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.


Finding your niche

April 23, 2013

One of the most common questions I get from my clients and audiences is how to find better markets. Regardless of whether I am addressing crop farmers in the Canadian prairies, food companies in the US, seafood producers in Ireland or local farmers here in British Columbia, the need to escape the undifferentiated commodity market is close to universal.

In my opinion, there is a simple reason for this. I usually explain it by joking about commodity markets being 95% price and 5% psychology, while niche markets are 95% psychology and 5% price. Of course, the percentages must not be taken literally. My point is that for commodities, since all the physical qualities of the offerings are similar, the (almost) only decision factor to choose between suppliers is price. All other arguments do not weigh much. For producers, this is often frustrating because it is a cold-hearted process in which the market decides. They feel that they have no control about the price setting, which is true for the most part. Although futures markets are there to help farmers limit the price risk, the lack of control in the actual price setting contributes to uncertainty, especially for producers in region with a relatively high production costs. In many developing countries, the disconnection between farmers and the markets presents similarities with the above. The lack of access together with the lack of control is a major impediment for the development of strong and successful farming operations.

Then, is niche marketing the way to go? Before answering this, it is useful to take a closer look at what a successful niche is about. Probably the best way to visualize it is to look at it from Maslow’s pyramid of needs, and look at which gradients we can define as we climb up the pyramid.

Niche &MaslowClick on the picture to view enlarged chart

The first one that comes to mind is that the bottom of the pyramid represent the need for generic cheap commodities and the top the exclusive luxury niches. The second one is directly derived from the previous one and from the content of the pyramid. It is the amount of emotion and psychology involved in the customer’s choice. This means that the level of quality also must increase as we go up the pyramid. Similarly, the level, and the quality, of service are also more important, as the target group lies higher in the pyramid. These differences clearly mean different way to conduct business. A solid niche is difficult to enter. If it is not, then many followers will rush into it, commoditize it and destroy it in no time. The difficulty can have very different reasons. It can be technical. It can be organizational. It can be commercial. It can be a matter of logistics or of planning. Whichever the reason may be, the message is clear for the producers: they must have the specific know-how to serve the niche well. They need to have the right set and the right combination of skills in-house. If done well, the development of a niche will also result in higher and more predictable margins, as well in the short term as in the long term. This has a lot of value to food producers, because they can plan ahead much better. Another important aspect of a solid niche is its growth potential. A good niche will grow. Of course, it will not become a commodity market, but that is what the producers want to avoid. If the niche has no growth potential, then as a producer you will be stuck and will need to find other solutions somewhere else for your business. This is why a niche has to be market-driven. There is no way that a production-driven approach will develop a niche successfully in the long term. It might work for a while, but putting production first will weaken the concept eventually.  Good niche management requires a deep connection between the producer and the customers. Developing a niche is not a marketing gimmick. It is not wrapping the old product or service in a new packaging. It is easy to make claims about sustainability, social responsibility or other concerns of consumers, but a good niche is not about the superficial stuff. It is about mutual dependence and shared value. To succeed in niche business, producers must be passionate about what they offer. They must believe in their vision, in their product and in their customers. They must commit to them and engage in a true partnership. If this is not the case or if it is not mutual, the honeymoon will be short-lived. Beyond the common vision and goals, what really counts is to speak the same language. Speaking the language of the customer is not enough. A good niche is one where customers want to buy from you, not having you hounding them for more sales. Good niche marketing rests on collaborative planning with the customers.

Although the comparison with Maslow’s pyramid of needs is useful, it is also important to realize that it does not necessarily means that a niche be tiny. Niche marketing is not the same as local and/or micro business. Especially in a world where purchasing power is evolving and where a huge middle-class with increasing disposable income, as well as a growing upper-class, are rising in populated emerging countries, niches may actually be quite large in comparison with the traditional Western markets.

