My Christmas Eve’s dinner

December 24, 2010

Here is the dinner that I have prepared tonight for my spouse:

Kir

*

Smoked Salmon with a Shallot and Cream Mousseline

**

Stuffed Roasted Chicken with Provençale Vegetable Symphony

(A delicious stuffing made with almonds, prunes and Armagnac)

***

Dark Chocolate Mousse with a delicate hint of Cognac

****

Wine: Pfaffenheim Pinot Gris

 

All of this for a total of about $40, out of which the wine cost half!

No waste. Left-overs will do at least two more meals. This is how the art of cooking helps feel like royalty while costing very little…

And you will see what will be on the New Year’s menu.


Season’s Greetings

December 21, 2010

Here is this special time when we can reflect over the past year, think more about others and make wishes for the coming year.

For the Food Futurist, 2010 has been an exciting year. The publication of Future Harvests, the increased number of subscribers, and new business have made the last 12 months quite rewarding.

I thank all of you who have subscribed to the blog, who have bought my book, and of course who have approached me for new assignments. The coming year looks even more promising!

I try to bring as a wide a variety of topics as possible in the blog. If you have any subject in mind that you would like me to address, feel free to let me know, and I will do my best to meet your demand.

Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for 2011!

May the New Year bring you health, happiness and success!


The rise of the non-profits and how they shape food production

December 20, 2010

In the years before the current economic crisis, the non-profit sector was already creating more jobs than the for-profit sector. Last year, the total of all operating budgets of non-profit organizations passed the US$1 trillion mark. This makes non-profits the eighth economy in the world. This amazing number seems to have been rather unnoticed, yet it has quite some significance for the way economy might evolve in the future. They are a force to be reckoned with.

They are perceived as independent, although this is not necessarily the case, and this tends to give them a higher moral status, especially compared with the for-profit sector. As I had written in a previous article, nobody has the monopoly of morals, but non-profits have a PR advantage in this area. A part of their strength comes from the loss of trust in government, science, industry and politics by the general public. In the food and agriculture sector, the influence of non-profit organizations is growing, and it challenges the way food is produced.

Just like in the for-profit sector, the size of non-profits as well as the quality of their message varies. Similarly to many corporations, the integrity of some non-profits is questioned. However, in order to motivate individuals and organizations to donate money, they need to have and to keep enough credibility. Competition exists in the non-profit sector, too. Only the ones that do the best job can survive. Nonetheless, non-profits have been instrumental for many changes in food production. It is also clear that change and improvement comes only from being challenged. In this article, I just want to name a few examples of the power of non-profits and their ability to cause visible change.

First, here is an example as recent as last week. The HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) came out with video footage of what they called inhumane treatment of pigs at a Smithfield Foods pig farm. For those who may be unaware of who these two organizations are, the HSUS is a non-profit organization strongly opposed to intensive animal husbandry. They want to end factory farms. Smithfield is the world’s largest pig processor. The HSUS and the US meat industry are no friends. They have opposite views on animal husbandry and meat production. They accuse each other of the usual shortcomings and lies, as is the case between industry and its opponents. What I found quite interesting in this case, though, was the communication of Smithfield about the “crisis” on Twitter. Here, I can only speak about my perception, which was that Smithfield was quite nervous about this matter. Obviously, the HSUS scares them, and not just a little bit. The pork company came with numerous tweets about the problem, and in my opinion too many messages. As long as the investigation is not completed, any communication is unnecessary, and potentially confusing. I got confused to the point that I even wondered how they actually implement the procedures about animal welfare that I believe they have. They even communicated that they would have emergency audits from authorities in the field of animal behaviour and animal handling, such as Temple Grandin and Jennifer Woods, from Alberta, Canada. The farm is in Virginia. That sounds rather drastic if all procedures are in place and followed. The end of the story, at this day, is the report of the Virginia State vet, who did not notice any violation during his visit. There is no way of knowing whether something bad actually happened. The vet’s reports also mentions that the farm will have to be monitored, which makes sense in the context. Smithfield also communicated to have fired three employees for violation of animal welfare procedures, which tends to confirm that the HSUS had put their fingers on something true. Of course, the background of the story is that the HSUS finds that Smithfield does not make the move to banning gestation crates for sows fast enough, as the company had announced a few years ago. They compare Smithfield with other US hog producers who have already implemented change of husbandry systems. Regardless of this specific case, the reaction of the world’s largest pig producer tells me that the HSUS is going to win its battle to reform substantially the US meat industry. It will not happen overnight, but it is just a matter of years.

