Humans and robots will work closely together in meat and poultry plants

September 28, 2009

The level of automation in processing plants have increased continuously over the years and the statement made above makes some sense.
This article from MeatPoultry.com reports of an interview with Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotics Industries Association. Although there is no specific details of things, if any, that may come, other examples in other food industry can be an indicator of future possibilities.
Something to follow on.

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Sustainability and modernity are compatible, let’s not oppose them!

September 26, 2009

From all economic activities, agriculture seems to have a different status. While most of the polluting industries with unsustainable processes or products seem to look to a cleaner future through new technology, it sounds as if agriculture can have a future only by downsizing. Everyone seems to support and praise the move to green new technology in all industrial sectors, but when it comes to agriculture, the most vocal proponents of sustainability seem to reduce the possibilities to only organic and small scale farming. This in my view is very simplistic, and may fit in the North American city baby boomer nostalgia of things that never were, but it is not the solution for the future when we look at it from a global perspective. However, it is quite clear that food is loaded with emotional and psychological symbolism.

Of course, I am not the cross-industry sustainability guru, but I do not seem to hear the requirement for most other industries to go small scale. Where are the voices to demand that we get rid of large factories, and go back to small local workshops? Yet, for instance, that would hurt the toy industry in China for sure, although it could make sense as most of the production is bought in the West.

Why don’t we hear many voices to encourage the search of better practices that fit with modern and efficient techniques? We have reached a level of scientific and technical knowledge that we never have before. This can help us having the best of both worlds by combining old empirical techniques with new high-tech ones. We can be so precise and efficient in the use of water and fertilizer to feed the plants with exactly the right amount of what they need when they need it. By combining the old and new, we can protect and improve the fertility of the soils, we can reduce the amounts of pesticides and herbicides, and we can reduce the amount of antibiotics. We can do all the things that the small scale organic farmers currently do, just on a bigger scale, because, as I have mentioned in previous articles on this website, like it or not, feeding an increasing world population will require large scale agriculture, too. The main challenge that we are facing is to figure out the right economic model. A large-scale sustainable agriculture requires a shift in how we distribute the land, the capital and the labor. The only reason why manufacturing production units moved to other countries over time is purely because of lower labor costs. It has very little to do with proximity of markets, with location of raw materials, environmental or social reasons, or any other common sense thinking. The only reason is to maximize profits.

What we lack to make the move to the future is a plan. We tend to stick to the present, and to some extent to the past, too. We need people who, like me, will ignore the emotional baggage and figure out what are solid and successful models taking into account the local situations, and consider without prejudice the best possibilities that the knowledge that we have acquired through the millennia has to offer.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


USDA launches nutritional web tools

September 25, 2009

This news is a beautiful confirmation of what I am announcing for the future (see my remarks in “Nutrition basics should be taught in school” and “The dining of the future“) about the need and the coming tools that will help people know more about agriculture, food and health, not only the educational tools, but also the software and/or website that will allow them to set up their own diet and make their own “educated” dining choices.

The article from Food Business News also mention what I have been telling all around and a number of comments that I have left on blogs from food organization and media such as Meatingplace that city people know very little about how food is produced and about their lack of understanding beyond the supermarket counter (read my comments in “Less controversy thanks to transparency” and in “Health and environment as growing drivers of food production“).


Feeding the world in 2050 – FAO coming summit

September 23, 2009

This question seems to keep many people busy, and this article sums up a number of conclusions drawn by the FAO about the subject.

The information that I find the most interesting is their estimate of the percentage of the world population living in cities, moving up from 49% today to 70% by 2050. Expressed in number of people living in rural areas, this means a drop from roughly 3.2 billion people today to roughly 2.9 billion people in 2050, or around 10% less! This clearly indicates that the future of food supply is not with small farms, but that large units will have to do most of the work in order to feed everyone.

When it comes to their estimate of a necessary increase of 70% of agricultural production to meet the food demand, I have some reservations about their expectations. I doubt that with such a tight supply, people will eat as much meat and animal products as they claim. I believe that money will talk and meat being more expensive that they expect, the diet will probably include relatively more vegetal products and relatively less meat than the numbers that they present.

As I showed at the end of my previous article titled “Price of fish and meat: up”, a healthy readjustment of the Western diet will free a lot of food to feed many more people. As per today, we already are much closer, theoretically, to be able to feed these 9 billion people than we think. I say theoretically because the main problems are:

  1. Guaranteeing access to food through proper infrastructure, which in large part rests on the shoulders of politicians, and
  2. Ensuring that people have enough money to pay for food.

