Insects on the menu

I came across a very interesting article from the French newspaper Le Monde, titled “Insects, the steak of the future”.

Photo: AFP/Mario Tama

The article reviews the potential of using insects as a food source to complement the traditional food production in order to meet the needs of the increasing world population.

Here are the main points.The nutritional quality of insects is high. They are a source of protein, fats, minerals (especially iron and zinc) and vitamins.

The production performance of insects out performs the one of traditional livestock, with a feed conversion ratio (number of kg of food to produce 1 kg of insect) ranging between 1 and 2.

There are already 1,400 species of insects consumed regularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Among the favorites, they name beetle larvae, ants, caterpillars, locusts, crickets, silkworm chrysalis, scorpions and spiders (although the two latter ones technically are not insects).

In most cases, insect consumption is the consequence of food shortage, but there is also a festive consumption of the bugs. The author mentions that in the old Roman Empire, caterpillars were a delicacy. Of course, in some Western countries, some restaurants offer insects at a premium price for a certain self-proclaimed sophisticated elite… After all, a lobster looks very much like a large aquatic bug.

However, trying to convince Western consumers to switch to insects and other bugs for their protein will be a tough call, especially when served in their original form. An possible alternative would be to process them into sausages and ground patties. There also could be the possibility to texture the protein in similar ways as it happens with soy.

Another interesting potential for insect is to use them as a raw material for animal feed. Bugs and worms can also be a good source of protein for poultry and pigs. After all, in nature, this was a regular part of their diet. Similarly, for many fish species, insects are a natural source of food. Currently, fish feed is made of increasingly expensive raw materials, such as fish meal, fish oil and vegetable oils, for which they compete with human consumption, or are used for feed destined to other farm animals.

There are talks about organizing the first congress on insect as a food source as early as 2012.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

German agriculture Minister says “Eat less meat!”

Ilse Aigner made that statement during the “Green Week” held in Berlin early January, one of the largest shows about food and agriculture in the world.

This is quite remarkable to hear a Minister of Agriculture making such a statement, based on the recommendation of the German Nutrition Society that indicates that 300 to 600 grams (that is about 11 to 22 ounces for our American friends, who usually consume this amount in less than two meals…) of meat per capita per week is enough for a person to cover their nutritional needs. Yet, her statement was linked to environmental concerns, since it is fashionable to blame meat production for climate change issues.

From a nutritional point of view, this recommendation is correct. That is all we need. That is less than most of us want, but that is a very different topic. I had addressed this, mentioning that 30 kg per capita per year (equals 600 g per week) was plenty,  in my earlier posting “The future price of meat and fish: up” a few months ago,. I also mentioned that if we ate only what we need, the West would free a quantity of meat large enough to feed a population as large as China’s.

It is unlikely that the Minister’s statement will change consumption patterns any time soon, but the future price of animal protein will. Considering the feed conversion ratio of farm animals and the increased competition between human consumption, animal feed industry needs and biofuels, the production cost of meat will increase. Feed is the main cost in those productions. Further, the amount of water required by farm animals and the manure issues that still linger with intensive animal husbandry, will add to the price pressure.

There is no need to become vegetarians, but the days of gluttony are numbered.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Aquaculture: the solution to feed 9 billion people?

Last week, BioScience published an article based on the research of a group of researchers from the CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas), the Spanish High Council for Scientific Research.

They present their views on the potential of marine aquaculture to provide enough food for the growing world population. The authors of the report do not see fisheries as a significant option anymore, as the wild fish stocks are depleted, and the amount of time to replenish the stocks will be too long for fisheries to be able to meet the needs of the population. Aquaculture has gradually compensated the demand for fish that fisheries were not able to supply, and half of the seafood consumed today already originate from aquaculture. It is the fastest growing food supply activity and the projections for future growth are very strong. The researchers think that marine aquaculture could multiply its production by a factor 20 by 2050 and thus would play a major role in providing the world population with animal protein.

They bring up some interesting facts about agriculture and land animal farming. For instance, it takes 10 times more water per calorie to produce meat than it does to produce grains. Further, animal meat products represent only 3.5% of food production, but they consume 45% of the water used in agriculture. Considering demand for meat is expected to increase by 21% between 2005 and 2015, and will keep on increasing, this will only exacerbate this situation.

Another point that this group raises is the global nitrogen-use efficiency in animal productions. According to their sources, it is slightly more than 10% for land animals (5% for beef and 15% for pork), which makes their production a major source of nitrogen inputs to the environment. In contrast, marine animals have much greater nitrogen-use efficiency, at about 20% for shrimp and 30% for fish. Therefore, marine aquaculture culture releases two to three times less nitrogen to the environment than livestock production does.

From an environmental point of view, the idea of shifting the production of animal protein from the land where it uses scarce resources such as land and water, to the ocean where space and water are no limitations anymore sounds very sensible. From a nutritional point of view, replacing meat and dairy by seafood that is rich in healthy components such as omega-3 fatty acids is quite attractive, too.

