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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Food prices, one year later – Some lessons

September 16, 2013

According to the data gathered by the FAO, global food prices are on the decline. They have been so for some time. However, this good news does not seem to make the headlines. Reassuring news does not score with the mainstream media. What a difference with the past year during which all of a sudden they discovered that food might not be taken for granted after all! What have we not heard and read by then. The most absurd theories and pseudo-analyses have been spread around by some who know nothing better than copying and pasting the internet without exercizing the slightest sense of critical thinking. Of course, the fear mongers got plenty of publicity while they really did not contribute to anything productive, as I had described in a previous article (Fear mongering does not build a strong future).

What a difference a year makes! And that is a very good thing. It shows that agriculture and farmers are much more resilient and have much greater potential than some want to make believe. That confirms what I have always claimed and that I relentlessly repeat in my presentations and publications. I have lost the count of how many times I have been told that “Christophe, you are quite the optimist”, in particular about the content of Future Harvests. Frankly, I do not think that I am particularly optimistic. Actually, I can see many reasons why we will face serious crises along the way to meeting the goals of feeding a growing population. That warning is the message behind We Will Reap What We Sow. I see human nature and in particular our leadership, as serious reasons for temporary failures. But if I do not consider myself as an optimist, I definitely have a positive attitude. I truly believe we can manage and overcome future challenges, because I crunched the numbers and I have demonstrated in my literature and my talks that feeding 9 billion people in a sustainable manner is quite possible. It is possible, but it is not a given. There is work ahead. That makes it interesting and exciting.

Next to the potential and the future development that can make us overcome the coming challenges, I am also a firm believer of market forces. Market fluctuations trigger action and reaction. Nothing like high prices and solid profits get food producers increase production. Similarly, nothing like poor financial results have the ability to tamper any desire to increase production. The so-called invisible hand works. Sometimes, it holds a carrot. Sometimes, it holds a stick. It makes things move in the right direction. Over the past year, I have presented during a number of events how market forces would influence prices in different sectors in the years to come. By looking at it from the consumer demand end and by going back in the production and supply chain, I showed how the different actors would react to their own particular situations. So far, my predictions have come true, the reactions of retailers, food service, animal protein producers, crop farmers and input suppliers have been as expected. The drop in global food prices is one of these predictions. Those who attended some of my presentations know what I mean. For the others, here is a link to a video showing an excerpt my talk about the dynamics of future agricultural markets that will illustrate what I am writing about.

The past year contains many lessons. Some of them are about us, and some of them are about how to look at the future. The main lesson is probably that the situation of food and agriculture cannot be looked at in a simplistic manner and can certainly not be described or commented with scary slogans. The population is growing but so is agricultural production. The famine that is supposedly around the corner is far from happening. In a year time, the world population has increased by a few dozen million people, who on average tend to eat more food, and in particular meat. Yet, supply is able to meet demand better this year than last year, as global food prices and grain stocks indicate. Another lesson is that even though severe climatic events affect food supply negatively, there is no reason to panic. The fact that last year a severe drought depleted production numbers in one of the essential producing countries, the USA, the system was able to absorb the shock. There has been no food riot in 2012 like in 2008. The reason needs to be looked at what products were the most affected.  Supply of basic food stables remained in balance with demand. There was no particular shortage of bread or rice in sight. The commodities that were affected were business to business products, destined to the animal feed and the corn ethanol industries. Another lesson is that even though the prices of 2012 did not lead to riots, climatic events are a serious threat and need to be factored in future supply and demand scenarios to build enough of a buffer to reduce the risks of supply disruption. Another area that requires more attention is the regulation of financial markets, and in particular the regulatory aspects. It is clear that derivatives amplify market price fluctuations. By deciding who is allowed to be active on the markets of agricultural commodities and for which quantities, the functioning of markets can be more representative of the physical reality. In particular, the participation of players who have no physical production or supply functions in the food and agriculture need to be taken under strict scrutiny. As it is important to have fair market rules for a proper functioning of markets, it will be also useful to look at the functioning of crop insurance. Last year’s drought in the US cost insurance companies much money, while it appeared that US crop farmers ended up the season with the second highest profit level on record. No one will argue that farmers need to be protected from such unpredictable events.  Insurance should guarantee them a minimum income so that their future would not depend from forces out of their control. That is just fair. Opposite to that, it sounds beyond normal that, thanks to other contributors, farmers could go through such a drought without hardly feeling the slightest pinch in the wallet.

