How can insects be a part of future food security?

July 31, 2015

Since the FAO published a report in May 2013 presenting insects as a possible source of food to meet future protein demand, the topic has become quite popular in the mainstream media. I wrote an article about this (Insects on the menu) in May 2010, in which I was giving some of my thoughts. I still think along the same lines.

In the last few weeks, I bumped into the insect story several times, purely by coincidence. I believe insects can play a role but I am getting a bit frustrated by the lack of specifics in all the talk about insects and worms.

Apparently insects would present many performance advantages compared with traditional meat productions. Aaron Dossey did a presentation at the IFT15 symposium organized by the Institute of Food Technologists. Here are the advantages of insects he mentioned as reported in the article from Science Daily of July 14 2015:

  1. Efficiency. They use less land, water, feed, energy and other resources than livestock.
  2. Environmentally friendly/clean. Insects create fewer greenhouse gases and are not contaminated with pesticides. They also do not have any hormones in their bodies.
  3. Prolific. They reproduce quickly so they can replace depleted resources.
  4. Biodiverse. There are millions of insect species, so it is easy to find a match to a location’s need.
  5. Nutritious. They have protein and Omega 3s, a class of essential fatty acids that help lower cholesterol.

All of this is nice but…

  1. How efficient? How much less land, water, feed and energy and other resources?
  2. Environmentally friendly as long as they do not massively invade it. How many fewer greenhouse gases? No hormones at all, really? Of course insects contain hormones. They are necessary for their physiology and development. So which hormones was he referring to?
  3. Yes they are prolific, which raises the issue of what would happen if insects escape from farms in large numbers. They are prolific but they are tiny, so it takes huge numbers to match the weight of a cow or pig or even a chicken. The real question to answer is how many tonnes of insect protein can a farm produce compared with other animal productions? What should be the size of an insect farm and how many farms should there be to meet future demand. Also what feed will the bugs eat to grow?
  4. Biodiversity may be nice, but what species would be production worthy when it comes to the mass production of volumes that would be comparable with other productions?
  5. They are not the only food sources of omega-3

Unless someone can quantify the above, the story remains rhetoric. If insects are to become a large-scale production along the lines of other animal proteins, it is necessary to single out the species that will be the most efficient, technically and economically. It is also necessary to sketch the design and the magnitude of farms. There are a number of companies that have been venturing in the insect business but most of them are tiny, in the grand scheme of world food security. Aaron Dossey’s company produces 25,000 lbs of insect powder per year. That is 12 tonnes, and he does not sell them to the hungry of Asia and Africa. Compared with the world average meat consumption per capita per year, 12 tonnes of meat represents the yearly consumption of 250 to 300 people. If insects represented 1% of the world average meat consumption per person, his production would feed only 25,000 to 30,000 people, or less than 0.0005%! Clearly, even to cover 1% of the average animal protein need as it is on average per today, the magnitude of the challenge to set up a significant production is huge. The other challenge to overcome is to make insect production economically competitive, be it for human consumption of for animal feed purposes. Most businesses offering insect products today are operating in a small niche, just because there is little industrial production. The dominant part of the insects and worms consumed are picked in nature by those who eat them, as those animals are usually consumed when there is a seasonal shortage of other protein sources. The niche businesses sell their insect products at prices that even many people in wealthy country could not afford on a frequent basis. The insect products are offered to consumers at prices reaching several hundreds of dollars per pound.  Presenting such foods as helping the world feeding itself, which means mostly helping the world’s poorest to be able to afford nutritious food is at best delusional if not even plain cynical. Insects and worms can be contributors to future food security only if they are affordable and competitive against the other meat sorts. That cannot happen if they are limited to the treat sector.

Another aspect of insects as food is their attractiveness, or lack of it. Insects and worms are much more common in Asia and Africa, where the largest part of the world population is and will be in the future. In Western countries, insects and worms are perceived as repugnant by most people. In terms of marketing, it would make more sense to focus on the Asian and African markets instead of trying to convince Westerners to eat lots of insects, just because of the respective levels of acceptance.

However, there is communication to do and lessons to learn from the past. I would name two. First, escargots, which are so popular under their French name, are an expensive item on menus. Escargots are never sold as “snails” because that sounds gross for most people. Everything sounds tastier in French. Try presenting insects under a French names and the Anglo-Saxon population might be more tempted. Snails used to be, just like insects and worms in Africa and Asia today, food that the French were going to pick on walls after a rain in times of food shortages. My second example is lobster. Lobster used to be considered a bottom feeder that was only for the poor, and so it was. Clearly, the image of lobster has changed a lot. The other lesson about lobster, and I would add shrimp, langoustine and many other ugly crustaceans, is that there are expensive delicacies that actually look a lot like insects, and they are actually rather close to insects in their body structures.

