What is food -and implications for the future?

September 21, 2018

I recently realized that in the almost 10 years that I have been active with the topic of the future of food, one question has never been asked. I never brought it up, either -until now. Yet it is an important one, especially in a time where food start-ups are popping up like we were living in the dotcom era all over again, presenting all sorts of new foods with huge investments to back them up. The question is: what is food?

The question may sound simple, but the answer might not be as obvious as you might think. Food covers many dimensions, the importance of which varies greatly, depending on whom you are asking. The most essential dimension of food is nutrition. Living organisms need nutrients to live. Without food, they die. Food is what provides the nutrients. It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Considering the high percentage of overweight people, nutrition clearly is not a discipline that many really master. One of the reasons for this health disaster lies in the psychological dimension of food. Let’s face it, how many of you ever build a meal solely on good rational nutritional logic? No, we eat what we like and we do not eat what we do not like. The reasons for our taste preferences are plenty. They have to do with the way our parents have taught us about food, with cultural preferences, with experiences in early life, with religious beliefs and with all sorts of beliefs that have nothing to do with religion just as well. We all have our own particular systems of reference when it comes to food.

To illustrate my point, here are a few anecdotes. Being French from birth, I will start with frogs and snails. As most people know, the French have a reputation for their cuisine, although some ingredients have shocked some of their neighbours for ages. Snails and frogs legs are among the typical clichés of French food, to the great disgust of the Brits who, besides snails and frogs, are not too keen on rabbit and, even more shocking, on horse meat. In turn, the French have quite the low appreciation about typical British cuisine. Tastes differ. If snails have been a disgusting thought, they seem to turn into a desirable delicacy as soon as they are served as “escargots” (the French translation of “snails”). Yes, food is a lot about psychology. Another example of the psychological aspect of food that has always baffled me is why vegetarian products have to mimic meat. It sounds contradictory, but that is the way it is.

When I moved to the Netherlands, where I spent 13 wonderful years, one of my first visits to a grocery store included buying eggs. It might sound like the simplest thing in the world. Think again! I walked around and around in the store looking for eggs and I could not see any. I finally spotted someone from the store and asked if they had eggs. He pointed right behind me and said: there they are! I turned around and it took me a couple of seconds to finally see them, and there they were indeed: an entire stack about as tall as I am. I passed by the stack of eggs several time during my search and did not “see” them. There was a simple reason for that: the eggs were white and all I had seen in my life were brown eggs, although I knew about white eggs. My brain simply did not make the connection. All I could see was a huge stack of what I genuinely thought were ping-pong balls, because the packaging was also different from what I was used to.

When it comes to food, taste is important but many other physical qualities influence what we like or don’t like such as colours, smells, texture, how it feels when touching. Food is really something that involves our senses, except maybe for sound, which is more useful when hunting, I suppose. It is not just about number of calories, grams of protein or fat. It is how we experience it from the moment we see it and inspect it with our noses, mouths and hands.

Our senses, and how they have been trained, decide what we perceive as desirable or as repugnant. This part is not in the realm of rationality, yet it is not about being irrational, either. The irrational part is more in the domain of our system of reference and beliefs. For how irrational they may seem to those who do not share these beliefs, they are quite logical and true beliefs for those who adhere to them. In the always controversial conversation about food and agriculture, it is quite important to acknowledge these beliefs and accept that different people have different views about food. Without this acknowledgement, there cannot be much of a constructive conversation, which then always evolves into a fight.

The question “What is food?” is only part of the equation when looking forward. The other –often neglected- question is: Do people know what food is? The answer to this one is really simple: it is a resounding NO!!! I can see that every day around me, and it is appalling. With urbanization comes the detachment from agriculture and Nature. Often what is left is some vague recollection or stories from previous generations that have been gradually altered and turn into beliefs of all sorts. The result is a lot of misconceptions, prejudices and dogmas, and this on all sides regardless of people are pro this or anti that. Every tribe now has its own mythology when it comes to food and agriculture, picking half-truths and only the facts that conveniently support those half-truths. Nonetheless and regardless of what beliefs they follow, most people have only a skewed knowledge of food at best, and most have none whatsoever. One of a side effects is the old adage that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king. Problem is that the one-eyed is not always ruling with integrity and truth in mind but more from a power and money point of view.

With all these points in mind, the question that needs to come next is what will food be about in the future? What will be the future beliefs, because they will play at least as important a role to define future foods as rational nutrition will? In fact, I believe that the psychology of food will largely prevail over rationality in what will be on our plates in the future, just like today. There are currently many popular topics.

One of them is insects. Insects are common foods in Asia and Africa, the two continents with the largest population growth for the future, unlike Western countries where insects are not really part of the food culture. So, is it a good idea to try to push insects into westerners’ mouths or would it be better to focus on markets where insects have a much more positive image? Insects remind me of the snails story. Originally, the French were not eating snails because it was fancy. Snails were a seasonal source of protein in times when protein was not abundant. The French simply used their cooking skills to make something rather unappealing to a delicacy. Another food that can be used as an example about insects is lobster. Lobster was not always a delicacy, on the contrary. Times change and so did the lobster’s image. If you like lobster and feel repulsed by insects, just think about what a lobster really looks like: a giant insect!

Another popular topic is plant-based protein. In my opinion, that is really not a novelty in the sense that people used to not eat that much meat and most of their protein used to come from plants: beans, peas, lentils and the entire family of legumes have always been a great source of protein. Also, textured soy burgers have been around for decades. In the future will such products made from these ingredients but processed and transformed into meat-like products really take over meat? I do not have the answer. Just with any new trend, the question is what will be short term and what will be long term. In times when processed industrial products have a poor image and are blamed for a number of nutrition-related health issues, one contradiction that I see, but food consumers are full of contradictions, is whether processed industrial products will be an appealing solution for the future.

