Tomorrow’s grocery shopping

Grocery shopping has undergone deep changes over the last 100 years and, like anything else, it will do the same in the future. The current Covid-19 pandemic is contributing to this evolution. Regardless of whether it will be over soon or not, one thing is sure: it has forced us to make adjustments and in a way, the virus has just accelerated changes that were already in the works. Here is how I see what to expect.

First of all, Covid-19 has changed how we live, and therefore how we shop. Online retail was growing but then it became almost a necessity for grocery stores to jump on board and engage in online sales. It was not always smooth. It took time for many outlets to organize taking orders, preparing them and get the orders ready for pick-up or for delivery. There was a lack of staff. The staff was not trained properly and there were all sorts of logistics issues to fix. Without getting in details, stores have been able to get a better presence online and ensured a better and smoother service over time, and rightly so, because many people have discovered the convenience of shopping at the time of their choice, not having to drive to the store, not having to be in the herd, which was already a pain in the neck before the pandemic, and not having to wait in line to check out. It saves them time and stress. These are the main reasons why I expect online grocery sales to stay and grow further. The offering and the navigability of online stores will have to improve as for now, it is still a tedious experience. The execution of orders is still a challenging area. More staff is needed and at the moment, this part of the business is the busiest and currently the largest employment opportunity at Wal-Mart. Amazon has also hired large numbers of new staff. Yes, it takes time and manpower to fill orders. It is nothing new. I used to do that part at my parents butcher’s shop. I used to prepare orders and deliver them to the customers who required it. Of course, my parents’ store was a relatively small operation and our phone and my brain (and my legs and arms, too) were all it took to get things done. The volume of business of modern grocery store is such that it could just be a family thing. My point is that preparing orders and executing them is nothing new and actually not all that complicated, and it is a pillar of good customer care.

Here is where I see more changes in the future. Having to manage so many new people to fill order –or to be personal shoppers to put it in fancier words- is a complex task. Such staff is usually paid little, not particularly motivated and always looking for better job opportunities, not to mention they can get sick or absent. Of course, the numbers and he economics will have to adapt, but I believe that in the future, order filling staff will be replaced by robots, connected to order software. The robots will manage orders, prepare and pack them. There are already robot waiters in some restaurants, so it is not so far-fetched. The robots also will be connected with the warehouse and the inventory management software. They will re-order for the warehouse, ensure first in first out, eliminate loss and waste and know exactly where to pick what and complete the entire job much more efficiently than humans and that on a 24/7 basis, and not require being unionized. I believe that corporations will like that.

Another area where I see potential for change is the sharing of online platforms. French retailer Carrefour offered that possibility to small retailers who had to close because of the Covid -19 lockdown in France. Thus, small stores did not have to venture and spend on developing their own online presence, which could have been challenging, not to mention stressful considering the circumstances. Further, cashing in fees for a online platform can be a business, too. What Carrefour offered is in fact the same as large online retailers like Amazon and Alibaba have done for independent sellers for years now. It is also not all that different from an EBay type of concept. Sharing of online platform will be a way of making the jump for small stores and from, there they will decide whether to keep using such platforms or build their own.

Order pick-up will certainly be a solution of choice for quite some time. Home delivery will have to evolve further, simply because it can be costly, except for outlets that can offer free deliveries for a minimum purchase amount, which is already the case. Deliveries might also be carried out by driverless vehicles in the future, such as Kroger has been testing for some time. Of course, there is always the possibility for restaurant delivery organizations to make the move to help retailers. After all, many of them want to be listed on the stock market and that will mean the necessity for them to keep growing always more and that will mean going beyond restaurants as per today. Here, the key will be to drop their fees. What these organizations charge for meal deliveries is rather brutal for pop-and mom restaurants and volume will have to take over fee based on bill percentage.

