Of food riots and economic hardship

January 31, 2011

The riots in North Africa are getting a lot of coverage. This is good, because the problems in this region have been ignored for a long time. In 1987, I had bought a book “L’Europe Submergée – Sud-Nord dans 30 ans” by the late French economist Alfred Sauvy, the man who created the term Third World. His book was a description of the demographic differences between Europe and the nations from the South, and of the likely consequences. His prediction was by then that within 30 to 40 years, Europe would see a flow of immigration from the other side of the Mediterranean Sea that would replace the original European population. He also saw in this migration a great opportunity in terms of economic renewal for Europe. He certainly would have deserved the title of futurist!

When I wrote Future Harvests, I dedicated a chapter on the changing demographics. It clearly appeared to me that he was right, and that the evolution of the population numbers between the different regions of the world will influence decisions about food production, food supply, and economies altogether. In Future Harvests, I indicate in which regions I think tensions would arise. The Arab world was number one on my list. Here is the map of the median age per country. The median age of a country is the age of half its population. Most of Arab countries have half their populations under 25. And what to think of Sub-Saharan Africa where that age is lower than 20? This is in sharp contrast with Western countries where almost half the population is older than 40. It was really striking to see the pictures of Tunisian rioters: there were teenagers. With a chronic unemployment, especially with the youth, reaching levels of 25%, and many people living on a pittance, riots erupting and governments being toppled are no surprises. This situation has been going on for a few decades. A new generation of people who see little hope and future is simply sending a message. Change must come or change will come.

In the news, everything is mixed together and it may appear a little difficult to understand what causes Arab countries to flare up like this. Everyone speculates which country will be next. Of course, food is mentioned as one of the many causes, and I can read all sorts of opinions about that. From what I understand, the riots in Tunisia were caused by the arrest of a food street vendor for not having the proper license, which immediately cut his meagre source of income. After the success of the Tunisian upheaval, it is not surprising to see neighbouring  countries with a similar demographic and similar dire economic situation following a similar path. Does this mean that there will be riots over the entire Arab world? Probably not all at once. It might not be successful everywhere, either. Other rulers in the region will make some moves, even symbolic ones, to defuse potential tensions. Both the Tunisian and Egyptian rulers are doing their best to defuse the tensions, and by resigning if this is what it will take to avoid complete chaos. The lesson is hard for Arab countries and they are now more aware than ever of the dangerous situation they are in. This is also a loud warning to the rich nations. However, at the Davos conference, the elite were not even aware of what was going on. Eventually, they heard it, and paid attention. Stock markets dropped for one day only as unrest was spreading in Egypt. Interestingly enough, markets were up on the days that a bomb exploded in Moscow’s airport and when Japan’s economic rating was downgraded by S&P. Certain things matter more than others. Europe must now realize that unless it helps its southern neighbours solve the problem, they are going to become a part of it. Yet, European countries seem to have trouble taking some clear position on the events. North Africa, just like the rest of Africa needs economic development. The people of these countries need to regain hope in the future. The generation that comes of age to leave the parents’ home and start, and support, their own families must see reasons why it will be possible for them. At this juncture, they doubt that they will be able to do so.

In Future Harvests, I mention two regions with a demographic time bomb waiting for a food security problem to explode. One is the area between Russia and the former Central Asian Soviet republics, extended to Iran and Pakistan. The other one is the border between Mexico and the USA. Mexico is disintegrating and law and order are fading away. Both these regions are going to have to work together to find strategies to ensure stability. This probably will not happen without serious clashes.

Many of the countries where booming demographics, poor economic situation and precarious food security are the normal state of affairs need a 21st century Marshall Plan. As I have presented in previous articles, the potential for feeding the world population is there, but the main cause of hunger is the lack of affordability of food. In 2008, there were food riots, but there was no real food shortage. The main problem was that the populations could not pay for it because the price had skyrocketed, especially the price of basic food staples such as rice, wheat and corn. This time, although according to the FAO, food prices are even higher than in 2008, we have not seen the same kind of riots. A reason for this difference may have been the fact that retail prices of food staples remained contained. So far.