Speaking of processed foods, a number of food start-ups that claim to re-invent food, are working on developing foods that sound more like synthetic foods. Perhaps some science-fiction writers from the 1950s and 60s had an amazing sense of foresight, or perhaps they are just a source of inspiration for producers who want to bring new products on the market. How will these foods of the future compare with our current system of reference? It is difficult to say. While currently, consumers long for authentic and natural, how do manufactured and synthetic answer their desire? And how will consumers’ desires evolve in a couple of decades from now? I have my views on it. The future will tell.

Another currently popular topic regarding the future of food is lab meat or clean meat or incubator meat. Although the claims that such products will be competitive with meat coming from an animal that has been slaughtered, the dollar numbers still are quite far from being so. When I wrote Future Harvests, the Dutch company that was at the front end of lab meat claimed it would be competitive and on the market in five years. That has clearly not materialized, yet. The same thing is true about the price at point of sale for incubator blue fin tuna flesh, which a start-up is developing. But maybe those products are only aimed at the 1% richest people. Regardless of those considerations, the big issue with these innovative protein products is the name. There is already a growing debate about the names “meat” and “milk”. Of course, it is convenient to use those names because it creates enough a confusion to lure meat and dairy eaters to alternative products. Of course, the producers of the “real thing” will argue that the alternative products are not meat or milk. After all, soy or almonds do not indeed have udders and nipples… Here, too, similar question as “What is food?” need to be asked:  What is meat? What is milk? In an environment where most people could not answer what food is, it is easy to imagine the confusion between traditional century old ways of looking at food and new concepts. Let’s face it, the debate will not be over any time soon and many clashes are on the way, not so much because the outcome is complicated to reach. It will be difficult because, both sides will want to win the debate instead of looking at it as just more alternatives in the market. All sides of the debates will want to win because they will be so afraid that losing the debate could mean their end as food businesses. That is the price to pay when truth matters less than perception.

However, it is also important to not forget that unlike food innovation, human physiology, human metabolism and human biochemistry have barely changed over the past few dozens of thousands of years. The needs for nutrients and the mechanics of food inside the body will still have to meet the same physical specific requirements. Food is a unique connector between humans and Nature, even though many seem to have lost the awareness of this connection, often to their detriment. Like it or not, we come from Nature and Nature rules over us. The foods of the future must not ignore our biological nature if they want to be beneficial. They must not ignore all the psychological, culture and social roles that food fulfils and are a source of happiness and mental health as well.

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

Advertisements

Feeding the future with focus on health and environment

February 2, 2017

In my opinion, the food and agriculture sector does not receive enough praise for its performance. Over the past four decades, the world population increased by 80%, which means that farmers have been able to supply food for an additional 3.3 billion people during that same period. Unfortunately, the number of hungry people has remained about stable, around a billion people. Every person who is hungry is a hungry person too many. There cannot be any discussion about that, and there still is a lot of work to be done. This is no small feat. Clearly, there is plenty of room for improvement, especially when you consider that about a third of the food produced is wasted but that means that the potential to supply future food demand is there.

nutrition

Image created by Paula Nettleton Source: Educational Materials Center (EMC), Central Michigan University

The discussions about meeting future food demand always tend to focus on production volumes. Of course that is the minimum requirement but to meet all other challenges, it is necessary to broaden the scope beyond volumes. Production is only half the equation. The other half is consumption. There is a lot of work to help consumption patterns contribute to a balanced future between supply and demand. The ongoing increase of obesity and diabetes are at least as worrying as hunger because of the negative health, environmental and economic consequences. One of the most important roles in the future for the food and agriculture sector will be to help people feed themselves properly. There is a need for this and it goes far beyond a marketing exercise. The basis for success will have to be education about nutrition and home economics. There already is action in these areas but it will be necessary to move towards a collaborative education, centred on physiological needs and how any particular food product contributes –or not- to healthy meals. The purpose will not have to be about enticing consumers to eat more volumes but to make educated decision and pick the right ingredients. Changing the focus from always more to always enough will also require a change in which foods to produce and what their future physical and organoleptic qualities will have to be. It also will change the dynamics of markets and on which criteria farmers get paid. Collaborative education will have to be carried out by and with full involvement of all stakeholders. It will have to place human physiological needs as the primary focus. Consumer well-being will have to come first, before particular interests and before volume.

Making future food and agriculture sustainable requires that we address both production and consumption. Waste and excess do not fit in a sustainable future. Food waste is only a part of the total picture. When food is wasted, all the inputs required, such as water, energy, fertilizers, crop protection and money, are all wasted in the process. Overconsumption is not a sustainable strategy either. It takes a lot of resources to produce all the excess calories and protein than end up producing nothing else than excess human body fat. Until the rise of mass consumption, our grandparents knew what sustainability meant. It was about saving and about moderation. These two concepts vanished from the moment that consumption goods became so cheap that and consumers lost touch with scarcity and long-term negative effects, also known as negative externalities. It would be an eye opener to quantify these externalities and include them in the cost structure of consumer products. The consumer price and/or the producer margin would look different! Although it is quite a difficult exercise to quantify the externalities, just carrying it out would give some good insights about the limitations of the current economic model and in which areas it needs to change. Such a calculation would help rethink many of the existing financial incentives that drive the economics of food and agriculture, in particular many subsidies that find their origin in times where the objectives were quite different than the ones of the future. For example, health issues related to food should be considered as externalities. Many governments have calculated estimates of the cost generated by these two diseases. If society were to be able to quantify what part of the amount should be factored in food, as well as lifestyle and distributed between the entire chain from farm to patient, and to try to estimate the relative part of responsibility between the different links of that chain, it certainly would give a good indication of how to look at future economics of a healthy and satisfied society. The price of food would change but the key would be to have it change in a way that helps a better nutrition and better health while keeping good food affordable.