Retail will evolve further and there is no shortage of possibilities. Although everyone claims to collect data and know their customers, I think that it is more something in the realm of talk than actual effective execution. I have loyalty cards but I never get any shopping advice. My shopping news is either through the generic flyer that I find in my mail box like all other shoppers. And if I take a look online to see what is attractive, I have the exact same online flyer, as the paper one, with absolutely nothing specific or special about my own particular needs. I thought they would know what I buy and don’t buy and help me accordingly, but no, none of that ever happens and I do not have the feeling that is in the works. Hello, retailers! One the most daunting thing that shoppers go through is to make the bloody weekly shopping list. What do we need? What are we going to eat? What do they have on ad for us? Should we buy at retailer A or retailer B? No answer to any of that ever comes my way. If your retailer sends you personal shopping lists and tips, specific nutrition and menu tips you are lucky, and I am not. But I doubt it because I have never met anyone who did get of shopping tips. Retailers like Amazon do give some shopping tips and online ads also appear when I browse on Internet, but as far as I am concerned, they tend to miss the mark about every time. Perhaps, my being a frugal person makes me one of those difficult individuals to influence and to get to buy stuff but I really think that shopping tips should be a lot more on target than they are. I also believe that to improve this situation, it would be much better to have a voluntary and active participation from the shoppers themselves by having them giving more inputs about their needs and wants, although this of course enters the slippery area of online privacy, but you aill have to admit that it is a lot easier to serve customers well when they are in a position of telling you what they are exactly looking for. And in these times of “Internet of Things” why not combine store information with producer information and process it in a virtual production information and shopping advice system where people can make choices based on their values, their needs and all relevant information they need to make their decision, in a totally transparent manner? With such a system, why not even include a virtual tour of farms and packing facilities and show people where their food comes from and how it is produced and by whom? It could be accessible at home, could make use of VR helmet and could be consulted at a convenient time, not in the stressful rush of the in-store shopping with others breathing in their necks, especially if shoppers do not wish to go inside the store again.

Yet, as I show in this picture below, data servers and supermarket aisles look surprisingly similar. Every purchase and consumption is a transaction that goes way beyond money and product. It is a transaction between data – and therefore lifestyle choice, personal choices and values – versus the price shoppers pay. Why not include it in the shipping experience, then? I believe the answer is in the area of business thinking. In spite of the many claims, it is still a primarily production-driven, volume-driven cost-obsessed model, and not enough of a service-minded customer-oriented value-obsessed model. Of course, there is no reason why this would not change and anyway, the former model I mention is pushing for some positive innovations, such as cashierless stores where you can come in buy and leave without going through the tedious checkout lines or the even so much more fun do-it-yourself checkout where half the people I see seem helplessly stuck unable to figure out which button to press.

With what I just described, one could easily wonder why to have large supermarkets anymore. Why should the corporation spend all that money in prime –therefore expensive- locations, with fancy stores with light and all sorts of amenities, while in the future, most of the shopping might actually be just a warehouse order filling activity. This is an even more relevant question for staple foods and undifferentiated commodities? Since commodities are really mostly about low cost, then retailers keep your costs down and focus on specialties and value for the store experience. I see several areas for which this would make sense. Non-perishables should be in the warehouse and not take much space in the shopping area real estate. But perishables are another game. First, they are perishable products and they have to receive special care to avoid loss and waste. Second, people like to use their senses to purchase perishables. They like to touch them, to see them and inspect them, and to smell them. Perishable shopping is still a highly sensory activity, and it quite personal. Some people like their meat lean and others prefer a marbled one. People like to take a look at the produce to make sure it is not damaged, bruised or blemished or that it is ripe. They like to make sure it is fresh. Some people like baked goods to be well-baked and others prefer when it is on the paler side. Color is an important factor. For all these reasons, leaving the choice to underpaid staff who do not know the customers and do not care overly for them is quite a bit risky in terms of customer satisfaction, and I am not even talking about cases of mistakes such as delivering bacon instead of the ordered pork tenderloin I heard of at the beginning of the pandemic and the early times of packing orders for curbside pick-up. No, perishables will require special attention and my guess is that personal service will be high on the list.

When it comes to produce, I expect another evolution. Produce is delicate and with too high waste along the supply chain and in the store. Local production may have its advantages in term of sustainability, in particular when it involves truck road transport, but it makes a lot of sense about freshness and waste reduction. Just like the fruit and veggies that I get from my garden, picking fresh ripe produce just on time makes a world of difference. Just ask my wife about how it tastes compared with what we used to buy from thousands of kilometers away. In such a quality approach of perishable retail, why not get them locally. Urbanisation push produce farmers further way and yet, there is an amazing acreage that can be used to grow produce in cities, and interestingly enough a lot of that acreage is on top of supermarket, malls and warehouses. So why not build greenhouses on top of the store and sell the produce superfresh downstairs?

If you have to point of sale, it is much easier than being an urban farmer looking for customers. The store is there, people come to buy all sorts of things, just add the produce from the roof farm. Actually that is what a number of retailers have already started. France’s Carrefour, again, is one of them, but Benelux’s Ahold Delhaize has been working on the same thing and I am sure other will come and offer freshly picked local (roof) lettuce, leafy greens and tomatoes and strawberries.

Quality of products and quality of service will be the top demands and the old concept of small butcher, baker, greengrocer store will be the answer, although with a modern touch and with help of technology. I expect future supermarkets to be just that. They will be markets, like in the old days and they will be super, as they will wow their customers with prime shopping environment, prime products and prime personal service. A side advantage of this will also be that it reduces the use of packaging and has the potential to require no plastic whatsoever. After all, the purpose of plastic packaging has been to replace human labour by allowing self-service.