When it comes to human consumption, I wonder whether people will still be tempted to eat bugs if the economic situation keeps on improving in Asia and Africa. Not that long ago, China was in situation of near famine. Anything that contained protein was food. They were roasted rats for sell. In France, during the privations of World War II, rats – and cats- were used to replace pork in many deli specialties. There is a big difference between having to and wanting to. Has rat meat consumption increased in China since the economic boom? Do the French since WWII ended have been asking their butcher for rat pâté? I may be wrong, but I really think that when people, wherever in the world, have the choice, they will go for a juicy steak or some chicken before looking for bugs.

Then, there is the possibility of using insects and worms for animal feed. The advantage of animals compared with humans is that they eat to satisfy their hunger, but there is no psychological side to what is in animal feed, at least from the animal perspective. A trial to feed live insects to chickens just started in The Netherlands. It will be interesting to see the results. What I am wondering about this trial is why use live insects instead of dead ones. When I worked in animal husbandry, one of the things farmers worked on preventing was the possible invasion of insects in the houses, in particular because of the damage to insulation material. Further, I hope they make sure the insects will not escape, and that at least, should that happen, they are not using species that could cause damage in the neighbourhood. Also, I hope that the insects chosen have been screened on the health safety in terms of passing on diseases. Especially, after all the problems caused over the past years by avian flu and contamination by migratory birds, one can never be too cautious.

So what will be a good production system for large-scale production? I do not know yet, and I cannot find much information on how insect husbandry of the future may look like. However, I remember a TV program I saw some 25-30 years ago on the Dutch channel VPRO. I am not sure about the title of the program, but here is what it was about. The documentary was presenting an old fellow living as a hermit somewhere in the wild. He was using meat offal from his farm animals to attract flies, by storing them in a large tank. The flies were colonising the offal and bones and used them to lay their eggs. Later, the maggots hatched and when he found they were large and ripe enough, the hermit harvested the maggots and boiled them in a large caldron. He used that mass of cooked maggots as feed for his pigs and so he recycled the carcasses leftovers of the previous batch of pigs to produce the next one. I found that it was a pretty smart feeding and recycling system. Perhaps, it could be a solution for the future. In his system there was no waste. Of course, it sounds a bit like a porcine version of the movie Soylent Green.

For as much as I can see potential for insects and worms, I also see a huge lack of number crunching and comparative trials to figure out which species to produce and in which productions systems to provide an abundant and affordable of safe insect and worm food for both consumers and environment worldwide. The generality talk about bugs is cheap and does not help me envision how insects would play a prominent role in feeding the future.

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A couple of billion reasons why Africa is a priority for the future

December 13, 2013

More than three years ago, I had posted on this blog the list of the 16 most populated countries in the world by then. It helped put things in perspective in today’s world, but looking ahead, another table is more useful. Here is the list of the 16 most populated countries in 2050 and 2100 according to the UN.

2010

Country

Population

(millions)

% of world population

World

6,794

 

China

1,337

19.6

India

1,180

17.3

USA

309

4.5

Indonesia

231

3.4

Brazil

193

2.8

Pakistan

169

2.5

Bangladesh

162

2.4

Nigeria

155

2.3

Russia

142

2.1

Japan

128

1.9

Mexico

108

1.6

Philippines

92

1.4

Vietnam

86

1.3

Germany

82

1.2

Ethiopia

79

1.2

Egypt

78

1.2

Top   16

4,531

66.7

2050

Country

Population

(millions)

% of world population

 

      9,551

 

India

1,620

17.0

China

1,385

14.5

Nigeria

440

4.6

USA

401

4.2

Indonesia

321

3.4

Pakistan

271

2.8

Brazil

231

2.4

Bangladesh

202

2.1

Ethiopia

188

2.0

Philippines

157

1.6

Mexico

156

1.6

RD   Congo

155

1.6

Tanzania

129

1.4

Egypt

122

1.3

Russia

121

1.3

Japan

108

1.1

 Top   16

6,007

62.9

2100

Country

Population

(millions)