Because there is such a need for niche developement, I am offering a specific program here at my company to help producers who want to walk the niche path. In my professional life, I have had many jobs and projects that were about getting away from the undifferentiated market and develop specialty markets that generate higher margins. The reason is that the production units where in countries with so-called uncompetitive production costs. Despite that, I successfully turned around difficult situations by setting up adequate strategies that capitalized on the strengths of the businesses and took them away from their areas of weakness.

Developing successful niches takes time and perseverance. For instance, it took me three years to get the poultry company I was working for to be approved as a supplier to Marks & Spencer. It also took some painful human resources decisions to turn around the sales activities I inherited in Germany. It took a lot of energy to lead for change here in British Columbia in an organization that was all about production and with no marketing skills, just as it took a lot of energy to convince the market that our new strategy would work (focusing on Chinook salmon instead of Atlantic Salmon) because many tried before and finally gave up. Yet, we did it and in half the time from what was stated in our supposedly very ambitious plan, and both the company and the customers benefited greatly from this move. I must also state clearly that to achieve such outcomes, I had set up teams with the mix of the right skills and talents to execute my vision. Nobody can do everything alone. That is valid for yours truly just as well. I am quite thankful for the great people who joined me in these endeavours and made it happen.

The difficulty to enter the niche protects you from the competition, but you also must pass the hurdle yourself. This means that you need to have the capacity to be stronger than your competitors. If you are not, realize that you will have difficulties to stay in business anyway.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


What more demand for meat means for the future

October 21, 2012

Here is an excerpt from We Will Reap What We Sow, the book I published in May 2012. The recent difficult climatic conditions for agriculture and their impact of agricultural markets have made the issue quite relevant. Here it is then:

As the economy in emerging countries is improving, their population becomes wealthier. Just as it happened in Western countries during the 20th century, the increase in wealth translates into dietary changes. The consumption of animal protein, especially the consumption of meat, increases.

To realize what the consequences of a higher consumption of meat might be, it is interesting to make calculations for China. When 1.5 billion people eat on average one more kg of chicken meat per person, world production needs to increase by about 750 million chickens. That represents about 2% of the world’s production. Similarly, when each Chinese consumes on average one more kg of pork, the world must produce 15 million more pigs. That number represents 1.5% of the world pig production. For beef, an increase of consumption of one kg per capita per year means the need for a production of 2.4% higher than today.

Meat consumption in China has already passed the milestone of 50 kg per capita per year, and projections indicate that it should reach 80 kg per capita per year in 2030. Clearly, consumption will increase by much more than just one kg.

An increase of 10 kg of chicken meat per capita per year in China means that the world’s chicken production would have to increase by 20% to meet the new demand! This represents almost the entire US chicken production volume, and more than Brazilian production. In the case of pork, an increase of consumption of 10 kg per capita means that the world’s pig production would have to increase by 15%. That is five times the current pig production of Iowa, USA. That is 60% of the EU production. For beef, the world’s production would have to increase by 24% to meet an increase of 10 kg per capita per year! This number also represents about 125% of the current total US beef production.

Different animal productions have different feed conversion ratios (FCR). The FCR is the quantity of feed needed to produce 1 kg of meat. For chicken meat, the FCR is of 1.8. For pig meat, the FCR is about 3. For beef, depending on the proportion of grass in the cattle’s diet, the amount of grain used to produce 1 kg of beef varies. With an average FCR of 3 for the various types of meat productions, an increase of meat consumption of 30 kg in China would result in the need to produce three times 30 kg times 1.5 billion. Depending on the consumption of which type of meat will grow the fastest, the need for feed, excluding grass, would vary between 100 and 150 million tons.

The world’s second largest population, the Indian population, is still largely vegetarian. Although India is among the countries with the lowest meat consumption, with less than 4 kg per capita per year, Indians are gradually changing their eating habits. Meat consumption is increasing in India, too, but not in proportions as dramatic as in China. Nonetheless, with a growing population, any incremental meat consumption will have physical consequences. Some simple math can show the magnitude of the higher demand for meat.