Another example, still in the pig sector, comes from The Netherlands. The largest supermarket chain, Albert Heijn, part of Ahold, the fourth largest retailer in the world, will sell only pork produced in animal friendly conditions, according to a protocol set up together with Vion, The Netherlands’s largest pork producer and Dierenbescherming, a non-profit organization dedicated to humane animal treatment. I remember when I used to work in the pig industry in the late 1980s in The Netherlands; Dierenbescherming was considered a rather extremist organization that supposedly did not get the realities of meat production. How things can change in 20 years!

Greenpeace is one of the most active organizations that try to change how food is produced. The agriculture lobby is not too enthusiastic about their actions, but Greenpeace gets things changed. They addressed the issue of beef production in Brazil and its relation to deforestation. They achieve more than the Brazilian government by reaching agreements with beef producers in a region where the “law of the gun” tends to prevail, but also mostly with the beef producers’ customers. The main fast food companies (McDonald’s, Burger King, etc…) and retailers like Wal-Mart have pledged not to buy beef that would be produced at the expense of deforestation. Be assured that something like this has quite some leverage. A similar situation has happened about the production of palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia. Greenpeace’s action to save the orang-utans’ natural habitat has resulted in large users such as Nestle and Unilever to purchase only sustainable palm oil products. This has more impact than government action. I had mentioned a few weeks ago, the ranking for seafood sustainability by Greenpeace of retailers. Costco, which came last, first tried to contest the results. However, within a couple of weeks they reduced their seafood assortment from 15 to only seven, sustainable, species.

Another non-profit with influence on food production is World Wildlife Fund (WWF). They created in 1997, together with Unilever, the Marine Stewardship Council, which role is to set sustainability standards and conduct certification of fisheries. In 2009, the WWF created, together with the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which has a similar mandate as the MSC, but for aquaculture.

Another typical example came with the wish list of a prominent seafood industry representative for 2011. On that list, he chastises environmental organizations for their negative and critical picturing of the seafood industry. Especially Greenpeace and the WWF are on his “bad guys” list. That is not surprising, but the irony is when he expresses his wish for further development of clean energies to stop the risks of pollution by oil spills and other contaminants. When it comes to other industries than his, he sounds very much to me like a Greenpeace and WWF supporter.

These are just a few examples, but they show without any doubt that the message of non-profit organizations has an audience, and with environmental issues becoming common media material, their influence will only increase. It is also clear that, more and more, retailers, foodservice and, to a lesser extent, consumer goods manufacturers are joining them. The businesses with direct contact with the consumers (aka the public) are leading this change, as I had mentioned in “The quiet revolution of food retailers”.

The next step that I foresee to enforce more transparency is the development of WikiLeaks-like activities that will make public confidential internal memos and other information not destined to publication. This will bring deep changes in the way food is produced. Of course, where there is change, there is resistance, too. The food industry’s reaction is normal in this process. The winners of tomorrow will be the companies that understand where the business environment is heading, and that will see the opportunities to implement change faster and better than their competitors.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Swimming in circles – Part II: BC salmon farmers are proud!

December 9, 2010

In Swimming in circles, I was mentioning that salmon farmers should communicate more about their people, their work and the pride of doing what they do. My article had caught their attention, as I have several contacts and retweets and other things of the same nature. I do not know if my article is the cause, or if communicating pride was in the works anyway, but over the last few days, I have seen quite a number of messages and blogs on that very theme. Of course, this made me curious and I clicked on the links. The titles were clear: they are proud of being salmon farmers, but the text comes a bit short of communicating the passion. That is too bad. I had expected better.