They also notice that the land available for agriculture is shrinking, due to soil degradation and urbanism. Further, there is a growing scarcity of fresh water and increased competition for water as well. Therefore, activities on land do not offer the potential to grow all that much more food to feed the growing population. Even freshwater aquaculture faces these limitations. Freshwater aquaculture currently 57% of total aquaculture, therefore there is an untapped potential with marine aquaculture, as it does not use fresh water.

Of course, the main challenge to execute such a development of marine aquaculture production is to find the proper quality and quantity of feed. The researchers do not see the use of fishmeal and fish oil as an option anymore as they predict that the species used to make these products will not be able in sufficient quantities. Replacement by protein and oils from agriculture crops is an option for the short-term, but as aquaculture volumes would increase, the competition for these ingredients with meat production will make them too expensive, and for the reasons explained above, depending on land agriculture to feed marine species will face crop production limitations. Therefore, they prefer to envision a total new approach of aquaculture feeds, and recommend developing a new feed chain based on aquatic ingredients, such planktons, microalgae and seaweed. This approach makes sense, but the time lines to develop such a supply source and the cost of production of such an “aquatic” feed still need to be investigated. Several “seaweed farms” in production in China show interesting results and they seem to promise a strong potential of production for feed.

Another development that they expect is offshore aquaculture. Aquaculture operations located in coastal areas, although they are easier to access and generally in quieter waters, are very often located in zones where there are local issues to deal with, such as interaction with wild fish or recreational activities. Moving offshore can reduce these issues.

As you can see, developing the future of aquaculture is not simply a matter of growing fish in pens, but it requires a broader thinking that includes not only the oceans but agriculture on land, too. The future of food will require from us the ability to manage the whole planet!

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The future price of meat and fish: up

With a world population increasing strongly and an agricultural area that will not grow accordingly, the law of offer and demand clearly indicates that agricultural prices will increase in the future. This is true for agricultural commodities such as grains, but the increase will be even stronger for animal products, such as meat, poultry, dairy and fish.
This will be the result of an increasing and very likely quite aggressive competition between the need to feed people with the basic commodities, the need to feed farmed animals and possibly for some time the need to produce biofuels.
Since it takes more than one and even several kilograms of animal feed to produce one kilogram of meat, the feed conversion ratio (FCR) will affect by which factor the price of the various animal products will increase.
Efficient productions like chicken will be successful and will remain quite competitive pricewise against other sources of animal proteins, thanks to its low FCR, to its low water use and to the good agricultural value of its manure. In the aquaculture sector, efficient productions such us tilapia and pangasius have a bright future ahead, as they can help feed a large population for an affordable price. In general, aquaculture has the opportunity to fill the huge gap left by depleted wild fish stocks, although it will have to solve some issues in order to be successful (see my article titled “The lessons of intensive animal husbandry to aquaculture“). In terms of price, the scarcity of wild fish will make these quite expensive for the future.
Less efficient species such as pigs and beef cattle will see the price of their products increase relatively much more. Pigs also have the disadvantage of producing low quality manure, which will limit the level of intensification. However, pork plays an important role in some cultures, and therefore, it will still show a reasonable volume growth, with geographical variations.
A high FCR species such as beef cattle will probably undergo the most dramatic change. Higher feed costs, linked to a relatively high capital need will probably push a number of farmers to shift to other more efficient productions. Highly intensive systems such the feedlots will also undergo major changes, as regulations on the use of antibiotics and hormones will make them financially inefficient. Further, their high impact on the environment because of the manure will also work against them. I do not expect the 99-cent beef burger to be here for all that much longer, burgers will continue to exist, but just quite a bit more expensive. On the other hand, I can see good possibilities for specialty beef products, such as grass-fed beef, but customers will have to pay the right price for it. Grass is the animal feed that we all seem to underestimate, yet it covers vast areas of very often fragile soil, and cattle is one of the few species that can transform it into high value protein.
In the aquaculture sector, a carnivore species such as salmon will also meet its own limitations. Although, salmon feed has shifted from mostly fish oil and fishmeal to a much more complex mix of vegetal oils, this production will see its production costs rise strongly. I expect salmon to become a luxury product again.

Consumption per capita will decreaseWhat will a higher price mean?
There again, simple economics tell us that this will influence the level of consumption per capita. The price increase will moderate the level of consumption and the price differential between the type of protein, as well as health concerns, will cause a shift between the respective consumption of the different products. In Western countries, people consume quantities of animal products that are substantially higher than what they actually need, and this has led to many health issues. The decrease in consumption will help make people healthier, and reduce the burden of health costs in that part of the world.
In developing countries, the situation is different, as consumption trends show an increase of consumption of animal products, from rather low levels, though. In these countries, consumption per capita will increase, but will not reach the levels that Western countries have shown, simply because prices will be too high to get to such levels.
The decrease of consumption per capita that we will see in developed countries does not mean that the meat industry will get into trouble.  Less average consumption per capita in the West will be more than compensated by the growth in emerging countries, where population numbers are significantly higher, and this will lead to a higher global demand of animal products. The main change is that the consumers will be distributed geographically rather differently than they are today. This also means that production will be located in different areas than today.