Between 2010 and 2050, the world’s population will increase by 2.2 billion, from 6.8 billion to nine billion. If everything stays equal, the consumption would increase by about a third (2.2/6.8). According to the FAO, the average consumption of meat per capita in the world in 2010 was of about 47 kg. The population growth alone would represent a meat consumption increase of 2.2 billion times 47, or 103 million tons. This number represents about a third of the 2010 meat consumption.

In the example of China mentioned earlier, the predicted increase of 30 kg per person represented an increase in meat consumption of 45 million tons.

Even if the world average meat consumption per capita remained stable between 2010 and 2050, the need for additional meat production would be of 2.3 (103/45) times the numbers in the China example. This represents an additional need for animal feed, excluding grass, of between 230 and 345 million tons compared with 2010.

The situation becomes even more interesting when the average consumption per capita increases. For every 10 kg increase of individual consumption, the need for additional meat production increases by nine billion times 10 kg, or 90 million tons of meat. For each 10 kg increase of average meat consumption, an additional volume of 600 to 900 million tons of animal feed is necessary. The following table presents the effect of the population increase to nine billion people and its meat consumption on production volumes.

Average individual meat consumption increase from 2010 (kg/capita/year)

0

10

20

30

40

50

Average individual meat consumption(kg/capita/year)

47

57

67

77

87

97

Total meat consumption(million tons)

423

513

603

693

783

873

Total meat consumption increase from 2010 (million tons)

103

193

283

373

463

553

Percentage of increase from 2010

32%

61%

89%

117%

145%

173%

An average meat consumption of 97 kg per capita per year would be about the current average of developed countries. If the average meat consumption per capita per year in the world were to meet such a number, meat production would have to almost triple from 2010 volumes.

Most of the gloomy scenarios about the challenge of feeding the world are based on the assumption that the diet model would have to be the Western diet, and in particular the American diet. This is far from certain. Actually, it probably will not be the case. As the world’s population increases, one of the sensitive issues, especially in the overfed world, will be what to eat and how much of it. Higher food prices will also force people to indulge less. It is important to understand the difference between nutritional needs and consumer desires. Today, the world produces enough calories and protein to meet the actual nutritional needs of nine billion people. If the nine billion people expected for 2050 all want to have a Western diet, the amount of calories needed would be equivalent to the nutritional calorie needs of 17.5 billion people.

It would be normal to expect feed conversion efficiency to improve in the future. Nonetheless, the production for animal feed would then increase with 3,000 to 4,500 million tons above the volumes necessary in 2010. Since a third of grain production goes to animal feed, a tripling of meat production means that grain production would have to double, just because of the desire for more meat.

Clearly, the challenge of feeding the world will depend increasingly on meeting the demand for meat. The challenge for producers of agricultural commodities will be to keep up with the demand for animal feed. As demand for meat increases, there is no doubt that more and more questions will arise about how much meat the world can afford to eat. The world food situation will depend on how much meat people want to eat, not on calorie count.

How much meat should we eat?…

The rest of the text for this topic and much more is in the book.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Rise of the Asian middle class and the competition for animal protein

November 29, 2011

The complete story about this topic and how it will influence the future markets can be found in my book We Will Reap What We Sow.

The size of the world population is among the most significant changes for the future. There are many challenges, as the media tell us on a daily basis, but there are opportunities. The first and the main of these opportunities is the population increase itself. In the coming four decades, there will be two billion more people to feed. Never before, has humanity seen such a demand increase. This means that farmers and food suppliers do not have to worry about a lack of market opportunities. Not only the number of people will increase, but the consumption pattern will change, too.

Until recently, most of the consumption took place in industrial countries, mostly the USA, the EU and Japan. For the coming decades, food consumption in these areas will not increase. There are simple reasons for this. One is the demographic stagnation of industrialized regions. Another reason is that people of these regions already eat too much. They have no room for more consumption. At best, they can replace one food by another. Before the economic crisis of 2008, the average daily intake of calories per American was on average of 3,800. This amount is about 50% more calories higher than a normal human being needs on a daily basis. Nobody should be surprised that in such conditions a third of Americans are obese.