I do not think that the message will reach the public this way. What the salmon farmers need to do is to come over here to Vancouver and talk to people in the street. Only by having personal contact, will they have a true chance of convincing the passers-by. One of the reasons why the environmentalists are successful is exactly because they go to the people to bring their message. They ask you in the street if you have a minute to talk about whatever it is they want to talk to you. The salmon superheroes that I was mentioning in that previous article of mine understand that communication is a contact sport. They went to the offices of the salmon farming companies in Campbell River to hand over the (super?) condoms, even if that meant having to deal with the company’s security officer.

I know to ideal spots in Vancouver for such interaction with the public about salmon farming. The first one is in Kitsilano, at the corner of 4th Avenue and Vine Street. There is the Capers Community Market (now owned by USA’s Whole Foods Market). This is a store selling many organic food items, sometimes for twice the price as at the Canadian Superstore, for the very same items. Environmentally conscious Kitsilano shoppers are quite eager to pay the voluntary eco-tax (Unless in their case it is the ego-tax. Not sure). Interesting details: the David Suzuki Foundation, a strong opponent of salmon farming in open nets, has its offices in the very same block as this store. Great way of killing two birds with one stone.

The second spot is the Fishermen Wharf, near Granville Island. Fishermen sell their catches there to the same ecgo-tax volunteers. The public is welcome there with a sign telling “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed salmon” and other similar “friendly” slogans. After all, fishermen are proud, too.


Future evolution of genetic engineering

December 9, 2010

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are one the most, if not the most, controversial aspects of modern food and agriculture. So far, the focus had been on offering farmers alternatives to pesticides and herbicides. The proponents of GMOs praise the progress made and they claim that agriculture production benefits from this. Opponents warn about all sorts of potential disasters in health and environment. The reality is that GMOs have been around for about a decade and a half, and they are here to stay. There is currently no sign that they would be banned from the Earth, especially since genetic engineered traits have been found outside of farm fields, as I had mentioned in a previous article.

At his juncture, and to think of how this technology –and business- will evolve, it is worth asking a few questions.

Has the use of GMOs been successful for agriculture and food production?

There are several levels in this question, actually. From the yield point of view, it is rather difficult to answer objectively, as there is little possibility to compare the respective performance GMOs and non-GMOs. From what I gather, it would appear that the Bt cotton may have delivered better results. For corn, the picture is much less clear. Actually, some varieties have proven to have rather disappointing performance. For instance, the genetically engineered corn from Monsanto failed to produce in South Africa, and recently their SmartStax variety (developed together with Dow) has had lower results than expected. This forced the company to drop the selling price per unit from US$24 down to US$8! The stock market did not appreciate. Clearly, GMO producers can make mistakes, and this is not particularly reassuring.

However, GMOS have delivered some benefits, too. In Argentina, the use of glyphosate-resistant soybean has allowed the production of soybeans to recover strongly from the brink of disaster. After many years of intensive monoculture of soybeans, the soil had been damaged to a nearly point of no-return, With the use of glyphosate-resistant plants, combined with no-tillage technique, farmers have been able to rebuild the level of organic matter in their soils. The result has been a huge increase of production, as farming conditions have been restored.