For those who claim that we need three or even four Earths to deal with the problem, clearly, their assumptions are based on having the whole world on the American diet, but that will not happen. We have only one Earth and that will not change. Other things will, though.


The hot regions of the future

September 18, 2009
Food strategies for the world

Food strategies around the world

In this article, the term hot does not refer to climate, but to strategic and active food producing regions. Not only is the population growing, but also the demographics vary greatly between regions and this will change deeply where from and where to the trade is going. Here are, briefly, the main changes as I see them happening as we go forward.

The aging and increasingly health-conscious West will not show any increase in consumption per capita, and very likely it even will drop, as older people need less food than the youth and also because the shift from quantity to quality will continue. Of course, immigration policies in these countries might offset this somehow. The direct consequence of this is that suppliers are going to have to look for alternative markets for agricultural products. They should not have to worry too much, as there will be plenty of people to feed in other regions.

Asia, with about half of the world population is definitely a huge market, although it presents a great variety of conditions and situations.

The largest economy in the region, China, is developing a middle class with more disposable income. This results in a change of diet, with relatively more protein, especially animal protein than by the past. Although being the largest meat producing country in the world, China is struggling to feed its population, and I expect that it will remain a net food importer. Further, the country has major challenges to overcome when it comes to availability and quality of water. However, in the long run, the past one-child policy will affect the Chinese demographics and influence their need for food, as well as the dynamism of their economy at large, by the way.

The second largest economy, India, is very dependent on the monsoon for its food supplies, and climate will remain a challenge. They seem to struggle to be able to secure their self-sufficiency, rural development is still a challenge and poverty remains a concern to reach prosperity.

Emerging South Asian countries, on the other hand, for instance Vietnam, show a different picture. They have a young population and want to benefit of the economic momentum coming from China. They are actively developing agricultural and aquaculture production for export purposes, and they keep on this policy. Aquaculture is very active, as some of these countries have a very extensive shoreline, like for instance The Philippines.

Although food security in the region remains uncertain, and the scare of last year’s food price increase, some countries are trying to establish structures to protect from such risks. For instance, a number of ASEAN countries are trying to set up a rice cartel, some sort of an OPEC for rice, in order to have more control on the market and the prices. Of course, we will have to see if this will work as planned.

Another region that is showing booming demographics is the Arab world and the Middle East. Many countries in the region are wealthy thanks to oil, but also have the disadvantage to be located in desert areas. Attempts to increase food production have met their limits, and they do not guarantee food security. The main reason is the shortage of water and trying to grow more food would create a drinking water crisis. This is why some Arab countries are developing other strategies to “outsource” their food production like mentioned in the article “The Great Unseen Land Grab”. Other countries, like Qatar, are considering investing in food companies in order to secure their food supplies.

Some players are already making their moves

Some players are already making their moves

I expect stronger ties between the Middle East and former soviet republics. Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are joining forces in the “Black Sea Wheat Pool”, another agricultural OPEC. Although we will see how this combination works. Another area that I see booming in the future is the Mediterranean region, which is the interface between Africa and Europe. Although immigration has been a hot issue in the past, there is a great potential for a win-win situation for both sides if managed properly. The idea of creating an Economic Zone around the Mediterranean has already been brought forward and considering the demographics of the region, it makes quite a lot of sense.

Africa, although plagued by many problems, be it natural, social, political, humanitarian or health, as a huge untapped potential. The plans of Arab and Asian countries to lease land on this continent and develop agriculture for their needs, could give the necessary impulse to develop African economies. I also believe that South Africa has the potential to be the driver of the economic surge for the continent.

Last but not least. South America and Brazil in particular, is going to play a major role in agricultural production. They have an amazing potential, but also many issues to solve, especially on the environmental and political level. Their position of producers of basic commodities as well as high value products like meat gives them a strategic role in the international food trade, and the upcoming merger between JBS and Pilgrim’s Pride in the US and between JBS and Bertin is another step in the creation of agribusiness giants, following the merger between Perdigao and Sadia.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Sustainability: A land of confusion?

September 17, 2009

The more I read and hear about sustainability, the more confused I get about what the people making statements about it really mean, if they mean anything at all.

Very clearly, everyone now goes sustainable or green or whichever other term they choose. It is almost as if sustainability is a completely new revolutionary concept. No, it is not. That was the way people lived for ages, before we started thinking that we did not have to live by Nature’s laws. Yes, in the old times people would repair their socks instead of throwing them away. What were they thinking?