Some sort of Marshall Plan is a necessity. Development and stability is in the interest of rich countries, just as much as it is for developing countries. Europe, Russia and the USA cannot thrive with countries on the verge of complete collapse at their borders. If there has ever been a good investment, this would be it. It is interesting to look at the example of China. This hard-core communist country was on the verge of economic disaster and famine, until they decided to put the doctrine on the side, and open their doors to foreign investments. From the moment that China decided to feed its people, things changed. For the communist government, this was the only way to stay in power. A billion hungry, and angry, people are impossible to keep under control. For the capitalist “Satan”, it was convenient to present the Chinese “opening” as a victory of the aspiring capitalism, but mostly it was the greatest opportunity ever to reduce labour costs of consumer goods and boost corporate profits. Investing in China was not exactly like the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe, but the amount of money that flowed into the country helped turn around a bad situation into what soon will be the world’s first economy. While the middle class in Europe is stagnating at best, if not actually disappearing, China has grown its middle class to 300 million people (the whole US population) and it aims at increasing the number to 850 million by 2030. China is still (officially) a communist country with no elections, but that does not seem to bother too many people. Developing nations need money to flow into their economies to create jobs.

Many people are asking whether we will see food riots again. Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Although there is much political talk about food prices and risks of riots, nothing is really done to prevent it from happening. It does not look like there is much political will to make the necessary reform to prevent extreme tensions. Most world forums of all sorts seem to be more of an opportunity for the wealthy and powerful to hobnob than a place where actual decisions are made. The WTO Doha Round, which if well completed can bring many solutions, takes for ever to come to a conclusion. It looks like reason and leadership are not prevailing much right now. It is highly likely that the world, and mostly the rich nations, will understand the message and act only when they will feel that their position is in danger, too. Food riots will come as soon as food affordability drops under an acceptable level of suffering. Of course, Asia, Latin America and Arab countries are the most likely candidates for such unrest, but rich countries are not immune to that, either. Especially the USA is more vulnerable that many may think. In 2009, the USDA estimate of households that do not have enough money to feed themselves was of 14.6%. Although the economy seems to have stabilized, it has not recovered yet. Moreover, the housing situation in the US is far from stabilized. Many Americans have been able to keep consuming somehow because they simply stopped paying their mortgages and could stay in their homes. The number of mortgage delinquencies is so high that banks cannot handle all the cases. Actually, most cases have been postponed, but one day some decisions will have to be made. If the banks played by the book and foreclosed all houses, the owners of which cannot pay the mortgages, it would result in an incredibly high number of homeless broke people. The banks would have to report serious losses. Today a report indicated that 11% of all American homes are empty. More foreclosures will increase this number further. How will these people manage to eat by then? Banks can decide to settle according to individual situations. There will be less broke homeless coming on the streets and the banks will have fewer losses. In a previous article, I had mentioned the risk of a decreasing dollar, especially the risk of inflation as financial markets play the commodities only to hedge against the loss of value of the dollar. Inflation in an economy that is stagnating will reduce the affordability of food for the less wealthy. Unemployment is staying rather high and I have not seen any report from anyone presenting a situation in which employment would increase in significant numbers any time soon. In 2008, Gerald Celente, a trend forecaster who predicted the 1987 stock market crash and the fall of the former Soviet Union, told that by 2012, America would have food riots, a tax rebellion, and even a revolution. At first, I was sceptical, but I am starting to wonder if he might be right. After all, during the food price hike of 2008, Americans were hoarding goods from the supermarkets.

