Is animal farming really on the way out?

October 22, 2018

Lately in the food world, one can read many stories about alternatives to protein from animal farming. Animal farming also gets blamed for its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. With so much finger pointing, one can wonder whether animal farming has a future. Proponents of alternatives do all they can to convince everyone that the writing is already on the wall. Personally, I believe that things are far from being that simple.

To predict what scenarios are likely for the future, it is necessary to look at the issue from its many dimensions, both on the production side as on the consumption side. I prefer to look at it first from the consumption side because consumer markets shape production systems more than production systems shape consumer markets.

From the consumer end, there is already much to say. First, as the population is increasing and more people are able to afford protein, the demand for protein is increasing and will continue to do so in the coming decades. I wrote already many articles about this during the nine years of this blog and the topic is also part of my books. The fact that more and more people can afford food is a positive development. The problem is that more and more of them now actually consume more than they should. Overconsumption boosts the need for more production beyond what nutritional needs are. Overconsumption comes down to excess, waste and pushes our use of resources too far. The goal must be to help people to eat balanced meals and not to overeat. If the purpose of the suppliers of alternative protein is to push for consumption of their products and not address the issue of overconsumption, they will be just as guilty as the current protein suppliers. The future challenge is not just to replace one overconsumption with another. It is to stop overconsumption. Unfortunately, as long as our economic model is about volume growth, one should not have too many illusions. Future food prosperity is really about having always enough, not about always more. To achieve this goal, we must shift from sheer volume growth thinking to high quality (including production of course but also social and environmental) with faire distribution of the created wealth between all links of the value chains, and in particular a fair price for farmers through proper planning between supply and demand. The purpose is to supply affordable food instead of just cheap food with all the consequences that we all can see of the race towards always cheaper. Unfortunately, the volume-driven model is heavily subsidized in the wrong places and that will also have to stop if we want change.

Consumers also need to realize the true value of food instead of taking it for granted because future food is anything but for granted. Regardless of the type of protein, one thing is sure: it is precious and rare. This is much more so than for carbohydrates. Protein should be treated with respect. Here are two examples why I make this point. I remember in the 1990s the CEO of Tyson Foods explaining in a conference that the poultry industry is a producer of lean protein and he lamented that, in the US at least, the favorite use was to deep fry it in cheap oil, and thus completely change the nutritional quality of chicken meat. The second example was during a presentation by the CEO of a German fish fast food restaurant chain called Nordsee, who was mentioning that breaded fish was very popular, but not so much because fish is healthy but because fish sticks were used to be a carrier of ketchup from the plate to the mouth. If the true purpose of meat for some consumers is to be a carrier of oil or ketchup, then this is a problem. Never should a product that required the sacrifice of an animal be used to soak into cheap and unhealthy product when over consumed. Speaking of sacrifice, it is good to remember that the word “sacrifice” comes from the word “sacred”. It is true that often our dealings with animal protein looks more like sacrilegious. This is a useful detail to think about when considering consumption of meat. The thing is that animal protein should never really be a commodity. It should remain special. But that is not the way or economic model has decided.

From the production side, agriculture has followed a similar pattern as most other industries. It is about lowering costs (nothing wrong with that) and standardization (maybe a topic more susceptible to debate). Regardless of what people may think of intensive animal husbandry, this system is not here per accident. It is the reflection of how we look at economy and ourselves. Have no illusion about alternatives to animal protein; they follow exactly the same economic philosophy. I always say that the dominant production system is the one that matches the desires of the larger number of consumers. The saying “we are what we eat” is very true. If you look at it that way, you can see that our economy is just as much about intensive human husbandry as it is with farm animals. Economy is organized around three components: resources, labor and capital. Depending on the prioritization and distribution of these three components, we build different systems. A simple example can illustrate what I mean is mechanization: workers have been replaced by machines backed with capital investment in machines. The tricky thing about heavy injection of capital is that the system becomes capital-dependent. The capital must deliver a return on the investment and very often the only way is inject even more capital, just to keep the head above water. It is good for the bankers, but as many farmers and food producers will tell you, less so for them.

So, will animal farming eventually disappear? Of course, it is difficult to answer this with certainty. My opinion is that it is not going to happen any time soon, if it ever happens. What will change are the production systems. After all, the current intensive production systems have not been around since the dawn of times. They are actually fairly recent. They have changed and are continuously adapting. Production systems that are not environmentally sensible will disappear, simply because they will not be able to be profitable and competitive. The reason for this is simple: sooner or later they will not be able to ignore the negative externalities anymore from their production costs. Environmentally sensible systems will take over. Note that I do not use the term environmentally friendly but I use environmentally sensible instead. I believe it is a much better reflection of reality. Will this transition be smooth? It might be, but it is much more likely that it will not be.