% of world population

        10,854  
India

1,547

14.3

China

1,086

10.0

Nigeria

914

8.4

USA

462

4.3

Indonesia

315

2.9

Tanzania

276

2.5

Pakistan

263

2.4

DR   Congo

262

2.4

Ethiopia

243

2.2

Uganda

205

1.9

Nigeria

204

1.9

Brazil

195

1.8

Philippines

188

1.7

Bangladesh

182

1.7

Kenya

160

1.5

Mexico

140

1.3

 Top   16

6,642

61.2

Immediately, some interesting information appears. China is already reaching a plateau and it will decline later. Most of Asia will have reached its peak of population by mid-century. India’s population is going to keep growing in the coming decades and with regards to food security, the country has still lots of work ahead. However, with the growth of its middle class, the situation should improve gradually in the future. The continent that will see the strongest population growth is Africa. Between now and the end of the century, eight countries will account to over half of the world’s population increase from currently 7.2 billion to 10.9 billion, with six of these countries being on the African continent. These eight countries are Nigeria, India, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Uganda, Ethiopia and the USA. It is worth noticing that the population of Nigeria will pass the population of the USA before mid-century. For a country the size of Texas, the challenge is huge, especially considering the current political instability. Other small countries such as Tanzania and Uganda are going have to cope with a very strong population increase.

The challenge for Africa is clear. Most of the countries with a strong population increase are poor countries that already have serious difficulties to feed themselves. African agriculture has not followed the pace of other regions in terms of productivity and yields. Many rural communities are poor and can hardly subsist. The flip side Africa having lagged in agricultural development is that it has huge potential to increase its food production. At the beginning of the current decade, the FAO estimated the area of unexploited arable land in Africa to be roughly the size of continental USA. By increasing acreage in production with higher yields, there is plenty of room to increase production volumes to sufficient levels. Food production is the not the only problem. To solve hunger, these countries must eliminate poverty. People who have enough money to buy food are not hungry. Only the poor are. And to have enough money, one needs a decent paying job. For the future of Africa, employment is really where the battle will be won or lost. Between now and the end of the century, Africa will have to create 600 million new jobs, and to get jobs, people need to have the proper education and training. They also need to be healthy. As the expectation is that most of the population will be living in cities, another challenging goal will be to build these urban centers and all the necessary infrastructure to move the goods and the people. Such megacities will also need to be food secure and urban planning will need to take food distribution and food production into account. Education, health care, construction, infrastructure, jobs, food and agriculture… This sounds like building an entire continent doesn’t it? And that is exactly what it is. Expect Africa to be a huge construction site! Action must be taken and properly phased out over the next nine decades. If the challenges are many, so are the opportunities and the benefits in the long term.

So what does it take to make this happen? The answer to this question is rather simple. The implementation and proper execution is less so. It will take money, and a lot of it. There is plenty of that, though. The Central bankers of developed countries did not have to think too long to start printing a couple of trillion dollars, emitting bonds and doing the quantitative easing as needed to save the financial sector when the system was imploding in 2008 and since then. Building Africa would not require more money than that. If there has ever been a need for Keynesian economics, the Africa of the coming decades is it! Not only the money pumped in the system would allow projects to happen, but it will be the basis to create the many jobs that will be required to build all that is needed. The challenge for Africans is to have and to provide the training required to qualify for the jobs come.

To rise from its current situation, the task is somehow comparable to rebuilding Europe after World War II. Both the Europeans and the Americans who provided financial help by then can tell the Africans what a great period of prosperity followed for them. Africa needs a Marshall plan of its own, but it also must convince the rest of the world that it will put the money at work. And that is where the second crucial component of success – or failure – resides: leadership. Africa needs strong visionary leadership with integrity that will not only make things happen, but also will keep the energies focused on a long-term effort. Another eighty-six years to complete it all before the end of the century will not be too many. Africa will have to bring forward a new generation of leaders that will follow a course that is quite different from the one many of their predecessors followed. Encouraging investors will require fighting corruption, starting with a leadership by example. Corruption is a theme that I hear regularly from businesses that would like to engage in Africa, but that feel reluctant to do so for that very reason. Endeavours may be risky, but they have the potential to be quite rewarding for those who will dare and have the patience to wait to reap the fruits. As for anything else anywhere else, there will be success stories and some failures, but that is the way the world goes. It will be important to factor in disappointments and a percentage of mistakes and failures to assess the true future return. One thing is sure: searching for a quick return is probably not the best strategy over there.

