Perhaps the ultimate challenge

July 1, 2017

There certainly is no lack of challenges on the path to feeding a growing world population, but a successful future does not just stop with food volumes. Beyond quantity, it is necessary to ensure that people eat balanced diets. Of course, this is true for those who are food insecure and need help to be able to access more food, but it just as true for the overweight and the obese. The health cost to society is high and is so the cost to the environment. Although excess calories end up as body fat and not in landfills, overweight and obesity should be looked at as food waste nonetheless. After all, body fat is food that has been produced but not consumed for any useful purpose. The problem is only getting bigger as rates of obesity are increasing among the population of emerging countries and are reaching alarming levels. It is not a Western countries’ problem anymore. It is a global one. There is no one particular cause to explain this trend, but it is a combination of lifestyle, example at home and education about the basics of nutrition. We are what we eat and we eat what we are. Diets are undoubtedly a reflection of society and its values.

One of the drivers of today’s economies is growth and too often this concept is restricted to quantitative growth. We must be honest and recognize that our food and agriculture systems still are greatly production driven. Although the idea of a market-driven approach is widely spread, the practice seems to differ, and it looks like it is only translated in marketing-driven instead, always with an underlying production-driven thinking. About all food sector and companies always look for ways to sell more volume. There is competition within any particular industry, but also between industries. For example, in the animal protein sector, poultry, pork, beef and fish are always trying to get a higher stomach share at the expense of one another. Usually, the main decision factor for consumer to make their purchase is the relative price of one type of protein versus the others.

The main message that consumers receive every day is: eat more of this or more of that. Then, it is only normal that they do just that. Why expect any other behaviour? The result is a value system of always more, without really thinking about how it all adds up, while it should be about always enough. Overconsumption leads to waste and to unbalanced diets. Waste is the number one enemy of sustainability, and educating the public about proper diet is actually an important weapon in fighting waste, but it is a difficult one. Although good habits are generally not any more difficult to adopt than bad habits, it seems that the latter group is more attractive. Changing eating habits is all about education. It starts at home and in school. Actually, it is rather easy to learn about the proper ratios between protein, fats and carbohydrates –both fast and slow ones- that are needed in a balanced diet. Information is everywhere, but unfortunately, the lack of education and therefore knowledge about nutrition results in many consumers having no idea how to read labels and how to compose proper meals. If our lifestyles and our needs have undergone major changes over the past five or six decades, physiology of digestion and nutritional metabolism have not changed much at all over the tens of thousands of years that humans have been roaming the planet. It would seem obvious that such an essential element of life should be common knowledge, but it is not. An interesting experiment is to ask people at random what the nutritional needs of an average human being are. Usually, people have an idea about how many calories a person should eat on a daily basis. When it comes to how many grams of protein and even more so fat, then the faces tend to turn blank. Another even more interesting experiment is to ask the same question to people working in food and agriculture. Just go ask how many calories, how many grams of protein and fat. It is an eye opener.

It is possible to make consumer behaviour change from harmful to healthy. There are lessons to be learned from the example of tobacco. To change, consumers need the proper incentives, but the bottom line is that people change only if they perceive the change to be an improvement. Since eating habits rest on powerful psychological triggers, the difficulty is in finding the right triggers and creating a perception of reward. Food producers have a critical role to play in this transformation, and it has to be a collective and collaborative effort with all other stakeholders as well.

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

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.


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.

My Wish List 2017

January 5, 2017

Another year just started. It is always a good time to reflect a bit. As I have focused my activities for quite a few years on how the future of food and agriculture can be shaped, I regularly come across a number of the same little flaws that, in my opinion, delay the progress we can make towards a prosperous future.

Although the expression “keep it simple” is well-known, it seems that we have a hard time doing exactly that. I am amazed by the number of situations in my work in which I meet incredibly complicated set-ups. It is almost as if we have an almost masochistic tendency to make our lives more difficult than they need to be. Let me be clear, food production is a very complex system, but why make it even more complicated than it is? Too often, the problem is that food producers carry to much old baggage within their systems. Problems happen and innovations bring solutions. Unfortunately, it often results in adding layer after layer of old baggage. Keep it simple! Once in a while, just imagine how you would set up your production if you were starting with no past history and were setting processes and systems anew with all the latest technology, knowledge and experience. Then de-clutter! It makes life a lot easier.