In emerging countries, the economic growth results in the rise of a new middle class. A change of diet is the first change that takes place when the standard of living increases. People switch from staple foods such as rice or wheat to higher quantities of animal protein and more fruit and vegetables. The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) looked at the future evolution of the respective shares of consumption by the middle class, between different regions of the world. Their study was for consumption goods at large. The graph is simply amazing.

Click on the picture see the enlarged version

The relative consumption of Western countries will shrink dramatically. While the USA represented about 5% of the world population in 2000 and consumed about 25% of the world resources, they will represent only about 4% of the population and consume about 4% as well. A similar evolution will take place in the EU and in Japan. China and India show the opposite trend. With a share of the total world consumption close to negligible percentages a few years ago, their economic development and the size of their middle classes will transform markets dramatically. Estimates are that the middle class from China and India combined will represent about 45% of the world middle class by 2030! Market demand and therefore world prices will be dictated by the demand from these two countries and not by Western countries anymore.

While the graph covers all consumption items, the situation for food alone might show some differences, but the trend would show a similar pattern. The demand for food in emerging countries will grow strongly. This will not affect only the consumption volumes but also the type of food. The change of the type of food that consumers of the middle class of emerging countries will demand will go beyond switching from a starch-based diet to an animal-protein-rich diet. The type of animal protein that they will eat will change, too. A couple of decades ago, China would import many of the low quality animal products that Western consumers did not want to eat. China used to import products such as chicken feet, chicken wingtips, sow uteri or fish heads. The new middle class is no longer much hungry about those products. They want the prime cuts, too. Instead of being complementary, emerging markets and developed countries will be in competition with each other for the better animal products. This will have profound consequences for the future. It will make the sale of the low-quality products more difficult and affect negatively the profitability of meat producers. At the same time, it will make the demand for prime products literally explode, pushing prices up. Western consumers and Western markets used to set the prices. In the future, Western consumers will have to buy food based on the price set in Asia. Their alternative will be to not have access to these prime products anymore and have a choice between changing their diets or eat less animal products.

This change will make producers and buyers look at business opportunities in a completely different manner than they currently do. All emerging countries show the same trend. Brazil now sees domestic demand for chicken meat increase faster than export markets. Brazilians eat more meat because they become wealthier. Chilean salmon farmers see growing possibilities in the Brazilian market. While their traditional market for Atlantic salmon was the US market, this may change. Since air transport from Chile to the USA is quite expensive, at least more expensive than transport to Brazil, the flow of trade will change from the past. Norwegian salmon might become a better alternative, but the Chinese are now buying increasing quantities. American buyers must prepare themselves to pay much more than in the past to get salmon products.

It becomes clear that the challenge of feeding the world depends for a large part on future consumption of animal protein.

To understand the effect of the increase of consumption of meat in China, a few numbers are helpful. When 1.5 billion people eat on average 1 kg more of chicken meat, world production needs to increase by about 750 million chickens. That represents about 2% of the world production. Similarly, when the Chinese consume on average 1 kg of pork more, the world must produce 15 million pigs more. That number represents 1.5% of the world pig production. The meat consumption in China has already passed the milestone of 50 kg per capita per year, and projections indicate that it would reach 8o kg per capita per year in 2030. Clearly, consumption increase will be much more than just 1 kg. An increase of 10 kg of chicken meat per capita per year in China means that chicken production would have to increase by 20% to meet the new demand! This represents almost the US chicken production volume, and more than Brazilian production. In the case of pork, an increase of consumption of 10 kg per capita means that world pig production would have to increase by 15%. That is 5 times the current pig production of Iowa. That is 60% of the EU production. For beef, the world production would have to increase by 24% to meet an increase of 10 kg per capita per year! This number also represents about 25% more than the current total beef US production.

