How to attract people to food production?

October 18, 2010

With the population increase, food production becomes an increasingly strategic activity. Yet, the food sector does not seem to have the appeal it deserves, and attracting new people appears to be a challenging task.

In countries where the percentage of the active population in agriculture is low, many young people simply have never had any exposure to food production. Their food knowledge is limited to their visits to the local supermarket. Since one can love only what one knows, this seriously restricts the number of potential candidates. In a previous article, “Who will be the farmers of the future?“, I had already asked the question of who would be the farmers of the future. To get the attention of the youth, the food sector needs to become more visible and more approachable. There is a need for more interaction between education and visits to farms and food processors. As I mentioned in “Nutrition basics should be taught in school”, such activities should be part of the normal curriculum. Understanding food is understanding Nature, and understanding Nature is understanding who we are. Food, together with water and air, is the one thing that we cannot live without. This should make clear beyond any doubt how important food production and food supply are for the future of our species.

To attract new people to the food sector, it is also quite important to tell what kind of jobs this sector has to offer. These jobs need to be not only interesting, but they also must offer the candidates the prospect of competitive income, long-term opportunities, and a perceived positive social status. Many students have no idea about the amazing diversity of jobs that agriculture (including aquaculture) and food production have to offer. This is what both the sector and the schools must communicate. Just to name a few and in no particular order, here are some of the possibilities: farming, processing, logistics, planning, sales, marketing, trade, operations, procurement, quality, customer service, IT, banking and finance, nutrition (both animal and human), agronomy, animal husbandry, genetics, microbiology, biochemistry, soil science, ecology, climatology, equipment, machinery, fertilizers, irrigation, consumer products, retail, research, education, plant protection, communication and PR, legal, management, knowledge transfer, innovation, politics, services, etc…  Now, you may breathe again!

All these types of activities offer possibilities for work that can be both local and international. These jobs can be indoor or outdoor occupations. Employers are both small and large businesses. Jobs are available in industries, in government agencies, in not-for-profit organizations. Agriculture and food are about life science, and life science is about life. Not many economic sectors can offer such a broad choice of professions.

This said, getting more students in the field of food production will require relentless communication about the present situation as well as about future perspectives. It is necessary for colleges and universities to envision the future. Educating students today must help making them operational for the challenges of the future. Education is nothing less than developing the human resources that will increase the prosperity, the stability and the dynamics of the society of tomorrow. Attracting new students goes further than just agriculture and food production at large. Within food production, every sector also competes to attract new people. Some healthy competition should benefit the whole food chain.

Clearly, there is a need to identify future trends, future challenges and future needs to produce better food and more food. This will require a practical approach. Identify future needs is not an intellectual exercise. It is about providing people with food on a daily basis for the years to come. Identifying future challenges is a team effort between education, research, farmers, businesses and governments. All must work together to create a more secure future. If we want to avoid suboptimal solutions, there cannot be walls between the links of the food production chain.

In my opinion, the most effective way to work towards developing the proper curriculum and attracting students for the jobs of the future is to have a market-driven approach. The question is not only what type of jobs will be needed, but also where will they be needed? To be effective in this process, it is necessary to develop a vision of the things to come for the coming 10 to 20 years, which is the purpose of The Food Futurist (see mission statement). In our fast-changing world, today already belongs to the past. Developing a curriculum on current issues will not prepare students properly for their professional lives, and neither will it serve society properly. Only by identifying what skills will be needed is it possible to offer the best job perspectives for future food professionals, and being able to overcome future challenges. And feeding 9 billion people by 2050 is quite an objective! Identifying the challenges of the future indicates where the best job opportunities are. The action plans to develop tomorrow’s curricula will depend greatly on geographic location. Clearly, India will face with very different demographic, environmental and economic situations than North America, Europe or Brazil will. However, when it comes to food, we will become even more globally interdependent than we are today. This offers many opportunities to train people for work abroad, too.

As my head teacher in Animal Production, the late Julien Coléou, taught us in the first lesson of our final year at the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon: “To live is to learn, to create and to fight”. When it comes being prepared for the future, these three pillars of life all need to be on the curriculum.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Some basics about nutrition and metabolism that can improve your life

August 12, 2010

With obesity on the rise in more and more countries and legions of diets with little results, if any, I had been thinking about writing something about proper nutrition and some of the key physiological mechanisms involved in human metabolism. It is a bit away from envisioning the future, although the fight against obesity will gain momentum in the years to come.

There are many misconceptions out there. For instance, we all have heard that carbohydrates are not good, fat is not good or meat is not good. This is total non-sense. Carbohydrates, fat and protein are good. Actually, they are indispensable to our health. What is bad is too much, especially too much of the nutritionally poor quality carbohydrates, fats and protein sources.