Another question to reflect about is whether animal farming is unnecessary? My answer to this is: no! First, like it or not humans are omnivores. Our dentition can testify about that. That is the result of dozens of thousands of years and it is ingrained in our system. It is nature. We are mammals, even though there’s no shortage of groups who try to even deny our biological reality and try to reduce people –and animals- to legal entities. Between Laws of Nature and man-made laws, we will see which ones will prevail. Our first food –milk- is animal in nature. There always will be people who want to eat animal protein. Every time that economic prosperity has increased, meat consumption has increased. It does not happen per accident. When money is tight, meat is often the first thing to decrease. To get back to the question, I believe that animal farming is alright, as long as it is respectful of the environment, of the animals, and also of the farmers. I believe that animal protein is a privilege what we must cherish, not a right that we should take for granted. Animal protein is not the sole source of protein and there are many delicious dishes to make with vegetal protein. Look at Indian cuisine! If the purpose of animal farming is to stuff oneself, then yes I am with those who have an issue that approach of farming and consumption.

Of course, most of the opposition to animal farming takes place in Western countries. It is kind of a First World problem. If certain animal farming systems are environmental time bombs, other systems are actually beneficiary. In many developing countries, having a few goats or cattle is actually essential for the economy and for the survival of farmers. Pastoral systems contribute to prosperity and social stability. Another important point is the biology of ruminants. Just as much as I was mentioning the biology of humans as the results of dozens of thousands years of evolution, the same is true for animals. Ruminants are amazing processors of cellulose. Humans can thrive on grass, because we are not equipped biologically to extract nutrients from it. Ruminants are experts at that. Since there is about twice as many hectares of grasslands as there is of arable land, grasslands represent a huge food potential and ruminants are superb transformers of cellulose in high-value foods for humans in the form of milk and meat. The key is that must be done sensibly and by taking future consequences into account. Many societies around the world know the value of farm animals. If ruminants are excellent transformers of cellulose, it is also important to mention that they have never evolved to be grain eaters, at least in large quantities. Sooner or later, this will become a much more vivid issue than it is now.

Suppliers of alternative protein bring a number of arguments why their products have the potential to replace “traditional” animal meat. The environment plays a central role, in particular the issue of greenhouse gasses. They also address the animal welfare as a driver for their products. The issue of slaughterhouse by-products is also a valid argument. Theoretically, texture proteins, lab meat, insects and vegetarian diets do address these concerns, indeed. So can alternative protein push animal farming out of business? The answer is complex and I will try to answer it as concisely as possible.

The animal protein market is huge and one cannot expect to replace it overnight. Since the demand for protein is going to increase further, alternative protein would probably happy to take only a chunk of the growth. They have to create their spot in an existing and very competitive market. Textured proteins have been around for decades and they have never represented a threat to traditional meat. That does not mean that it could not change of course. Lab meat is all new and there is at this stage no solid indication that they can even compete with traditional meat on world markets any time soon. They are still a long way of representing a force in the animal protein business. Time will tell. An important detail for both textured protein and lab meat is the number of factories, incubators and texturing lines that they need to build to replace animal farms. That will represent huge investments for which they will have to earn the money to carry out. Competing with traditional animal proteins means engage fully in a commodity markets where margins are often thin. They will compete with independent farmers who are often contracted by corporations and often hardly make minimum wage. These suppliers will have to fight against the huge animal protein corporations and deal with retailers and food service companies with strong bargaining power. Will they really want to take the road to commodity markets? I doubt it, or it will be a very long journey. When I hear or see their pricing objectives, nothing tells me that they are really willing to target the mass animal protein market. It looks more to me that they will try to work from a targeted marketing strategy and will work their way into niches for quite some time. Another hurdle is the consumer perception for their products. Vegetarian products already have exposure and are well-perceived. Lab meat may be a more difficult challenge. The mere fact that lab meat producers want to call it clean meat instead and are already facing opposition from meat producers who claim that lab meat is not real meat shows that they have not solved the perception challenge, yet. Even the term meat is not a given.

