High-tech fish farm

August 31, 2009

Hawaii Oceanic Technology IncHere is an article from fis.com about another type of high tech fish farm with some nice futuristic design.

Hawaii Oceanic Technology Inc. has created the Oceansphere. “These elegant, self-sustaining and untethered semi-submerged floating pods are a revolution in open ocean aquaculture technology”, according to the fis.com article. The system is operated without the use of fossil fuels, which makes it environmentally quite acceptable.

As mentioned in the article, the company’s “plan is to demonstrate the feasibility of this technology and, as Jacques Cousteau said, farm the ocean as we farm the land.”


Ecosystem-based management approach gains importance

August 23, 2009

Here is an article from fis.com illustrating what I had written in previous articles in this blog (enter “ecosystem” in the search window to have the list of these articles) and mentioned in my presentation Twelve trends for the future of food production.
It also illustrate my claim that for environmental organizations and industry need time has come to co-operate.
After all, food production is a biological process and so are our lives, so that is no wonder that we need to look at this issue in its broad and complete scope.


The fish farming of the future?

August 21, 2009

Here is an article of the National Geographic about “Giant Robotic Cages to Roam Seas as Future Fish Farms?”

This article addresses a number of very interesting and valid points, such as the possibility to move to better farming environment, or getting farms closer to consumer markets.

Photograph Ocean Farm Technologies Having the ability to change location has several advantages. It allows finding areas where water quality is better as this varies with seasons and climate conditions. It also can allow farms to move away from the routes of wild fish and substantially reduce risks of disease and parasite contamination and spreading. Being closer to consumers market also has the advantage of reducing the amount of transportation and have the fish brought to market faster, therefore fresher, theoretically.

However, this article does not address a number of important aspects of fish farming. Going far offshore brings some organizational issues, such as rotating the crews working on farms, or dealing with rough weather. Probably some fine tuning would be needed to organize feed deliveries to such farms as well and the mobility must not happen at the expense of the life of equipment or the functioning of cameras and computers used for management purposes. As such, nothing that cannot be resolved, but it would come at a cost as well. Then it is to the farmers to weigh the pros and cons and make their decision.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting idea that shows that this industry is in full evolution and is adapting to the future.

Pioneering the oceans and robotizing aquaculture connects quite well with my previous articles “Innovation and tradition shape the future” and “The ocean, not Mars, is the next frontier


Rebuilding fisheries is a must for the future

August 5, 2009

Rebuilding fish stocks will be good for us allAs everyone knows, fish stocks have been depleted to levels that are not acceptable. This is the result of short-term thinking combined with highly efficient but stupid fishing methods. Not only fish is a high value food source, but oceans are complex ecosystems that we cannot afford to lose. Although aquaculture claims to be the way to compensate the supply of wild fish, this is only true within limits, as some aquaculture species are fed with fish meal and fish oil, and replacement of these products is also limited by the quantities that agricultural crops can supply, and consequently their price.

As one of the points that I mention in my presentation “Twelve trends for the future of food production” (under Presentations tab), we can expect that programs will be set up to rebuild wild fish stocks and bring the volumes back to levels with which sustainable fishing methods and quotas will help provide us with more secure supplies. This will be some sort of a stimulus plan for seafood with all stakeholders involved: government, fishermen, aquaculture industry, retailers, food service and consumers.

A recent report published by the Pew Charitable Trusts has reviewed the possibilities and the economic impact of rebuilding fisheries in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean, as well as the downside of doing nothing. A Canadian research has worked in a similar direction and tend to show that rebuilding fish populations is possible, citing a number of successful cases (see article).

All that comes out from these reports is that the situation, although quite serious, is far from lost, but it requires political will and organization to make it happen. This is exactly why all parties involved from whichever country concerned will have to act in a coordinated manner.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


If we are what we eat, what will we eat in the future?

June 9, 2009

The past 50 years have seen, at least in the Western world, the development of the consumption society. The emphasis has been on consuming always more, by having an apparently unlimited quantity of increasingly cheaper consumption goods available. This trend happened in the agriculture and food sectors just as well, and followed a rather simple patter, actually. Mass consumption has been coupled to mass production, thanks to intensification, technical and technological progress and, last but not least, marketing.