After the past year, am I still an “optimist”? Yes, I do believe that farmers will meet demand in the future. For all the reasons above, I am convinced as ever that the potential is largely there and that the world can absorb tough years. But I would attach a warning to my optimism. It is not because it can be done that it will be done. It is necessary to keep thinking ahead, to come with innovative ideas, products and services to be able to plan and forecast better, to make better and faster decisions. It is also essential to pass knowledge and information better and faster, and to choose the attitude of helping others succeed before one’s particular interest. Our societies have succeeded by acting together. Nobody will be able to do it all alone. Providing help and support will be critical for success, just as much as asking for them will be. It also becomes crucial to be able to look beyond one’s area of business and to connect the dots even – or maybe actually in particular – with events and activities that have, at least apparently, several degrees of separation with agriculture in order to anticipate, adapt and be prosperous. That is the core of what I do, and I can only encourage you to take the same approach.

As markets ease, it will be quite tempting to drop the guard. In my opinion, this would be a serious mistake. The time things seem to be under control is the right time to prepare for the future and to do some foresight. Markets will change again as the bargaining power of the different links of the chain will shift. Be assured that there will be some severe price hikes again. My best guess is within five years from now. Those who will do this exercise will have a strong advantage over those who will procrastinate.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


What more demand for meat means for the future

October 21, 2012

Here is an excerpt from We Will Reap What We Sow, the book I published in May 2012. The recent difficult climatic conditions for agriculture and their impact of agricultural markets have made the issue quite relevant. Here it is then:

As the economy in emerging countries is improving, their population becomes wealthier. Just as it happened in Western countries during the 20th century, the increase in wealth translates into dietary changes. The consumption of animal protein, especially the consumption of meat, increases.

To realize what the consequences of a higher consumption of meat might be, it is interesting to make calculations for China. When 1.5 billion people eat on average one more kg of chicken meat per person, world production needs to increase by about 750 million chickens. That represents about 2% of the world’s production. Similarly, when each Chinese consumes on average one more kg of pork, the world must produce 15 million more pigs. That number represents 1.5% of the world pig production. For beef, an increase of consumption of one kg per capita per year means the need for a production of 2.4% higher than today.

Meat consumption in China has already passed the milestone of 50 kg per capita per year, and projections indicate that it should reach 80 kg per capita per year in 2030. Clearly, consumption will increase by much more than just one kg.

An increase of 10 kg of chicken meat per capita per year in China means that the world’s chicken production would have to increase by 20% to meet the new demand! This represents almost the entire US chicken production volume, and more than Brazilian production. In the case of pork, an increase of consumption of 10 kg per capita means that the world’s pig production would have to increase by 15%. That is five times the current pig production of Iowa, USA. That is 60% of the EU production. For beef, the world’s production would have to increase by 24% to meet an increase of 10 kg per capita per year! This number also represents about 125% of the current total US beef production.

Different animal productions have different feed conversion ratios (FCR). The FCR is the quantity of feed needed to produce 1 kg of meat. For chicken meat, the FCR is of 1.8. For pig meat, the FCR is about 3. For beef, depending on the proportion of grass in the cattle’s diet, the amount of grain used to produce 1 kg of beef varies. With an average FCR of 3 for the various types of meat productions, an increase of meat consumption of 30 kg in China would result in the need to produce three times 30 kg times 1.5 billion. Depending on the consumption of which type of meat will grow the fastest, the need for feed, excluding grass, would vary between 100 and 150 million tons.

The world’s second largest population, the Indian population, is still largely vegetarian. Although India is among the countries with the lowest meat consumption, with less than 4 kg per capita per year, Indians are gradually changing their eating habits. Meat consumption is increasing in India, too, but not in proportions as dramatic as in China. Nonetheless, with a growing population, any incremental meat consumption will have physical consequences. Some simple math can show the magnitude of the higher demand for meat.

Between 2010 and 2050, the world’s population will increase by 2.2 billion, from 6.8 billion to nine billion. If everything stays equal, the consumption would increase by about a third (2.2/6.8). According to the FAO, the average consumption of meat per capita in the world in 2010 was of about 47 kg. The population growth alone would represent a meat consumption increase of 2.2 billion times 47, or 103 million tons. This number represents about a third of the 2010 meat consumption.