Opposite to this success story, a study from China concluded that the use of Bt cotton changed the ecosystem in such a way that pests that are naturally not sensitive to the Bt toxin thrived in cotton fields. This forced farmers to use other regular chemical pesticides to fight them, and the overall use of pesticides was actually higher than before the introduction of Bt cotton. The number of glyphosate-resistant weeds is a growing concern in many areas of the USA, and farmers need to use other methods to eliminate the weeds. Currently, the situation has come to a point that Monsanto is offering a rebate to its customers to buy and use herbicide from their competitors, so that at least they keep buying their genetically engineered glyphosate-resistant seeds, because they do not have the solution of the problem in-house. These two examples demonstrate a simple fact: genetic engineering is not a panacea that solves all the problems. It must be used as a part of a well-thought set of techniques. Producing one type of crop with the included traits without understanding the ecosystem that a field is, simply does not work. A field is not a dead zone. A biologically very active system resists constantly the attempts of humans to get it under control. Since the odds of developing a resistance for all available products is statistically close to zero, rotating herbicides and pesticides strongly increases the chances of eliminating the “super weeds” and the “super bugs”. Of course, companies would rather not promote their competitors products by advising farmers to rotate herbicides and pesticides.

Are GMOs necessary?

Considering the rather mixed results, it is quite difficult to answer this question with certainty. The technology of genetic engineering is useful because it offers the possibility to introduce desirable traits in plants. However, genetic engineering deals with genes, and the actions of the genes, as well as their interactions with other genes, are very complex. This is still a field where we have much to learn. Caution is required. Genetic engineering is only one of the many ways we have to increase and improve production. It certainly is not, as some would like to make believe, the only way. This is also important to keep in mind when it comes to developing countries. In these countries, the problem is not that all other techniques have reached their potential. Many farmers do not even have access to just good seeds. If they had, together with proper financing, access to input and adequate techniques, they would achieve much better yields. Since they are poor, how could they even afford to buy GMOs? In my previous article, Hunger is about more than just food production, I indicated how Africa could become a net exporter without GMOs. On the other hand, in developed countries, such as Europe, where farmers achieve outstanding technical results, for instance wheat yields 2.5 to 3 times as high as in the USA, what could be the incentive? Europe is food secure, actually several European countries are among the world’s largest exporters of food and agricultural products. Why would consumers be hungry for GMOs, while food is already affordable? People may not always be rational, but there is always a strong logic about why they do what they do.

Are GMO safe or not?

In all objectivity, there is no certain answer to this question, either. Until this day, there has not been any proven disaster linked to GMOs. Since in biology things may take a long time to come out, there cannot be any certainty that something is not already changing, either. This debate is between those who think that progress always brings some new uncertainties that should accept, and those who think that we should not take chances. Genetic engineering is still a young science, and 15 years is a very short period in ecological terms.

A related question about this is: “Is there a moral issue about GMO?” There certainly is something about morals in the debate. There is the theme of playing to be God. There is the theme of corporate profits vs. people and environment. There is the theme of the control of food by a select few, and that is about power. There is the theme of secrecy vs. transparency. This is also about a certain vision of the world, and about which values should prevail. There is the New World set of values vs. the “Old World’s”. None of these themes has much to do with science, but they are quite important to many people, and they will remain so for a long time. The controversy and the debate are far from over. The food retailers, such as the giant Carrefour, are now entering the debate. A new interesting element is the awakening of the US consumers who start to question food production; while until recently, they were rather passive in that area. Many things will happen and change. At this stage, it is rather difficult to say what will emerge.

What is at stake?

Next to the themes that I have just mentioned, the most at stake is money, and a lot of it. This industry would never have developed if they had not been granted the possibility to apply for patents and collect royalties on their intellectual property (IP). Without IP, there are no GMOs. Patenting life is in itself a controversial topic. This is especially more so when a whole plant becomes private property while only a tiny part of it has been altered. The original whole plant was the collective property of humanity. Without asking permission to mankind, and not even offering to pay a rent for this collective property, GMO producers have managed to become the owners. For many people, there is a feeling of wrong entitlement.

The key element is IP. This is understandable, because most GMO companies are spin-offs from molecule makers, from the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Their business has always been about investing large amounts of money in R&D to put new molecules on the market. Their philosophy behind GMO production is the same. They think like molecule makers, not like farmers. The objective is to develop products for which they can collect royalties to pay back for the R&D expenditure. The driver for this is the need to develop high margin products to satisfy the expectations of the shareholders. This is why GMOs were a logical step to replace gradually the chemical herbicides and pesticides, for which margins have been eroding. Something else needed to be developed to bring out solid financial results and future prospects. With the patent period ending soon, the existing GMOs will become generic products that will no longer be IP. This forces the producers to think of new traits to include, thus generating more IP for royalties. This leads to a new generation of GMOs

What will be the next phase?