The food riots to come will finally force government to intervene and do what they are supposed to do, which is to ensure the stability and the viability of the society by setting the proper rules for the game. Especially, proper regulation on commodities markets and corporate near-monopolies will become crucial for social stability. The only unknown is the cost of our procrastination.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


I am available for speaking engagements about the future of food and farming

January 25, 2011

Updated February 9, 2011

Publications about the future of food and farming are on the rise. I probably was just a little ahead of the pack with “Future Harvests – The Next Agricultural Revolution” that I published last August. First, I saw that it took 400 scientists and two years to publish the Foresight report titled “The future of food and farming: challenges and choices for global sustainability”, published on January 24. It is an interesting report. Then, on January 28, The World Economic Forum released the report titled “A New Vision for Agriculture”, which involved 17 global companies, 350 leaders of industry and 18 months. This one I read as a typical WFE document about the future agenda of these large corporations, really.

I must say that having written my book in six months and not coming short of any of the points mentioned in both reports, I feel quite proud of my achievement. Future Harvests does not come short of any of the topics these reports address. In fact, these two reports come short of some critical factors for food security that I do mention in my book. From feedback that I received, Future Harvest appears to be even more informative and more fun to read than these reports.

It looks like I did a reasonable job, then. For once, I will pay myself a compliment. Apparently, my company is the little consulting firm that can! That will be the slogan from now on.

As this topic is gathering momentum, and more people are buying my book, I believe I should tell about the big picture and inform people about what is likely to happen in the future. This fascinating topic keeps an audience on their toes.

I am available for speaking engagements to present this topic or any other related to it. This is a great story for any group interested in learning about trends and future developments in food production and food supply.

So, if you and your organization, be it industry, non-profit or government, are interested in a presentation, please do not hesitate to contact me or to pass it on to someone who you know would be interested.


Feeding nine billion is an exercise in leadership

January 24, 2011

In a previous article, “Hunger is about more than just food production”, I showed how much more potential we have to feed the world than we commonly think. However, having the potential to do so does not mean that we will do it. Human nature has the habit of fluctuating between its best and its worst. Therefore, whether we will actually feed nine billion is far from done. In this article, I am going to reflect to what it would take to be successful at making it happen.

In my book, Future Harvests, I present the six principles that are critical to meet future food demand successfully: Sustainability, Innovation, Market Orientation, Pragmatism, Leadership and Efficiency. I had regrouped these principles under the acronym SIMPLE. While I was writing the book, I always came back to the same observation: success or failure to feed nine billion simply depends on us all. Someone needs to set the course and create the conditions to take the proper actions. The world needs leaders that will make food production potential the reality by 2050.

The job description is, interestingly enough, rather reminiscent of food production and genetics. In order to express the full potential of its genes, an organism needs the proper environment. This is exactly the role of the future leaders. They must create the conditions that will allow farmers to produce efficiently, yet sustainably.

The starting point will be about making the right decisions for both the long term as for the short term. We must preserve the potential to produce for future generations, but we must not forget to provide for today as well. Proper leadership will need to take into account the interest of many different groups and manage a balanced approach between money, people and environment. For sure, future leadership will be a balancing act. This will be easier to achieve if the leaders can sell the world their plan, which means that they must have one.

Leaders come from all layers of society. They are in government, in industry, in non-profit organizations, they are independent farmers, or they come from non-food related occupations. Adequate food supply is the very fundament of societies. Where there is hunger, there is no prosperity. Without food, there is not life, and just as importantly, without water there is no food. Developing food security is not an option; it is probably the most important policy sector of any society. This is something that we must not take lightly, even in rich countries where we seem to take food for granted. Things may change.

What story do our leaders need to tell and execute? The points that I raised in the article mentioned at the very beginning are a good place to start. The scandal of food waste, because it really is a scandal, must be dealt with and fixed. In developing countries, this is caused by a lack of infrastructure. It is only a matter of money. If world leaders have the will to get that money at work, it will happen. For some reason, they do not do it. Maybe it is a sign that things are not that critical after all. Compared with the amounts of money thrown at financial bailouts and stimuli of all sorts, the cost of infrastructure development looks ridiculously insignificant. Such projects would actually create jobs and increase the wealth of the populations where it takes place. This would not be artificial GDP boosting, but actual poverty reduction and increased food availability. In rich countries, food waste happens at the consumer end. What leaders of these countries need to communicate is a sense of responsibility. Wasting food is simply immoral, just like any other waste. If we take the example of nitrogen, the waste by leaching is estimated at about half the nitrogen spread on crops. This is huge and very damaging for two reasons. One is that the nitrogen ends up in the drinking water making it harmful, especially for pregnant women and infants. The other is that the production of nitrogen fertilizers uses half the world’s agriculture natural gas consumption. Efficiency is not a luxury, but it is a necessity. When efficiency increases, the amount of waste decreases. This works towards a higher sustainability, too. Food waste is one thing, but food consumption excesses or unbalanced eating habits are another area of work for our leaders. Eating more food than one needs is not only detrimental for that person’s health, it is also food that is less available to others. This pushes food prices up, too.