In the example of China mentioned earlier, the predicted increase of 30 kg per person represented an increase in meat consumption of 45 million tons.

Even if the world average meat consumption per capita remained stable between 2010 and 2050, the need for additional meat production would be of 2.3 (103/45) times the numbers in the China example. This represents an additional need for animal feed, excluding grass, of between 230 and 345 million tons compared with 2010.

The situation becomes even more interesting when the average consumption per capita increases. For every 10 kg increase of individual consumption, the need for additional meat production increases by nine billion times 10 kg, or 90 million tons of meat. For each 10 kg increase of average meat consumption, an additional volume of 600 to 900 million tons of animal feed is necessary. The following table presents the effect of the population increase to nine billion people and its meat consumption on production volumes.

Average individual meat consumption increase from 2010 (kg/capita/year)

0

10

20

30

40

50

Average individual meat consumption(kg/capita/year)

47

57

67

77

87

97

Total meat consumption(million tons)

423

513

603

693

783

873

Total meat consumption increase from 2010 (million tons)

103

193

283

373

463

553

Percentage of increase from 2010

32%

61%

89%

117%

145%

173%

An average meat consumption of 97 kg per capita per year would be about the current average of developed countries. If the average meat consumption per capita per year in the world were to meet such a number, meat production would have to almost triple from 2010 volumes.

Most of the gloomy scenarios about the challenge of feeding the world are based on the assumption that the diet model would have to be the Western diet, and in particular the American diet. This is far from certain. Actually, it probably will not be the case. As the world’s population increases, one of the sensitive issues, especially in the overfed world, will be what to eat and how much of it. Higher food prices will also force people to indulge less. It is important to understand the difference between nutritional needs and consumer desires. Today, the world produces enough calories and protein to meet the actual nutritional needs of nine billion people. If the nine billion people expected for 2050 all want to have a Western diet, the amount of calories needed would be equivalent to the nutritional calorie needs of 17.5 billion people.

It would be normal to expect feed conversion efficiency to improve in the future. Nonetheless, the production for animal feed would then increase with 3,000 to 4,500 million tons above the volumes necessary in 2010. Since a third of grain production goes to animal feed, a tripling of meat production means that grain production would have to double, just because of the desire for more meat.

Clearly, the challenge of feeding the world will depend increasingly on meeting the demand for meat. The challenge for producers of agricultural commodities will be to keep up with the demand for animal feed. As demand for meat increases, there is no doubt that more and more questions will arise about how much meat the world can afford to eat. The world food situation will depend on how much meat people want to eat, not on calorie count.

How much meat should we eat?…

The rest of the text for this topic and much more is in the book.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Rise of the Asian middle class and the competition for animal protein

November 29, 2011

The complete story about this topic and how it will influence the future markets can be found in my book We Will Reap What We Sow.

The size of the world population is among the most significant changes for the future. There are many challenges, as the media tell us on a daily basis, but there are opportunities. The first and the main of these opportunities is the population increase itself. In the coming four decades, there will be two billion more people to feed. Never before, has humanity seen such a demand increase. This means that farmers and food suppliers do not have to worry about a lack of market opportunities. Not only the number of people will increase, but the consumption pattern will change, too.

Until recently, most of the consumption took place in industrial countries, mostly the USA, the EU and Japan. For the coming decades, food consumption in these areas will not increase. There are simple reasons for this. One is the demographic stagnation of industrialized regions. Another reason is that people of these regions already eat too much. They have no room for more consumption. At best, they can replace one food by another. Before the economic crisis of 2008, the average daily intake of calories per American was on average of 3,800. This amount is about 50% more calories higher than a normal human being needs on a daily basis. Nobody should be surprised that in such conditions a third of Americans are obese.

In emerging countries, the economic growth results in the rise of a new middle class. A change of diet is the first change that takes place when the standard of living increases. People switch from staple foods such as rice or wheat to higher quantities of animal protein and more fruit and vegetables. The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) looked at the future evolution of the respective shares of consumption by the middle class, between different regions of the world. Their study was for consumption goods at large. The graph is simply amazing.

Click on the picture see the enlarged version

The relative consumption of Western countries will shrink dramatically. While the USA represented about 5% of the world population in 2000 and consumed about 25% of the world resources, they will represent only about 4% of the population and consume about 4% as well. A similar evolution will take place in the EU and in Japan. China and India show the opposite trend. With a share of the total world consumption close to negligible percentages a few years ago, their economic development and the size of their middle classes will transform markets dramatically. Estimates are that the middle class from China and India combined will represent about 45% of the world middle class by 2030! Market demand and therefore world prices will be dictated by the demand from these two countries and not by Western countries anymore.