We will see two different paths for genetic engineering. One is a market-driven genetic engineering aimed at solving actual problems that farmers need to overcome. This will not be so much about IP and royalties, but it will be about practical and affordable solutions. This area will be taken over gradually by plant breeders and to some extent with government support. They will focus on issues such as drought resistance, flood resistance, ability for plants to grow in saline soils, and ability to transform solar energy more efficiently into food by enhancing photosynthesis processes. An interesting case to follow is China. Over there, the government is already leading a nationwide restructuring of the currently fragmented seed industry to make it more efficient, and deliver solutions that will help the country improve its food self-sufficiency. Since China is quite involved in farming investments in Africa, we can expect to see Chinese seed producers become more aggressive on that continent, too. China has also clearly expressed that genetic engineering is a part of their new approach.

The molecule makers, as I like to call them, will choose a different path. They will look for sophisticated products for which they can receive a high margin in the market. Their objective will be to introduce as many traits as they can in plants and help them produce… molecules. They are more interested to produce high-tech novelties. They will become the Apple of biology. Chemical synthesis will be replaced by biotechnology. Their areas of interest will be pharmaceutical production and health, more than agriculture. The industry will introduce genes in plants to produce medicines that can be used to treat all sorts of diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, possibly Aids, and many others. They will also focus on the development of healthy nutritional components, such as high Omega-3 fatty acids content in oil seeds and the elimination of allergic components in current foods.

This next phase will see a change in the landscape of GMOs. Companies will make strategic choices about which segment they want to operate. There will be divestment of activities, and there will be new Mergers & Acquisitions, too. It is very likely that GMO producers will focus on biotech and sell their herbicides and pesticides activities to the companies that will choose to specialize in chemicals only. Pharmaceutical companies will get closer to GMO producers, and we can expect to see a new generation of biotech start-ups that will aim at being taken over by larger corporations. Some companies will choose for business-to business, while others will choose for consumer products. For pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals, companies will subcontract farmers, while remaining in charge of the marketing of the molecules.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Hunger is about more than just food production

December 4, 2010

Everyone who works in agriculture and food knows that there are about one billion people on Earth suffering from hunger. The temptation to think that the cause is a lack of food production is great, but it does not reflect reality. Quite a few serious organizations and personalities claim that one Earth is not enough to feed nine billion people by 2050. Some claim that we would need two Earths. Others even go as far as mentioning the need for three, and even four, of our blue planet.

There are two possibilities with such statements.

If they are true, then humanity has a problem, because there is only one Earth, and we will not get a second one. In such a case, the only way for supply and demand to get in balance is a reduction of the world population. This could happen through famine, disease and/or wars. Since in such a scenario there is a maximum to the world population, once this number is reached, there must be a constant elimination of the couple of billion people too many, through one of the means just mentioned. This is not a particularly happy thought.

On the other hand, if such statements are erroneous, there is hope to feed the increasing world population with one Earth.

Then, is one planet enough or not? Simple math should help finding the answer. If we need two Earths to feed nine billion, one planet would only feed 4.5 billion people. Currently, the world population is around seven billion, out of which one billion is hungry. Conclusion is that we currently can feed about six billion people. We are not doing that bad. Is it possible to find ways of feeding three more billion on this Earth? From the simple math above, it is clear that those who claim that we need three Earths or more are wrong.

Out of the six billion who do not suffer hunger, it is estimated that one billion is overweight, a part of which, mostly in the USA, is obese. They clearly ingest more calories than they need. Purely theoretically, if those were to share the excess food they consume with the ones who have too little, the billion hungry people would have about enough. This means that today there is already enough food available to feed seven billion people.