Copyright 2017 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Food fights will go on and it is a good thing

March 28, 2016

A funny thing happened to me when I moved from Europe to North America in 1999. In Europe, I was used to having demanding customers. Issues about how food is produced have been rather common during pretty much my whole life (I will turn 55 later this year so that you have an idea of how long it has been).

When I came to North America, I dealt with a completely different situation. I did not get some of those 30-page product specification documents from retailers, foodservice and manufacturers with all the do’s and don’ts of how to produce food. I just got some 30-page disclaimers and liability documents, for the customer to dodge any heat should there be a law suit some time down the road instead. Before, I left Europe, I remember my Managing Director from the poultry company I worked for telling me how lucky I was because “over there (North America), customers hardly ask anything, you just sell them what you produce”. I remember looking at him and thinking that it could not be possible. I was wrong and he was right. For as much as European consumers were picky on all things such as hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, animal welfare, feed composition and origin, North American consumers, and retailers as well, seemed totally uninterested about production methods. It was almost eerie and to be quite frank, it was boring, because I could not see any challenge. One of my American colleagues enjoyed telling that it was the way it was and that it would never change because that is how Americans are. I disagreed but it certainly appeared he was right for a few years. Things have changed now. The American consumer has become more demanding and the dynamics of the discussions have become quite similar to what I had known in Europe for decades. It is actually rather easy for me to “predict” the future as I am living in an ongoing déjà vu nowadays.

The debate about food has indeed evolved into food fights. If there is one thing that I always found remarkable in my professional life in the food and agriculture sector is the issue of the producer-consumer relationship. Maybe it comes from my family background, but I have never understood why the food industry is so defensive when challenged by consumers or any organizations. My father used to be a butcher and I spent quite a bit of time around the shop and with him on the markets. I discovered very early that customers would ask the weirdest things but that what matters is not the factual truth but whether they trust the supplier. If you cannot deal with that fact, I suggest you do something else than producing food. Food is loaded with emotions and that is that. If consumers were rational, there would not be any diversity in foods and other consumer goods. They always would do the right thing and would not pay attention to all the marketing efforts that support the world economy. If consumers were rational, I bet you that they would deconstruct any PR by spotting all biases. If consumers were rational, they would focus on nutrition only and they also would reject anything that is unsustainable. I have a feeling that a lot of people who resent consumers’ emotions would actually be out of business because they would deal with a much tougher audience than the current consumers. Be careful what you wish for. Further, it is also clear that those who criticize consumers for not being rational, are not rational themselves in their consumption patterns, either. Nobody is.

Last year, a book titled No more food fights hit the shelf. Considering the author is actually supporting the conventional agriculture and has a problem with consumers and activists who challenge the food system, it is actually ironic. It reminded me of the words of my Managing Director about the North American market. What could be better than the good old days when the agribusiness could push their products to lethargic consumers? It sure must have been a good time, but it is gone. The book’s author, just like the agriculture sector, does not want anybody questioning the food system. They don’t want anyone looking over their shoulders and find out the bad and the ugly, at the risk of not showing the good either. I do not understand the food producers’ reluctance. If you are proud of what you do and what you produce, as they claim, you are proud to show the world and to share that goodness. You are also willing to always improve and make your customers satisfied. In my opinion, the attitude is really more about being production-driven –or should I say production-centred- than market-driven. The difference is that the former is about oneself and the latter about others. That difference actually reflects quite well in term of whom consumers trust. They trust the latter group, but are very distrustful of the former. I can understand both attitudes because I have filled functions that were more oriented towards technical operation as well as commercial functions.

I started my professional life in a position in a technical and scientific field, which suited me well by then because I was a hard-nosed rational fellow with a tendency of not accepting unfounded non-sense. Then, by accident, I got myself involved in a commercial role, which opened me new doors, and my eyes, too. The successful experience led me to other commercial positions and the lessons that I had learned in my father’s shop, I rediscovered on a daily basis in the multinational company. There is a huge gap of perception of the customers between the different departments of a company. Very often this discrepancy is reflected in the dynamics of the sales and operations departments of a business. One wants to say yes and the other wants to say no.

Food fightPersonally, I find being challenged a very good thing that can happen to a producing company. I would agree that negative feedback is never pleasant, but even though the message can be rough, it is feedback after all. In this regard, it should be handled in the same way as customer complaints, the good kind of handling that is, not the denial kind. The latter is usually more of a reason for a customer to drop a supplier than the problem that occurred in the first place. Business, like it or not, is first of all about human interaction. Money is only a means to secure it. In the course of my career, I had to deal with “consumer resistance” in quite a few occasions, but what it put into motion brought me most interesting and rewarding experiences. They helped me to learn about business and to understand the complex dynamics of entire value chains faster than ever. They helped me grow and that experience has made me one of those who understand the ins and outs of marketing, production and management in a variety of discipline the best. I am thankful to my “difficult” customers forever.