While the graph covers all consumption items, the situation for food alone might show some differences, but the trend would show a similar pattern. The demand for food in emerging countries will grow strongly. This will not affect only the consumption volumes but also the type of food. The change of the type of food that consumers of the middle class of emerging countries will demand will go beyond switching from a starch-based diet to an animal-protein-rich diet. The type of animal protein that they will eat will change, too. A couple of decades ago, China would import many of the low quality animal products that Western consumers did not want to eat. China used to import products such as chicken feet, chicken wingtips, sow uteri or fish heads. The new middle class is no longer much hungry about those products. They want the prime cuts, too. Instead of being complementary, emerging markets and developed countries will be in competition with each other for the better animal products. This will have profound consequences for the future. It will make the sale of the low-quality products more difficult and affect negatively the profitability of meat producers. At the same time, it will make the demand for prime products literally explode, pushing prices up. Western consumers and Western markets used to set the prices. In the future, Western consumers will have to buy food based on the price set in Asia. Their alternative will be to not have access to these prime products anymore and have a choice between changing their diets or eat less animal products.

This change will make producers and buyers look at business opportunities in a completely different manner than they currently do. All emerging countries show the same trend. Brazil now sees domestic demand for chicken meat increase faster than export markets. Brazilians eat more meat because they become wealthier. Chilean salmon farmers see growing possibilities in the Brazilian market. While their traditional market for Atlantic salmon was the US market, this may change. Since air transport from Chile to the USA is quite expensive, at least more expensive than transport to Brazil, the flow of trade will change from the past. Norwegian salmon might become a better alternative, but the Chinese are now buying increasing quantities. American buyers must prepare themselves to pay much more than in the past to get salmon products.

It becomes clear that the challenge of feeding the world depends for a large part on future consumption of animal protein.

To understand the effect of the increase of consumption of meat in China, a few numbers are helpful. When 1.5 billion people eat on average 1 kg more of chicken meat, world production needs to increase by about 750 million chickens. That represents about 2% of the world production. Similarly, when the Chinese consume on average 1 kg of pork more, the world must produce 15 million pigs more. That number represents 1.5% of the world pig production. The meat consumption in China has already passed the milestone of 50 kg per capita per year, and projections indicate that it would reach 8o kg per capita per year in 2030. Clearly, consumption increase will be much more than just 1 kg. An increase of 10 kg of chicken meat per capita per year in China means that chicken production would have to increase by 20% to meet the new demand! This represents almost the US chicken production volume, and more than Brazilian production. In the case of pork, an increase of consumption of 10 kg per capita means that world pig production would have to increase by 15%. That is 5 times the current pig production of Iowa. That is 60% of the EU production. For beef, the world production would have to increase by 24% to meet an increase of 10 kg per capita per year! This number also represents about 25% more than the current total beef US production.

The Indian population, although still largely vegetarian, is also changing its eating habits. Meat production is increasing there, but not in such dramatic proportions as in China. Nonetheless, with a population of 1.2 billion people, any incremental meat consumption will have consequences.

Different animal productions have different levels of feed efficiency. It takes about 1.8 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of chicken meat. It takes about 3 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of pig meat. For beef, depending on how much grass the animals are fed, the amount of grain used to produce 1 kg of beef varies. With a population of 1.5 billion, an increase of meat consumption of 30 kg would result in the need to produce 3 times 30 times 1.5 billion. The need for feed, excluding grass, would be between 100 and 150 million tons of grains.

Human consumption of grains increase rather limited. Considering that in 2011, animal feed uses about a third of all grains produced, more production of animal protein will put much more pressure on the markets of agricultural commodity. Producing enough to meet the desires of a more affluent world population is actually about allowing the luxury of more meat than people really need. There is no doubt that the “meat question” will become more and more vivid in the future.

My next book, We Will Reap What We Sow, will get in depth about this topic and many others, and discuss the pros and cons of different future scenarios. Stay tuned!

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd

The fertilizer of the future?

March 12, 2011

Among the many challenges that the agriculture of the future faces, soil fertility ranks high on the list of priorities.