Another interesting factor is waste. According to the FAO, about 40% of all the food produced is lost and wasted. In rich countries, most of the waste takes place at supermarkets, restaurants and households level. People simply throw away food. In developing countries, the waste takes place mostly post-harvest. The food does not even reach the market. The food is spoiled because of a lack of proper storage facilities and logistics. The food ends up rotting, contaminated with mould or is eaten by vermin. To fix the problem, the FAO estimates the cost to improve infrastructure at US$ 80 billion. This is less than the amount the EU just made available to bail out Ireland. What to say of the US$ 3.3 trillion that the US Federal Reserve lent to banks to alleviate the financial crisis? Of course, it will be impossible to achieve an absolute zero waste, but if we were to achieve 10%, this will feed many people. I have heard the statement that if post-harvest losses were eliminated in India, the country would be fully food secure. Per 100 tons of production, 40% wastage means that only 60 tons are available for consumers. By reducing waste from 40% down to 10%, there would be 90 tons available. This represents an increase of food available by 50%! Since we could already feed seven billion with the 40% waste, reducing wastage to 10% would allow feeding 10.5 billion people.

There are also many debates about whether we should eat meat or not. The nutritional need for protein is easily covered with 30 kg of meat per capita per year. I had shown in an earlier article that if Western consumers were consuming just what they need instead of eating superfluous volumes (very tasty and enjoyable, though), it would free meat to feed 1.4 billion people the yearly individual 30 kg. In China, the average meat consumption is already up to 50 kg per capita per year. The consumption is very unevenly distributed, but this is the average. Cutting 20 kg per capita over a population of 1.5 billion would free meat for the nutritional needs of an additional one billion people.

The other area of potential is Africa. The FAO estimates that the area of arable land that is not exploited is about 700 million hectares. This is about the size of Australia. To simplify and get an idea of the potential, we can calculate what it means in wheat equivalent. With the assumption that wheat yields would be the same as the current African average, a low 1.5 tons per hectare, this adds up to 1.05 billion tons of wheat. Since a person needs about one million calories per year, and there are about 3,000 calories in a kg of wheat, one ton of wheat can feed three people, the 1.05 billion tons of wheat can feed more than 3 billion people. Normally, there would a crop rotation of at least two harvests per hectare. With proper investment and financing, farms should be able to reach easily the US average of 3 tons of wheat per hectare. Clearly, this performance could be achieved with traditional techniques and good quality seeds. This is not even about high-tech or GMOs. This tremendous potential of Africa is why China, India and Arab countries are very active developing farming there. They did the math. This scenario also shows that Africa can easily become a strong net exporter of food. In this case, the world map of food looks very different. Without Africa being able to produce large amount of foods, the prospects for food security in Asia and the Middle East are a bit bleak. They can depend only on Western Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, North and South America, and with Australia to a lesser extent. With Africa as a net food exporter, the world map looks a lot more balanced, East-West as well as North-South. Sea routes from Africa with the Arabic Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, and farther away with India and China create a much safer feeling of food security for the countries in those regions. For Africa itself, it may change the relations between Sub-Saharan country and the Maghreb countries. This in turns changes the type of relationship that the Maghreb may have with Europe, by creating more economic activities to the South. Africa’s success –or failure- will affect the whole world.

With the above, everyone can develop further assumptions, but these calculations show that this one Earth can produce enough food to cover the needs of between 12 and 15 billion people. It almost sounds impossible to believe, yet these numbers are not even ambitious. I have not even taken into account that in 2009, 25% of the corn produced in the USA was destined to feed cars, not people, via ethanol production, and that number is expected to grow to about one-third for 2010. The potential is even higher when one considers that a large part of the US corn goes into soft drinks, while it could be used to produce tortillas, with a side glass of water, a much healthier alternative.

That said, if the potential for food production supply looks adequate, actually producing it may not be as easy. The human factor, especially through politics and leadership, will be crucial to succeed.