The effectiveness of leaders depends on their ability to communicate and get the message over to their dependants. Changing habits and infusing a sense of solidarity and responsibility requires patience, communication and proper education programs. Defining vague objectives or using hollow populist slogans and expressions will have no effect. Only charismatic leaders with strong convictions about what ensures the future of their people, even if it means sacrifices, will be able to bring such a change. It is not easy to do when your country is not on the verge of a terrible crisis. An interesting example about unilateral leadership is the decision of the Chinese government to slow down the number of new car registrations. They consider that there are enough cars. Getting a licence plate will be difficult in the future. In 2008, they decided to ban the use of disposable plastic bags in supermarkets, thus saving an estimated 100 billion bags and the equivalent of 37 million barrels of oil per year. Similarly, China is now the world leader in renewable energies. What actions did the Western democracies take about new car sales and supermarket plastic bags? When children died because of tainted milk, the Chinese authorities arrested all the people involved, and even executed two persons. Of course, the use of melamine in the milk was intentional, making the case extreme. However, in the West, I do not recall anyone being arrested or considered personally liable after deaths by food poisoning. My point is not to demand imprisonment of CEOs as a standard operating procedure, but I am sure that if executives of food companies felt that they could be personally liable for food poisoning, the precautionary principle would apply much more systematically. Leaders need to make understand that doing something wrong comes with consequences. Although there is much to say about China’s political system, one must admit that not having to think in terms of elections every four years and not having political campaign funded by any industry of NGO of any sort can help politicians focus on the long-term, too. Maybe the fact that China is plagued with so much pollution in the air, in the water and in the soils also makes the issue more acute for the leaders to resolve.

If the stick is one option to make people do what is right, the carrot is, at the very least, as important. Nothing stimulates people more than being rewarded for doing a good job. People are at their best when they know that others appreciate what they do, and that what they do makes the world a better place. Then, they do not see their occupations as “have to” activities, but as “want to” ones. Subsidies, bonuses, tax credits are all motivating tools to make people do the better thing, but the key is to have incentives that meet the goals without having harmful side effects.

Leaders also need to be innovators. Considering how fast our world changes, and the quantity of new knowledge made available about on a daily basis, many new possibilities will be available to solve old problems. Innovation is the child of human genius and, to cope with future challenges, creativity and adaptability will be major assets. It is the leaders’ role to foster innovation, yet by keeping in mind all long-term implications.

The ideal leader would have the qualities described by Plato in “The Republic”. Although it is an ideal, having committed leaders matching his description would increase our odds of success.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Food, Inc. or just the description of America?

January 22, 2011

A couple of days ago, I watched the documentary Food, Inc. Although the underlying theme is that the four large US corporations that dominate food would try to keep the American consumers ignorant of their activities, I saw this documentary much more as a review of the US society over the past 60-70 years.