Where does that leave us for the future and the issue of animal farming greenhouse gas emissions? Considering the time that I believe it will take for alternatives, I do not see that they will play as big a role as they think and/or claim. I believe that reducing greenhouse gasses emissions will have to be enforced. Regulations on production systems will have to address this. This has to happen today already. There is no time to wait until these emerging industries will have developed critical mass. Also production volumes will have to be addressed. It is likely that if we want to be serious about curbing the environmental footprint of animal husbandry, they will not be many alternatives to capping production volumes. That will be a tough one as nobody will want to be at a disadvantage with their competitors. There will be the exact same discussions as there already are with climate change and those who refuse to participate. Neither governments nor corporations will take effective measures. The answer lies with consumers. They are the ones who have the power to reduce animal protein production and changing production systems. From an environment point of view, the only real option is a reduction of global consumption of animal protein. That is the easiest and fastest path to solve the problem, but I do not expect a massive shift from omnivore to vegetarian of such amplitude that anything significant will happen. Unfortunately and just like with anything else related to climate change and overconsumption, only a minority will really act voluntarily. On the consumer side, if prices remain too cheap to trigger a change in behavior and a reduction of consumption, then overconsumption will simply continue. What I wrote in my previous article will fully apply to the topic of animal protein and animal farming.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

 

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Running out of time or simply not running at all?

October 15, 2018

Last week, the UN had a message. We must take unprecedented action if we want to avert a catastrophe because of rising temperatures. The tone is pessimistic, and we all should be, too. We have had warning after warning and let’s face it, we have not done much to really address the challenge. It kind of reminds me that episode from The West Wing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RzF-Wg2g-k (the interesting bit starts at time point 1:00). It is not that concerns about modern technology and so-called progress are new. We knew long before there even were COP conferences, the Kyoto agreement or Al Gore’s Inconvenient truth. Sixty years ago, In 1958, the American (ironic isn’t it, considering the current US views on climate change) movie The Unchained Goddess was already warning about what was coming (see it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1ph_7C1Jq4 – duration 55 minutes). Sixty years ago, I was not born yet. All that time, we have chosen to not think about it and mortgage the future (possible bankrupt it) for the sake of short-term fun and I guess trying to be cool in some way.

The thing with procrastination is that the longer we wait to take action (and we already have procrastinated more than long enough), the steeper the hill on which we will have to fight the battle. The longer we wait, the more expensive it will be, but I suppose we all think it is someone else who will pay. I consider highly likely that the consequence of that will be a triple bottom line crisis: environmental, social/human and financial (The 1929 Great Depression will look like a holiday camp in comparison). That is my prediction. I am thrifty and cautious on predictions but history tells me that I tend to have a talent for predictions.

There has been and there is no shortage of conferences. You know those places where the self-proclaimed elite meet in obscenely luxurious surroundings enjoying a good time with plenty of good food and drinks. I wrote in an article a few years ago that the “deciders” (who never really decide anything that involves their accountability and commitment) should carry out their negotiations in a locked room without food, water and energy and be released only when they have done their work. I still think it is a good idea, although I have absolutely no expectations that it will ever happen. Well, except when Mother Nature is going to take charge of that.

The question now is: are we going to take unprecedented action? The answer is easy: NO. The obvious clue is that the news lived for about 3 days on the media websites and was not even the main headline. It gives a feeling of humankind is on the brink of extinction, but there are more important news. Perhaps. Clearly, not many people really care. Now that the economic crisis of 10 years ago seems to be a thing of the past (psst: beware it is coming back) and gas prices have been back to lower levels than a decade ago (psst again: they are rising again), car manufacturers have focused their production on the gas guzzlers again. Bigger cars that satisfy the fragile egos of males with insecurity issues in the downtown area is what sells. Well it sells because smaller, more efficient cars do not generate enough margin in comparison, and therefore are not going to be produced. Have you noticed how cars never get mentioned as a problem for climate change? No! Cars are fine and the more they consume, the better it seems to be, not to mention the decisions from the USA to pretty much eliminate anything that tried to alleviate the problem. Apparently, the real problem is agriculture and especially the cows. Those damn cows have been sneakily waiting their hour to take their revenge and finally free eradicate humankind by farting. OK, I will drop the cheap sarcasm. It is true that agriculture contributes to the problem, but I resent agriculture being singled out this simplistically. I will get back about this in a next article.