The Indian population, although still largely vegetarian, is also changing its eating habits. Meat production is increasing there, but not in such dramatic proportions as in China. Nonetheless, with a population of 1.2 billion people, any incremental meat consumption will have consequences.

Different animal productions have different levels of feed efficiency. It takes about 1.8 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of chicken meat. It takes about 3 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of pig meat. For beef, depending on how much grass the animals are fed, the amount of grain used to produce 1 kg of beef varies. With a population of 1.5 billion, an increase of meat consumption of 30 kg would result in the need to produce 3 times 30 times 1.5 billion. The need for feed, excluding grass, would be between 100 and 150 million tons of grains.

Human consumption of grains increase rather limited. Considering that in 2011, animal feed uses about a third of all grains produced, more production of animal protein will put much more pressure on the markets of agricultural commodity. Producing enough to meet the desires of a more affluent world population is actually about allowing the luxury of more meat than people really need. There is no doubt that the “meat question” will become more and more vivid in the future.

My next book, We Will Reap What We Sow, will get in depth about this topic and many others, and discuss the pros and cons of different future scenarios. Stay tuned!

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd

A five-dollar meal is not much of a challenge

August 18, 2011

Those who follow my blog know about my last fancy Christmas dinner, which came down to five dollar per person, including aperitifs and wine. My everyday meals usually cost me less than three dollars, and they are balanced. They include a soup or a salad, a main course and a dessert. I suppose my being French gives me an advantage, as composing such meals is for me the most natural thing in the world. It simply is the way it is, at least in my world. All it takes is to have some time to cook, which usually takes about half an hour of my time.

Half an hour is nothing, especially when you compare it with the amount of time that people waste by checking their cell phones and emails for new messages just to find out that “you have no new message”.

It is time that people rediscover the simple things that make life interesting. Cooking dinner is not only a lot of fun, but it is actually very easy, too. Eating with all family members at the same table at the same time, while having turned off the TV, the computer and the cell phones is a special time. It creates a bond between family members, it is a moment of sharing, and it contributes positively to the development of children. Taking the time to enjoy the meal without to rush anywhere is amazingly relaxing.

The key for saving money on food and at the same time eating better is to do it yourself. Convenience has a price, and so does having someone else preparing your meals, even if they are paid minimum wage. The savings are huge, both in money and in health. My rule of thumb, in North America, is that making dinner it costs a tenth of what the local pub or restaurant would charge for it.

The five-dollar challenge is not much of a challenge, really. All it takes is to shop smart. Just check the pictures of dishes that I have taken in my own kitchen! All for less than $2.50 per person.

Click here for the slide show of dishes and breads!

All photos taken by Christophe Pelletier (click on the thumbnails to enlarge the pictures, they will open in a different tab)

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


SeaAgra Seafood and The Food Futurist team up for consulting of seafood projects

March 9, 2011

Vancouver, 9 March 2011

SeaAgra and The Food Futurist will cooperate to offer consulting services to their customers involved in the seafood industry. By combining their pool of expertise in the field of sales, marketing, processing, quality, supply chain, business management and strategy, the new partnership will focus on actively helping execute the development of market-driven seafood projects.

The ultimate objective will be to develop viable value chains between producers and seafood buyers by matching the best partners together and by removing all unnecessary costs in the chain. Thus, the maximum value is distributed between the links of the chain. The focus will be on market-driven strategy, efficiency and optimization, sustainable projects, business organization, setting up long-term win-win partnerships, and fostering customer service. The results for the customers will be a stronger market position, improved financial results and a clear and focused future.

”A synergy of talent is what makes this partnership special. Different expertises, different experiences, and a wealth of knowledge, combined with a common focus will allow us to offer a service that is unparalleled” says SeaAgra’s Joe Collins.