Copyright 2021 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Revisiting the pyramid, grandma and other things

The coronavirus has taken our world by storm. There has been little time to react and it will take more time to adapt. In a matter of days, our economy and societies have undergone an acid test like they had not in a long time. Important questions, many of them existential, have had to be asked. Perhaps, the most personal and intrusive one is to decide what is essential and what is non-essential, and by what, the question really has come down to who is and is not essential. This one is rather traumatic, because for many it has meant that they lost their jobs, part or all of their income, with all the implications about their livelihoods, security, sense of purpose and future.

Those who know me know that I look at many things through Maslow’s pyramid of needs. To me, the current troubled times that we are going through and how people cope -or not- with it, is very much the same as revisiting Maslow’s pyramid. Until a few months ago, the world economy seemed to run on all cylinders and although a recession seemed to be overdue, as one tends to happen every decade or so, there was very little that indicated that the economy would slow down drastically. The stock markets where like a fun fair. Then, everything freezes over. The topic of essential vs. non-essential sent us right back to the pyramid. All of a sudden, the lower layers of the pyramid took precedence. Physical security and security of food and shelter became obvious again, and the more superficial matters had to step back a bit.

Not only did many household budgets take a painful hit, store shelves were often scarcely filled. This pandemic has shown that our economic model is really built around quantitative growth and abundance, but should conditions change drastically, it is not as agile and resilient as we may have liked to think all this time, especially when nobody really wants to have inventories. Empty shelves did not remain empty for just a couple of days but it took more like a couple of weeks for some products to reappear in satisfactory quantities, and some items have hardly reappeared at all even a couple of months into this crisis. Shelves were empty, and yet farmers dumped their products, in particular dairy farmers literally pouring milk down the drain. An outrageous food waste has been taking place, in a time where food banks are overwhelmed and can get enough to help the ones in need. There is some thinking to do about connecting the links of the value chains, because it shows very little value and does not behave like a chain, either.

The small pop-and mom shops actually did rather well in this mayhem. They adapted quickly to ensure social distancing. They took orders for pick up and for delivery, and actually prepared them without errors. Most of all, they showed no disruption of supplies. The small meat store had meat and the baker had bread. They may be a bit more expensive than supermarkets, but the value of not wasting time and risking contamination to find only half of what is on your shopping list outweighs the slight price uptick. Grocery chains did not perform anywhere this level of service. At least, here I am talking about the part of the world where I live. Online ordering, pick and delivery have been subpar, and that is for those who actually were able to set up something. Orders were incorrectly filled and even after so many weeks, it is rather cumbersome.

A look at what flew off the shelves is quite revealing and a confirmation of our revisiting Maslow’s pyramid. Remember the trendy times from before the Corona Wars? Yes, it feels like an eternity but in fact it was not that long ago. When it came to food, many of us had been convinced that the good old-fashioned foods that previous generations, all the way back to the early times of agriculture, had become about irrelevant, that farming was going to be revolutionized, mostly by people without any background in agriculture. Cows were farting and that was unacceptable to some billionaires, as clearly the debonair ruminants were up to kill us with their gasses. I wrote my thought about that in previous articles. We had to give up animal products altogether. Sure. Then, the virus came and we stopped flying around in planes, we have to work from home and forget about morning and evening commute, our factories had to shut down and our energy use dropped dramatically. Then, all climate monitoring showed the same thing: greenhouse gasses emissions dropped significantly and the quality of our air improved, and all of that with the same numbers of cows and farm animals. Understand me well, some animal farming systems will need to change dramatically to adapt to a climate friendly approach of agriculture. We were supposed to all become vegetarians and vegans, and yet the most striking thing I could see in grocery stores was that meat, dairy and eggs were about all gone. People hoarded the recently forbidden fruit and apparently were proud to do so. With most of the staple animal products gone, what was left in the stores, then? Well, the sections with plant-based animal products surrogates were still aplenty even though the shelf space for those is usually rather small. No shortage of soy- and pea protein burgers, but no ground beef. No butter except the fancy expensive more “natural” ones, but plenty of margarine on the shelves. No milk today, but lots of soy and almond milk. No regular eggs, but no shortage of the expensive ones produced with special feed, supposedly healthier for us. On the protein side, consumers left massively the higher layers of Maslow’s pyramid, forgot the trendy products and hypes of all sorts to rush back to the basics.