Agriculture is like most industries. It has evolved from mixed systems in which its by-products where reused and recycled on the farms. As one of my teacher at the Agricultural University used to say: animal production has moved from making high-value protein and fat from cheap food scraps to making cheap fat and protein from high-value feed ingredients. The loops have been open and food production moved from a circular system into a linear one in which by-products are considered useless and thrown away and replaced at the input area by their “replacement” produced with much resources and energy. The good news in this is since we knew how to have a circular food and agriculture, we can revert to it. The only problem is… $$$. The industrialization of agriculture led to much more affordable foods, just like most other industries that enjoy the so-called consumption society, which is actually a transaction society. Sellers do not really care if you even actually use their products. They just want you to buy again and again. This economic system is purely production-driven and linear: large volumes from large capacity units to keep costs low. The problem is this picture is that never ever are the collateral long-term costs taken in the cost break down. These negative externalities, as they are called, are never factored in the accounting and of course never addressed at the quarterly financial reports. There is no true circular economy without factoring externalities in the costs. Here is a note for the young readers, if you have been reading this far without falling asleep with my drivel: you, my poor friends, are the ones who are going to foot the bill of externalities that your parents and grandparents are leaving behind. They are the lucky ones because they have lived in obscene abundance on credit and you are the ones who will pay the interest. Unfortunately for you, Mother Nature (from whose bank the interest will come) does not do bailouts. She does not do politics or BS either. She does not print currency. Mother Nature is a ruthless accountant that believes not in liberalism or socialism or whatever dogma humans have invented to give a meaning to their lives. Mother Nature only lives by immutable laws of physics. Mother Nature is kind, though because she sends us message after message to warn us. We, on the other end, we act like squatters who do not even look in the mailbox to go through the unpaid bill reminders or threats of eviction notices. I hate to bring it to the young ones, but your life is going to be quite different than what you parents and grandparents have enjoyed. I am not a spring chicken anymore, but not really old (at least, that what I like to tell myself), and I am sure that I am going to face a very different world in the coming decades. For me, too, the good times are going to fade out. At least I will have had some. I suppose I could complain that it is not fair to me because I live quite a simple and frugal life and my environmental footprint is low. It won’t matter because life is not fair, and that is a fact of life. If everyone were like me, Wall Street would crash in less time than it takes to type “Wall Street”. I spend very little. I drive about 5,000 km per year and walk or bike every time I can. I repair instead of replacing every time I can, although it is not easy. Yep, I know how to repair socks, believe it or not, and I do it when it is needed. I cook all my meals and as you can see on my good food page, I eat quite well. I have a garden that produces a large chunk of my produce yearly needs. I can and preserve the summer surpluses. I make my own bread, and I also make my own wines. I have a little vineyard out of which I am going to make 6 different types this year. I have a small car because I need one, since I live in a rural area, but it unlike my neighbors who seem to need big engines, my little mules runs a gentle 5 liters/100 km (or if you prefer 47 miles per gallon). Speaking of fossil fuel, I am also the only one in the neighborhood who uses a broom instead of a gas-engine blower and uses a push mower instead of a gas-engine lawn mower, and the funny thing is that I do the job faster than my neighbors and much more quietly, which is a bonus. Another bonus is that it keeps me fit. I have a six-pack while my neighbors have beer kegs.

My point, I suppose, is that a good life is not about lots of stuff and/or being so afraid of missing out on something that you need to be addicted to consumption. Actually, the issue is not so much about consumption as it is about excesses, and the always more, as I have mentioned in previous articles (do a search in the window on top of this page), while we should strive to always enough. When you have enough, you are good every time. If you never have enough, perhaps it is time to reflect about why that is so.

Excessive consumption is only the visible part of the problem. The other –hidden- part is waste. And how wasteful are human beings. The amounts of resources, water, energy and food that are wasted are staggering. Earlier, I was mentioning my little car and my neighbors’ thirsty vehicles. On a same trip, at the same speed, I am sure that they consume between 2 and 3 times as much gas as I do. The extra gas consumption does not add anything to the outcome of the trip. Though, the result is that I use fewer resources, emit fewer gases than they do per mile, and most importantly of all: I spend between half and a third of the dollars at the pump. I have more money left for other things. Frugal pays off, big dividends.

A large part of the waste is truly a behavioral problem. Technology may help, but if behavior and attitude towards waste do not change at the same time, do not expect technology to save us. It won’t. Only WE can save ourselves, technology won’t, other people won’t. It comes down to the quote from Ghandi “Be the change you want to see in the world”. We want technology for a simple reason: we do not want to change because we are lazy and lack self-discipline.