Common sense is one of the things I would like to see more often. I remember a customer of mine who always enjoyed to say “With Christophe, if it makes sense he will deliver it; if does not make sense, he will say no” I know I have sometime frustrated some of my customers but I always took the time to explain how persisting in error would only result in bigger problems later and they actually always praised my no non-sense style. Remember that food production is not an intellectual exercise but a practical one. A customer will not reward you for your being intellectually stimulated, but for your reliability, consistency and honesty.

For the New Year, I also wish for more critical thinking. In these times of information oversupply and even fake news, it is quite easy to be misled. Sometimes it is accidental, sometimes it is intentional. Nonetheless, it always pays off to never assume and to double check. I pay special attention to numbers. Simple calculations help verify whether claims are true or not. I am amazed by how often I see numbers presented to the public that do not add up. Some numbers look spectacular and get attention, but that is no reason not to do the math again, just to make sure.

Another wish of mine is to see more listening and empathy, and less shouting and fighting in the debate about food. Too many arguments about this topic are a bit too Pavlovian for my liking. People are not rational, but they are always logical with themselves. It pays off to find out the logic and to have candid conversations. More than fighting about who is right and who is wrong, I prefer to see a focus on improving food production in a collaborative manner. Of course, it is easier said than done but he pays off because in the end, regardless of who is wrong or right, the customer is always right. The key for such a successful exercise is to use both our brain hemispheres and help our interlocutors do the same. How we will improve food and agriculture is really a balancing act between the emotional and the rational.

Another item on my list is humility. Every day, Nature and chance bring new challenges and sometimes opportunities. It is essential to stay on our toes. It does not take much for problems to happen and it is necessary to never slip into complacency. In particular, always beware of good times. It is always tempting to see successes be the result of one’s qualities and systems and setbacks as being caused by outside factors. It is tempting but it is rarely that simple. Adversity is the true test. An area of excessive ambition that humours me is when it comes to feed the world. I gently smile at statements such as “Insects will feed the world”, “Aquaculture will feed the world”, “So and so country or continent will feed the world”, etc… I smile because it sounds like we could feed the 10 billions of 2050 several times over. I say humour because it is more about excessive enthusiasm than a lack of humility. We will feed 10 billions –and I really believe that- through the combination of many foods and many production systems all over the world. There is no magic bullet. It will take dedication, work, innovation, market orientation and visionary leadership. It is a never-ending exercise.

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

Curiosity: it’s where the future starts

August 17, 2016

The challenges ahead are bigger than ever before, and be assured that they will bigger in the future. The good news is that progress and new developments in science and technology are bigger and faster than ever, too. From a technical point of view, I would dare to say that the solutions to the challenges already exist or are very close. Often, the problem is that these solutions are not immediately economically viable. In such a fast-changing world, curiosity is undoubtedly one of the most desirable qualities to adapt timely and find new ways of running the business.

Perhaps, it is because a lot of my work is about finding as much information and gathering as much knowledge as possible about all sorts of technologies, facts, systems, science and experiences that I find curiosity quite natural. Perhaps it is also because I have a curious nature. In my daily activities, I find that people are relatively not curious enough. I also can see that the ones who have that quality are always ahead of the pack. What is really amazing is how much is already out there. The trick is to find it and to know about it. Often, the information originates from very different business sectors or comes from other parts of the world or is available in a different language. I can see regularly a lot of organizations busy reinventing the wheel, going through the pain of setting up research and spending vast amounts of time, money and resources to find out results that are already available and that they could have taken over and adjusted to their particular situations. Curiosity can deliver huge savings.