As usual with this kind of documentaries, there is a mix of commentaries with pictures without presenting anything specific about the relation between the text and the images. The chicken farmer from Pennsylvania is angry, but it is not clear exactly at what. She removes dead chickens, but we do not hear what the cause of death is. To me, with my experience in chicken production, it seems that her chicken house is in very poor shape, and I am not sure about her level of commitment and overall technical performance. The Tyson grower seems quite a bit happier than the lady chicken farmer who ends up being terminated by Perdue. Unfortunately, the crew cannot film inside his chicken house and we never hear to know exactly why, but the commentary tends to imply that Tyson wants to hide something. Unfortunately as well, no representative from the large food companies mentioned wished to be interviewed, and that creates the impression that they want to conceal something. The chapter about the staff policies of meat companies is quite interesting. If this seems a surprise for the journalists, it was not for me. In Europe, we knew 20 years ago how harsh contracts were for farmers and plant staff. This is the product of free job market mechanism with a slight reminder of a certain thinking about labour force in the old south. Certain things simply die hard. John Steibeck’s Grapes of Wrath had shown several decades ago how agricultural labor force could be exploited. The reminder that meat packing plant workers used to have decent wages is an indicator of two things. One is a reflection of the disappearance of the American middle class in the manufacturing sector, and the other is that meat plants would purely and simply suffer tremendous financial losses if they had to reset wages the way they used to be. There might be some concerns about their financial long-term sustainability. They are not ready to cope with production cost increases, and they can hardly reduce personnel costs much anymore.

The family of four that lives on a diet of fast food is also a typical example. They do not have time to cook, and that justifies eating only burgers with fries and pop. The fast food meal for four comes down to almost US$ 3.00 per person. You can make a healthy meal for that money. The luxury meal that I prepared for my spouse on Christmas Eve was hardly more expensive than this. For that family, like for many American households, money is tight and they need to do the best out of a limited budget. The filmed visit to the supermarket tends to focus too much on the broccoli at US$1.29/lb. That price would be too high. That is possible, but there is more than broccoli to choose from. Potatoes, rice, carrots, beans, cabbage or onions are much cheaper than broccoli, and by combining them, it is possible to prepare quickly a healthy nutritious diet, including some meat. The mom works long hours and has no time to prepare diner. I accept that, but the teenage girl could do that to help her mother. My parents also worked long hours, and dinner was not before 9 pm. This is why I learned how to cook. When there is a will, there is a way. Then, we learn that the parents suffer of diabetes. This is not really a surprise considering such a crazy diet, and this problem is spreading to more and more American families. When you add the medication costs to the price of the fast food meals, preparing a healthy meal as I described above is really the best deal in all respects. In the land of individualism, where people are expected to take charge of their destinies, it is a bit strong to reduce the discussion to the agribusiness having “altered” foods, thus presenting this family as victims. I disagree with this. They made a choice, which may be the most convenient, but not the wisest. The alternative certainly requires some effort, and that may be difficult to handle. The blaming game, which is even more popular than baseball in the US is not leading anywhere. Most of all, why do they have to order pop with their burgers? They can cut their calorie count by filling bottles with tap water. Making sandwiches is easy and quick, too. This is a lot cheaper and a lot healthier, and it does not require much work at all. Last year, I had written an article in which I was showing the similarities of human behaviour and how we produce food. Food, Inc. makes this comparison quite vivid.

Then, the documentary shifts to food safety and presents some footage of meat processing plants. That is certainly a very important item in the US, where the number of recalls for bacterial contamination is simply astronomical. I found this part very interesting because in my many years in the meat, poultry and fish businesses, I have spent several years in close contact and even supervised plant operations as well. What this movie from 2009 showed gave me the same impression that I got the first time I came to the US in 1998, and toured what was by then one of the largest chicken processing plants in the country, in Alabama. Americans certainly love everything big, just like the calorie count of their meals. They love huge complicated plants where the molecules (chlorine by then in that particular chicken plant that smelled more like a swimming pool than anything else, and ammonia in the case of the plant featured in the movie) are supposed to do the work. Unfortunately, with such layouts, visual control is rather difficult as it appears in the documentary. When a plant is such a thick forest of pipes, chains and rotating parts, not only is it very difficult to see what is happening, but it is the best amusement park you can imagine for bacteria. They have so many niches where they can settle and grow in peace. The more complex the layout gets, the more difficult it is to sanitize the plant. The hamburger factory has installed cameras and management claims that this helps them to control what is going on in the several plants they own over the country. My view on meat processing plant supervision is that it has to be done in an ongoing manner, online, with the supervisor being on the plant floor, not sitting in his office. I doubt that cameras will eliminate food contamination issues. Moreover, online quality control requires motivated staff, which also requires proper wages and benefits. Food safety is less a technology matter than it is a matter of management and motivation of staff. Another important element that I noticed is that the boss of the hamburger plant describes himself as a mechanic. I had expected him to see himself as a food producer who wants most of all to offer safe food to consumers. I did not hear that statement. I also would have liked to see him eat some of his ammonia-marinated burgers. I am a meat lover, but I really do not need that on my plate. When I think that, in The Netherlands, we were not even allowed to use chlorine in the slaughterhouse water… We had to work on eliminating the causes of the problem instead of applying never-ending layers of technology band-aid. And we did significantly reduce the causes!

