Avesthagen-Limagrain deal in Atash Seeds Ltd: solution-driven and market-driven

On October 29 2009, Avesthagen from India and Limagrain from France signed a cooperation deal. As such, nothing exceptional, except that it brings a leading seed selection company together with an agro biotech company.

This deal is about developing and selling genetically modified seeds that answer critical agricultural challenges such as the need for higher yields through drought resistance and high performance in soil with high salinity. The crops included in this deal are wheat, corn, maize, barley and sunflower.

This deal also illustrates my prediction in my article “Future approach of genetics in agriculture”, that is the combination of GM technology with traditional breeding. This is quite a step further, and a much more useful one, from a global food security point of view, than developing GM plants to increase sales of other agricultural input such as herbicides. In my view, these two companies, and their joint venture, are on the right track, and they will lead by example.

For the complete statement about this deal go to http://www.avesthagen.com/docs/oct292009.pdf

Environmental performance on labels: it is coming. Really.

Sweden has started presenting the carbon footprint of food on the labels for food products sold in supermarkets and on some restaurant menus. The Swedish National Food Administration is managing this program.

I was announcing this trend to inform consumers about the environmental impact of the food they consume, and as an aid to make their eating choices, in my earlier articles “Environmental performance on foods labels” and “The dining of the future“.

Here is the link to the article from fis.com with more details on how some food items, such as fish, beef, chicken or pork, perform.

The vertical farm

Here is a think-out-of-the-box article about the “vertical farm”.

It is an interesting vision of a replacement of agricultural land, by indoor robot-tended hydroponic agriculture. They also envision the possibility of raising farm animals and developing aquaculture in the water used to grow the plants; and the fish waste would be used as fertilizer.

All of this would be grown in a 30-floor skyscraper located in the city, powered by the energy coming from city sewage, and the ground floor would be a food supermarket that would provide food for 50,000 people.

Such projects are under review in Abu Dhabi, South Korea, Seattle, WA and Las Vegas, NV.

It looks like science-fiction, yet there are some really interesting arguments in favor of such a development.

The ingredients of the Mediterranean diet nutritionists never talk about

Is the good lifestyle under threat?

Is the good lifestyle under threat?

In the world of the many diets, the Mediterranean one has a special place. Although, the people of these countries have extensive meals, they never seem to get fat, and that is a great puzzle to the obesity-plagued America.

The specialists will tell you it is the garlic, and the olive oil, and the wine, etc… that all contain substances that help your metabolism and your health. And you know what? It is true. They all have very positive qualities, but there is so much more to explain why Mediterranean people do not get obese.

They have long and extensive but properly sized meals
With a meal that starts with a soup or a salad, you already start to fill your stomach with relatively low calorie food, so there is less room left for the higher calorie food. Our brain has two ways of getting the message that we have eaten enough. The mechanical message is a simple nervous transmission to the brain from the stomach, when this one is extended because of food intake. It is as if the stomach says: “I am full, stop sending food!” The second way is a biochemical one sending a message through blood content and pH that says: “there is enough fuel in the tank, you can stop now!”
The mechanical message is rather instantaneous, while the biochemical one has a lag. This is why the appetizer is so useful. If you start with a dish that is highly concentrated in calories, you will pass the amount of calories that you need before your stomach can say to the brain that it is full, and the excess calories will be stored in fat.
A three-course menu means that the portion of every course is smaller, and that contributes to less calorie intake. Who has a 9-oz (270 g) steak for dinner, except in North America?

When you have big meals, you do not snack
The other advantage of extensive meals is that you have enough calorie intake for another four hours, which in Mediterranean society is the time of the next meal. Therefore, they do not snack between meals. When you graze on snacks all day long, which by the way are all loaded with sugar and/or fat, you end up eating more calories than you would with two large better-balanced structured meals.
Snacking on a bag of chips or salted nuts or scooping from a bucket of ice cream while watching TV is not common in those countries.

They may drink wine, but they do not drink pop
Do not think that Mediterranean people drink wine like it is a medicine, but their consumption of soft drinks is much lower than it is in North America. They also tend to drink more water as part of the meal. This in terms of calories makes a quite a difference, too. My story of the mechanical and biochemical messages applies for this superbly; there is no mechanical message, and by the time the blood tells the brain, the subject will have drunk more than a pint (~ ½ litre) of a drink containing 10% of sugar. That is about three tablespoons of raw sugar. Try to eat that up straight!