Africa is diverse. The challenges will vary per country and so will the quality of the leadership. I expect the political geography of Africa to change between now and 2100 (actually much earlier than that). Borders are inherited from the independence from the colonial power and they do not always reflect a good partition for the future. Sometimes this may happen peacefully and sometimes unfortunately not. Note that I never said it will be easy. Nonetheless, the continent must move forward and the countries must develop their economies.

Although it will not be simple, I am optimistic about future changes in Africa. In my limited dealings with young professionals from Africa, I can say that this new generation is highly motivated and keen to succeed. In my contacts, I have many bright, smart and well-educated young African professionals in the field of food and agriculture. I enjoy their energy and desire to change the course of the future. They have travelled and they know quite a bit about food production in other places. They push relentlessly to bring new dynamics and I do believe that they will make good things happen. But they will need all the help and support to have access to the right resources and knowledge to succeed.

For some reason, since I started the Food Futurist, I have always considered that Africa will be playing an important role in the future of food and agriculture. I have believed immediately in its potential and I have never been shy about it. This has sometimes created interesting situations such surprise or disbelief from my audiences and clients. I guess I was a little early with my predictions, but I have had the pleasure to hear some of them who looked at me as if I had a sunstroke who now advocate in favour of Africa’s food and agriculture potential. It just took them a year or two to come to the same conclusion. I guess the first part of my work has been done. Now, I really would like to be involved with organizations that want to build solid pragmatic market-oriented food production in Africa.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Believing in the future

June 24, 2011

The recent economic crisis gives an example of how the perception of the future can change, and how the level of economic security affects our behavior.

While before the economic crisis, many people preferred to spend rather than save, since the economic perspectives have changed, so has the behavior. A similar behavior, but at business level, is the reluctance of companies to hire when the economic outlook is uncertain.

Readiness to act to build the future depends greatly on people’s perception of what that very word means to them. Some have such comfortable lives that they actually do not think much about the future. They consider it a given, and take the current situation for granted. They have not much incentive to change. They might be in for a surprise someday, though. On the opposite end of this, there are those who have no expectation of the future. For them, life is so insecure because of famine, disease or violence, that all that matters is the here and now. Thinking ahead is almost impossible, and all that matters is the immediate. The future is irrelevant.

For those who live between these two extremes, the goal is to see life conditions improve. However, how this can be achieved, and whether it seems realistic depends greatly on the resources available.

Although many areas of the food and agriculture value chain need to be improved and can be improved, it is important to notice how much resistance many food security plans are facing during their execution. Obviously not all participants agree on the objectives and on the steps to follow. This is especially important in developing countries where  many problems affect food security, such as limited financial resources, limited water availability, post-harvest losses or difficult access to market to name a few.

To get people to believe in “the” future, the first step is to connect to their sense of how far the future is. When you are 20 in a country where the life expectancy is 80, thinking about the future is quite normal, and the life expectancy gives an indication of the period that the privileged ones have in mind. In regions where life prospects are dire, thinking even a couple of years ahead will probably be irrelevant to many. When presenting a vision of the future, one must consider this way of thinking. The acceptance and the commitment to implement actions will depend largely on whether the timeline is perceived as reasonable. People are more inclined to participate when they think that they will be able to see the results in their lifetime.

On the way to the future, actions are always more convincing than words. Positive results need to appear soon. Otherwise, the momentum in favor of the promised changes might slow down. This is why a good strategy is to start with the simplest and the easiest projects. They will deliver results faster. As success breeds success, they will generate more enthusiasm for the more difficult projects that require more time and more resources to be completed. This approach is a good way to build credibility and defuse criticism. Another advantage is that the participants will become more aware of what they can achieve as they achieve success. This gain in confidence will boost the morale to pursue with the further improvements. Often, this creates very healthy bottom-up dynamics that generates newer ideas on how to achieve the goals better and faster, or even exceed them.

Clearly, increasing confidence requires actions at many different levels. In the case of food security, the scope needs to go beyond agricultural development alone. Producing more food will not feed people if the hungry ones still do not make enough money to pay for food. Agriculture is only one of the economic sectors, and it will not produce miracles if it is not included in a more ambitious and broader goal.