Curiosity is quite time consuming. That is a fact and its main drawback. This may be the reason why it does not happen enough. The quest does not always deliver, although for those who have a proper strategy, the yield is quite good. Curiosity, for a business, cannot be a random activity. It has to be structured and carried out with discipline. There is quite a similarity between curiosity and access to food. There are those who know where to find the tasty mushrooms in the woods and those who get lost in the forest. It is the same thing when going out there to find knowledge. Some are talented and find it often and fast and others just wander endlessly without spotting anything significant. Just as it is important to know the right spots to find food when hunting and gathering, there are some places where the good knowledge is. As with food, it is important to know the supplier and know the origin of the knowledge. To pursue the comparison with mushrooms, some knowledge is good and some can be toxic. The supply chain is just as important, especially considering how fast and far social media can replicate and distribute information. When it comes to knowledge, the reliability, seriousness and quality of the sources is of utmost importance. A discerning knowledge consumer must be critical about what they find. A solid critical sense is of the utmost importance. Regardless of whether the knowledge is found through a hunting/gathering activity or comes from a knowledge farm, it is essential to double-check its validity. The packaging can be deceiving.

Next to focused curiosity activities, it is also important to encourage what I would call open curiosity, in which there is no particular objective but just letting new findings lead to new discoveries. There is no business discipline involved. It more often research you would do in your free time. One piece of information generates interest to know more and you just follow. It is similar to a child-like exploration in which each answer triggers the next “why?” question. It is pure learning. There is no way to tell when or even whether the new learned knowledge will be useful, but there is no such thing as too much knowledge. The trick is to be able to retrieve it when it is needed.

Another important aspect of curiosity is to link experience to knowledge. Usually, knowledge is the result of certain protocols. The knowledge itself takes its full dimension and value only through the use we make of it. Some people make good use and others do not. When gathering new knowledge, it is essential to also learn about the lessons from the experience of those who used it. Why did certain things work in certain conditions and others did not? Which factors influenced the outcome and how would different conditions or a different environment affect the outcome? Getting the big picture is a very important part of curiosity. Expanding the scope and seeing how the pieces of the puzzle come together are the foundation of future successful strategy and adaptation.

Curiosity is a great asset when it comes to face and prepare the future. It is not the whole story, though. Food and agriculture are not intellectual exercises. They must deliver concrete products and results. It is nice to be curious but what do you do with that? The answer to this question is quite simple: action.

According to the saying, knowledge is power. Knowledge is true power only when it is active and circulates. Knowledge that remains in a brain or in a drawer is not very useful for the greater good. The first step that I advise curious people to do is to share what they learn. It is even easier today with the Internet, and there is a lot of knowledge out there. By sharing, I do not mean simply copy and paste or click the share button. Before sharing, it is essential to make sure that what you share is quality. There is too much information that is spread on social media while clearly not critically reviewed, not to say not even read, as it is quite often the case. The mindset here is a mix of enthusiasm, critical thinking and practical service orientation. The knowledge must be correct and the message must come over. It also must be useful to the recipients. It must connect to their needs and add value to them. The final result has to be better food through more efficient and sustainable systems that are financially viable. In the food and agriculture sector, it must lead to always more collaboration and knowledge transfer in all directions within the entire value chain. Often, the weakness of communication is that it stays too long in the same circle and other links, consumers in particular, are kept too long out of the loop. It results too often in misunderstanding, distrust and erroneous perception.

Through collaboration and brainstorming, curiosity helps create a more accurate and achievable vision of the future, on which action can further be carried out to shape the future. From this angle, it makes no doubt that collaboration between all stakeholders is an ongoing process. This is especially true with technology. There are new developments all the time and it certainly takes a curious mind to be able to keep up with novelties. It actually takes many curious minds, considering how huge the quantity of knowledge and information is. It also takes minds that can connect all the dots, and also connect with each other. Although time consuming, the back and forth collaboration, together with ongoing feedback about performance and new demands, allows all links of the chain to know better what the objectives are and how to foster ongoing improvement. As many new technological developments come from outside the food and agriculture sectors, I believe it is critical that the food producers be proactive in the development of technologies and applications, but stating clearly what they expect from technology suppliers and tell them what they expect from them. It is never too early to let them know what your problems, limitations and/or objectives are, so that they can work on it as soon as possible. Being proactive will help speed up the development of the right products, systems and applications.