The weather is warm and sunny
That is another difference with more northern countries. When the weather is warm, you eat less, because your body needs fewer calories for maintaining its temperature.
Moreover, in nice climates, people tend to drink more water and spend more time walking or riding their bikes, instead of driving around.

They cook their own meals
Another component of many Mediterranean countries is the fact that people tend to like cooking much more, probably because of much more diverse and fragrant possibilities that their cultures have developed. Further, eating in Mediterranean countries is much more a social happening than in Northern countries, and you do not serve guests with a frozen meal!
The advantage of cooking your own meal, next to the fact that it is cheaper, ids that you have the possibility of choosing the ingredients and you can decide yourself of how much you put in the recipe. This way, you can manage much better, the origin, the quality and the quantity of your calories.
When you buy ready meals, very often you do not have as much flexibility. Although the food industry has developed low sodium and low calorie meals, it has been quite good at using relatively high levels of salt, sugar and fat, because they are cheap ingredients.

Is everything fine under the sun, then?
Unfortunately, over the last decade, changes in lifestyle and especially the popularity of fast food with the younger generation is changing the picture somehow. The rate of obesity is increasing there, too. Maybe Mediterranean people will have to rediscover their own diet sometime in the future.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Nobel Prize of Economics: Back to the basics

This year’s Nobel Prize of Economics to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson seems to have attracted more attention than previous years, and by reading the comments, I have the feeling that everyone saw signs of what they find important. I believe that the reason for this is that both recipients worked on broad subjects, that have become mainstream, thanks to the climate change issue and the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

The title in this week’s The Economist is “The bigger picture”, and the subtitle is “This year’s Nobel prize has rewarded the use of economics to answer wider questions”. This sounds to me like common sense having turned into some revolutionary concept for some people.

Per definition, economy is the management of natural and human resources to sustain human population. Therefore, it is the very essence of economy to address wider questions and the big picture indeed. To that extent, their receiving the Nobel Prize definitely makes a lot of sense, especially in a time when common sense (aka wisdom) has been widely forgotten and economy has been reduced to just money and profits. What we forgot in our drive for instant gratification is the long-term consequences, and the costs associated to those.

The definition of economy tells it all: it is about the Earth, money and people and it is sustainable. Well, this sounds a lot like the triple bottom line concept, doesn’t it?

Triple bottom line and sustainability are not ideological concepts, and those who try to make it so, are probably making as big a mistake as those who ignore them. Needless to say that reducing such concepts to PR and to marketing are even bigger mistakes, because such an approach only serves the short-term.

Economy, triple bottom line and sustainability are about just one thing: life and survival of our species; and that requires integrating the long-term vision of our societies. If we ignore the future, we will not have any. It is all back to the basics.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Educating the consumer – Nutritional information only is not enough

Last week a survey was published in the US about whether fast food customers were using nutritional information to make their choice. The result was that although they could read how many calories their meal would include, they did not choose for a healthier lower calorie meal.

Apparently, this was a shocker. It was not to me, and this for a couple of simple reasons. First, people do not go to a fast food restaurant to nibble on a knackebrod. Secondly, information disclosed is never enough to make people change their habits, especially if they have a craving for what they buy. Otherwise, why do some people still smoke when they can read in big letters on the pack that it will kill them?

Parents play a crucial role in getting good eating habits

Parents play a crucial role in getting good eating habits

If we want to make people change their eating habits, information is necessary, but by far not sufficient. When it comes to food, we are dealing with many complex issues that have to do with psychology and with taste and a behaviour that we have acquired at a very young and developed as we grow up in the environment that our parents have provided. Further, we all know how skillfully marketing has use these psychological “weaknesses”.

In the US, there is currently quite a debate on health care and obesity is one of the main issues. In many ways, our eating habits are a reflection of our life style and of our society, as I have mentioned in my article “If we are what we eat, what will we eat in the future?” Therefore, trying to induce a change in our eating habits can only succeed if we make broader changes in the way we live.