Of all activities carried out to improve food security, I find the Chinese policies rather interesting. They are a long-term oriented culture. They are very patient and persistent, as many episodes of their history demonstrate. Their development activities in Africa are comprehensive. Next to all their work to develop agricultural production, they also invest heavily in the development of small businesses. They are working to develop the local economy beyond simply food production. Possibly, they experience of the last 30 years in developing the economy in China explains their approach. They know that social stability depends on people having at least the bare necessities. In the 1990s, I remember when we, in Europe, started to realize that China’s goal was to feed its people first. Imports of agricultural commodities into China started to increase. In particular, their demand for wheat and for what Europeans considered animal by-products was strongly on the rise. They seem to have a similar approach with Africa. They understand that their food supply will be more secure if the countries where they invest are economically and socially stable. It is worth noting that China invests more money in Africa than all G8 countries together do. It would appear that, to follow through with these policies, not having elections every few years allows them to execute a long-term vision without having to sacrifice it through short-term distraction.

On the other end of the spectrum, in terms of making people lose faith in the future, I could mention Libyan land purchases in Mali. The farmers, who had been working the land for themselves, although the land did not belong to them, have received notice that they will have to leave at the end of this year. This is exactly the kind of practice that could lead a country into civil war.

Businesses and non-profits that are active to develop food production need to take into account the same aspects that increase confidence in the execution of their plans. The owners, shareholders and fund providers must take a long-term approach to succeed. In such projects, the day-to-day share price on the stock exchange is not relevant. Such projects are long-term investments that will deliver a return only after many years. Among the most important investments, I would give a special mention to health and education. Without them, people can simply not get any fulfilling occupation, and economic development will be stuck in low gear.

At my modest level, I once inherited a project to get a fish processing plant operational. This project was a taking place in one of British Columbia’s Central Coast First Nations communities, which was plagued by a staggering 80% unemployment rate. Apart from the fact that there had been no budget allocated, I faced another problem. The local Economic Development Corporation in charge of their end of the project was never carrying out what they were supposed to do. Being my old little me, I never accepted this situation as a reality, and I made sure that all parties would do what they agreed to do. Only after a couple of years did I get the explanation for their dragging their feet. Many projects had taken place in this community before, but they all failed. The locals had concluded that no project would ever succeed, and they were not adamant to invest much in the future. The initial agreement had been signed between the salmon farming company and the leaders of the community, but time was necessary to get the lower levels of the village to be convinced. At some point in time, I was told that if it had not been for my indestructible faith in the project’s success, my persistence and my sometimes quasi-obnoxious insistence, this project would have had the same fate as the other previous ones. I had to deal with many heated discussions, a small social upheaval and death threats, but I quite alive to say proudly that, 11 years after I started it, the plant still is operational today, for the benefit of the community and its residents!

Long-term vision, empathy, sharing the value, strong leadership (even some dose of benevolent dictatorship) are all critical elements to make developing nations believe in the future.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Hunger is about more than just food production

December 4, 2010

Everyone who works in agriculture and food knows that there are about one billion people on Earth suffering from hunger. The temptation to think that the cause is a lack of food production is great, but it does not reflect reality. Quite a few serious organizations and personalities claim that one Earth is not enough to feed nine billion people by 2050. Some claim that we would need two Earths. Others even go as far as mentioning the need for three, and even four, of our blue planet.

There are two possibilities with such statements.

If they are true, then humanity has a problem, because there is only one Earth, and we will not get a second one. In such a case, the only way for supply and demand to get in balance is a reduction of the world population. This could happen through famine, disease and/or wars. Since in such a scenario there is a maximum to the world population, once this number is reached, there must be a constant elimination of the couple of billion people too many, through one of the means just mentioned. This is not a particularly happy thought.

On the other hand, if such statements are erroneous, there is hope to feed the increasing world population with one Earth.

Then, is one planet enough or not? Simple math should help finding the answer. If we need two Earths to feed nine billion, one planet would only feed 4.5 billion people. Currently, the world population is around seven billion, out of which one billion is hungry. Conclusion is that we currently can feed about six billion people. We are not doing that bad. Is it possible to find ways of feeding three more billion on this Earth? From the simple math above, it is clear that those who claim that we need three Earths or more are wrong.

Out of the six billion who do not suffer hunger, it is estimated that one billion is overweight, a part of which, mostly in the USA, is obese. They clearly ingest more calories than they need. Purely theoretically, if those were to share the excess food they consume with the ones who have too little, the billion hungry people would have about enough. This means that today there is already enough food available to feed seven billion people.