Then, the documentary presents the “natural farmer”, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. He certainly is very successful, but by his own admission, he has no plans is growing much more than he currently is. If there is more demand than he can supply, that will be the customers’ problem. By looking at his chicken slaughter installation and system, I doubt that he can supply much volume, but we never got to hear how big his business is. He is a niche producer, and his customers appreciate him, since one of them claims it to be worth driving 5 hours to get to his shop. That is 10 hours drive including the way back. One can wonder if the footprint of that food is all that great when it comes into the consumer’s home. How many of such farmers are necessary to meet consumer demand? And what is the price of the food they sell? Could this feed the family of four on a very tight budget that eats from the fast food drive-through? The movie never answers these questions.

The story of Stonyfield Farm yogurt was cause for more optimism. They offer the organic alternative. According to the CEO of the company, they are the third yogurt brand in the US and the most profitable one. This is a success story. They sell to Wal-Mart and fit in the retailer strategy towards more sustainable food. It also shows that organic has long passed the stage of hippie small-scale and that is a rational modern business, which the industrial agribusiness tends to refuse to see. The one thing that was missing about this story, though, was how the farmers who supply the milk perform financially.

Probably, the scariest part of Food, Inc. was the one about the lobbying and the politics. In the material country, this is no surprise. This does not make it any less scary, though. Since winning elections is about how much money candidates have in their “war chests”, the actual vote ballot is a banknote. The ones with the most bank notes have the most power. Reality is less idealistic than the idea of a “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. The system seems to have evolved to somehow reminiscent of an aristocracy structure. The US is a republic, but maybe a little less of a democracy after all. The money power is not only political, but in society where suing is a lifestyle, justice tends to favour the richer ones, simply because the poor cannot offer the fight very long. This power of money through lobby and lawmaking might not be as strong as one think, though, Last year, an oil lobby backed-Republican Senator of Arizona wanted to pass a bill to kill solar energy in the state. A Chinese company, Suntech Power, had plans to open a solar panel factory in Arizona (a Chinese company opening a manufacturing facility in the US. That is interesting is it not?) If this bill had passed, they would have lost the business. What did they do? They threatened to stop the project and kill the jobs. Do you know what happened? The Republican Senator did not proceed with his plans. Maybe China will help eliminate the negative effects of lobbies. Nonetheless, for now, lobbies are still active and powerful.