The reason is simple. By being very demanding, customers forced us to be better than ever and be resourceful to find ways of both meeting their expectations and allow us to remain profitable. Quality only improves through pressure from customers and a competitive environment. It very rarely happens as the result of a voluntary decision, simply because there is a cost at first. In the case of my past professional experience, needless to say that adjusting to consumer demands was never an easy process internally. On the one hand, there was the source of the company’s revenue – in other words salaries – at stake, and on the other hand, the natural drive to keep production costs under control. The key was to not lose our focus on the one essential parameter: the margin. Margin management with market vision really delivered amazing results in such situations. Another essential point was to negotiate everything and always get something in return for any effort made on our part. I remember some very tense conversations with Marks & Spencer in the time the talks were about the removal of meat and bone meal from animal feed. We showed them the impact of their demand on our bottom line and made clear that if they helped out on the bottom line we would go along. Because we were offering top quality chicken, we were able to find an agreement. For as much as we could not afford to lose their business, they did not want to lose us as a supplier, either. The willingness to accept challenges from the market and the drive to always improve our products and service served us. We would not have been in a position to ask anything in return if we had produced a basic commodity. By aiming at being the best, we had a sustainable competitive advantage. Finally we were able to have them accept to buy more from us so that we could dilute the extra cost over a larger volume and have more efficient logistics. The result for us was actually more volume of above average margin products. The customer had to say goodbye to some suppliers who were not ready to go the extra mile for them, and we also said goodbye to customers who would not support us in the cost effort. In the end, a very tough challenge ended up in a strong long-term profitable win-win situation. We came out of a crisis that could potentially have destroyed us stronger and more respected than ever. This is only an example of a tough market challenge. I went through similar situations in the various sectors –feed, pig, poultry and aquaculture- in which I have worked. The added value got in the millions per year each time.

Food fights are good, but they work only by picking the right partners in the market. As a producer, you need to have customers and make the right choice to achieve this goal. As a consumer, you need to find a producer that listens to you and meet your expectation. They will be disagreements along the way, but in the end both parties can benefit, but it will not just fall on your lap. Fights are a part of life. On the first day of my last year in the Agricultural University, the head teacher had a short presentation. He said that life is about:

  • Learning
  • Creating

Those two points were very well received by the students. Of course, it fits quite nicely with a crowd of intellectuals. The third point was received by the chilliest silence I can remember. The third point was…

  • Fighting!

Yes fighting is an integral part of life. We all fight all the time. We fight with competitors, with other drivers, with customer service representatives, with sales people, with the tax man, with retailers, waiters. You name it and it you will find an example of fighting. So no more food fights? Forget it, it won’t happen. In my experience, the only reason why anyone asks for a fight to stop is when they are losing. In this case, if they are losing, it is more because of their refusal to listen to where the market is going than because of those bad irrational consumers. The smart food producers, big or small, have all made moves in the direction of consumers’s demands because they know that is where the growth and the future are.

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Transparency is a market-driven exercise

March 2, 2016

Among all the trends in food markets, transparency is a tough demand to meet. As such, it is only natural that consumers have questions about what they buy and want to be sure that they buy something they feel comfortable with. In times when the food economy was local with everyone knowing each other in small communities, the food supply chain seemed transparent. With the separation of rural areas and urban centres and the increasing distance, both geographical and relational, between consumers and the different links of the chain, the distance in trust increased, too. Add to this a few scandals through the years and the result is a feeling that something is broken in the world of food.

The renewed desire for transparency is nothing than a cry for trust. Since the personal relationship with suppliers in many cases no longer exists, trust cannot be just a matter of knowing the farmer, the baker or the miller. Today’s transparency is about verifiable facts. Today’s consumers, unlike their parents or grandparents, do not want to be told a story anymore. If they don’t trust you, they won’t believe you anyway. They are used to search online for everything, with more or less success when it comes to the truth, but they nonetheless want to find out for themselves and figure out on their own what to think. Today’s concept of transparency is replacing PR, which is a one-way push communication technique. Today’s consumers want a one-way pull information platform. That is all the difference. PR is obsolete, but most food producers still have not come to this realization.

The prospect of having to collect, update and disclose all information through the chain from DNA to retail store or restaurant seems a daunting task and for many food producers, it feels like an overwhelming request. It seems and feels that way because it is. It is rather close to some Herculean task. One of the questions I often get is how much do consumers want to know and should everything be available? My answer is that in theory, consumers want to know everything and so it all should be available indeed but in practice, it is somewhat different. Consumers do not really want to know everything about how their food is produced. Well, maybe some do but they are very few. Most consumers do not even read nutritional labels, so they won’t bother spending hours or more to learn everything about the bread or the chicken they just bought unless something serious triggers it. So, what do the large majority of consumers really want? They don’t want to know everything but they want you to be able to answer them any question they have. They want the certainty that, should they have a question about their food, they will get an answer, the truth and that nothing will be hidden from them. Transparency is much more about trust and truth than it is about hard data. Yet, the way to get there is through data and open access.