Obesity and overweight are increasing health issues. In the world there are about as many overweight people as they are people suffering from hunger: around one billion people in each group. What causes overweight? The answer is simple. A person gains weight when he/she ingests more calories than he/she burns. The cause can be either too rich a diet and/or not enough physical activity. In most cases, it is a combination of both. The source of unburned calories are metabolized into fat and stored in the fat tissues. This is a problem, because fat tissues are poorly irrigated with blood vessels. This makes the stored fat difficult to eliminate. The body will use calories coming from the meals before it uses the fat reserves. This is why it is so difficult to get rid of extra pounds. The only way to use the fat reserves is through long intensive physical activity.

Some might wonder why our body does not tell us when to stop eating. Actually the body does, through two physiological mechanisms. One is a mechanical mechanism. When the stomach is stretched, the nervous system sends the information to the brain that the stomach is full and the brain makes us stop eating. The other mechanism is biochemical, through the blood composition, the brain sensors can detect when we have ingested enough energy, and the brain makes us stop eating. We feel “full”.

This could make you think that we should never overeat because the brain would let us know on time. Theoretically, this is true but the modern lifestyle has found a way of deceiving the brain. The biochemical mechanism takes time to react. It needs to detect a glycaemia level high enough to act. When we eat food and beverages that are highly concentrated in energy, and therefore have a relatively small volume, we ingest more calories than we would need before the stomach gets stretched, and before the glycaemia level rises in the blood to the normal level. Such foods are generally low in fibre and high in fat, such as fried foods. Soft drinks are not filling and they contain many calories. You can imagine the result of a combo bacon cheeseburger-French fries-pop package meal! The carbohydrates that they contain pass in the blood almost instantaneously. One of the advantages of fibre-rich food, such as fruit and vegetables, is that they fill the stomach and contain relatively few calories per volume unit. This activates the mechanical nervous mechanism and limits our food intake much faster than foods with little fibre. Do not fool yourself! The little leaf of lettuce in your burger is not enough to protect you.

This brings me to talk about carbohydrates. There are two types of carbohydrates: the slow ones and the fast ones. The main representative of slow carbohydrate is starch. Starch is a long molecule that does not get into the blood stream as such. When we consume starch in bread, rice, pasta or potatoes, the starch gets cuts in a smaller component, called glycogen. The glycogen is stored in the liver where it waits for instructions from the brain to be released in the blood stream. This happens through a biochemical mechanism. The brain sensors detect a state of hypoglycaemia, and it orders the liver to release the glycogen. As long as our liver still has glycogen in store, we do not feel hungry. The system regulates itself smoothly. When we run out of glycogen, which is between 2 and 4 hours after the meal, we get into a hypoglycaemic state and we feel hungry. Usually it happens around 11.00 am and noon. That is why lunch exists! Same thing happens around 5.00 pm. Starch is good and necessary for us (as mentioned before, too much, on the other hand, is not).

The second group of carbohydrates, the fast ones, follows a different process. This group consists of what we call sugars, such as saccharose, fructose or glucose. When ingested, they do not get stored for later release, unlike starch. They flow into the bloodstream almost instantaneously and there are two possible scenarios. If our activity level is high enough when we consume them, they are burned to provide us with energy. If our activity level is too low for the amount we consume, our metabolism deals with the fast carbohydrates in only one manner: it transforms the sugars into fat that then get stored in the fat tissue. This is why drinking large amounts of pop or snacking on candy bars while sitting on your couch watching TV or playing video games will make you fat. There again, the rule is enough sugar to sustain yourself is good, too much consumption is bad.

About fat, I can tell a similar story. Within the amount necessary to allow all our functions to work properly, fats are fine. As their name indicates, essential fatty acids are indispensable. Even the dreaded cholesterol is an essential element for us. What is not good is to consume too much fat, and to consume too much of the less good ones. The length of the carbon chain, the level of saturation and the configuration of the molecules also affect your health. The excess of fat in your diet will end up as fat deposit in your body. This is why potato chips while watching TV will hurt you, too.

Protein is good, but with moderation as well. As for the other elements, too much protein can cause some problems, as protein stored in the intestine before release will not ferment, unlike fibre, but will undergo a rotting process, resulting in the production of harmful amines. The kidneys have also more work to do, and a long exposure to a diet too rich in protein may cause kidney problems.

So, what is the lesson from all of this? For me, it is that food one of the enjoyable things in life, as long as it is consumed with moderation (an incidental excess once in a while is fine, too; it means that you enjoy life) and it goes together with a healthy lifestyle. A person should have 7 hours of physical activity (the kind that makes you sweat) per week. Also, remember that the best is to not gain extra pounds in the first place, because the fat tissue is remarkably persistent.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consuting Ltd.

German agriculture Minister says “Eat less meat!”

January 7, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Aquaculture: the solution to feed 9 billion people?

