Photograph Ocean Farm Technologies Having the ability to change location has several advantages. It allows finding areas where water quality is better as this varies with seasons and climate conditions. It also can allow farms to move away from the routes of wild fish and substantially reduce risks of disease and parasite contamination and spreading. Being closer to consumers market also has the advantage of reducing the amount of transportation and have the fish brought to market faster, therefore fresher, theoretically.

However, this article does not address a number of important aspects of fish farming. Going far offshore brings some organizational issues, such as rotating the crews working on farms, or dealing with rough weather. Probably some fine tuning would be needed to organize feed deliveries to such farms as well and the mobility must not happen at the expense of the life of equipment or the functioning of cameras and computers used for management purposes. As such, nothing that cannot be resolved, but it would come at a cost as well. Then it is to the farmers to weigh the pros and cons and make their decision.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting idea that shows that this industry is in full evolution and is adapting to the future.

Pioneering the oceans and robotizing aquaculture connects quite well with my previous articles “Innovation and tradition shape the future” and “The ocean, not Mars, is the next frontier

Environmental performance on food labels

August 21, 2009

Here is an article about British supermarket chain Tesco starting a project on labelling the carbon footprint of milk products.

carbon footprint of your food at a glance!This is quite an interesting development, as it would allow consumers to make their purchase decision based on the environmental impact of what they buy. It also would make retailers and producers more aware of their own business decision, be it for sourcing products or choosing their markets.

Of course, an other very important next step will have to be consumer education about carbon footprint numbers and how to read them, but this learning process was also necessary with nutritional information.

I see this as a very good initiative to identify and segregate sensible products from the not so sensible ones. Very likely, we will see more labelling about environmental information in the future, and not just for food products, but all consumer products.

The lurking menace of weeds – Farmers’ enemy #1

August 19, 2009

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

August 18, 2009

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

August 12, 2009

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%

August 11, 2009

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