Asia faces food shortage by 2050 without major water reforms

Here is an article from Science Daily illustrating very clearly the issues I brought up in my earlier article “Managing water is paramount for the future of food production“.

According to Colin Chartres, Director General of the International Water Management Institute: “Asia’s food and feed demand is expected to double by 2050. Relying on trade to meet a large part of this demand will impose a huge and politically untenable burden on the economies of many developing countries. The best bet for Asia lies in revitalizing its vast irrigation systems, which account for 70 percent of the world’s total irrigated land”.

Innovation and tradition shape the future

Tradition in food can be quite resilientIn order to understand what changes are ahead of us, we need to realize that opposite forces are engaged in shaping the world of the future. As we all know, accepting change is always a slow and sometimes a difficult process. There are those who see the possibilities and those who see the drawbacks. The first train was going, supposedly, to get cows stop giving milk, but we now know that cows love to watch trains passing by. Probably, the first caveman who drew a picture of an animal on the wall was considered by some as a great magician and probably by others as pure evil. As such, such a struggle is very useful, as on the one hand it shakes immobility and open new doors, and on the other hand it prevents us to rush into the unknown without thinking first.

Change is part of our lives and that will not change. The problem that we face about change is actually about the pace of change, more than over the change itself. Over the last century, this pace has just increased steadily, thanks to more and more efficient technology.

If we look back the lifespan of the oldest living person, which brings us back to the end of the nineteenth century, just take a minute to think of all the changes that have occurred since then. There was no car industry, no antibiotics, no commercial airlines, no TV, no internet or cell phones, no supermarkets, just to mention a few things that we take for granted nowadays.

Although such a change is dramatic and has affected the way we live today, it has been a process that has needed time. Usually, it is said that more than 60% of the products that exist today did not exist 10 years ago and if we extrapolate this to decade to come, we can expect some even more spectacular changes.

Innovation is in constant motion and technology helps us to conceive and to use much faster than by the past. Yet, it is interesting to see that even with such a pace of change, traditions still play a very important part in our lives. Even with lots of modern gadgets, most cultures keep their specific characteristics. Their respective values do not evolve as much as our “things“, these just become part of the culture. This is an important point when it comes to innovation: what you offer must meet a need, if it does not, it will either fail, or at best be a fad.

Having a look at the future, you must wonder what the underlying trends of innovation are since it started. I can see several major constant areas of innovation:

  • Reducing physical labor.
  • Helping us live better and longer.
  • Increasing efficiency.
  • Helping communication.
  • Increasing mobility.
  • Offering more leisure and entertainment.
  • Making some people a little wealthier.

What could this mean for food production in the years to come?

  • high tech agriculture - photo BayerMore technology to improve efficiency of water use, fertilizer use, animal feed use, land use, energy use (objective: zero waste).
  • More mechanization, automation and robotising, especially in software more than hardware, working on precision (intelligent technology).
  • Greater focus on health and natural solutions for food and for agriculture/aquaculture/fisheries (objective: zero residue and zero contaminants in water, air, soil, and food).
  • Projects to repair environmental damage and include agriculture/aquaculture/fisheries in environmental management (restore and maintain sustainable food production).
  • Policies, and politics, to increase food production (disease control, regulation, more government intervention at strategic level, incentives).
  • Redistribution of markets with geographical shift of production and consumption areas.
  • Shift from convenient to practical food solutions (bulk meal components).
  • More education on agriculture, food and nutrition (balanced diets, food safety, traceability).

While such changes will come over time, consumers will still be looking for some level of tradition in foods. This can be about authenticity, regional specialties and recipes, or choosing to buy directly from farmers. Obviously, this is not a rational process, but it is more about the perception of “true” and “natural” production systems. After all, nostalgia is a constant of human emotions, too.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Kraft Foods reduces global plant water use by over 20%

Here is an illustration of what I wrote in two previous articles (Managing water is paramount for the future of food production and Sustainability: As Natural As Balance). Read the article about Kraft Foods at http://www.meatinternational.com/news/kraft-foods-reduces-global-plant-water-use-by-over-20%25-id1718.html

Managing water is paramount for the future of food production

The key for our future food productionWith an increasing population that needs more food and more water to live, we can expect that water is going to become a highly strategic and needed resource. As climate changes, the current rain distribution and geographic availability of water is likely to change dramatically, too. This increasing competition between agricultural areas and urban areas will bring major changes on how we use water for both personal use and for food production. On the personal side, we certainly can expect that current bathroom systems to disappear, as they use too much water. Every time we flush a toilet tank, we actually waste the daily drinking water needs of a couple of people, and local water reserves are gradually depleted as well. Clearly, this has no future. Similarly, we can expect the legislation on water use for lawn sprinkling and car washing to change.