Two things really worry me about the current sustainability approach. The first one is companies appointing one person in charge of sustainability. Can sustainability be a separate entity in an organization or has what should be our most basic thinking been so forgotten that someone needs to reinvent it? I do not think so. Sustainability is everyone’s concern and if there is a CSO (S for you know what), it should be the person at the very top, imposing sustainability thinking to every employee in the company. This topic is too important to delegate. The second one is how quickly businesses that have shown some serious deficiencies in the sustainability area now come out very quickly with all sorts of announcement and even certification proving how well they are doing. Of course, on the other hand, there are the market watchers claiming that some of these claims are not true.

For instance, I am getting more and more confused by how quickly, and almost on a weekly basis, restaurants and supermarkets are able to source sustainable seafood. As such, this is great news. Yet, it makes me even wonder if there indeed was an overfishing problem. Something just does not quite add up.

There are those who seem to reduce sustainability in food production to organic or to small farms, almost as if the Amish way, with all due respect for the Amish, is the only way forward. I disagree with this rather reductionist thinking. I believe that with all the technology that we currently have, we can be sustainable and modern.

Therefore, for those who, like me, are confused about what they hear and read, here are a few statements about how I think about the subject, and I hope that they are not confusing to you.

  1. Per definition, what is not sustainable has no future. Therefore, just do it, instead of talking how you would do it.
  2. Everything that continuously depletes a source of our basic essential needs is not sustainable. Think about it before depletion reaches the point of no return!
  3. Everything that continuously increases the level of harmful components in what we breathe, drink or eat is not sustainable. Think about it before increasing water, air, soil and food pollution!

It is just this practical.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Bringing cities to the countryside: Infrastructure will help rural development

September 16, 2009

Although the title of this article many sound a contradiction in terms, agriculture (in which I include aquaculture as well) needs cities and vice-versa. Rural development is more than just agricultural activities; it is about creating and improving a cluster of many economic activities that are necessary for the proper functioning of a community.

As such, this should not be a surprise, because in the history of man, human settlements always have been linked to drinking water and sufficient food supplies. By developing agriculture, the very first “farmers” created the conditions for sedentarism, instead of continuous migrations. On these sedentary communities, other activities developed later to cover the needs of the locals. Maslow's pyramid of needs - Picture WikipediaThe hierarchy of the needs that we must fill can be easily identified according to the pyramid of Maslow: food and water, shelter and physical safety. Once this is achieved, adding other activities become more natural and simple.

This is why developing large urban centers is no guarantee of prosperity. Like all things in life, the key is about balance. Of course, over the last 150 years, the focus has been about growing the industrial capabilities and this has been the engine for a massive migration of population from the countryside to the cities. Although the conditions were far from stellar, many companies in the early industrial development were providing their employees with housing. Their ways may not always have been very social, but they were showing some level of social responsibility.

With the ups and downs of industries, cities have increasingly faced a problem of poverty, as the development did not include a sense of community anymore and company loyalty towards their employees disappeared as the workforce became expendable and factories could move to other countries.

This industrialization and urbanization have also affected the rural areas and the agricultural world. Many rural areas have faced and are still facing isolation and poverty. Although in many cases there have been many efforts made to improve this situation, the situation has not always improved.

Yet, we now see the challenges of feeding an ever-increasing population, we all recognize that we will need to cultivate more land and water, but this still does not seem to make things turn around.

In my view, the problem is that, too often, we restrict rural development to agricultural development, and by looking at this part in a separate way, instead of focusing on integrating agriculture in the development of the whole local economy, we just do not create strong enough chances of success. Having large urban centers with their problems on the one hand, and remote and depopulated rural areas with their problems on the other hand, should be the clear sign for all of us that our economic model is out of balance. There can be life outside a huge metropolis where everyone has become an anonymous person, resulting is a dislocated social fabric. What has made the success of our species has been our ability to act as groups. As isolated creatures, we probably would not have survived very long.

To rebuild the necessary social fabric in rural areas, we must create the conditions to have balanced and complementary activities. This is why, while some see the future of agriculture as urban farming, I believe that it has to be urbanizing the countryside, not with large impersonal cities, but with human size settlements where we can provide for all the needs.  Isolated farmers with no direct connection with their markets and not getting the value for their products to make a decent living will look for alternatives. If we want more people to produce food, we must understand that they must make enough money to want to keep producing food. By creating a proper infrastructure around agricultural areas, we can create a more local market that will drive production. A profitable market for the farmers’ products also means more money in their pockets, which in turn means more spending power to develop demand for other business, be it for products or services. This is how we will be able to grow local economies and communities. This is not about a romantic or idealistic back to nature movement, or creating local farmers markets purely for marketing purposes, but this is a thorough and integrated process embracing modernity. In the current rural areas and probably in other regions, the future will about bringing the economy to the people before bringing people to the economy.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.