About SeaAgra Seafood

Sea Agra Seafood Brokerage Ltd. commenced operations in 1992, initially as a fresh farmed salmon brokerage company servicing small and medium sized salmon farms. Since inception, the company’s product line has expanded to include fresh wild salmon, wild B.C. caught ground fish, farmed steelhead, sablefish and salmon.
We have since expanded to include the purchase of niche wild and farmed seafood products for re-sale to our highly discerning customers. Our team offers an unrivalled combination of 95 years of experience in the seafood industry and brings a genuine passion for what they do to our business.
Honesty, integrity and a keen understanding of the inner workings of our industry converge to form the basis of our approach to business. We have earned an outstanding reputation in the seafood industry in part because we treat the products we sell as if they were our own. This approach keeps our customers coming back year after year for our fresh and irresistibly delicious seafood.
SeaAgra services fresh seafood markets across North America and other major consumption countries.


I am very enthusiastic about the cooperation with SeaAgra. I have known the owners of SeaAgra, Ralph Shaw and Joe Collins, for many years. When I was in the salmon business, Joe was part of my team, and Ralph was one of our customers. They contacted me last year for a project. We did a superb job under a very tight deadline, and we have received praise from third parties who have read the report since then. Our work has been much appreciated. This has led us to pursue this partnership further. The combination of talents with the great chemistry between us generates a positive energy. We will add tremendous value to the customers. Our concept goes beyond simply advising, it ensures the successful execution of the projects!

This partnership will also allow us to explore scenarios for the future of seafood and develop marketing strategies for new species, such as barramundi, cobia and other high-end specialties.

Christophe Pelletier


Why we will change our eating habits, one way or the other

February 8, 2011

In the discussion about producing enough food for the 9 billion people the world will have by 2050, one of the sensitive issues, especially in the overfed world, is about what to eat and how much of it. There always is resistance to change, and changing eating habits may be even among the most difficult challenges we have. Eating habits are developed unconsciously since early childhood, and switching to conscious choices is not easy to achieve. It requires will power and self-discipline.

Most of the gloomy scenarios about the challenge of feeding the world are based on the assumption that the diet model would have to be the Western diet, and in particular the American diet. This is far from certain. Actually, do not expect this to be the case.

Changing eating habits will happen in two ways. One will be voluntary and the other will be a consequence of food prices.

There is a growing awareness of the health consequences due to overconsumption of food. All the stakeholders seem to blame each over for obesity, diabetes and other heart conditions, and try to convince the public that they are not the cause of the problem. Whose fault is it? Is it meat? Is it corn syrup? Is it fast food? Is it salt? Is it lifestyle? Is it the parents’ fault? Is it the schools with their vending machines offering snacks and soft drinks? We all have read such statements. Here is a scoop: overweight is caused by consuming more calories than are burnt through physical activity. Ailments are the results of rich and unbalanced diets. Eating (and drinking) too much, and too much of the wrong things is bad for you. There is a reason why gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins! Actually, our societies should have a close look at that list, because we might be in trouble.

In Western countries, we eat too much, and that should not be a surprise to anyone. Obesity and diabetes are becoming society problems in the USA, but other countries are following the same path. Europe and China have a rising percentage of obese people, especially young people. Even in Africa, there seems to be an increase of the number of overweight people. A recent study confirmed this (click here for the interactive chart). Awareness about health problems has already generated action. There are government campaigns. Food producers are reviewing their formulas and are working toward healthier products, in particular by lowering the content of salt and sugar of their foods. More and more consumers are also adjusting their eating habits, mostly by changing what they buy and where they buy it. The trend towards healthier and more natural food is growing and it will not stop. Only biotech companies seem to ignore this fact. This food trend is not just in Western countries but in China, too, the demand for natural and organic foods is increasing. After all, nobody really feels happy with being fat or unhealthy. If some people are taking action to improve their diets and its impact on the environment, this voluntary choice is still about a minority of the population, today. One of the reasons for this is that healthy diets seem more expensive than the junk fattening eating habits. I say seem, because those who can cook know that it is quite simple to make delicious balanced meal for less than the supersize combo deep fried so-called menu.