Originally, most farms were mixed. They had land to grow crops and they had animals for milk, eggs and meat. Markets were mostly local, and food was consumed in the villages and towns near the farms. Food waste was fed to farm animals; the manure produced was mixed with straw and returned to the fields where the crops had been grown. Over time, farming has evolved. Agriculture has become much larger scale, global and specialized. This evolution has been driven by the use of oil, mechanization, and by the development of mineral fertilizers.

That model, which has been greatly based on cheap energy and resources, needs to be looked at critically as the economic environment changes. Energy is no longer cheap and, like oil, the resources used for the production of fertilizers have been depleted. New solutions are required to be able to produce optimally.

The production of nitrogen fertilizers requires a lot of energy. According to estimates, it uses 5% of the world’s natural gas production, and half the fossil fuels used in agriculture. Because nitrogen is quite mobile when dissolved, as this happens when it rains, a large amount of these high-energy-consumption compounds are lost. An estimated 50% of the nitrogen spread on crops leaches through the soil. It ends up in the water system. The reserves of phosphates, another important mineral fertilizer, are facing depletion. This might happen in 20 years from now. With the development of precision agriculture, the waste of minerals can be reduced. With the development of satellite imaging indicating the mineral status of a field, and the local variations within the field, it has become possible for farmers to bring just the right amount of the right mineral at the right time and at the right place. This follows somehow a similar thinking as fertilizing plants in hydroponics operations where crops are produced without soil and fed a mineral solution drop by drop.

A consequence of the specialization between crop farms and intensive animal farms is the rupture of the organic matter cycle. Large monoculture farms have suffered soil erosion because of a lack of organic matter, among other reasons. In soils, the presence of organic matter increases moisture retention, increases minerals retention and enhances the multiplication of microorganisms. All these characteristics disappear when the quantity of organic matter decreases. A solution to alleviate this problem is the practice of no-tillage together with leaving vegetal debris turn into organic matter to enrich the soil. This has helped restore the content of organic matter in the soil, although one can wonder if this practice has only positive effects. Tillage helps eliminating weeds. It also helps break the superficial structure of the soil, which can develop a hard crust, depending on the precipitations and the clay content of the soil. Possibly, in the future the use of superficial tillage could become the norm. Deep tillage, as it has been carried out when agriculture became mechanized, has the disadvantage of diluting the thin layer of organic matter in a much deepen layer of soil. This dilution seriously reduces the moisture and mineral retention capacity of soils, thus contributing to erosion as well, even in organic matter-rich soils.

The removal of farm animals from specialized crop farms requires the systematic use of mineral fertilizers because farmers do not have access to manure and the minerals it contains, even though most of these minerals originate from the crops farms.

At the other end of this interrupted cycle of manure, intensive animal farms do not suffer a lack of organic matter and minerals. They have the opposite problem. They have too much of it, and not enough acreage, if any, where to spread it. This leads to accumulation of manure and other related problems, such as stench, high concentrations of minerals in the soil and eventually in the waterways and drinking water reserves.

Since nothing is lost, what has happened to the minerals from fields and from fertilizers? They have been transferred to other places via the global trade of agricultural commodities. Many of these commodities are used to produce animal feed. Phosphate in European pig manure may come from Asian manioc farms. Therefore, the best way to find out where the minerals are is to look at where intensive animal husbandry farms are. As mentioned earlier, nitrogen is washed away into the water system because of its mobility. Unlike nitrogen, phosphates are not mobile in the soil. They will accumulate, which also leads to a loss of soil fertility, eventually. The other area of concentrations of these minerals is in city sewers, and in the soil of slums. Since the purpose of agriculture is to produce food, and since consumers are increasingly concentrated in urban centers, the exportation of minerals is actually gathering momentum out of rural areas.

In the future, we are going to see a new look at fertilization. The economics of agriculture will change. This is inevitable, because the cost of inputs will increase. This will be a direct consequence of the increase of the price of oil, and of the depletion of phosphates reserves. This change of economics will drive renewed interest for manure, and for sewage. These sources will become attractive and competitive, as they contain large amounts of minerals directly available. Because of their nature, they have a high content of organic matter. One of the most efficient ways to remove nitrates from water is to grow plants with it. One of the main sources of phosphates will be manure.