Then the conclusion of the documentary comes in a rush. Buy local, from the farmer’s markets. This is nice, but millions of households cannot afford that food. Moreover, production is not even remotely close to meeting the national food demand. You can vote three times a day to choose the food system. Americans voted a long time ago to have instant gratification, and they chose for the consumption society. Never things would have evolved to what they are if consumers had rejected it from the start. Nobody forced Americans to drive to a fast food restaurant and stay seated inside their cars to eat. Nobody forces them to drink pop, eat potato chips or candy bars, to think that the right size for a steak is 9 oz., to pour ketchup on everything, just as they did not have to spend more then they earned and dig themselves in huge debt.  I do not consume any of those items, yet my self-esteem is good, though.Freedom requires a bit of will power. Freedom of choice does not imply that one should not resist temptation. The American consumer’s behaviour has been a boon for the industry. Nothing is better than consumers who just consume without asking questions. Fortunately, this is now changing gradually. Americans realize that consumer goods producers have looked at them in a similar way as the livestock in feedlots, passive and submissive. Unlike what the makers of Food Inc. may say, all Americans are responsible of the society they have. The industry is, of course. But consumers are just as much. In order to change, consumers are going to realize what role they have played in the consumption society. They can vote, but the US is one of the countries with the lowest turnout at elections. The ones who choose not to express themselves just miss an opportunity to change things. Most Americans have lost faith in their politicians. Yet, there is a democratic force that can, and in my opinion, will restore true democracy. This force is the food retail, with Wal-Mart as the leader. They do not wait for politicians to make laws when it comes about food should be produced. They do not care much about the games played in Washington, DC. They just listen to the people and they offer the workable solutions to meet these wishes. Unlike politicians, they do not set their objectives for the next four years. Wal-Mart has already done more about sustainability of food supply than lawmakers have. Earlier, they had decided not to sell milk from cows injected with growth hormone. Yesterday, they announced their decision to make healthier food affordable to their customers. They represent such a purchasing power that they can force their suppliers to change their practices and their purchasing strategies, enforcing the change all the way back in the supply chain to the seed producers. Be assured that the food industry will do what the retail tells it to do, because without the retail, they are out of business. Their purchasing power is so much larger than the one of the people buying on farmers markets. People should cast their vote and give power of attorney to the retailers. Really, the food retail is just one step away of enforcing change on antibiotics, hormones, animal welfare and GMOs; even if the politicians have not made up their minds. Just compare the size, financially and in jobs, of Wal-Mart and Monsanto. Who is the true giant?

Altogether, I found that the movie was raising good questions, but it was not giving much hope for a quick change, either. This is a weakness, just as the lack of specifics of the pictures. They need to make a sequel in which they will show how things can change for the best, make food affordable and farming sustainable, and how they see the US making the transition. I missed that. The documentary is not as specific to the food industry as it seems. A similar movie with a similar commentary could be made on about every industrial sector of the US, from energy to electronics, telecommunications, the car industry, the banks or the pharmaceutical industry.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Investing in agriculture requires thorough research

January 13, 2011

Since the price hike of food and other commodities in 2008, agriculture is one of the hot topics in the investment community. This is also fuelled by the perception that the world might face a food crisis. For those looking at investing in the food sector, there are many possibilities, but in this sector as in many other investment types, caution is required. The investment community is a pool of sharks, and the name of the game is to sell at a profit. Beware of the salesperson!

According to Jim Rogers, a famous investor and former partner of George Soros, farmers will be the ones driving Maseratis in the future. He believes firmly that, in the future, those who actually produce the commodities, instead of brokers, will make fortunes. It is a very interesting point of view, although history tends to show that the power in food value chains is in both ends of the chain: genetics and marketing to consumers. Becoming a farmer is not an investment. It is a job, and a busy one. Farmers need to generate cash on a regular basis to provide for their families and keep the farm in business. Land is not liquid. Investing is about reaping the profit when selling at a higher valuation.

For those interested in owning farmland, there are possibilities to buy large acreage in many countries. A recent article published in CNBC presents some strategies.  Large private investors seem interested in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Canada. Prices of farmland have been firming up in the US. There are people advertising for Brazilian farmland who promise you a yearly guaranteed (not clear how, though) of 12%. In the former communist Eastern European countries, many farms are for sale. Net importing countries such as China, India and Arab countries choose to invest and develop farmland in Africa. For investors with a strong stomach, Africa may be a place of choice. The continent is pretty much for sale. However, the ownership of the land is not always very clear and the rules of engagements may vary. If you only wish to lease land, you might be interested in Ethiopia: the country is offering 100-year leases for $1 per acre. Although some offers may seem irresistible, buying farmland or a farm is a complex endeavour. Many factors weigh and things may not be as they seem. What is the quality of the soils? How is the climate, and in particular are there risks of floods or drought?  Is there proper access to water? What are the local regulations in the country where you are thinking of buying? How much bureaucracy should you expect? Who are the suppliers, and how they deal with their customers? Is there access to quality supplies? What are the banking facilities and what type of credit can you get? How are the infrastructures for storage and logistics? What access to markets do farmers have, and how is the marketing chain organized? Today’s situation may not be a good predictor of the future, and problems may loom ahead, as Jason Henderson, vice president and Omaha Branch executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City told in an interview to Agri-pulse.