Money matters. That is a fact. This is why money is probably the best incentive for change. And the future will bring us plenty of incentive to change our diets. The current concerns about food prices, and the food riots of 2008, have created awareness about food supply. Although the price hike is more the result of investors, not necessarily speculators, looking for a safe haven for their US dollars through transactions in futures contract, the reality is that the commodity markets, even on paper, becomes the “official” market price. This enters the real economy and affects the price of food for households all over the world. The poorer countries are more sensitive to food price inflation, and this has the potential to cause very serious unrest.

Regardless of the current causes of food price increase, simple economics show that when demand increase, while supply has difficulties to keep up, prices increase. And this is exactly what will happen. In a previous article, I showed that the potential for meeting food demand, or I should say the demand for nutritional needs, of 9 billion was there. Quite easily. However, in this calculation, I indicated the road to success includes reducing food waste and a reduction of the quantity of meat in the diet. This means that we need to change our behaviour towards food.

If there is a sensitive topic about diet, this has to be meat. Opinions vary from one extreme to another. Some advocate a total rejection of meat and meat production, which would be the cause for most of hunger and environmental damage, even climate change. Others shout something that sounds like “don’t touch my meat!”, calling on some right that they might have to do as they please, or so they like to think. The truth, like most things in life, is in the middle. Meat is fine when consumed with moderation. Eating more than 100 kg per year will not make you healthier than if you eat only 30 kg. It might provide more pleasure for some, though. I should know. My father was a butcher and I grew up with lots of meat available. During the growth years as a teenager, I could gulp a pound of ground meat just like that. I eat a lot less nowadays. I choose quality before quantity.

The future evolution of the price of food is going to have several effects. The first one is the most direct. As food becomes more expensive, consumers look for the more affordable alternative first. If their budget is tight, they buy slightly smaller portions. People will slightly reduce their food intake. Those who were over consuming might actually benefit from a positive impact on their health. For those who already were struggling, this will be more difficult to deal with. From all the food sorts, animal protein will be the most affected by an increase of the price of food commodities. Already today, there are clear signs from the meat and poultry companies that the price of feed is seriously squeezing their margins. As usual, passing the price increase to consumers will take time, as retailers will resist. If the price of agricultural commodities is to stay high, consumers will inevitably have to accept price increases for food in general, and for meat and other animal products in particular. The price of meat is going to be affected by other factors than just feed prices. The need for more control on food safety issues, the stricter environmental regulations that will come for animal husbandry, on the land and in the sea, a change in animal husbandry practices, especially a lower use of antibiotics and farms with lower densities of animal will all contribute to an increase in costs. Energy will become more expensive, too. A whole system based on cheap commodities is about to change, simply because there will not be any cheap commodity anymore. These are all adjustments to rebalance our consumption behaviour from the unbridled overconsumption of the past decades, when consumers were not thinking about the consequences of their actions. The industry will figure out how to increase efficiency to contain some of the cost increases, but the change of farming practices will make meat significantly more expensive than it is today. The price of ad-lib cheap meat is ending. The future dynamics of food prices as presented here will be ongoing. A long as we will not have adjusted our diets to a new equilibrium, meat will keep increasing faster than other basic food staples, until meat consumption, and therefore meat production, will reset to different levels. Do not expect this to happen overnight. It will be a gradual process. There will not be any meat or fish riots. If food riots happen, they will be about the basic food staples, simply because the first ones to riot will be the poorer among us, and their diet is composed mostly from rice, wheat, corn, cassava or potatoes. Should the situation become dire, governments will intervene to ensure food for the poorest. Such price systems are already in place in many developing countries, and they are likely to be maintained, and even strengthened.

The same critical factors to keep food prices in check are very much the same as the ones that I presented in the previous article that I mentioned earlier: food waste reduction, moderate meat consumption per capita; and economic development, especially in Africa.

For more on similar topics, please visit my other website The Sensible Gourmet

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