Next to information, what consumers need is education. Unless they have an understanding of what the data they get really means, how can we expect them to act upon it?

Teaching children about nutrition will help them eat properly

Teaching children about nutrition will help them eat properly

We need to teach children about the basics of nutrition and of metabolism as early as possible, and this education must include their parents, too. There is no big mystery behind what causes obesity, diabetes and other food excesses related ailments. It is quite easy to explain what functions the different food groups fill and how to compose healthy meals, as it is really just a matter of adding up and keeping the right proportions.

It would be highly useful to educate everyone about where food comes from and how it is produced. A program like “Know your food, know your farmer” introduced in the US is useful, but “Know your farming” is just as needed.

What parents also need to understand is that it is their duty to give their children a balanced diet, although it might mean that they, too, should have one, but most importantly, when it comes to decide what is on the table, the children do not dictate what they want simply based on what they like.

Education, though, goes much further than just parents and schools, and retailers, restaurants and the agribusiness need to co-operate more than they currently do, even though some are more active than others in this field. If we want to solve a society problem, the whole society must participate. It is rather interesting to see how the meat industry in the US is reacting to the proposal of a meat-free Monday in school cafeterias. I can understand the resistance to government intervention in telling how people should feed themselves, although when this leads to many health issues, one could argue that if the people cannot make the right choices, maybe someone else should set stricter rules to help them. I also can understand that such a meat-free Monday is a bit threatening to the meat industry, as it means (a tiny little) bit less business in the short-term and maybe quite a bit more if it meant that the next generation might cut on meat consumption. On the other hand, what the meat industry in developed countries needs to realize is that there are plenty of people in other countries who are longing for meat, and these new markets have more than the potential to replace the volumes lost in their domestic markets.

Another great source of information is consumers’ organizations, like the ones I know in Europe. They are independent and they provide many surveys and comparisons on consumer products. They have been very useful in helping consumers gain more awareness about what they consume. Unfortunately, such open and objective information is not directly available in all countries and this is a weakness in the fight for health.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

More action needed on food waste

Food waste is one of those topics that rarely make the headlines while the numbers that come out surveys are simply stunning.

40% of food production does not reach the plate

40% of food production does not reach the plate

Five years ago, the University of Arizona had published a report about the situation in the USA. Their estimate of food waste was almost that 50% of the food produced in the US never gets eaten. Although some losses are inevitable in the supply chain, their report estimated that 14% of the food bought but American households are thrown away, and even 15% of that amount is sent to garbage without even being opened. Not only, this is lost food that could have even eaten, but also the environmental impact of food waste is far from negligible. According to the University of Arizona research, cutting half of the food waste would reduce the environmental impact by 25%, because of reduced landfill use, soil depletion and application of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Recent USDA studies indicate a level of 25% of food that never reaches a plate.

In the UK, research by the government’s waste reduction agency, WRAP, found that one third of all food bought in Britain is thrown away – of which half is edible! I read an amazing statement from Liz Goodwin, WRAP’s chief executive in a 2007 article from The Guardian: ‘If we stopped the amount [of food waste] that we could stop, it would be the same as taking one fifth of cars off the road.’  About a third of the food waste in the UK comes from households, food manufacturers account for about 20%, food service and restaurants for about 15%, and retailers just under 10%.

In Australia, it is estimated that food waste makes up half of that country’s landfill!

At the global level, estimates of food going wasted are that over half of the food produced globally is lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain, finds a new study by the United Nations Environment Programme released in early 2009.

According to UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner There is evidence within the report that the world could feed the entire projected population growth alone by becoming more efficient while also ensuring the survival of wild animals, birds and fish on this planet.” This statement is a nice illustration of what I was presenting in my article The transition from a consumption society towards a maintenance society.

Let’s check if this is correct:
Today’s food production being 100 with waste of 40%, means that we actually consume 60. FAO claims that food production needs to increase by 70% to meet the needs of the population in 2050. This means available food must be 60 x 1.70 = 102, compared with 100 gross production currently. With no waste, Achim Steiner statement sounds consistent and correct!

If this is not food for thought, I do not know what is. Nonetheless, this is definitely a part of what we need to address for the future of food supply.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

How sustainable is “sustainable”?