Just as a teaser: if Western countries consumers were to reduce their meat consumption to just the necessary maintenance needs, it would free volumes enough to cover the maintenance needs of meat for the whole population of China!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

World Nutrition Forum: The future starts now

Here is an article reporting about the World Nutrition Forum held recently in Austria.

It presents the future of animal productions quite along the same lines as I think.

Efficiency, innovation and location will become the key components for the future.

Efficiency will act as a “natural selection” between the species farmed, as an increasing need for protein combined with a limited volume of feedstuffs and water will decide what productions can grow the most and which ones might not be able to do so. Poultry is definitely a winner thanks to its low feed conversion ratio and to its relatively high water use efficiency, pork is uncertain, and cattle will have the toughest time, although cattle is the only production that can transform cellulose into animal products, so the production systems will likely change and offer a different kind of future for beef.

Location of production will follow the location of the consumer markets. With a population increasing strongly, as well as their standard of living is improving, Asia will become a very active production area. This probably will also be the result of a need to reduce transport costs, as well financially as environmentally speaking.

Innovation, as I have mentioned in previous articles, will be a key driver for the future of animal feed and of animal productions. I am quite glad to read that the industry is fully aware of this need, and also that they see their future in “creating value” more than just “cutting costs”.

Although the conclusions of this forum are quite encouraging and positive, the next step might be the challenging one: how to turn these great ideas into systems that will work and will ensure the long term future of the production side as well as of the consumption side? It will all be in the proper planning and execution that this will succeed.

Rabobank: Sourcing grains critical in animal feed-to-food chain

This is an article from World-Grain.com about a report from Rabobank on their outlook of a growth for meat of 50% between now and 2025 and its consequences on feed-to-food value chains.

Albert Vernooij, author of the Rabobank report ‘Changing Industry Landscapes’ says “The global feed-to-food value chain has switched from being supply driven with a long-term sustainable share for each link in the chain, to being demand driven. This is placing the retail and food service sectors in the leading positions, and farmers and abattoirs (slaughterhouses) have become the weaker links”.

Certainly the retail and food service, because they are the closest to the final consumer have the best position to connect to market demand, but I disagree with his statement that the value chains are demand driven. Most of meat products are commodities and retailers and food service companies buy at the lowest price a rather undifferentiated product. Most slaughterhouses and farmers are still purely production driven, or more accurately put, volume and cost driven, instead of being profit and niche driven. Only very few value chains are really market driven, although most are marketing driven, but that is not quite the same.

Animal feed: Innovation is the way to add value

Animal feed is one of the main costs in animal production. Therefore, any performance improvement that will come from the feed or from nutrition gives a competitive advantage.
Animal feedAs such, a feed mill is a rather simple process that feed producers know and master. To put it in simple terms, the recipe is prepared in a big kitchen blender. As a very standardized industrial process, the focus, for a given quality specification is to produce at the lowest cost possible. So, has feed become a commodity or are there ways of offering added value to farmers?
You can look at this at two levels: the feed itself and its usage.
Feed manufacturing itself can be incorporated in the production chain in different ways that will all have the same purpose: cutting cost. The feed company can be independent and market its own feed, or it can just produce as toll milling for a farmer or processing group, as this is already the case.
However, the true added value lies somewhere else: innovation. This plays already today and will increasingly be the strategic area of the future for feed companies. Innovation will continue to cover many areas, from biology, nutrition, to feed technology with the purposes of further improving feed efficiency, and provide raw materials that are more efficient.
In an age where availability of raw materials will become scarce, because of the competition between animal nutrition, human nutrition and possibly demand for biofuels, everything that will help saving and recycling resources will win. To achieve this, we will see new techniques to increase the digestibility of feed, to reduce the feed conversion ratio and create less manure, as well as improvement of the texture and other physical qualities of the feeds. We will see further innovations in the feed composition in order to have the animal use most of it, and for instance the use of enzymes will increase further. Other developments, such as a promising sesame seed extract that can help replicate omega-3 fatty acids in fish feed, can help reduce the dependence on scarce (and expensive) fish oil, and offer substitution possibilities with more types of vegetal oil. However, in this case fish would compete with other farm animals and humans for those oils, making them more expensive in the end. There is also the development of algae as a feedstuffs for farm animals. If successful will such algae be produced in ponds on in the sea, or will it  remain an incubator-based production? Who knows? But expect many new ideas to come to the market, as the fight for resources will become fiercer in the future.
Companies that will possess the latest scientific and technical knowledge, combined with a strong innovative capacity and the talent to locate and purchase the very best mix of raw materials will in fact own intellectual property. Nothing of the above is new, but the future changes will have more to do with the allocation of the different activities in the feed value chain itself. This intellectual property is what they might need to sell in the future, instead of a feed that customers do not always perceive as a differentiated product. Feed and nutrition might become two distinct products and maybe even distinct businesses. Could feed mills become franchises of nutrition and feed technology centers?

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.