Other categories that showed an amazing comeback are flour and pasta. What a change of heart! Here, too, consumers went back to the basics. Baking and cooking have been among the most popular activities during the pandemic lockdown. What happened to carbs and gluten? Weren’t they supposed to be the incarnation of all evils? Weren’t they supposed to make us fat and sick, to a point where self-proclaimed sometimes questionable dieticians and marketers worked really hard to convince us to not buy any of those staple products but instead choose for the much more expensive gluten-free alternatives that would fill their pockets? Well, not only the pasta, flour and baking sections in the stores were desperately empty because the staples products were back in favour, but the amazing part was that the shelves with gluten-free and other carb-alternative diet products were left about untouched. Flour is back, and so is bread and baked goods because 1) they are fun to make, 2) they are cheap to make and 3) they are good for you, of course with moderation that is. That is the stuff I am advocating on my other blog, “The Sensible Gourmet”. Take a look at it is you have time and you will see the many advantages of preparing food yourself. Baking and cooking are so much more than just that. They are an act of love and they are a unique way of connecting people and generations. This is what we are witnessing here. The need for social contact and love, the second layer from the bottom in Maslow’s pyramid is as popular as the bottom layer about basic physical needs. Baking is just a trip back to grandma’s kitchen. It is a reminder of our childhood and the atmosphere of grandma’s kitchen and the complicity that it brought around the stove. It is a reminder of the happy moments of tasting warm dough and making a mess with chocolate cream. In the current uncertain times, it is a safe haven where love and comfort bring us a badly needed protection from a harsh reality.

But the journey into nostalgia is not only limited in the kitchen. The poorly agile supply chain to large grocery stores and empty shelves showed that food supply is not a given. This has not gone unnoticed and if baking and cooking are popular right now, so is gardening. People transform their lawns into veggie gardens and those living in apartments buy and grow herbs, tomatoes or strawberries in pots on balconies to find some sense of food security. Empty shelves and long distances bring a reflection of where food should be coming from. There is a renewed attention for local food production, this time not some much as a trendy phenomenon, but for food security reasons, which in turn is becoming trendy. As usual with such issues, the conversation is more about a philosophical “we-should” approach but nobody really addresses the important part, which is how to make it work financially and for the local producers to be competitive, especially when many consumers are going through a violent financial crunch. Other questions would be to figure out who the farmers would have to be and where they should farm, as there used to be a lot of farming around cities, but the farms got bought, paved and developed in the past, so they will never come back. Urban farming could be a possibility, but so far, except some fancy expensive greens or massive subsidies, urban farms hardly survive. As someone who has a garden, I can tell you that growing your own food has advantages. I do not have to worry about residues, as I do not spray any chemicals. I also can tell you that the cost of a seed is much lower than buying produce from a store, but the untold reality about gardening is that to have a garden, you need to buy one and that if you look at it from an economic point of view and were to calculate your cost as if it were a commercial operation, you will have to include the price of the land on which you have your garden. Nonetheless, gardening is a great hobby. Personally, I find it very soothing to work the ground and take care of the plants with nobody around. It probably feels like a bubble or a cocoon and I can imagine that this is also part of the renewed interest about gardening.

So here we are. We revisited Maslow’s pyramid of needs. We took a trip back in time to grandma’s kitchen and garden. Grandma (at least both mine who were born in early 1900s) knew scarcity. She knew the value of things and would never waste anything. She would not throw food away, as it was too precious, and the same thing is true about everything, being bits of candle, bits of soap, water or old socks that would be repaired. About this, it was interesting to see a run on sewing machines in France recently, as they were on ad. Grandma knew what sustainability meant, even without a university degree on the subject. It was engrained in the way they were raised. Other things that my grandmas used to telling me to do were to always cover my mouth and nose when sneezing, wash my hands after touching things from others, in particular money. Sounds familiar? After all, they had grown up in a time when there were not many vaccines, tuberculosis and long ailments were shortening many lives and they also had been through the Spanish flu.

The coronavirus has hit abruptly and showed we do not really have a contingency plan or a preparedness plan, another problem has been lingering for some time. Climate change could have even much more devastating effects and although we have been warned times and times over, our actions to adjust have been very meek. Perhaps the virus should bring us to think about the next crisis and how to absorb the shock, if we really can or want to.

The current crisis has led us to look for more security but will we learn from it and will it last? The question is what this will mean for the future? How will retailers adapt, if they do? How will supply chain adapt? How will food producers manage a transition to a 5-foot economy, as the Dutch government calls it? How will farmers and food producers find the work force of the future? What products should have priority in the future of food and agriculture, and will the marketing realign along grandma’s lifestyle or will we feel compel to revert as soon as possible to the pre-coronavirus times? These are critical questions to ensure that we will keep having food supplies secure and affordable. I will come back on these questions in future articles.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The quiet revolution of food retailers

While many debates continue in the political and “parapolitical” world about many aspects of food production systems and the impact of human activity on the environment, retailers lead a quiet revolution. Without making the headlines, they gradually change the way their suppliers will do business in the years to come.