If farming or owning farmland is not your thing, there is always the possibility to invest in commodities with futures contracts. Instead of buying the hard commodity, which would take quite some space in your garage, you just do the same but on paper only. This is a risky business though and it should be left to the pros. Originally, futures had been introduced to give farmers the possibility to fix in advance the selling price for their crops, instead of waiting for the spot market at harvest time. Futures contracts have been taken over by the Wall Street geniuses who brought us the Great Recession. Also realize that nowadays the future contracts prices reflect the supply and demand situation of paper contracts, not of the actual physical market. The result is that futures markets are all about speculation and most transactions are made with borrowed money. Speculation may be about the weather, planted acreage, expected yields or plant diseases. Any news is cause for rumours and markets may change direction without warning. If agricultural commodities interest you, you may prefer to invest in funds that include these commodities, and therefore offer a lower risk. Another possibility to get money at work in the agriculture and food sectors is by buying shares of companies involved in agricultural value chains. For instance, when commodity prices increase strongly, the logical (?) thinking of stock investors is that the next food crisis is ahead and that the world is about to run short of food, which will stimulate farmers to plant more and therefore require more inputs. Especially shares of fertilizer suppliers always shoot up in such situations, all the more so as there are just a few of them. This gives them a strong bargaining position, and they pass on sharp price increases to the farmers… which is why the margins of farmers usually suffer after a year of high commodity prices. In the agricultural sector, it is important to remember what I said about which links in the chain have the strongest position, as this will affect their bargaining position and their ability to get, or to keep, the added value. Weak links will always underperform, while the stronger ones will outperform compared with the average of the sector, that is for as long as these companies are managed properly. Investing in stocks always require a thorough financial analysis, as well as a good understanding of the quality of the management. How does the future look like for a particular company? Does it have a sustainable competitive advantage? How does the future look like for the sector of activity of this company? What is the track record of performance? Does it depend on world market prices or is it more predictable than that? How is the valuation of the company?

Another type of investment that is gathering momentum in the agri-food business is new technologies start-ups. With worries about the future of oil, and especially oil prices, and the challenge of providing enough water to produce crops, many new technologies try to find their way to market. The sector of new technologies attracts many investors, probably because it seems reminiscent of what happened in the tech sector, therefore giving hopes of high return. I come across such ventures regularly, and every time I hear enthusiastic stories from the owner or from the venture capitalists involved. In many cases, the story is about how this new technology is going to revolutionize the way food is produced, or even it will be the solution to hunger. Returns on investments always sound amazing, making one wonder why this has not been on the market for some time already. For such projects, too, it is essential to do the proper research on the claims that the owners and financiers are making. In many cases, I find difficult to get the proper background to support the financial results that they claim. In even more cases, I do not see any real thorough market research, and instead of explaining in which niche they will operate, the market story is about macroeconomics. The macroeconomics may be true, but except for the unlikely event that the particular technology would indeed take over the world within a few years, they are not a relevant description of the actual market possibilities within the foreseeable future. Of course, there are also projects that have strong cases, but they are a minority.

In all cases, a number of simple rules can save you from a very painful experience.

  • Do not invest in something you do not understand.
  • Do not mind hypes and tips.
  • Take all the necessary time to do your research, and do it thoroughly.
  • When in doubt, do not invest.
  • Ask as many questions as possible. When investing, information is power, and lack of information is weakness.
  • Ask independent third parties, and never ask advice from someone who has a vested interest in your transaction.
  • Buy low, sell high.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is exactly that.
  • Investing is not mandatory, and if you miss an opportunity, there will be other bargains later again.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.