One would ask why there is hunger if we can produce so much food. The answer is simple. Hunger is not just about food production, it is about poverty. People are hungry because they do not have money to buy food. They do not have money because they do not earn enough, as they have low paying jobs or simply no jobs at all. By developing the economy in these regions, people would get better wages. They could afford more food. The demand would drive the development of food production. Agricultural development would then be a normal and natural activity. Trying to develop agriculture if the locals cannot buy the food cannot work. Recently the FAO estimated that two-thirds of the world’s malnourished live in only seven countries: China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Congo. These are countries where most of the population is poor, and most of which lives in rural areas. The other proof that hunger is not only a consequence of low food self-sufficiency can be found in two agricultural exports behemoths: Brazil and the USA. In the latter, a recent survey carried out by Hormel Foods, the deli producer, shows that 28% of Americans struggle to get enough money to buy food, or they know someone who struggles. Last year, the USDA had estimated at 14.6% the percentage of US households that do not have enough food on the table. Food will find the money and vice-versa. If Bill Gates decided to move to the poorest and most food insecure place in the world, and would fancy a lobster, I am sure that someone would manage to find him one and deliver it within reasonable short notice.

My book, Future Harvests, investigates the possible scenarios to increase food supply and meet the demand at the horizon 2050.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The locavore’s dilemma

December 1, 2010

There is a growing trend, or at least a growing noise in favour of eating locally produced food. The “locavores” as they are called, claim that 100-mile food is the way to a more sustainable agriculture and consumption. Is this approach realistic and could it be the model for the future?

This movement is rather popular here in Vancouver, British Columbia. The laid-back residents who support the local food paradigm certainly love their cup of coffee and their beer. Wait a minute! There is no coffee plantation anywhere around here. There is not much barley produced around Vancouver, either. Life should be possible without these two beverages, should not it? The disappearance of coffee –and tea- from our households will make the lack of sugar beets less painful. This is good because sugar beets are not produced in the region. At least, there is no shortage of water.

But this is not all. There is no cocoa plantation around here, and believe me, there are many people who are addicted to chocolate. British Columbia does not produce citrus or other warm climate fruit. If we are to become locavores, we must say goodbye to orange juice, to lemons, to bananas. Even the so popular sushi must disappear because of the lack of rice. There are no rice fields in this area, and neither are there wheat fields. The Asian population certainly would have a hard time eliminating rice from their diet. The lack of wheat means no flour; and no flour means no bread, no pastries, and no cookies. The carbohydrate supply is going to be tough. If we must consume local, our lifestyle is going to change dramatically. Potatoes and cabbage is the way of the future. But before going all local food, the local locavores must realize that British Columbia produces only 48% of all the food its inhabitants consume. One out of two locavores would have to starve. Going exclusively local would also affect deeply the source of animal protein. Most of the animal feed is made of ingredients that come for much farther than 100 miles. The chickens and eggs would become less available. Farmed salmon, BC’s largest agricultural export could not use the type of feed they currently use, as fishmeal and fish oil come from Peru and vegetal oil comes from farms located far away. There would go many jobs with very little alternatives. If we look beyond food, other agricultural products such as cotton and wool would not be an option anymore. Cars would disappear, because the main component of tires, rubber, is not produced under this climate. The 100-mile rule will solve traffic problems. If local consumption is the rule for food, should not it be the rule for everything as well? China would probably have different views about this. Not only would their manufacturing collapse, but also if they have to produce food within 100 miles of the consumer, they would have to give up importing agricultural commodities. For them, a true locavore system would mean famine. The same would be true here in British Columbia. When people are hungry, they are not so picky about the distance from the producing farm.