Such an evolution is certainly welcome, especially in a time where important decisions need to be made. Political leaders seem unable to reach any agreement on environmental issues, as the world could see at the late Climate Summit of Copenhagen. In the food sector, there are many discussions going on about sustainability and genetic engineering, to name the two hottest items, but the political class does not seem to generate clear and concrete action plans.

Just like what happened in the 1990s about food safety in Europe, retailers are taking the initiative to create momentum on the current issues. The problems that plagued the food industry in Europe, such as salmonella in poultry, the mad cow disease, or the dioxin in Belgian fat for chicken feed showed a number of weaknesses that needed to be addressed. In the case of BSE, UK retailers did not wait for British or European legislation to demand meat and bone meal-free feed for farm animals. As I was working for a company supplying the UK market with chicken meat, I can testify that these were dramatic times. Tough decisions had to be made on a very short notice that had serious financial consequences. By then, a couple of reasons made the retailers took the lead. First, the inability of the government to prevent and tackle the issues was creating a bit of a vacuum on leadership. Consumer confidence in their institutions was fading, and retailers were the only ones, true or not, perceived to take the proper actions to protect the public. The second reason was the fact that many retailers had their own private labels. In this case, the problem was not the supplier’s problem anymore because the supermarket chain could have risked serious PR damage if a food safety issues would have been associated with their brand.

This time, retailers are again in the position where they can present themselves as the consumers’ champions. Legislation is slow to move and make significant decisions. The involvement of interest groups adds to the infighting and delays decision-making.

To prepare for the future, they already have come out with plans and communication on how and where they want the food they sell to be produced, and they try to offer a choice to consumers. By doing so, the most active among them are setting new standards, and forcing the whole production and supply chain to think about the things to come.

In previous blog posts, I have mentioned some of such initiatives, and in Future Harvests, I described the increasing leadership role of food retail in agricultural practices.

In particular, I mentioned the carbon footprint labelling on dairy products by Tesco, Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index questionnaire to suppliers, and the seafood sustainability programs of many retailers. Marks & Spencer started their Plan A in 2007 with the objective of making their business more sustainable. To achieve this, they are involving their suppliers and the farmers producing for them to carry out the changes that M&S finds necessary for a better future.

More recently, new initiatives indicate that retailers are pursuing further on such initiatives. Wal-Mart came last week with their plan for sustainable agriculture. In the UK, Sainsbury let know last week that they were committing GBP40 million to invest in farming. Earlier this week, Carrefour unveiled their “Reared without GMO” program. In their stores in France, they will sell 300 food items labelled as being GMO-free, to offer consumer a choice based on transparent information. If Carrefour ventures into this, one can be sure that they do so because they already know that this will be good for their business. By gaining market share, it is very likely that their competitors will soon react by issuing similar programs. The EU Commission may be struggling to figure out how to deal with GMOs, but Carrefour says “Let the consumers tell us!” Vox populi, vox dei!

Of course, such initiatives do not please everyone. Today, I could read in a blog for a US magazine backed by the meat industry some interesting reactions about Carrefour’s new plan. Some readers were bringing up the typical arguments. Meat would be so expensive in Europe. Well, meat is quite affordable in France, even without GMOs, so think again! The other argument was about freedom of choice: people should be able to eat what they want. By labelling its food item, Carrefour does just that. French consumers are free to buy at Carrefour or somewhere else, and they have the right to choose what label they prefer. The freedom of choice is ironic coming from the US meat lobby, since American consumers do not have that freedom. Reared with GMOs is pretty much the only choice in the US. For now, that is. However, it is interesting to see on Carrefour’s press release that the pictures of fish, chicken and pork chops are exactly the same, regardless of whether they would be grown with or without GMOs.

In the 1990s, British and European consumers, and retailers, were challenging food industry practices because they were worried about their health and about the lack of transparency about food. Nowadays, in the USA, consumers are increasingly suspicious of their agribusiness, because they are worried about their health and the lack of transparency of the industry. Beef recalls because of E. coli, egg recalls because  of salmonella, spinach contaminated with manure are in the news on a (too) regular basis. They are also increasingly aware, and suspicious, of the relations between interest groups and their government agencies, and how this influences decisions on what they eat.

Retailers are now saying that they are not waiting for politicians to make decisions. They have defined their vision, they know what they want, and they are passing the message on to the suppliers. What would happen in agribusiness USA if Wal-Mart took a similar approach as Carrefour?

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Consumers shape food production systems

Although it is tempting to think that food production systems are created by agribusiness, they depend greatly on the choices and the attitude of consumers and society. For humans, food is not just about nutrition, but it is loaded with a high emotional content.

Consumer choices are highly irrational. To demonstrate this, here are some examples.