The more as read about new certified sustainable foods sources, the more I start to wonder about how really sustainable they are. As I have mentioned before, I believe that sustainability is the only way forward because, per definition, what is not sustainable has no future, but I am beginning to have doubts about the credibility of some certification schemes.

There are two things bothering me:

  1. I thought that I had heard something about fisheries collapsing all over the world, but it sounds like more and more seafood is sustainable, and in such quantities that large retailers can offer it. Almost every week there is at least one new certified fishery and many more to come from what I hear. Does this really add up?
  2. Sustainable foods seem to follow the same logic as the consumption society that has brought us in such trouble already. The message seems to be: consume more of it because it is sustainable! I just miss the “consume with moderation” message.

Clearly, certifying sustainable food is a business, and definitely a big business growing further. Moreover, the more food programs certified, the more captive audit customers, therefore the more revenue, it produces.

In addition, it is very clear that there is a lot more “green” talk in business and marketing than actual improvement, at this stage.

Sustainability is a very serious matter, and therefore it is of the utmost importance that certification standards are above any suspicion. Only their credibility will allow us to make the proper progress towards a better future.

Funding and accountability to consumers are two important tools to guarantee such high standards and integrity. I like France’s Label Rouge model, because certification is carried out and supervised by the Ministry of Agriculture, therefore funded and accountable to the French people, their consumers.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Let’s not confuse efficiency and intensification!

Although it may sound like a bit of semantics, the difference between these two terms is quite important when it comes to agriculture and food production.

Let's not confuse efficiency and intensification!Since WWII, much progress has been made to increase food production, such as genetic improvement, production techniques and mechanization, use of fertilizers, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the development of animal nutrition, and of course government incentives. This has resulted in our ability to produce more efficiently and face a previous doubling of the world population. It has helped reduce costs and made food more affordable to more, although unfortunately not to all.

The main driver behind this evolution has been to shift from a mostly labor intensive food production to a mostly capital intensive one, and this why it had to become intensive. The labor force moved to urban centers where they could find jobs in manufacturing and later in services. Thanks to mechanization, less people were needed to work on farms. This has led to a sharp drop of the population active in agriculture from above 50% of all actives to less than 5% in Western countries within 30 years. Moreover, as the standard of living increased, labor costs increased and made a labor-intensive approach too expensive to fit in the type of society that we created, and the only, apparent, solution has been to further intensify and mechanize.

The strong development of manufacturing that went along with the rise of the consumption society increased the standard of living and the disposable income. In the same time, in constant currency, food became relatively cheaper and much more affordable. This led to a change of diet from mostly starch-based to protein-based, and we have seen recently a similar trend in emerging countries.

Clearly, all of this has improved the quality of life, maybe a little too much too fast though. Intensification has brought its share of problems as well, as it always does with progress. For instance, I can mention soil erosion and loss of organic matter, soil fertility and ground water quality affected by manure (especially minerals) surpluses, reduced genetic diversity and possibly lessened resistance to diseases, to name a few. Of course, for each of the problems, we come with a solution mostly based on technology, which usually fits in and reinforces intensification.
Unfortunately, Nature does not work that simply. All it needs is time to process and eliminate problems through its cycles in the soil and in the water. Nature can handle quite a lot, but it can handle only that much. This is where the difference between intensification and efficiency becomes obvious.

Intensification tends to continuously load and overload the system, which is why we hear so much talk about sustainable agriculture nowadays. Food production cannot be sustainable if it does not allow its natural environment to process and eliminate the contaminants. Similarly, Nature cannot replenish on its own what we take out, unless we create the conditions for this.

Efficiency, on the other hand, integrates performance and sustainability. It allows having a high production, not so much by using massive amounts of water, fertilizer, energy or other production inputs, but by using them when needed where need and just as much as needed. This way, we can grow plants or animals with the minimum amount of waste and respect the ecosystem. Efficiency also comes from optimization, and to this extent, efficiency and intensification go hand in hand, up to that particular point when any incremental input does not produce more in the same proportion. More importantly, once we produce beyond the optimum, we take the chance of creating a stress. This is very clear in animal production, when densities exceed a certain point, the animals’ organism defence becomes weak and makes them vulnerable to diseases.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.