There is little indication that the human population will return to the land, but animal farms can be moved rather easily. After all, they already are segregated from vegetal production. The increased need for manure will call for a relocation of animal productions. In an expensive-energy economy, having the “fertilizer factory” on site, or at least much closer than today makes a lot of sense. This is especially true because manure contains a lot of water, although there are substantial differences between productions. Transporting water is expensive. Mixing crops and animal productions again on farms will also allow the inclusion of vegetal debris together again with the feces and urine, producing a higher dry matter content, with limited transport costs between the field and the “fertilizer factory”. Regardless of the size of the farms, I expect to see a relocation of animal production units on agricultural land. They will be spread more evenly in the landscape than today. This will decrease the density of farm animals in currently high-density areas to levels that will allow a better control of environmental issues, as well as reduce partly the risks of transmission of animal diseases. Animal production units will reappear in areas where they had disappeared because of the fertilizer that they will provide.

This evolution will also come together with a new approach of manure storage and treatment. Open-air lagoons like those that we know today will simply cease to exist. The changed economics of energy will make the capture of gases financially attractive. Manure storage units will be covered; the biogas will be collected to be used for energy purpose, for the farm and the local communities. The solid and the liquid fractions of the manure will be processed and transformed to provide organic matter and the fertilizing minerals necessary for crop production. The location of the “manure units” will be influenced by the type of animal production, and therefore by the physical quality of the manure. There will be a logistic optimization of manure collection to the crop farms. It will be based on efficiency and optimization of resources. Therefore, the new farm structure will be efficient, as much financially as environmentally. Similarly, open-ocean fish farms that currently do not collect the feces will see the financial value in recuperating the fish waste and sell it. In cities, there will be an increasing interest to recycle the sewage. The purpose will be to recuperate the organic matter and the minerals it contains. A similar approach for human waste will apply as for animal production units as I described above. This will also be integrated in the future approach of urban farming, as it will provide the necessary nutrients for an efficient urban food production. It will be a source of revenue to the cities.

In rural areas and in urban areas, organic matter and fertilizing minerals will become strategic activities. They will serve the purpose of feeding sustainably the world population.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The locavore’s dilemma

December 1, 2010

There is a growing trend, or at least a growing noise in favour of eating locally produced food. The “locavores” as they are called, claim that 100-mile food is the way to a more sustainable agriculture and consumption. Is this approach realistic and could it be the model for the future?

This movement is rather popular here in Vancouver, British Columbia. The laid-back residents who support the local food paradigm certainly love their cup of coffee and their beer. Wait a minute! There is no coffee plantation anywhere around here. There is not much barley produced around Vancouver, either. Life should be possible without these two beverages, should not it? The disappearance of coffee –and tea- from our households will make the lack of sugar beets less painful. This is good because sugar beets are not produced in the region. At least, there is no shortage of water.

But this is not all. There is no cocoa plantation around here, and believe me, there are many people who are addicted to chocolate. British Columbia does not produce citrus or other warm climate fruit. If we are to become locavores, we must say goodbye to orange juice, to lemons, to bananas. Even the so popular sushi must disappear because of the lack of rice. There are no rice fields in this area, and neither are there wheat fields. The Asian population certainly would have a hard time eliminating rice from their diet. The lack of wheat means no flour; and no flour means no bread, no pastries, and no cookies. The carbohydrate supply is going to be tough. If we must consume local, our lifestyle is going to change dramatically. Potatoes and cabbage is the way of the future. But before going all local food, the local locavores must realize that British Columbia produces only 48% of all the food its inhabitants consume. One out of two locavores would have to starve. Going exclusively local would also affect deeply the source of animal protein. Most of the animal feed is made of ingredients that come for much farther than 100 miles. The chickens and eggs would become less available. Farmed salmon, BC’s largest agricultural export could not use the type of feed they currently use, as fishmeal and fish oil come from Peru and vegetal oil comes from farms located far away. There would go many jobs with very little alternatives. If we look beyond food, other agricultural products such as cotton and wool would not be an option anymore. Cars would disappear, because the main component of tires, rubber, is not produced under this climate. The 100-mile rule will solve traffic problems. If local consumption is the rule for food, should not it be the rule for everything as well? China would probably have different views about this. Not only would their manufacturing collapse, but also if they have to produce food within 100 miles of the consumer, they would have to give up importing agricultural commodities. For them, a true locavore system would mean famine. The same would be true here in British Columbia. When people are hungry, they are not so picky about the distance from the producing farm.