Food production will become more and more focused on water efficiency. The main themes will be about taking what we need, but no more, and about collecting, conserving and recycling water. This will bring us to rethink our crop production, the watering systems we use and develop systems aimed at collecting and conserving water.

Our choice of crops will get under review. Some plants have such high needs for water that their production systems will have to be altered, or maybe even we will have no other choice of limiting them to small selected areas. The use of combined crop productions on the same field is likely to gain some popularity back, as this is a way of saving water and protecting the plants and the soil from excessive evaporation. This, of course, will mean a different look on yields and on harvesting systems. IrrigationMore efficient irrigation systems will replace the old ones. Computerized systems are already in use in wine production, using sensors for humidity and temperature, to determine how much water the plants needs at the most optimal time of the day and deliver it at the exact spot. You can expect that such an optimization approach will prevail. The path that Monsanto follows with the production of genetically modified (GM) wheat that needs only a third of regular wheat varieties is quite interesting. The tricky part is the GM part, as on the contrary to natural “mutations”, such a process does not undergo natural selection, and therefore we do not know what possible side effects it might bring. Nonetheless, this is an attempt to deal with future water shortages. Hopefully, other less controversial solutions can be found that will deliver a similar result. Once again, we can shape our future through continuing innovation.

Food processing, such as slaughterhouses or washing stations for produce, uses large amounts of water. In these sectors, too, new more efficient systems will have to be designed to reduce water use, and they will have to guarantee to meet hygiene and food safety standards. Water treatment and recycling have already been in use for years and they will continue to gain market share.

Next to the above, which is mostly in the hands of individuals and companies, there is a need for political action to address water shortages and water quality issues that expand far beyond the local operations. A number of agricultural areas suffer from drought on a regular basis, such as Australia and some parts of Canada. Other areas have seen the flow of rivers drop dramatically, like for instance the Yang Tse River in China, which has more and more difficulties to reach the sea. In other areas, such in the Arabic Peninsula, the countries realize that traditional irrigation systems are meeting some serious limitations because of the competition between need for drinking water and need for irrigation. Some very interesting projects are in the works to offer alternatives. For example, there are studies to consider the use of floating islands covered with solar panels in order to produce on the spot the energy necessary to desalinize seawater, therefore providing these areas with water that does not originate from underground reserves.

These problems affect the availability, the quality of the water and strongly affect the environment. Failure to address and more importantly to solve such problems properly would have catastrophic consequences for large populations. A balanced plan to offer the availability to water for people, agriculture and industries is absolutely necessary.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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

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

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.

Recycling and cleaning: the economic drivers of tomorrow?

Here is an article I wrote a little more than a year ago.

With an increasing population, years of throwaway goods consumption, landfills full of garbage, the pollution of our drinking water reserves and a deteriorating of our air and atmosphere, there is no doubt that our survival will largely depend on our ability to clean and to recycle the waste we produce.

The recycling business has already been developing for quite some years already and the next step should be an increasing part of their products and services as the main source of raw materials for many industries.

What indeed would be the point of trying to get resources in more and more difficult conditions and at higher and higher costs and with more and more energy use while we are sitting on a mountain of metals, plastics, glass, wood, paper, etc… Those are available in many places literally in the open air. The raw materials for the raw materials industries are there. All it takes it to sort them all.

This potentially offers many jobs opportunities as the value of this waste will increase as a result of a growing population’s demand. More machinery will also become necessary to handle this waste in a faster and more importantly safer manner. Images of kids browsing on landfills in order to get a miserable income to feed their siblings and parents are not acceptable, and I bet that one day they will do this in better conditions and for decent wages, as we will have grown from a waste gathering approach to a structured and systematic waste treatment and recycling.

Down this chain, new industries will develop in the area of processing the sorted waste. Some will have as a function to clean, others to recover the main raw material, and others to transform it into semi-finished products or even reprocessed into finished goods. Most of such industries already exist, either as active waste processors or as goods producers that will over time have to adapt and just change the origin of their raw materials and use recycled products instead of “first production” raw materials.

The other main area of need is water treatment. More and more of our water reserves are being polluted by increasing industrial activity and by more intensive agriculture and animal husbandry. In many areas, water is no longer suitable for infants as the mineral content has reached dangerous level.

The level of pollution has created a strategic need to insure health and safety, and thus preserve the sustainability of the populations depending on these water supplies.
A growing need is in sight for water treatment facilities, either for large scale centralized ones as also for smaller scale even individual local solutions. Further, industries will need to provide us with more solutions on how to use less water. There already are many systems on the market to reduce water use in kitchens and toilets. Although, these systems have brought some solutions and relief, more must be done.
Just to name one example, I would like to make you think on how ridiculous, and therefore unacceptable, the amount of water that we flush in the bathroom every time compared with the amount of liquid we produce when we visit those premises. Clearly, this is out of balance, and imagine that by saving a gallon of flush water a day, we save more than our individual need for drinking water!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.