Junk foodTechnical progress improved yields and productivity, while marketing was aimed at creating more, and new, needs. Our food has become standardized, industrialized, and processed in a wide variety of forms. As the emphasis moved to lifestyle and convenience, which came along with the rise of mass distribution, cheap energy and suburbia, we lost the connection between ourselves, the origin of our food and nature. Food became just things you buy at the supermarket, already packed in plastic and cardboard.

Now, we have come to the realization that this high production of waste, be it packaging material, be it blemished product that do not look good anymore while still perfectly edible, be it the overproduction of manure and its minerals, or be it the massive use of antibiotics and pesticides is not sustainable. Of course, much progress has already done to reduce this waste and there is a growing trend towards organic and traceable, but at this stage it not clear yet whether this is a true change in our behavior or whether it has more to do with a social status and marketing issue.

However, what the current situation might be, the fact that we understand that we cannot keep on intensifying and wasting the way we did, will inevitably bring a more fundamental change in how we consume in the future.

Some people predict such changes as the astronaut diet made out of pills, the use of a computer to tell us what and how much of it we should eat based on our activity level, or the tissue culture to replace meat, and many other scenarios. Will any of those ever happen? Who knows?

Personally, I believe that food as a very strong psychological connotation. We associate food with experiences and, although there are differences between cultures, that emotional bond will stay.

Clearly, the consumption society with all its excesses is coming to its end, and maybe the current economic crisis, which also originated in the excess of having it all at any cost, could very well be the turning point.

The next evolution is probably going to be a balanced approach between consumption, which we need to some extent, and the necessity of preserving what keeps us alive. There will be different graduations of this balance between geographic regions, but sustainability is the only way forward, as I mentioned in my previous article (Sustainability: as natural as balance).

Intensification is showing its limitations, waste of manure and of packaging are also hitting a wall, energy is getting more expensive and makes the production and the transport of food more expensive, too. This will reshape how we want to consume our food, how and where it is produced, how it is presented to us.

Cattle feedlotWe still are in a society where some people get obese by eating lots of food as quickly as they can, while they have less physical activity than the previous generations, thanks to automation. That food is produced on intensive farms and feedlots where the animals grow and fatten as quickly as possible, as they eat lots of food, while not having much physical activity. Similarly, in our society meat producers use hormones to boost growth and carcass quality, while body builders and sport professionals use steroids and growth hormone to boost their performance. Interesting similarities, don’t you think? We are indeed what we eat.

So, in a conservation society, should we expect the farms to be led by the need to preserve? This almost sounds like the farms we had at the beginning of the twentieth century. I think that there will be some of it, but the efficiency of production as well as the efficiency of preserving the environment will be much better, thanks to new technologies. We will have high yields, and at the same time, we will have highly efficient systems to use water, to recycle waste and preserve the fertility of our soils and the balance of our oceans.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The lessons of intensive animal husbandry to aquaculture

May 24, 2009

egyptian farmingThe domestication of animals for food production started thousands of years ago, and has gone through a slow evolution since then. In the last 50 years, we have intensified productions systems to a very high degree. Aquaculture, although not unusual in ancient times, has really experienced an economic boom only rather recently, and future growth predictions are quite optimistic.

The development of intensive animal husbandry has helped provide people with high nutritional value  products, and it also offered the possibilities to farmers to have a reasonable source of income. On the other side, it has brought a number of problems, many of which have not been solved and this has resulted in pressure to reduce the level of intensification.

chicken farmWith high densities of animal in some regions, animal husbandry has had to deal with a number of health issues, such as not long ago avian flu and swine fever. The presence of large number of animals in limited areas has increased the “disease pressure” on farms and regions, making epizooties quite devastating, considering the amount of culling that health prevention measures require. This always takes a heavy economic toll, and not only on farmers. This has forced many countries to review their policies about intensive animal husbandry and downsized the sector.

To prevent diseases and mortality, intensive animal husbandry has made a widespread use of antibiotics, which also appeared to promote animal growth. Unfortunately, over time it has appeared that these antibiotics found their way into our bodies and ultimately into our drinking water reserves. The main threat that has arisen from the massive use of antibiotics is the emergence of bacteria resistance to these antibiotics, with the potential risk of making them ineffective, should bacteria become resistant to all of them. The result of this would be to bring us back to the pre-penicillin era with all the consequences that we know. Many countries have now addressed the problems surrounding the use of antibiotics and restricted their use to curative purposes.