TransparencyThe amount of data that can be collected is huge and so is the task to set up your transparency system. However, regardless of how much data you collect and share, your transparency performance will always depend first on making transparency one of the pillars of your organization. By that, I mean have the genuine willingness to engage in a candid and honest interaction with your customers and consumers. Genuine, candid and honest are key words when it comes to transparency. People will sense if you are so indeed. If they sense the opposite, you will not gain trust and the perception of your company will further deteriorate. Consumers will forgive honest mistakes when you admit you made one and are willing to do what is needed to correct it, both inside your organization as towards your customers. Consumers will accept that you do not necessarily have all the answers ready but that you are willing to do the research and come back diligently to them with the information. Although immediate response has become an expectation in the digital world, people understand that sometimes a bit of time is needed. Although data is important for transparency, attitude is at least just as much. By being responsive and handling difficult conversations in a mature manner will get you a long way. In a transparency approach, there is no need for defensiveness. You open the doors and you get out of the way! Of course, the mix of transparency and data brings the issue of boundaries. There is a fine line between what is useful information for customers and what is critical information about the company and information that affect competitiveness. Consumers will understand that some information is sensitive enough to not be disclosed. In this process, too, it is essential to be genuine, candid and transparent as long as it is not an attempt to hide something. Remember, transparency is a tool to increase the consumer’s trust and loyalty!

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


How can insects be a part of future food security?

July 31, 2015

Since the FAO published a report in May 2013 presenting insects as a possible source of food to meet future protein demand, the topic has become quite popular in the mainstream media. I wrote an article about this (Insects on the menu) in May 2010, in which I was giving some of my thoughts. I still think along the same lines.

In the last few weeks, I bumped into the insect story several times, purely by coincidence. I believe insects can play a role but I am getting a bit frustrated by the lack of specifics in all the talk about insects and worms.

Apparently insects would present many performance advantages compared with traditional meat productions. Aaron Dossey did a presentation at the IFT15 symposium organized by the Institute of Food Technologists. Here are the advantages of insects he mentioned as reported in the article from Science Daily of July 14 2015:

  1. Efficiency. They use less land, water, feed, energy and other resources than livestock.
  2. Environmentally friendly/clean. Insects create fewer greenhouse gases and are not contaminated with pesticides. They also do not have any hormones in their bodies.
  3. Prolific. They reproduce quickly so they can replace depleted resources.
  4. Biodiverse. There are millions of insect species, so it is easy to find a match to a location’s need.
  5. Nutritious. They have protein and Omega 3s, a class of essential fatty acids that help lower cholesterol.

All of this is nice but…

  1. How efficient? How much less land, water, feed and energy and other resources?
  2. Environmentally friendly as long as they do not massively invade it. How many fewer greenhouse gases? No hormones at all, really? Of course insects contain hormones. They are necessary for their physiology and development. So which hormones was he referring to?
  3. Yes they are prolific, which raises the issue of what would happen if insects escape from farms in large numbers. They are prolific but they are tiny, so it takes huge numbers to match the weight of a cow or pig or even a chicken. The real question to answer is how many tonnes of insect protein can a farm produce compared with other animal productions? What should be the size of an insect farm and how many farms should there be to meet future demand. Also what feed will the bugs eat to grow?
  4. Biodiversity may be nice, but what species would be production worthy when it comes to the mass production of volumes that would be comparable with other productions?
  5. They are not the only food sources of omega-3

Unless someone can quantify the above, the story remains rhetoric. If insects are to become a large-scale production along the lines of other animal proteins, it is necessary to single out the species that will be the most efficient, technically and economically. It is also necessary to sketch the design and the magnitude of farms. There are a number of companies that have been venturing in the insect business but most of them are tiny, in the grand scheme of world food security. Aaron Dossey’s company produces 25,000 lbs of insect powder per year. That is 12 tonnes, and he does not sell them to the hungry of Asia and Africa. Compared with the world average meat consumption per capita per year, 12 tonnes of meat represents the yearly consumption of 250 to 300 people. If insects represented 1% of the world average meat consumption per person, his production would feed only 25,000 to 30,000 people, or less than 0.0005%! Clearly, even to cover 1% of the average animal protein need as it is on average per today, the magnitude of the challenge to set up a significant production is huge. The other challenge to overcome is to make insect production economically competitive, be it for human consumption of for animal feed purposes. Most businesses offering insect products today are operating in a small niche, just because there is little industrial production. The dominant part of the insects and worms consumed are picked in nature by those who eat them, as those animals are usually consumed when there is a seasonal shortage of other protein sources. The niche businesses sell their insect products at prices that even many people in wealthy country could not afford on a frequent basis. The insect products are offered to consumers at prices reaching several hundreds of dollars per pound.  Presenting such foods as helping the world feeding itself, which means mostly helping the world’s poorest to be able to afford nutritious food is at best delusional if not even plain cynical. Insects and worms can be contributors to future food security only if they are affordable and competitive against the other meat sorts. That cannot happen if they are limited to the treat sector.

Another aspect of insects as food is their attractiveness, or lack of it. Insects and worms are much more common in Asia and Africa, where the largest part of the world population is and will be in the future. In Western countries, insects and worms are perceived as repugnant by most people. In terms of marketing, it would make more sense to focus on the Asian and African markets instead of trying to convince Westerners to eat lots of insects, just because of the respective levels of acceptance.

However, there is communication to do and lessons to learn from the past. I would name two. First, escargots, which are so popular under their French name, are an expensive item on menus. Escargots are never sold as “snails” because that sounds gross for most people. Everything sounds tastier in French. Try presenting insects under a French names and the Anglo-Saxon population might be more tempted. Snails used to be, just like insects and worms in Africa and Asia today, food that the French were going to pick on walls after a rain in times of food shortages. My second example is lobster. Lobster used to be considered a bottom feeder that was only for the poor, and so it was. Clearly, the image of lobster has changed a lot. The other lesson about lobster, and I would add shrimp, langoustine and many other ugly crustaceans, is that there are expensive delicacies that actually look a lot like insects, and they are actually rather close to insects in their body structures.