Another interesting factor is waste. According to the FAO, about 40% of all the food produced is lost and wasted. In rich countries, most of the waste takes place at supermarkets, restaurants and households level. People simply throw away food. In developing countries, the waste takes place mostly post-harvest. The food does not even reach the market. The food is spoiled because of a lack of proper storage facilities and logistics. The food ends up rotting, contaminated with mould or is eaten by vermin. To fix the problem, the FAO estimates the cost to improve infrastructure at US$ 80 billion. This is less than the amount the EU just made available to bail out Ireland. What to say of the US$ 3.3 trillion that the US Federal Reserve lent to banks to alleviate the financial crisis? Of course, it will be impossible to achieve an absolute zero waste, but if we were to achieve 10%, this will feed many people. I have heard the statement that if post-harvest losses were eliminated in India, the country would be fully food secure. Per 100 tons of production, 40% wastage means that only 60 tons are available for consumers. By reducing waste from 40% down to 10%, there would be 90 tons available. This represents an increase of food available by 50%! Since we could already feed seven billion with the 40% waste, reducing wastage to 10% would allow feeding 10.5 billion people.

There are also many debates about whether we should eat meat or not. The nutritional need for protein is easily covered with 30 kg of meat per capita per year. I had shown in an earlier article that if Western consumers were consuming just what they need instead of eating superfluous volumes (very tasty and enjoyable, though), it would free meat to feed 1.4 billion people the yearly individual 30 kg. In China, the average meat consumption is already up to 50 kg per capita per year. The consumption is very unevenly distributed, but this is the average. Cutting 20 kg per capita over a population of 1.5 billion would free meat for the nutritional needs of an additional one billion people.

The other area of potential is Africa. The FAO estimates that the area of arable land that is not exploited is about 700 million hectares. This is about the size of Australia. To simplify and get an idea of the potential, we can calculate what it means in wheat equivalent. With the assumption that wheat yields would be the same as the current African average, a low 1.5 tons per hectare, this adds up to 1.05 billion tons of wheat. Since a person needs about one million calories per year, and there are about 3,000 calories in a kg of wheat, one ton of wheat can feed three people, the 1.05 billion tons of wheat can feed more than 3 billion people. Normally, there would a crop rotation of at least two harvests per hectare. With proper investment and financing, farms should be able to reach easily the US average of 3 tons of wheat per hectare. Clearly, this performance could be achieved with traditional techniques and good quality seeds. This is not even about high-tech or GMOs. This tremendous potential of Africa is why China, India and Arab countries are very active developing farming there. They did the math. This scenario also shows that Africa can easily become a strong net exporter of food. In this case, the world map of food looks very different. Without Africa being able to produce large amount of foods, the prospects for food security in Asia and the Middle East are a bit bleak. They can depend only on Western Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, North and South America, and with Australia to a lesser extent. With Africa as a net food exporter, the world map looks a lot more balanced, East-West as well as North-South. Sea routes from Africa with the Arabic Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, and farther away with India and China create a much safer feeling of food security for the countries in those regions. For Africa itself, it may change the relations between Sub-Saharan country and the Maghreb countries. This in turns changes the type of relationship that the Maghreb may have with Europe, by creating more economic activities to the South. Africa’s success –or failure- will affect the whole world.

With the above, everyone can develop further assumptions, but these calculations show that this one Earth can produce enough food to cover the needs of between 12 and 15 billion people. It almost sounds impossible to believe, yet these numbers are not even ambitious. I have not even taken into account that in 2009, 25% of the corn produced in the USA was destined to feed cars, not people, via ethanol production, and that number is expected to grow to about one-third for 2010. The potential is even higher when one considers that a large part of the US corn goes into soft drinks, while it could be used to produce tortillas, with a side glass of water, a much healthier alternative.

That said, if the potential for food production supply looks adequate, actually producing it may not be as easy. The human factor, especially through politics and leadership, will be crucial to succeed.

One would ask why there is hunger if we can produce so much food. The answer is simple. Hunger is not just about food production, it is about poverty. People are hungry because they do not have money to buy food. They do not have money because they do not earn enough, as they have low paying jobs or simply no jobs at all. By developing the economy in these regions, people would get better wages. They could afford more food. The demand would drive the development of food production. Agricultural development would then be a normal and natural activity. Trying to develop agriculture if the locals cannot buy the food cannot work. Recently the FAO estimated that two-thirds of the world’s malnourished live in only seven countries: China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Congo. These are countries where most of the population is poor, and most of which lives in rural areas. The other proof that hunger is not only a consequence of low food self-sufficiency can be found in two agricultural exports behemoths: Brazil and the USA. In the latter, a recent survey carried out by Hormel Foods, the deli producer, shows that 28% of Americans struggle to get enough money to buy food, or they know someone who struggles. Last year, the USDA had estimated at 14.6% the percentage of US households that do not have enough food on the table. Food will find the money and vice-versa. If Bill Gates decided to move to the poorest and most food insecure place in the world, and would fancy a lobster, I am sure that someone would manage to find him one and deliver it within reasonable short notice.