In this process, leadership is of the essence. Leadership is essential to create the right dynamics to make knowledge transfer happen, fast and well. The role of leaders here is to make knowledge transfer attractive and stimulating for others, so that more stakeholders participate in the development of innovation. The more pressure they will be on suppliers to bring better solutions to the food sector, the higher the chances it happens, indeed. Leaders must also foster connections and networking across the disciplines, even or actually especially with partners outside of the food and agriculture sector. A vision that includes the bigger picture will have more chances of stimulating the cross-discipline and cross-sector collaboration. At the same time, it is crucial to stay practical. The goal is to produce food, and that must be in the minds of all participants.

Curiosity is really the starting point. It feeds an entire chain of ideas and decisions that are the basis for improvement. There is no doubt that fortune favors the bold. In the never-ending quest towards better foods and better agricultural practices, such a process becomes an illustration of “the best way to predict the future is to create it”. This saying may have not been so true as today. Progress and food security depend on it.


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

Future implications and consequences of the ChemChina-Syngenta deal

February 16, 2016

The purchase of Syngenta by ChemChina did not go unnoticed. Many commentators are trying to see all sorts of reasons and all sorts of consequences, mostly depending on whether there are pro or anti GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms). When it comes to China, the best approach in my opinion is to look at it in a very pragmatic manner, simply because the Chinese have been quite pragmatic over the years. Their approach of food and agriculture is the same as for all other economic activity. It is dictated by the need for the government to ensure social stability or at least prevent social unrest. They will do what is good for China, meaning what is good for the Chinese government. It is not aimed at pleasing any other country or the financial markets. They still follow the principle express by Deng Xiao Ping: “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”.

In both Future Harvests and We Will Reap What We Sow, I was announcing such a move, simply because it makes sense when looking at the economic and demographic changes the world is going through. The purchase of Syngenta is a very good move for China because it kills several birds with the same stone.

The Chinese seed sector was –and still is- fragmented and far from effective. By bringing a heavy weight company like Syngenta in their market, they will establish a much stronger seeds and genetic business to meet the challenges of the future. Syngenta brings expertise that will help China speed up the learning curve and create a critical mass of production that will be able to meet some serious volumes. It will stimulate further consolidation in China and also stimulate innovation and progress for other Chinese seed producers, if they want to stay in business. I read many derogatory comments about China’s quality approach. It is amazing how many people are stuck in clichés from the past. China is improving in many areas and quality is one of them. There is a generation of entrepreneurs who are quite bright and competent leading businesses. It is quite clear to me that Syngenta is and will be a quality player in the future, under Chinese leadership. Those who think this deal is bad news for Syngenta’s employees will be disappointed. I believe the contrary. They will get many more challenges to tackle and their jobs will be more focused than they were before or would have been if it had been bought by a North American company.

The purchase of Syngenta sends a clear message that China wants to be in control of its seeds. By buying such production assets, China will not have to go on the market, or at least will be much less dependent, to buy seeds from outside. It will strengthen China’s bargaining position towards other seed suppliers. Thus, China will be in charge of strategic choices that are good for China’s agriculture instead of having to choose from suppliers who do not have China’s long-term food security at heart or who would try to impose their conditions to China.

Regarding the topic of GMO, the purchase of Syngenta certainly offers China access to the technology, but it is not the main reason for the purchase. What it does though, is to offer China the option of using genetic engineering technology if they consider it useful. If they choose to do so, they will approach the use of the technology as a resource that supports their food security goals only and they will develop the products they actually need, not the products other suppliers would want to sell them. Whether China will use GMO is up to China and nobody else. Trying to see the Syngenta purchase as a sign of China’s attitude towards GMO is in my opinion wishful thinking more than anything else. When it comes to seeds, they will not look at the cat’s color. They will focus on having one that catches mice.