Another strong impact on the environment has been the manure surpluses in intensive regions. Next to the odor problem, the excessive manure production has resulted in heavy pollution of the soil and of water reserves. Phosphates and heavy metals coming from the animal feed endangered the fertility of the soil. More mobile minerals, such as nitrates, have entered our drinking water, making it in many areas unsuitable for pregnant women and infants. Sadly, the intensive regions get in trouble because of a surplus of minerals that originate from raw materials produced in other parts of the world, while on the farms producing the feedstuffs, the minerals are not brought back. They have to be replaced by chemical fertilizers instead of the manure that would originate from the animals, such as in a closed system mixed farm.

Husbandry systems have evolved, too. After years of high degree of confinement, regulations have changed and are still changing to take animal welfare more into account. As examples, I could give the stop on tethering of sows and hen cage ban. I have no doubt that animal welfare will become a growing issue in aquaculture, too.

The use of feed and its constant quest to reduce production costs has brought the industry to use some raw materials that can be questionable. An example of this was meat and bone meal use, after the mad cow disease hit Britain in the mid 1990’s. Next to the possible transmission risks to humans, it has also raised some questions about whether herbivores should consume meat derivates.

Intensive animal husbandry has made meat, dairy and poultry very affordable to most consumers, at least in the Western countries. This has led to a shift in the diet from mainly starch to a much higher proportion of protein and fat. Unfortunately, this shift has had some negative effect on health. Animal products are high value sources of protein and fat, but excessive consumption has negative effects. While an annual consumption of 30 kg of meat per capita would do just fine, most Western countries have passed the level of 100kg. Of course, there are many discussions between the different parties involved about where the truth lies, but there are good indication that a good diet should include more fiber, more produce and less animal protein and fat.

Fish farmTherefore, above, I have tried to sum up the most noticeable results of intensification of land animal production. Clearly, there are lessons to be learned for the “new” aquaculture industry, and by this, I mean the intensive, high investment aquaculture. Most companies involved in this business have been inspired mainly by the evolution-and the success- in the chicken industry. They try to copy and adapt a similar model. Therefore, it is rather predicable that they will have to deal eventually with similar consequences.

Fish farms have very high densities of animals. Even if the area at the sea level is rather limited, each farm goes quite deep, and the biomass they contain would make many chicken farms look like “small” operations. If you add to this that they are very exposed to the natural environment, as the pens are open nets, there is no wonder that they are very exposed to disease and disease spreading. The current situation in the Chilean salmon farming sector facing ISA just shows how sensitive these farms can be to diseases. My expectations is that aquaculture will be confronted to situations as bad as swine fever and avian flu, and they will have to revise their level of intensification, their location (including possible rotation of site with fallowing as a standard procedure). Further, navigation rules will be strengthened to reduce the possibility of cross-contamination from a marine zone to another.

Very likely, the sector will also further sharpen its veterinary procedures and increase their control on prevention and on medication.  About this part, it may seem that feces simply get flushed into the ocean, but that is not that certain. Feces always contain residues of medicines. The volume of feces produced is quite significant on such intensive fish farms and you can be sure that at some point, simply letting them go into the sea will not be allowed anymore. I foresee that fish pens will have feces collection systems in the future and the “manure” will have to find some use.

The feed industry is now diversifying it sources of raw materials to cope with the rising price of fish oil and fish meal, which is the result of higher demand from the fast growing aquaculture. They carry out lots of research to find the right profiles of oil to meet the fish flesh quality requirements (especially omega3) by using vegetal oil, but one can wonder whether this will be a sustainable approach in the long run. Maybe there will be a completely new industry to produce “farmed” fish oil and fish meal to meet the feed industry needs.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The Ocean, not Mars is the next frontier

May 19, 2009

Sorry to crush George W.’s and Star Trek’s fans’ illusions, but I believe that colonizing oceans could offer more interesting possibilities than outerspace. Mars… well that’s another story…
OK, so, let’s start daydreaming!
First, a look at the scenery.
Close to 70% of the Earth is covered by water.
Most of that volume is left unexploited, with exception of fisheries, which unfortunately deplete stocks, mostly because there is no efficient plan to manage fish stocks in a sustainable manner.
The timid colonization efforts are limited to fairly coastal activities.