When the mad cow disease, or BSE, hit the UK in 1996, beef consumption dropped, but the behavior of consumers was odd. A leading retailer put British beef on sale at 50% off the normal price. They had their best weekend sales ever by then. When asked why they had bought beef, while there were concerns about health risks, some consumers gave answers such as “At that price it is worth taking the risk” or, even better, “ I will freeze it and eat it once the mad cow crisis is over”! At the same time, customers’ visits to the leading fast food chain drop sharply and beef burgers were not in demand, although their beef was from the Netherlands, a country free of BSE by then.

In Europe, mostly in France, consumers used to demand veal to be white. Not slightly pink, just plain white. To achieve this, calves were fed a milk powder diet, which kept them anemic. Yet, at some point, consumers denounced this technique as being against proper treatment of animals. The demand of white meat with a normal diet could not be reconciled. It took years before consumers finally understood that veal was supposed to be pink.

For most customers, white eggs are perceived as being from intensive cage production, while brown eggs are perceived as being more “natural”. Everyone with knowledge of the industry knows that the color of the shell has nothing to do with the nutritional quality of the egg. The belief that the egg color indicates a difference persists, though.

Some blind tests carried out between “industrial” and free-range chicken meat carried out in the Netherlands in the 1980s showed interesting results. When consumers were not told which was which, they could not clearly taste a difference, while when they knew which meat was from which production system, they overwhelmingly gave the preference to the free-range chicken.

Here, in Vancouver, there is a strong trend towards organic foods produced locally. Farmers markets flourish and the environmentally conscious consumers choose to buy their “natural” food on these markets. Ironically, many of them drive in their gas-guzzling SUVs to go there. So much for caring for the environment.

Who, with a rational mind, would choose to eat junk? Yet, junk food is quite a popular item in North America, and it has been a growing trend in many European and emerging countries as well.

In the case of tobacco, not a food, but an agricultural product nonetheless, the warning on the package is quite clear. Yet, some people decide to smoke.

The list could continue and I am sure that everyone has more examples of irrational behavior. Consumer demand (both the rational kind as the irrational one) determines what farmers and food companies produce and sell. In this regard, consumers also share a responsibility in what is produced, how it is produced, where it is produced and how it is distributed to them. Blaming retail or the agribusiness alone for the kind food systems that are in place is unfair.

Of course, it would be interesting to imagine what people would eat if they were rational, and what impact on our food production this would have. A rational diet would follow proper nutritional recommendation, and to this extent would follow the same principles as those used in animal nutrition. However, this would not have to be as boring a diet as what animals are fed. A rational diet does not need to be a ration. After, the human genius that is cooking would help prepare delicious rational meals. It would be like having the best of both worlds. The emotional, social and hedonistic functions of food would remain. The key would be about balance and moderation. If people were eating rationally, there would not be any diet-related illnesses. There would not be obesity. There also would be a lot less food waste. This would improve the level of sustainability of agriculture.

Will consumers become more rational in the future? I do not think so, but I believe that they will become better informed and more critical over time. Especially with the rise of social media, information circulates much faster and trends can gather momentum faster than in the past. More programs for healthier eating are currently running and action is taking place at many levels. In particular, schools are a place where much can be achieved. One can wonder how long the “lunch money and self-service system” will last. Having schools placing vending machines selling items that are highly unbalanced foods and leaving the decision over to kids to decide what they want to eat was of course a disaster waiting to happen. I cannot believe that anyone would expect kids to consciously making the choice of spending their lunch money on broccoli and mineral water. Kids will choose what they like best, not what is best for their health. They need adults for guidance.

Attitude towards food is changing all over the world. Currently, I can see two major trends growing. One is taking place in North America and the other is happening in emerging countries.

In North America, consumers are waking up and starting to question the way their food is produced. This is a major change compared with their attitude until a few years ago. When I moved to this part of the world in 1999, I was amazed by how easy consumers, and retailers, were for the food industry. Consumers simply seemed to consume without trying to know about production methods. Hormones, antibiotics or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) seemed to be accepted. This was a sharp contrast with what I had known in Europe, where all of the above was meeting strong resistance from consumers and retailers. What I currently see happening currently in North America reminds me strongly of what I had seen happen in Europe 20 to 30 years ago. The similarities are almost disturbing. Consumers are losing trust in government agencies, and retailers seem to be the ones to champion food quality, traceability and production methods. This will have much more profound consequences in the way food is produced in the USA and in Canada than the agribusiness seem to realize, or is willing to admit. The population is aging, the generations are changing and the values about food are shifting. The current opposition is not a short-term fad. Consumers will make different choices. Some food producers see that and are already adapting, but many producers still seem to think that opposition will pass. I believe that they are in for a surprise. The expressed plan of Wal-Mart to buy more from small and mid-size farms, to reduce waste, and to develop sustainable sources of agricultural products is a very clear signal that business is changing!