Food waste has become a mainstream topic. I addressed it in my two books but it was before the UN addressed it. Sad that such a large organization with their resources could not figure that out before an independent guy like me working from his home office. I even had estimated the cost right. Can you imagine? Anyway and even with the higher profile the issue has received, they are a few waste issues that I never read about.

Obesity is presented as a health issue. It is, but it is also a major waste issue as well. Over consumption of calories that end up being stored in body fat are wasted calories. They serve no purpose, since the overweight people never really benefit from them, or when they die, the fat is buried under ground or cremated. Totally wasted calories that never fulfilled their purpose. In a world where, like in developed countries, people consume twice their nutritional needs in calories, fats and protein, feeding 9 or 10 billion people is not feeding 9 or 10 billion people; it is feeding 18 to 20 billion!

Other waste topic, I never read about (but I suspect I will in a few months from now) is also about fat: the fat in the meat that consumers cut off and throw away. The sad thing about fat in meat is that it requires much more energy for an animal to grow fat in its tissue than it requires to grow muscle. For the biochemists among you, the difference is fat requires two times as many ATP (Adenosine Tri Phosphates) to fix the same amount of fat than it does for muscle. ATP is the fuel used in mitochondria, the microscopic power plants inside our cells. Roughly, throwing fat away cost twice as much as throwing lean meat.

And what to say about food recalls? Food that is unfit for consumption gets destroyed and all the resources used along the entire value chain to produce have been wasted. It represents a lot more than just the tonnage of food that must go to destruction. I suspect the reason why we never connect the dots between the links of entire value chain is just because the different links of the chain are active within their own area. In a linear system, collateral waste and externalities are always someone else’s problem. In a circular system, it is everyone’s problem. It creates very different dynamics in terms of co-responsibility and solidarity and also willingness to act.

I hate waste, and in particular food waste. I am very rigorous in how I manage the foods I have at home. Unfortunately, it happens sometimes that something goes bad. It is rare, but it happens and it ticks me off beyond belief. Ask my wife about that! When that happens, I always cut out just what is not edible at all but no more than that. I will pinch little crumbs of bread out where the mold is and I eat the rest. Sometimes it does not taste great, but if I screwed up, it is only fair that I get some punishment for it. It never made me sick. All in all, I do not think that I waste even a pound of food a year, so I guess I am doing fine. Further, any organics, such as potato peels or even egg shells all end up in the compost that I use in my veggie garden. In town, we have a yard waste collection schedule from the municipality, but I hardly ever use it. I recycle all I can.

My conviction to meet the “unprecedented” efforts to curb the effect of climate change is to live a good but simple life. There is nothing that frustrates me more than those who oppose action on environment and jobs. They are not mutually exclusive. Actually they can work together, but the rules and laws need to change and integrate the externalities. Unfortunately, I do not see government leaders or business leaders even trying to get this done. After all, it is easier to pass it onto the next generation.

Trying to keep up with the Joneses or impress one’s little social circle with stuff is not my thing. Actually, moderation helps appreciate things better. Much better. Instead of wasting money on always more stuff, I prefer to buy quality stuff that lasts and to buy only when I need something. If I don’t need it, why should it clutter my home while not fulfilling any function? That is pretty stupid if you ask me. A long time ago, I posted on this blog an article titled “We will change or eating habits, one way or another”. You can be sure that sustainability, especially with a world population growing, is about “we will become frugal, one way or another”. Sustainability and excess do not match well. Be assured that Moderation is a key word if we want a prosperous future, and prosperity really is about inner harmony and happiness. Prosperity is not about more stuff; that is for empty people. The other key word for the future –and that is in stark contrast with our current philosophy of economy and of life is: Humility. How do we move from a world where so many of us use social media as their own narcissistic issue of People magazine in which they take center stage as self-proclaimed I-am-the center-of-the world-look at me? I venture for some time on Twitter and I left. I did not even try Facebook as soon as I got the form asking for personal information on my screen, and I think it was the smart thing to do.

So, will we make it? I believe the answer is the same as the one I gave to a journalist who was asking me if I thought we could feed the world in 2050: “Yes we can but it will take a terrifying crisis before we do what it takes”. I ended up Future Harvest with “we can but will we?” and We Will Reap What We Sow takes it from there. The cover has two halves: a prosperous farm field and a devastated barren land. I see many more signs that we are heading towards the latter, not the former. Maybe there is hope, though. Today, the Great Pumpkin said that he did not think climate change was a hoax after all.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.