The problem with concepts such as local consumption is that the basic idea has some value, but the idea quickly evolves into an ideology, and ideologies tend to make their followers stop thinking pragmatically. Today, the idea of eating locally in a place like Vancouver is possible because supply easily meets demand, thanks to the 3,000-mile foods. This is ironical. If the distance to market has to be within 100 miles, farmers in low population density areas, such as many regions of North America, South America and Central Europe, would have a different type of problem. They would produce an abundance of food, but because there are not enough people to consume it locally, the law of supply and demand tells us that the price of agricultural commodities would plummet, food would stay in storage and farmers would go out of business, while people in China, and in British Columbia, would suffer hunger. Clearly, the 100-mile diet needs some amendments.

Intuitively, it sounds logical that locally produced food has a lower carbon footprint than food that comes from 2,000 to 10,000 miles away. However, this is only partly true. The mean of transportation affects the carbon footprint. The environmental impact of transport is much higher for road transport than it is for rail transport, which is also higher than water transport. The type of transport also depends on the type of commodity brought to market. Perishables need to reach consumers as quickly as possible for shelf life reasons, while dry goods, such as for instance grains and oilseeds do not face the same kind of deadline. The quality of the logistics is also crucial to reduce the carbon footprint. A fully loaded truck is much more efficient than a local truck dropping small quantities in many places, thus driving around most of the time with empty space in the trailer.

The emphasis should not be so much on local as it should be about the search for efficient and low environmental impact. More than the distance from the farm to the consumer, it would be more useful to provide consumers with information about the actual carbon footprint of the products they buy. They would have the possibility to make the right choices. Retailers, too, would be able to make decisions about their sourcing strategies. Clean products and clean producers need to be rewarded for doing a good job. Here in Vancouver, local food products are more expensive than similar offerings from California, Mexico, Ecuador or Chile. How do you convince families with a tight budget to spend more for local products that look pretty much the same? This problem needs to be addressed. Currently, farmers markets are much about marketing. They sell the experience as much as their production methods. Only a wealthy minority can afford to buy on these markets. The prices are not based on production costs plus farmers income. They are as high as possible, because the farmers can ask these prices. The wealthy city dwellers are willing to pay a substantial premium above what they can buy from the local supermarket. In this relation farmer-consumer, the price bargaining does not take place. If these farmers were to try to sell to a grocery retail chain, they would never get the prices they get from the consumers who will not haggle about the price. This is why more farmers try to sell directly to consumers: they make more money that way. However, this might change in the future. A number of retailers are working towards offering “farmers market” products into their store. This already makes market farmers nervous.

Is local production for local markets the way of the future? My answer is that it partly will be and it partly will not. I do expect a shift of the location of production for perishables. Consumer habits will change, too. In the West, consumers have been spoiled. They can eat anything from anywhere at any time of the year. This luxury probably will not be affordable for long anymore. The superfluous will naturally be eliminated.

As the economics of energy, and therefore of food, will change, producers will increasingly locate their operations closer to cities; and even inside cities. Urban farming is a growing activity. Although it started mostly in poor neighbourhoods as a way of having a small patch of land for personal consumption, more sophisticated and efficient systems are being developed. My expectation is that production, and consumption, of vegetables and fragile fruit (for instance strawberries) will gradually become more integrated in the urban landscape than they are now. I also think that we will see animal productions, such as fresh dairy, poultry meat and eggs relocate closer to consumer markets. An interesting development is aquaponics, the combination of greenhouse produce with fish production in tanks. The production of non-perishables will not relocate. It does not have to. What will probably change is the transportation infrastructure in many areas where these commodities are produced.  This is good news for coffee drinkers and chocolate addicts. After all, transport of commodities over long distance is not just the result of cheap oil. The Silk Road and the spice trade by the Dutch took place before mankind even knew about oil. Trade has always been a force of progress for humanity. It helps an increasing number of people to have access to goods that make their lives better. The rules of trade may not always be fair, but like all human activities, it is a work in progress. Limiting our food supply to 100 miles would be a regression. Subsistence agriculture has not demonstrated that it could feed the world. Most of the people suffering of hunger live in subsistence agriculture areas.

(This topic is one of the many that are presented and discussed in my second book, We Will reap What We Sow)

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Helping farmers produce better

November 26, 2010

Meeting food demand depends for a large part on the ability of farmers to produce adequate quantities of the food products of the right quality. To achieve such an objective, farmers depend on their business partners. To feed an increasing world population, helping farmers succeed is not an option; it is a necessity.