My book, Future Harvests, investigates the possible scenarios to increase food supply and meet the demand at the horizon 2050.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Two-thirds of world population live in the 16 most populated countries

August 17, 2010

When looking at their respective demographics, economic situations and food security status possible future scenarios can arise from this list.

The most obvious is probably that many countries on this list have little food security. Considering that many of these countries have a young, poor and increasing population, political stability is quite fragile. As long as this remains, the consequences of food inflation must be taken very seriously.

Country

Population

% of world population

China

1,337,320,000

19.6

India

1,180,220,000

17.3

USA

309,199,000

4.5

Indonesia

231,369,500

3.4

Brazil

192,860,000

2.8

Pakistan

169,410,000

2.5

Bangladesh

162,221,000

2.4

Nigeria

154,729,000

2.3

Russia

141,927,297

2.1

Japan

127,530,000

1.9

Mexico

107,550,697

1.6

Philippines

92,226,600

1.4

Vietnam

85,789,573

1.3

Germany

81,882,342

1.2

Ethiopia

79,221,000

1.2

Egypt

78,200,000

1.2

 Total  

4,531,656,009

 

66.7

 

What came to my mind when I saw the list the first time was the following.

The cluster Pakistan-India-Bangladesh represents 22.2% of the world population. This region is very sensitive to climate events, as the current floods in Pakistan demonstrate. The monsoon is the main factor that influences the level of crop production. These countries are below food self-sufficiency, and their agricultural infrastructure (and overall infrastructure in general) is in bad need for further development. However, the quality of agricultural land is good with around 40% of arable land. The task of India is huge. It has about 70% of its population in agriculture, and if the USA had India’s population density, there would be 3 billion Americans, 10 times its current population. In such a situation, the USA would not be self-sufficient, either. Agricultural reforms are necessary to improve yields and economic development is necessary to provide more inhabitants with higher revenue. It will take time, but expectations for the Indian economy are positive. Subsistence is not a good economic model. A good relationship between India and Pakistan is paramount for the stability of the region. A stable Pakistan is essential for the stability of the world.

In North America, I can see dramatic change coming. With two countries, Mexico and the USA, in sharp contrast with each other in the top 16, something will happen. The USA will remain an economic superpower and any events in that country will affect the world economy and politics. Mexico is growing but it needs to improve its economy and achieve better social stability. Poverty is fuelling many issues and the price hike of corn of 2008 has showed that it would not take much to cause food riots. The issue of immigration of Mexicans into the US will not go away, and no wall will stop it, especially with Mexico having a strong population increase. The difference in population numbers of the two countries will shrink. The USA and Mexico will have to develop a joint economic development program for the region to avoid an uncontrollable situation in the long term. I think that we will see more and more Mexicans settling in the USA and become the farmers of the future over there. However, climate conditions will probably affect the geographical distribution of productions. The southwest of the USA is increasingly suffering from water scarcity, and the area spreads. This will affect the distribution of the population over the continent, and it will affect Canada as well.

South East Asia has three representatives on this list: Indonesia, The Philippines and Vietnam. This region shows a strong population increase. From a food production point of view, geography tells that aquaculture has to be a leading, if not the leading, food source for the future. And this is exactly the direction that these countries are following. Rice is essential in this part of the world, and there is no doubt that the South East Asian Emergency Rice Reserve will be tested at some point in time.

Brazil is growing, demographically and economically. It is becoming an economic powerhouse, in particular in agricultural products. However, much still needs to be done to improve infrastructure and performance. In the future, I expect to see joint agricultural policies between a number of Mercosur countries, especially with Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay as the initiators. Export has led agricultural production of these countries in the past, but I expect to see them to rebalance policies towards feeding the South America market as well in the years to come.

The other thing that jumped out of the list is Africa. I doubt that many people would have expected Nigeria to be ranking #7. Africa will be an important element in the 21st century economy. The continent’s population will double in the coming 40 years and many African countries are attracting foreign investments. If this happens in orderly manner, which is far from sure at this stage, I would expect Africa to experience a boom comparable to the one that China has had over the last three decades. The continent is open for business and the rules of engagement are exactly what adventurous pioneers can wish for. Africa has tremendous potential for food production and foreigners are developing agriculture actively for their own food supply, but neither African countries nor investors should forget to include the Africans in the wealth creation, and help them earn the money to feed themselves. What will happen in Africa, will affect all of us.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Are “land grabs” a necessary evil?