In emerging countries, consumers are changing their eating habits, too, but for a different reason. They now have better wages and more disposable income. The previous “”subsistence” diet made of mostly grain, such as rice, wheat or corn, are now including more animal protein, as well as fruit and vegetables. In these countries, consumers are not overly critical of their food production and distribution systems, but issues that arose in developed countries affect the way food is produced, especially in the area of food safety. These consumers probably would like to experience the same level of food security and affordability of food as in the West over the past 5 decades, but the growing population, and the financial markets will temper this trend. Food prices will be firm at best and they are more likely to increase in the future on an ongoing basis.

There is no doubt in my mind that consumers and retailers are increasingly going to put the emphasis on sustainability, health, food safety and transparency. This may sometimes lead to conflicting objectives with the need to produce more food globally. This does not need to be a problem, but this is why the world needs strong leaders to show the way towards meeting both the objectives of better food and of more food.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Future Harvests – The book is coming soon!

 

The editing of my book “Future Harvests – The next agricultural revolution” is about completed. All that is left to do is developing the cover and start the publishing.

I have already received orders, even before the book is out. That is quite a good sign. And a great surprise for me.

If you wish to be updated automatically when the book is published, just subscribe in the sidebar window on the right.

To describe the topics addressed, I have posted three short promotional videos on YouTube. In previous articles (The fun of writing this book and The next agricultural revolution), I had already given an idea about the content of the book.

Video #1: The Fundamentals (duration 2:37) – Introduction to the background and fundamental principles mentioned in the book “Future Harvests – The next agricultural revolution” to achieve food security for 9 billion people in 2050. Topics such as demographics, the shift in economic power, the control of food  and food security strategies are reviewed. Sustainability, innovation, efficient market driven food production and strong leadership are required.

or click here if video does not appear

Video #2: The Actions (duration 2:12) – A short review of some of the actions mentioned in the book to achieve the objectives. Solving the water challenge, finding new land for production, urban farming, hydroponics, farming the desert, rebuilding fisheries and developing aquaculture further are all possibilities.

or click here if video does not appear

Video #3: The Questions (duration 3:08) – A sample of some of the questions raised in the book. They cover technology, land deals in Africa, improving yields, restoring soil fertility, change in consumer needs, organic farming, risks of conflicts, biofuels or meat are some of the topics presented.

or click here if video does not appear

If you know someone who could be interested by the topics on this page, please pass it on!

Sustainability: A land of confusion?

The more I read and hear about sustainability, the more confused I get about what the people making statements about it really mean, if they mean anything at all.

Very clearly, everyone now goes sustainable or green or whichever other term they choose. It is almost as if sustainability is a completely new revolutionary concept. No, it is not. That was the way people lived for ages, before we started thinking that we did not have to live by Nature’s laws. Yes, in the old times people would repair their socks instead of throwing them away. What were they thinking?

Two things really worry me about the current sustainability approach. The first one is companies appointing one person in charge of sustainability. Can sustainability be a separate entity in an organization or has what should be our most basic thinking been so forgotten that someone needs to reinvent it? I do not think so. Sustainability is everyone’s concern and if there is a CSO (S for you know what), it should be the person at the very top, imposing sustainability thinking to every employee in the company. This topic is too important to delegate. The second one is how quickly businesses that have shown some serious deficiencies in the sustainability area now come out very quickly with all sorts of announcement and even certification proving how well they are doing. Of course, on the other hand, there are the market watchers claiming that some of these claims are not true.

For instance, I am getting more and more confused by how quickly, and almost on a weekly basis, restaurants and supermarkets are able to source sustainable seafood. As such, this is great news. Yet, it makes me even wonder if there indeed was an overfishing problem. Something just does not quite add up.

There are those who seem to reduce sustainability in food production to organic or to small farms, almost as if the Amish way, with all due respect for the Amish, is the only way forward. I disagree with this rather reductionist thinking. I believe that with all the technology that we currently have, we can be sustainable and modern.

Therefore, for those who, like me, are confused about what they hear and read, here are a few statements about how I think about the subject, and I hope that they are not confusing to you.

  1. Per definition, what is not sustainable has no future. Therefore, just do it, instead of talking how you would do it.
  2. Everything that continuously depletes a source of our basic essential needs is not sustainable. Think about it before depletion reaches the point of no return!
  3. Everything that continuously increases the level of harmful components in what we breathe, drink or eat is not sustainable. Think about it before increasing water, air, soil and food pollution!

It is just this practical.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Wal-Mart’s Yiannas promotes food safety culture

This article reports of Mr. Yiannas (VP Food Safety at Wal-Mart) speaking at the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Executive Conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., and his views on this topic.