When it comes to human consumption, I wonder whether people will still be tempted to eat bugs if the economic situation keeps on improving in Asia and Africa. Not that long ago, China was in situation of near famine. Anything that contained protein was food. They were roasted rats for sell. In France, during the privations of World War II, rats – and cats- were used to replace pork in many deli specialties. There is a big difference between having to and wanting to. Has rat meat consumption increased in China since the economic boom? Do the French since WWII ended have been asking their butcher for rat pâté? I may be wrong, but I really think that when people, wherever in the world, have the choice, they will go for a juicy steak or some chicken before looking for bugs.

Then, there is the possibility of using insects and worms for animal feed. The advantage of animals compared with humans is that they eat to satisfy their hunger, but there is no psychological side to what is in animal feed, at least from the animal perspective. A trial to feed live insects to chickens just started in The Netherlands. It will be interesting to see the results. What I am wondering about this trial is why use live insects instead of dead ones. When I worked in animal husbandry, one of the things farmers worked on preventing was the possible invasion of insects in the houses, in particular because of the damage to insulation material. Further, I hope they make sure the insects will not escape, and that at least, should that happen, they are not using species that could cause damage in the neighbourhood. Also, I hope that the insects chosen have been screened on the health safety in terms of passing on diseases. Especially, after all the problems caused over the past years by avian flu and contamination by migratory birds, one can never be too cautious.

So what will be a good production system for large-scale production? I do not know yet, and I cannot find much information on how insect husbandry of the future may look like. However, I remember a TV program I saw some 25-30 years ago on the Dutch channel VPRO. I am not sure about the title of the program, but here is what it was about. The documentary was presenting an old fellow living as a hermit somewhere in the wild. He was using meat offal from his farm animals to attract flies, by storing them in a large tank. The flies were colonising the offal and bones and used them to lay their eggs. Later, the maggots hatched and when he found they were large and ripe enough, the hermit harvested the maggots and boiled them in a large caldron. He used that mass of cooked maggots as feed for his pigs and so he recycled the carcasses leftovers of the previous batch of pigs to produce the next one. I found that it was a pretty smart feeding and recycling system. Perhaps, it could be a solution for the future. In his system there was no waste. Of course, it sounds a bit like a porcine version of the movie Soylent Green.

For as much as I can see potential for insects and worms, I also see a huge lack of number crunching and comparative trials to figure out which species to produce and in which productions systems to provide an abundant and affordable of safe insect and worm food for both consumers and environment worldwide. The generality talk about bugs is cheap and does not help me envision how insects would play a prominent role in feeding the future.


China is evolving – A look towards future consequences

March 13, 2014

Recently, interesting economic news has come from the Empire of the Middle. On the one hand, financial markets reacted worried on the softening of the Chinese economy, but on the other hand they reacted rather positively about the first corporate debt default allowed in the country. To me, all of the above is good news. If financial markets get a bit nervous for a few days, then so be it! It cannot be a complete surprise that at some point the growth of the Chinese economy would slow down. Double-digit growth cannot last forever, and growth cannot keep going on a straight line without some corrections along the way. If markets are worried about a growth of 5% for China, then how will they react when China lands into a recession, as it surely will happen at some time?

Personally, I find China’s performance over the last 30 years quite impressive to say the least. I am old enough to have seen dramatic changes about that country. When I was a kid, all the news from China was rather sad. There was a chronic situation of near-famine, and what I heard then, true or not, was that the Chinese had only one bowl of rice per person for a whole day. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution directed by Mao Zedong did not exactly spelled prosperity, by far not. After the arrival of Deng Xiaoping, things changed and a new direction took place, which had led the country to where it is today. Pragmatism took over from blind dogma. Deng Xiaoping’s quote “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice” summed it up nicely. I have to admit that I was still rather young and did not pay much attention to what happened in China. That came later during my professional life. In the early 1990s, the price of wheat increased, and this became cause for concern in the poultry industry, in which I was working by then. I remember a conversation with one of my customers. We came to the conclusion that China had decided to feed its people, and that was the sign of a new era. Since that day, I have followed with much interest the evolution of China, and until this day it has not stopped fascinating me.

Bringing a country of 1.5 billion people in 30 years from hunger to the world’s largest economy is no small deed. Western economies with a much lower population should know, since they struggle to provide enough jobs to their populations, which in many cases would fit in only one of the large Chinese cities. Chinese leaders have shown a remarkable pragmatic approach in the way they have carried out this change. They have performed an impressive balancing act to stay in power through economic development that allowed the population to not have enough reason to start a revolution, which is the only way to change a government when there are no elections. Feeding their people was definitely a sound strategy to achieve the double objective of power continuation and increasing prosperity. However, this economic success has come at a high price. China suffers from major environmental damage, and the rest of the world also undergoes the consequences. This is where the news of the past few days sends some interesting signals about the future. China is now entering a phase of optimization. Growth is not anymore just about more, but it is about better. Phase one, providing for the basic needs seems on its way to completion. Now, focusing on the quality of future growth becomes necessary, as keeping the course of the previous decades would probably soon lead to make the country hardly liveable. But allowing the pace of growth to slow down in order to get the time to improve the situation and clean some of the damage is not the only sign that shows that Chinese leaders have the confidence that the country has achieved a level of economic prosperity sufficient to absorb this slowdown. The recent debt default of the solar panel company Chaori shows that China has decided to stop to protect business from failure, as until this case, various levels of government would guarantee the debt. The message seems to be that the economy is strong enough to take such hits. This is a strong signal that China will no longer bail out businesses and that they will let market forces select the winners and the losers. That is quite the move toward liberalism. A number of Western countries do not appear this bold, lately. In the same area of a changed economic philosophy, China is also currently allowing market forces to regulate the value of its currency, which is currently weakening, even though Western countries have always put pressure on China to re-evaluate the Yuan. The ability to persevere on long-term objective and not let outsiders interfere more than necessary is one of the quality of the Chinese that I like particularly. They do what is good for China and do not allow foreigners to undermine they progress. They run their economy with the same resilience and determination as they did with the Long March. Personally, I like the approach of the Chinese leaders. They are smart, focused and pragmatic. The new generation of entrepreneurs and executive also shows these good qualities. I also am quite impressed by the enthusiasm and curiosity of young Chinese students. They have the momentum on their side and it feeds their desire to succeed.