May 17, 2010

The large land deals between African and Arab countries or Asian countries, mostly China, have drawn quite some attention.

I mentioned them in an earlier post on this blog (The great unseen land grab).

The discussion has taken an increasing political flavour, but very few people seem to look at the causes of the problem.

The reality is simple: the countries looking for land do so because they have a serious problem to feed their people and to guarantee them access to potable drinking water.

The water problem is obvious in Arab countries. In the past, they tried to grow more food on their land by developing irrigation. Unfortunately, they have concluded that this approach depleted their water reserves, while they also realize that they cannot feed their increasing population. For instance, Saudi Arabia has now turned away from its previous food security strategy and chooses to preserve water and look for other sources of food than their own agriculture. China and other Asian countries also realize that they cannot meet the increasing demand for food.

What should these countries do? Home production will not be sufficient. The first other possibility is to import, but volumes in the current world agriculture will also soon meet limitations. Keeping on buying on the world markets will solve some of the shortage problem, but it leaves the importing countries vulnerable to world market price increases. This is a threat for the domestic social stability as many of their inhabitants can hardly afford food at the current prices. These countries simply cannot remain passive. They needed to take action, and they did.

Why is Africa so attractive? Africa is the only continent where agricultural development has lagged behind. Yields are low. Infrastructure is far from optimal. Africa can increase production if African countries can fund their agricultural development. The main problem is one of money and policies. Africa has huge areas of arable land, but that land is not exploited. The FAO estimates at 700 million hectares the amount of land that could be developed for agricultural production. That area is about the size of Australia. It is twice the size of the current world wheat area. This offers huge potential.

What the importing countries bring to Africa are funds ready for investing in infrastructure and equipment. They could wait for African governments to develop agriculture and then buy from them. Considering how slow agricultural development has been in the past, this solution probably would come down to waiting for nothing to happen and cause serious food shortages in Asia and Arab countries, with all the risks of conflicts that this would generate.

The approach of going to Africa and offering to buy and develop the land makes a lot of sense. By being proactive, the importing countries actually speed up the process of getting investment money at work on the land, and the host countries do not have to worry about how to get the money.

Can these land deals work? In theory, they can. The main issue at stake is how both the importing/investing countries and the host countries set up such deals. The population of Africa is very young and it is growing fast. Africa will see its population double within the next 40 years.  Africa is also a poor continent and the combination poverty and high population increase has the potential to create many problems because of a lack of food security. Developing agriculture in Africa is the way to increase food security, but at the same time, a large part of the food produced on the newly developed land will go abroad, to China and Arab countries. This is why it is utmost important that such deals be set up as win-win situations. The foreign countries must help create agricultural and economic development in Africa in order to feed the local population by developing food production and offering employment so that they also can buy food. Failure to do so will very likely result in riots and violence against the new farms and their staff. This would not feed the local population, and could eventually result in not feeding the foreign countries either. Such land deals must be managed very carefully. The people in charge will have more than just agriculture to look after. Social, cultural and environmental aspects will play a very important role in the execution of these projects.

Africa is the continent where such deals have grown to large proportions, but similar deals are also being made in many Asian nations. It is interesting to see that other regions where large amount of investment money would be useful for agricultural development do not get as much attention from the importing countries. Yet, areas like in Kazakhstan, Ukraine or Russia could use some injection of funds, too. Brazil is starting to attract new money. For instance, the China National Agricultural Development Group Corporation has plans to grow corn and soybeans and it is looking for land in Brazil. The corporation has been allowed an annual budget of US$2 billion to realize the objectives and secure grain supplies to China.

More in my upcoming book Future Harvests.

Copyright 2010 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The Great Unseen Land Grab

May 21, 2009

Interesting article from The Economist on how some countries are already organizing and securing their food supplies for the future. Major political-economic chess game in the running.

Buying farmland abroad – Outsourcing’s third wave

It connects quite well with my previous article about Jim Rogers buying land in Canada and Brazil.

And it also connects well with the move made by the Canadian investment firm Sprott Asset Management to secure a land lease of a million acres in partnership with First Nations on the Canadian prairies to grow crops as an investment in agricultural commodities.