It just shows that there is a new trend coming in the US, as I happened to describe in my article of yesterday (Health and environment as the drivers of food production). There are growing concerns from consumers and the retail will probably be the catalyst for change. Wal-Mart as the leading retailer is going to pave the way forward, just like it does on sustainability. This certainly is going to mean some deep changes in the way the suppliers will have to run their businesses.

Health and environment as growing drivers of food production

Health concerns will gain more importance in the future in the decision process of consumers when they buy their food.
More and more, we can hear and read about concerns and even rejection of the current production systems. Although this bad publicity is not always based on the most objective facts, it has been able to find a growing audience.

It must be true, it was in the newspaper

It must be true, it was in the newspaper

Since most consumers have little or no knowledge of agriculture and food, their only source of information is in the popular media. On the other side of the discussion, the agri-food industry is not getting through, because its message tends to be too defensive and too technical. Unfortunately for the industry, errors from the past (for example, the use of DDT) or cases from other industries (for example, tobacco) contribute to cast a shadow on its credibility. As I wrote my previous article “Less controversy thanks to transparency”, the agribusiness will achieve much more by opening up and having consumers visit their premises so that they can tell what they saw. They must organize more Open House days.

Therefore, for now, consumers have a certain perception of how food is produced, and it is not so relevant to argue whether this perception is correct or not. Perception simply is reality, and consumers act according to what they believe is true.
A little bit of this...There is a growing concern about environmental and health aspects of food production. About the environment, you can list very diverse things such as the depletion of wild fish stocks in the oceans, the interaction between aquaculture and wild fish stocks, manure and smell of intensive animal husbandry and impact of manure on soils and drinking water, deforestation of rainforest for ranching of beef or about growing GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). On the health side, consumers worry about food poisoning due to bacteria, such as E. Coli, listeria, campylobacter and salmonella, but also about residues of pesticides or antibiotics, as well as they worry about the use of hormones in animal productions. As the discussions get more animated in the US about the reform of health care and the cost of obesity, more and more people are wondering about whether the fast food diet is a proper one. Next to this, animal welfare is a growing concern by more and more consumers.
The answer to many of these worries has started to appear in the last few years with the growth of the organic market segment. When we see the growth and the performance of a retailer such as Whole Foods, there is no doubt that organic foods have a growing audience.

The concerns about the environment are forcing retailers, food service and businesses involved in the production chain of food to make changes. Some of the actions they have taken can be seen as marketing or PR, but they also have become mainstream. Just a look at how many restaurant and supermarket chains have already implemented sustainable seafood programs indicates how serious this change in consumer attitude is. Fast food chains are also actively working on reducing their environmental impact and set standards on where they source their meat, based on environmental concerns, such as no beef from ranches deforesting the Brazilian rainforest.
In the past, we have seen some examples of production methods that had to be abandoned, simply because no solution to cope with environmental problems could be found. This has been the case in The Netherlands where the level of intensification caused such manure surpluses and risks of animal disease to such a point that after many years of looking for viable technical solutions in vain, the government decided that the size of the national herds had to be reduced.
Similarly to what happened in Europe over the last decade, we can expect that much stricter rules in the use of antibiotics will be applied, and I expect a similar trend to a progressive elimination of the use of hormones in animal husbandry. About animal welfare, there should not be any surprise the day that only husbandry systems that allow enough “recreation” area for animals will be allowed. All of the above is going to have an impact on how and where food is produced. Systems will become less intensive, and progressively we will see more techniques to improve efficiency to compensate.

Past Food?

Past Food?

As I also had mentioned in another article (Future price of fish and meat: up), it is simple logic that with more people to feed, food is going to become more expensive. However, the relative prices of various food products also need to go along their relative health benefits. Today, it looks like only wealthy people can afford a healthy diet, as the price of “good” food is substantially higher than the price of what makes a nutritionally unbalanced meal. This clearly does not work in the direction of a healthier population at large.

The way consumers think will define the way we eat and produce our food. Many changes in consumption patterns, in production systems and in product offering are under way. I will get back later with more details on what my views are on this.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Wal-Mart’s 15 questions to suppliers on sustainability

Recently, Wal-Mart has sent a questionnaire to all their suppliers, including for food items, asking them to give answers to 15 questions about they actually do about sustainability.

I like this questionnaire, because it is simple, practical and straight to the point. Suppliers who have difficulties to figure out the answers definitely have quite some catching up to do, because this is not going away.

This is the first step to impose a change towards sustainable products, and we can expect that this document, although only the beginning, will soon become the standard for retailers, and therefore to industry. I believe that their approach will be much more effective than all the partisan talk that seems to create more division than help create a comprehensive plan for the general interest.

I recommend reading this article from GreenBiz, which explains quite well what the Wal-Mart questionnaire will concretely mean for suppliers.