As I mentioned earlier, a couple of decades ago China decided to feed its people, mostly to avoid social unrest that could get out of control. In the area of food security, China has, like in the rest of its economy, achieved impressive results, but at a high cost, too. I believe that part of the current shift in economic philosophy can be looked at from the perspective of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. The objective number one for China has been to meet the basic needs: food, shelter, safety. Although there is still a part of the population living in poverty, the basic needs, from a collective point of view, are more or less met, as the majority of the population has now entered the middle class or better and the rest seems to follow in that direction. In the first phase, it is clear that environmental damage was under little scrutiny, as the end justified the means. After all, hungry people are not picky about what they eat, if it means surviving. In the today’s Chinese society, just eating what is available is no longer the only priority. Once the basic needs are met, the emotional takes gradually over from the biological. Consumers start to think and to question. It is not anymore about surviving today only, but about living in the future. The population is expressing its discontent of the quality of life and against the environmental recklessness of businesses more and more often. If food was used to be considered a potential source of unrest, now the problem has shifted to air and water. Heavy air pollution, contaminated water and the sight of thousands of dead pigs floating in the river that flows through Shanghai, as was the case a few months ago, are no longer tolerated by the population.

China Food Map (Photo: Zhang Yanlin/Asianewsphoto)The phase of optimization is also going to take place in food and agriculture. The situation about corn is a good indicator. Until 2012, China was self-sufficient for corn. With the increasing demand for meat as a result of economic improvement of the population, China has now become a net importer. The type of demand for the various food groups, together with the environmental toll of pursuing the objective of food self-sufficiency has reached its limits. It is important to acknowledge the performance of the Chinese agriculture, though. Even is the cost of achieving food security is high, one needs to remember that China is the world’s largest producer of rice, wheat, pork, eggs, fruit and vegetables, and cotton. It is the second largest producer of corn, behind the US. Considering the size of the country, being the main producer for all those commodities is quite an achievement. Yet China, announced last February that it was changing its objective, and that grain self-sufficiency was no longer sacred. It makes very good sense. The long term is as important as the present. China needs to work hard now to protect and restore its soils and its fresh water. On other area where the country can also achieve substantial results is by fixing post-harvest losses. Infrastructure will be developed further. Optimization of the food value chains will also take place, largely in the form of a consolidation of businesses. The seed sector will be interesting to follow in this regard, as many small seed producers will either disappear or be absorbed by larger entities. Considering the crucial role of genetics for crop yield, this rationalization of the sector should also contribute to a further improvement of the Chinese agriculture.

With land purchases abroad, world agricultural production up, international trade and a more astute food stocks strategy, China does not need to try to produce all its food itself. The bulk of the basic needs is covered. Now, it is time to optimize and repair without having to fear shortages. The focus is going to be more on waste reduction and efficiency than before. It definitely will be about doing more with less, to use a commonly used expression. An example of this tightening of standards is the so-called Green Fence for the recycling goods that China imports. Now the recycling materials need to be cleaned to enter the country. China simply does not want to use its energy and water resources. They want the waste producers to do that in their own countries. That is wise.

Another area for optimization is food safety and food quality. In a previous article , I wrote about a strategic shift towards speeding up the learning curve to meet higher standards. The shift from quantity to quality is a reflection of the pyramid of needs. When people have enough to eat, as is the case in large Chinese urban centers, they start to look at how food is produced and question what they do not like. Food security is for most no longer a worry, as the alarming rise in overweight and diabetes shows. When food security is no longer a worry, the focus shifts to food safety. That is quite normal.

My expectation is that China is no longer in the logic of just copying and producing cheap low quality. Although this reputation is still quite alive in Western countries, in my opinion it is incorrect. But after all, similar prejudices lived long about Japan, too, until the time that Americans realized that Japanese goods were of a better quality and Japanese companies were better run than their domestic counterparts. We will see the same thing about China. Some people will wake up too late. The Chinese are quite awake. Don’t worry for them.