Further towards the future, the Syngenta purchase will have other long-term effects, and outside of China, too. China will be a significant seed producer and supplier. With an organization like Syngenta, there is no reason why they should limit business to China. I expect to see China playing a much more important role in the seed market outside of its borders. In particular, I expect to see China eye the huge African seed market. China has been active for decades in Africa and contributes to many economic development projects. China does not interfere with African politics but focuses on how it can help Africa developing and playing a future role for China. Considering the potential of African agriculture and its significance for China’s future food security, the new Syngenta should be instrumental for future progress of agriculture in Africa. A side effect of such a strategy would reshuffle the cards of the world seed market and bring a new and different equilibrium. There is quite a bit of activity on the mergers’ side. Syngenta had been the object of interest from other potential buyers, especially Monsanto. DuPont and Dow already brought their agriculture activities’ together. BASF seems to be looking at reshaping its activities. Further consolidation and mergers will take place in the coming months and years. What will be the next big merger? I can think of two possible ones: BASF and Bayer or BASF and Monsanto. I also see the possibility of Monsanto not being considered a purchase candidate at all by anyone.

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

Nature will reshape food value chains

October 15, 2015

The recent climatic events, in particular droughts, have attracted more attention on future challenges for food production, and rightly so. Unfortunately, the mainstream media cannot help presenting the as all gloom and doom. Certainly, there are very serious reasons for concerns, but solutions can be found. I wish the media would present more examples of positive actions to face and overcome the challenges.

It is not easy to deal with a changing environment, especially when it is impossible to predict accurately what the change will be. Predictions about temperature increases are useful but they are quite insufficient. An increase of 2 degrees on average will be different if the standard deviation is 1 degree or if it is 20 degrees. Other factors such as hours of sunlight and precipitations (including their nature, frequency and intensity) will impact agriculture at least as much as average temperatures. Changing climatic conditions will not only affect plant growth and development, but they will change the ecology of weeds and pests as well and that needs to be factored in future forecasts and models

Nature will reshape food value chainsA special attention on water is necessary. Without water, there is no life. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, wasting natural resources has been a bit of a way of life. The issue of food waste has finally received the attention it deserves, but the waste is not just about food. It is about all the inputs such as water, energy, money, time, and fertilizers. Water is still wasted in large quantities. Just compare how many liters a human being needs to drink compared by the amount of water that is flushed in bathrooms every day. Before the housing crash of 2008 a study in the US had estimated that lawn watering used three times as much water as the entire national corn production. But the issue of water is not just about waste. It is also about preserving water reserves. The late example of the drought in California illustrate what water scarcity may mean for food value chains. California is not only a major agriculture power house, but it exports a large part of the production outside of the state’s borders. The issue of water scarcity and the dwindling level of the Colorado River are not new for Californian agriculture. It has been known for a couple of decades that problems were coming. California produces a lot of water-rich fresh produce by means of irrigation. It actually has been exporting its water in the form of lettuce, spinach, melons, strawberries and citrus far away to places from where the water will never return to California. The water loop has been broken wide open and that is why, among other reasons, the system is not sustainable. If California can no longer supply its current markets, it will have to rethink its target markets. At the same time, other regions, that may not be competitive with California today, because externalities are never included in the cost of production, will eventually take over and replace the Golden State as suppliers for some productions. Unfortunately for the future, California is not the only region with a water problem. Saudi Arabia changed its food security policy a couple of years ago as the country leaders realized that trying to produce all its food would lead to a severe depletion of its available drinking water reserves. Instead of pursuing food self-sufficiency at all costs, the country chose to find other supply sources through international trade and through the purchase of farmland in foreign countries. The examples of California and Saudi Arabia demonstrate how natural –and demographic- conditions shape food value chains. The issue of water is not just about produce. Animal productions require usually more water than vegetal ones. In the future, water availability will surely affect where which kind of animal products are produced. New regions will arise and old traditional ones may review their strategies from volume-driven to higher margin specialty animal products market opportunities because of environmental constraints.

Climate change and water scarcity show how international trade can actually contribute to food security when done responsibly and with long-term vision. The prevailing model of producing where it is cheapest to produce without taking into account negative environmental externalities is facing its own contradiction and demise. The next model will be to produce not only where it is the cheapest to produce but where it is sustainable to do so. When water runs out, it is no longer possible to ignore the externalities of a production. When water becomes scarce, it gets more expensive. The law of supply and demand commands. When inputs get more expensive, several things happen. The economic model shifts. Priorities and externalities change, too. At first, producers try to find ways to increase efficiency and eliminate waste. The benefits outweigh the additional costs. Uncertainty stimulates innovation. New systems, or sometimes old ones that found a second youth, replace the current ones. If that does not work well enough, then producers start considering producing something else to ensure the continuity of their operation and find new business.