Natural resources
While on the land, it has become more and more difficult to extract metals and minerals, there is a vast hardly explored potential for these natural resources lying at the bottom of the sea. Many open-sky mines have been exploited to almost full potential. Drilling and mining at deeper and deeper levels have resulted in higher and higher costs. All things considered, it is probably cheaper to drill through a layer of (soft) water than hard rock, and there are areas known where metals are available on the surface of the oceans bottom.

Energy
Tremendous energy potential is available in and over the oceans.We have huge reserves of hydrogen in there. Of course, to produce it we will have to produce the necessary energy to split the water molecules. Using fossil fuel cannot be an option, as the gas emissions would defeat the purpose.
The great thing is that the energy needed can be found in the oceans themselves. Why not think of having large wind or solar farms located on oceans (probably not too far offshore), dedicated to splitting water and producing hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen could be used in fuel cells, and the oxygen could be used to allow the people involved in underwater activities and settlements to breathe.
Further, more electricity can be produce by using the strong currents to run through turbines.
It could be also interesting to consider the possibility to create floating solar energy farms.
It such a scenario, it is not unthinkable that all our energy needs for cars, factories and industries could come from clean emission-free electricity.

Water
Water, and especially clean drinking water will be one of the biggest challenges that mankind is going to face in the future.
Of course, there is plenty of water in the oceans, but the main problem will be to make it drinkable.
Considering that in the fantasy I am writing here, I envision human settlements on (or in?) the oceans, there will have to be drinking water available.
Next to desalinization, the other most obvious source of drinking water is collecting rain.

Capturing carbon
There are projects of using minerals to change the pH of the sea with the hope that this would help absorb CO2 much faster than it naturally currently happens. Although, this might be our last resort if we do not get our emission under control. The problem is that we have about no idea on what the side effects on the ecosystems might be, and that is a scary thought.
Here, I want to focus on more positive ways to use ecological methods.
On the land, we are losing more and more trees as a result of our need for more and more land, and therefore we are losing the natural capacity to capture CO2.
Then why not think of replacing these lost trees by cultivating the oceans and develop large vegetal populations, in other words, grow aquatic meadows and forests?
This must be done with care of course as the ocean life is a three dimensional thing with depth playing a significant role, while on land it looks more like two dimensional (limited depth/height significance).
Another area of attention when developing such vegetal populations is to make sure they do not get out of control and impact the oceans ecology as many other species with interact with them, creating complete ecological systems and food chains.

Developing a whole new aquaculture
Here, I use this term in its literary meaning, which is cultivating the water, not just restricting it to the production of a few commercial aquatic species, as it is the case today.We should be able to cultivate the water en develop it in a similar way as we did with agriculture, but also by learning from the mistakes we have made in agriculture.The only way that the current aquaculture farms can survive is to produce (cultivate) the foodstuffs it needs in the oceans as well. Keeping on doing as today has probably not that much future, as the need for fish meal, and mostly fish oil will exceed by far the current production possibilities, and exhausting the wild stocks used for that clearly could not work. Further, replacing these foodstuffs by vegetal protein and fat from agricultural crops will not work, either, because there will be too much competition from the needs for land-based animal productions and the needs for human food. Clearly, the only way to meet the increasing needs for seafood is to grow the foodstuff in the sea.
This opens a tremendous project of picking which foodstuffs to produce in the sea, how to manage them, how to combine the mix of production and ensuring the sustainability of this new aquaculture, and at the same time ensuring that the marine ecosystems recover and function properly as well.
This will require an aquaculture of plankton, of algae, of aquatic plants, of fish, of shellfish, of mammals en maybe more.
So far we have depleted the food chains in the sea, now is the time to restore them, next to increasing our ocean-based food supplies.

The challenges
Well, you will say: that sounds all very nice but is it realistic?
And I would answer, maybe it is not quite realistic today, but if we work on it, quite a few things named above can be achieved. Actually, some have already started.
The main challenge I see is to cope with the tremendous forces that oceans can unleash, such as currents, storms, waves and pressure in the depths; and we would need to build in a way that can deal with such forces, if we want to avoid disasters.
But you have to agree that there is lots of space available on our planet this way and it here right here “at home”.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.