Although the food industry, like all industries, resents criticism, it is actually the sign of a developed society. Basic standards do not satisfy anymore. People look for the something extra, and that is where opportunities arise. Those who listen to consumers and offer them what they want increase their chances of capturing the high-margin market positions. Let’s face it; markets for undifferentiated commodities are attractive mostly because of the large volumes they represent. In China, too, health and environment will be the drivers of future food supply. This will definitely offer good possibilities in the future. The Chinese will also take a look at their diet, and the per capita consumption of meat, just like economic growth, will not keep increasing forever. In the same way as it did in Western countries, it will reach a plateau, probably in 10 years from now, and later will gradually decline, for the same reasons as it is doing in the West, and also because the population of China is expected to decrease to 1.4 billion by 2050 and to 1.1 billion by 2100. That decrease represents a lot of consumers. It will be important to notice this change of trend on time. When consumption of certain food items in Western countries reached that plateau, most companies did not anticipate it. As usual in such situations, denial is the first reaction. First the change of trend is considered a temporary hiccup. Investments to increase capacity have often been made on the expectation of continuous growth, causing an overcapacity of production, and the production capacity needs to be used fully to be economically efficient. This creates a lack of flexibility and all producers enter the difficult times with the same cost profitability concerns. When the stagnation appears to last, producers like to think that indeed there will be a consolidation of the sector, but they usually all seem to think that they will weather the storm and will not be affected. Of course, it never works that way. Bad things do not happen only happen to others. Then, the crisis follows and usually a vigorous restructuring takes place. I have seen this many times and it is amazing to see how history repeats itself. There is no doubt that when food consumption will have reached its top, the same mechanism will show. This time, the problem will be quite robust, though. To supply China, production volumes will be much higher than previous similar scenarios of stagnation in the various Western regions. Further, just as much any marginal increment of consumption per capita multiplied by 1.5 billion means large volumes, any decrease of consumption will represent significant pain. This point is not here, yet. There are years of growth for most food groups ahead, but it is time to start thinking, and especially start planning, about a change of strategy. When the plateau appears, differentiation will become the main theme, and niches will be the place to be. Considering that the Chinese culture is long-term oriented and that relationships are a fundamental element of business in China, I would recommend starting paving the path for this shift sooner than later. After all, 10 years pass quite fast.

Copyright 2014 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Beyond the merger Shuanghui-Smithfield

September 7, 2013

Last May, when the Chinese company Shuanghui announced it was buying Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, I was very curious to read about reactions to the news, in particular from the US. The takeover did not surprise me. In my second book, We Will Reap What We Sow, I already told my expectation that the geography of corporations would change, following the shift of economic power around the world. I predicted that the new emerging powers would take over some of today’s agribusiness beacons, and hinted that eventually, headquarters of large corporations would also move to locations closer to the bulk of consumption. The Smithfield takeover quite fits in this scenario. My interest in the reaction of Americans came from some of my earlier speaking engagements. At the beginning of my activities with The Food Futurist, I presented in several occasions how the rise of the Asian middle class would affect markets. In particular the magnitude of the Chinese market always put things in perspective. When I showed my audiences how much volume an increase of 10 kg per capita per year of beef, pork and chicken would represent, there was usually a silence of surprise. Then, when I told that the evolution is not just about volume but also about the choice of cuts, that instead of being complementary to Western consumption by buying low quality cuts, the Chinese market would become a direct competitor for the same pieces of meat, the surprise usually turned into annoyed denial. The price of the meat that Americans would buy would be set by the consumers in Beijing and Shanghai at least as much as by those in New York or Los Angeles? That’s bold, isn’t it? I could understand the reactions. After all, the coming situation would mean the end of the undisputed dominance of American stomachs (and to some extent, their minds as well). The highest bidder will get the best product. It is not just a hunch about the future. It is the here and now. There are already examples of that in the seafood sector, where the top quality products are shipped to China instead of ending on French tables as it used to be, simply because the Chinese buyers are willing to pay more than the French to get the product, probably because they still make very good money at those prices.

However, many reactions from the US have been the ones I expected. I could find outrage at the idea that a Chinese company could dare buy an American one. I do not remember seeing such opposition when Brazilian meat companies would buy Western ones, but after all Brazil is not perceived (yet) as a contender to the US supremacy as China is. That would explain the double standards, I suppose. There were the extreme reactions such as those who decided and claimed they would not eat meat from Smithfield because, according to their simplistic conclusions, their pork would sink to the quality standard of what they think Chinese products are. Well, no… because applicable food standards in the US would still be those of the USDA and not from the Chinese government. How simplistic they may sound, such reactions are not from average Joe. They come from comments posted on professional meat magazines for which readers need to subscribe. The world is changing, but some still hope the old status quo will prevail. Good luck with that!

Yes, there will be competition for the attractive cuts of meat. Actually, it will shape the coming couple of decades of global agriculture, and of agricultural markets. Prices will depend on the ability to forecast and align production and consumption of animal products with commodities for animal feed. There is much work needed in that area. Those who attended my presentations in which I mention the dynamics of future markets know what I mean.

But there are more lessons from the Shuanghui-Smithfield merger, beyond the simple competition for the carcases and the geography of purchasing power. It sends a clear signal that the Chinese market is evolving towards more quality. The local suppliers want to be able to provide the market of the increasing affluent Asian middle class with the same standards as Western markets, which I have been also indicating as a growing trend both in my writings as in my presentations. Purchasing a company such as Smithfield offers Shuanghui the possibility to speed up the learning curve towards a better pork quality by also buying the processes and procedures that already exist in the production units in North America and Europe. Such a move is going to have interesting ripple effects. Normally, it should give Shuanghui a competitive advantage, as they should learn and implement better procedures faster and better than their Chinese competitors. This will give them a strong position in the urban centers, at least in the short term. In the long term, the side effect is that their competitors will also work harder at raising their own standards and improve food quality in China. This will also indirectly serve the Chinese governments by having market forces working in the same direction as government regulations to achieve better food standards. Finally, it will benefit the Chinese consumers, as they will be able to buy better quality foods. As they became wealthier, Chinese consumers have also become more critical and aware of environmental and food safety issues. They will not accept the current situation anymore and they want the same top quality as the Westerners. After all, the income in large Chinese urban center is quite similar to the one of Westerners. Why should they settle for less? And in the future, we will see the same trend growing in other emerging countries. That is where the best opportunities will arise in the coming decades.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.