It is not the first time that our natural environment changes. Finding successful solutions to deal with it really are about our ability to adapt and to preserve our future, as it has been the case in the past. The challenges may be of a magnitude like never before, but so are our knowledge, our technical abilities and the tools present and future.

From an agricultural point of view, adapting to a new environment is about finding the type of production that thrives under new conditions. It may mean different areas of production for some species. In North America, there is already a shift for corn. Iowa has traditionally the main grower, but the corn production area is now expanding north. Minnesota is now producing more corn than in the past and so are the Canadian Prairies. Similarly, the production area for soybean is shifting north. Minnesota is growing an increasing volume of soybean and even in the province of Manitoba in Canada, soybean production attempts have been carried out since a few years.  It is the result of better production conditions and the development of new varieties that can adapt to new less favorable climatic conditions. Because of the local supply for soybean, the development of aquaculture with local soybean products for fish feed is now considered a long-term possibility in Minnesota among others. In Europe, corn production regions also saw a shift to the north for corn during the 1970-80s thanks to the development of new varieties, which largely contributed to the growth of dairy production in these new areas through the widespread use of corn silage. For the future, there is no doubt that genetics will contribute again to ensure food security. There is currently a lot of work done to develop varieties that can withstand droughts, floods or soil salinity. The ability to know the complete genome of species, to spot genes through gene markers, to be able to create new varieties that are less sensitive to diseases help speed up the development of crops that can thrive under future conditions. The recent developments in synthetic biology are quite interesting. Research conducted at the IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) on the development of rice varieties that can have a higher photosynthesis efficiency and thus higher yields could open new perspective for a more productive and more sustainable production.

Next to the development of better and more adapted seeds and genetic material, the development of new technologies that I described in a previous article will bring a number of effective solutions as well. In particular the rise of precision agriculture is certainly quite promising. The ability to deliver to the crops exactly what they need when they need it at the right time and at the right place in the right quantity will help reduce the environmental impact of agriculture while offering the possibility of delivering higher yields. Similarly, in animal production, there still is room to improve feed efficiency. It can happen through further genetic improvement, the use of more efficient feed ingredients and feed composition and through better farm management. The latter is definitely an essential facet of a better future for food production. Better and updated skills for food producers will help being more efficient, more productive and more sustainable at the same time.

An area that is often forgotten when it comes to the future of food is the functioning of markets. If demand for certain products, and in particular animal products, increases faster than supply, price will go up and there will differential increases between the different types of products. As most consumers, unlike what marketers sometimes tend to make believe, still choose what they eat depending on the price of foods, there will be shifts. Some productions will thrive while others will struggle.

As prices still will be an essential driver of the location of the various vegetal and animal productions, markets and environmental constraints will increasingly have a joint effect. In the future, the dominant economic model of producing where it is the cheapest to produce will evolve. As the pressure on water supplies, soil conditions and pollution issues will keep increasing, the model will include an increasing share of negative externalities. They are the long-term costs that are never factored in the production costs but that will affect future production economics. Externalities are the hidden side of sustainability and they will determine the future map of agriculture, as it will no longer be possible to ignore them. Choices will have to be made between short-term financial performance and the long-term ability of various regions to be able to produce, and to keep producing, the volumes and the quality specifications that are needed by the different food markets of the future.

A friend of mine told me a couple of years ago after a trip to Asia how she could see from the plane the large plantations of palm oil trees, and how they had replaced the jungle. She described her impression as the view resembled the strategic game of Risk to her. Yes, climate change and water availability in particular, will reshape food value chains because agriculture, regardless of it scale, is a strategic activity. It is about life and death. It is about peace and war. Future strategies for both global commodities as well as for local food value chains will integrate Nature’s new deal of precious resources and conditions of productions. Together with the geography of future consumption markets, world agriculture will readjust, relocate and the Earth will look different once again.

Copyright 2015 – 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.