December 8, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

USDA launches nutritional web tools

September 25, 2009

This news is a beautiful confirmation of what I am announcing for the future (see my remarks in “Nutrition basics should be taught in school” and “The dining of the future“) about the need and the coming tools that will help people know more about agriculture, food and health, not only the educational tools, but also the software and/or website that will allow them to set up their own diet and make their own “educated” dining choices.

The article from Food Business News also mention what I have been telling all around and a number of comments that I have left on blogs from food organization and media such as Meatingplace that city people know very little about how food is produced and about their lack of understanding beyond the supermarket counter (read my comments in “Less controversy thanks to transparency” and in “Health and environment as growing drivers of food production“).

The dining of the future

September 6, 2009

With the current development of software and technology on the one hand, and all the concerns that consumer express about food, health and environment, on the other hand, I believe that it is only a matter of time before we all can have the information and tools we need to make our own eating (and nutritional) choices.

Can I eat this?

May I eat this?

Today, we have nutritional information on all food items labels, but few of us use it much. This could soon change.
As many among us have computers at home, we can expect software to come on the market, and maybe even already installed with the computer at purchase, that will allow us to determine and set up our own diets.
Already numerous websites have interactive programs telling you, depending on your weight and life style, how many calories you should eat per day and other websites help you calculate the nutritional value of your meal if you enter the quantities of your menu’s components.

In animal nutrition, optimization programs to compose the feed ration by entering the nutritional value of the different possible ingredients and set limits to the level of inclusion of some ingredients based on nutritional and technical parameters have been in use for many years. Last, but not least, these programs also include the price of the different ingredients, so that the best-balanced “meal” that meets the nutritional needs can be composed at the lowest cost possible.

Therefore, it is just a matter of time before we all can have at home a system that will take into account, or weight, our age, our level of physical activity, our health risks and calculate for us what our meals could be made of and how much we should eat, depending on which menu combination we would like to have for that particular meal or day. The nutritional information could be either from a database or directly transferable from the nutritional value label present on the food packaging we bought.

Following the same idea, I expect most restaurants to present their menus with thorough nutritional information on the side, in a similar way as food labels show, with indication of health benefits or restrictions. There also would be the possibility for a customer to enter their personal information to have the meal tailor-made for them, with probably the relevant price adjustment when needed. All of the above includes of course the drinks as well, as they definitely can contribute to the overall nutritional value of the meal.

Any action encouraging healthier eating will be supported by the government and by health insurances, which should help accelerate the introduction of such programs.

As environment and sustainability are among the main concerns of consumers today, I expect food items in the retail and the dishes on restaurant menus to include environmental information, similar to the ones mentioned and appearing on the label shown in my article “Environmental performance on food labels“. Today, a number of restaurants have already joined programs setup by MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) to indicate they serve only sustainable seafood. Seafood is probably just the first item that will be followed with similar information and programs for other food sources.

We have entered the era of information, and we will eat accordingly.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Organic foods not nutritionally superior. So what?

August 6, 2009

A bit of emotion, a bit of reasonA recent study from the UK concluded that organic foods are not nutritionally superior to “regular” foods. Of course, it did not take long for reactions to be published. The pro organics reject the protocol used and therefore the conclusions. The pro “industry” reacted satisfied. All of this is not surprising, and for a simple reason: people choose their foods greatly based on psychological reasons. Let’s face it the debate around organic food is largely about lifestyle and choices.

However, is the result of this survey a surprise? Not really, because in terms of nutritional value, the differences in production systems are not that different. When it comes to food safety, especially residues of chemicals, then it probably is a very different story.

What can affect the nutritional value of foods are the growth period and the timing of the harvest. Produce that grows fast and that is harvested before full ripeness contains relatively more water and therefore there can be a dilution of nutrients per kg of product. This is also true for meat products.

I do not believe that the real debate between” organic” and “industrial” should be so much about nutritional value as it should be about food safety. As consumers get more educated and have more choice, they will give the preference to something more natural and harmless, simply because it is common sense and the safe thing to do. On the other hand of course, agriculture must be in a position to offer affordable products. Organic foods are more expensive and this is what limits its market share to mostly well-off city residents.

If organic foods want to become the standard to feed people, it will have to work on its production costs and price. Retailers are playing a very important role in this, as they more and more dictate to suppliers how food should be produced. This is currently very obvious with seafood and the requirement set by supermarkets to buy only sustainable seafood.

My expectation for the future is that retailers will get more involved in agriculture and will impose on suppliers more restrictions on what kind of products they may use for crop treatment, more restrictions for better animal welfare. The market standards of the future will become “sustainable”, “natural” and “traceable”; not for emotional reasons, but for rational reasons. There will be pain to accept for producers to meet these requirements, and in the end the commercial negotiations will decide what the market price of “natural” foods will be.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.