There is no argument against producing better. A market-driven and more efficient production reduces the amount of waste, and it increases the amount of food available for consumers. It reduces the impact on the environment and it actually reduces the cost of production. However, it is important to realize that actions to produce better often are investments, as the effect is not always immediate.

From a value chain point of view, efficient production starts with high-quality ingredients. If the world wants farmers to produce higher volumes, they must have access to good genetics. Seeds that have the potential to deliver high yields, or farm animals that can produce and grow fast, while using feed and water efficiently, are an absolute necessity. Genetics and agriculture must also take genetic diversity and sustainability into account, but with poor genetics, farmers will not be able to meet food demand, and they will not be financially viable for the long-term. Vision and proper strategy are the elements to deal with this dilemma.

Farming inputs, such fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and animal feed, must help plants, and farm animals, to express as much of their genetic potential as possible. Suppliers can play a very important role in helping farmers use the proper products in the right amounts, in the right place, and at the right time. The same principle applies for food processors and distributors. It is their role to help farmers deliver what the market needs when it needs it. They must encourage this by rewarding financially the farmers who do things right. This is in the interest of all the parties involved. Farmers make more money with their products. Processors get products that are more efficient to process, thus saving on costs. Distributors gain market share because they offer the right product to their customers, thus increasing customer satisfaction, appeal and loyalty. The advantage of doing things right is that it becomes more difficult for business partners to switch to a competitor. By being the best partner in business, the need for complicated contractual and legal agreements becomes a little less relevant. It is about loyalty and mutual security.

To achieve this kind of ideal situation requires a lot of effort, commitment and communication. Market needs must be translated in clear product specifications. The knowledge on how to be able to meet the required standards needs the proper channels to be transferred to farmers. Access to information has become much easier with the development of communication tools such as Internet and cell phones. Smart phones are helping further, and now farmers, anywhere in the world, have much faster access to market and technical information than by the past. This helps them make faster and better decisions. However, better technologies and better communication tools are not enough. Extension services are crucial. In my book, Future Harvests, several examples show how positive this is for food production. One is the policy of the Ugandan government that resulted in a boom in rice production, making the country a net exporter of rice. The second example is about the extension services of a food corporation, McCain Foods, in India, that helped farmers produce a better quality of potatoes, meeting market requirements, and earning substantially more this way. Another illustration of the positive effect of knowledge transfer is about the farming leader in Burkina Faso who helped increase food production with simple techniques, and stopped the exodus of population. Proper education and on-going training is part of the food production of the future. The human factor in knowledge transfer is as important as ever. Only people can know what the specific situation of a farmer is. Knowing the farmer is the best way to help them set up plans and strategies to improve their technical and financial performance. A farmer being independent business owners, their main concern is to generate enough revenue to stay in business, and to offer a decent standard of living and a secure future for their families. Helping them in these objectives is the way to get their attention and loyalty. Extension services need to offer the most effective solutions by taking into account the level of skills of the farmers, as well as their financial situation. Some farmers can afford and use high-tech solutions easily. Others may have money, but lack the skills to use certain techniques or technologies. Others may be technically savvy, but may lack the money. Extension service people are the ones who can help farmers make the best choices. They also must assist farmers to get the proper financing if this is the limiting factor, for as long as the money would used to deliver the proper return.

As Cicero stated, “The sinews of war are… endless money”. This tends to be overlooked by many who talk about increasing food production. If farmers do not have access to enough money to be able to produce the food the world needs, they simply will not. Developing agriculture requires serious investments, either from individuals or from governments. Asian and Arab countries know this and this is why they spent massive amounts of money in African and Asian countries, and even in Brazil and Argentina. If farmers cannot buy the basics to produce efficiently, they will have poor harvests. If farmers cannot be profitable, they will stop farming. This is important to realize that being a farmer must be attractive financially, too, if we want to motivate the next generation to be in agriculture. Money is important, but just for food production, more is not necessarily better. To get good results, we must ensure to have the right amount of money at the right time at the right place for the right purpose. The money must be aimed at producing for the market. Financing agriculture is about meeting food demand, not to produce blindly. Just like there is a need for efficient market-driven precision agriculture, the future of agriculture financing must evolve to efficient food-market-driven precision financing.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.