The problem with concepts such as local consumption is that the basic idea has some value, but the idea quickly evolves into an ideology, and ideologies tend to make their followers stop thinking pragmatically. Today, the idea of eating locally in a place like Vancouver is possible because supply easily meets demand, thanks to the 3,000-mile foods. This is ironical. If the distance to market has to be within 100 miles, farmers in low population density areas, such as many regions of North America, South America and Central Europe, would have a different type of problem. They would produce an abundance of food, but because there are not enough people to consume it locally, the law of supply and demand tells us that the price of agricultural commodities would plummet, food would stay in storage and farmers would go out of business, while people in China, and in British Columbia, would suffer hunger. Clearly, the 100-mile diet needs some amendments.

Intuitively, it sounds logical that locally produced food has a lower carbon footprint than food that comes from 2,000 to 10,000 miles away. However, this is only partly true. The mean of transportation affects the carbon footprint. The environmental impact of transport is much higher for road transport than it is for rail transport, which is also higher than water transport. The type of transport also depends on the type of commodity brought to market. Perishables need to reach consumers as quickly as possible for shelf life reasons, while dry goods, such as for instance grains and oilseeds do not face the same kind of deadline. The quality of the logistics is also crucial to reduce the carbon footprint. A fully loaded truck is much more efficient than a local truck dropping small quantities in many places, thus driving around most of the time with empty space in the trailer.

The emphasis should not be so much on local as it should be about the search for efficient and low environmental impact. More than the distance from the farm to the consumer, it would be more useful to provide consumers with information about the actual carbon footprint of the products they buy. They would have the possibility to make the right choices. Retailers, too, would be able to make decisions about their sourcing strategies. Clean products and clean producers need to be rewarded for doing a good job. Here in Vancouver, local food products are more expensive than similar offerings from California, Mexico, Ecuador or Chile. How do you convince families with a tight budget to spend more for local products that look pretty much the same? This problem needs to be addressed. Currently, farmers markets are much about marketing. They sell the experience as much as their production methods. Only a wealthy minority can afford to buy on these markets. The prices are not based on production costs plus farmers income. They are as high as possible, because the farmers can ask these prices. The wealthy city dwellers are willing to pay a substantial premium above what they can buy from the local supermarket. In this relation farmer-consumer, the price bargaining does not take place. If these farmers were to try to sell to a grocery retail chain, they would never get the prices they get from the consumers who will not haggle about the price. This is why more farmers try to sell directly to consumers: they make more money that way. However, this might change in the future. A number of retailers are working towards offering “farmers market” products into their store. This already makes market farmers nervous.

Is local production for local markets the way of the future? My answer is that it partly will be and it partly will not. I do expect a shift of the location of production for perishables. Consumer habits will change, too. In the West, consumers have been spoiled. They can eat anything from anywhere at any time of the year. This luxury probably will not be affordable for long anymore. The superfluous will naturally be eliminated.

As the economics of energy, and therefore of food, will change, producers will increasingly locate their operations closer to cities; and even inside cities. Urban farming is a growing activity. Although it started mostly in poor neighbourhoods as a way of having a small patch of land for personal consumption, more sophisticated and efficient systems are being developed. My expectation is that production, and consumption, of vegetables and fragile fruit (for instance strawberries) will gradually become more integrated in the urban landscape than they are now. I also think that we will see animal productions, such as fresh dairy, poultry meat and eggs relocate closer to consumer markets. An interesting development is aquaponics, the combination of greenhouse produce with fish production in tanks. The production of non-perishables will not relocate. It does not have to. What will probably change is the transportation infrastructure in many areas where these commodities are produced.  This is good news for coffee drinkers and chocolate addicts. After all, transport of commodities over long distance is not just the result of cheap oil. The Silk Road and the spice trade by the Dutch took place before mankind even knew about oil. Trade has always been a force of progress for humanity. It helps an increasing number of people to have access to goods that make their lives better. The rules of trade may not always be fair, but like all human activities, it is a work in progress. Limiting our food supply to 100 miles would be a regression. Subsistence agriculture has not demonstrated that it could feed the world. Most of the people suffering of hunger live in subsistence agriculture areas.

(This topic is one of the many that are presented and discussed in my second book, We Will reap What We Sow)

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.