Follow the water!

November 15, 2010

Without water, there is no agriculture, there is no food, and there is no life. It is obvious, and yet the water question is too often neglected. The quantity and the quality of water available are absolutely crucial for the future production of food. It will influence where and what type of food we can produce. It will define food security and world politics. Since 70% of fresh water use is for agricultural purposes, it is clear that water will soon be power.

The need to preserve water and use it efficiently is going to be one of the main challenges to overcome for the decades to come. This will stimulate innovation and the development of new technologies and new techniques.

Field sensors that measure the level of humidity in the air and in the soil connected with “crop per drop” irrigation systems can allow the distribution of the right amount of water at the right time, thus saving waste through evaporation and drainage. The selection of plant varieties will focus more and more on water efficiency. Drought-resistant plants that can thrive in arid conditions are in the works. For instance, a trial on wheat in Australia has delivered promising results, as the yield was 25% higher than non drought-resistant varieties. Researchers, through hybridization and genetic engineering, are working to develop varieties that can use less water and produce similar yields as per today. Although high tech may bring solutions, other methods deliver good results, too. Agro forestry, the production of crops under a cover of trees seems to help farmers achieve satisfying results in the Sahel region. The foliage of the trees helps reduce evaporation from the soil. Combined with proper techniques to apply organic matter and fertilizing elements, farmers can create better conditions for plants to grow.

Another field of research is the development of alternatives to traditional desalination, which is very demanding in energy. Transforming seawater into fresh water for the production of food is not simple, and it is expensive. The technology is here.  Israel has used it for decades. Currently in the United Arab Emirates, a project of floating islands covered with solar panels to provide the energy to desalinate seawater is being developed. This system has the advantage to produce both fresh water, which is precious in desert countries and clean energy at the same time. A project, called The Sahara Forest Project aiming at producing food in the desert is currently in the works. It combines solar energy, modern biomass production and a type of greenhouse, built by the Seawater Greenhouse company, that helps the humidity produce by the plants to condensate.

In many countries, the problem is not so much physical scarcity of water as it is a lack of proper infrastructure to collect, pump and irrigate efficiently. The population density contributes to the problem, because the more people, the less for each of them. In many countries, for instance in India, the equipment is old, inadequate and poorly maintained, because of a lack of finance of governments and farmers. The result is a waste of water resources, and a suboptimal production. Another area that has potential for improvement is the collection and the storage of rainwater. A large quantity of water runs off and is not available for food production because there are not enough containers, if any. Developing and improving storage infrastructure will definitely help farmers to produce more food.

If the availability of water is important, so is its quality. In China, the situation is a lack of both, because of the heavy pollution of many streams and rivers. In many areas, the water is there, but it cannot be used, as it is fit neither for human consumption nor for agricultural production.

The respective situation of countries about water availability will determine their ability to feed their own people or not. In Arab countries, irrigation has led to a high level of salinity and it has depleted drinking water reserves. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has now abandoned its policy of increasing food production to become be self-sufficient. Saudis are actively purchasing land in African and Asian countries to meet their food needs. China and India, that represent about 40% of the world population, are following a similar approach and invest heavily to help develop land in Africa. In countries where drinking water is scarce, there are discussions about the need of not exporting, as export of food is actually water export as well.

If a number of countries face a water shortage, others have a different situation. This is the case for large areas of North America and South America. Especially Brazil disposes of large water reserves. Together with a favourable climate, Brazil has many advantages to produce food, especially animal protein. According to Osler Desouzart of OD Consulting, the production of 1 kg of beef requires 16,000 litres of water, while it takes 6,000 litres for 1 kg of pork and only 2,800 litres for a kg of chicken. This shows why Brazil has been gaining market share in beef and poultry. It indicates that intensive animal production will be more challenging in countries where water is not as abundant. This also tends to show that poultry will be the most successful type of land animal production. The US and Canada have large water reserves, although there are also clear regional differences. The South West of the US becoming increasingly arid, and one can wonder if California, that currently produces most of the fruit and vegetables for the North American continent, will be able to keep its production levels. It is likely that fresh produce will be gradually produced closer, even inside, the large urban centers in the northeast as well. Considering the emphasis on water preservation, it is also interesting to note that before the housing crisis in the US, the most irrigated type of plant production were lawns, using three times as much water as US corn. Food recalls are another source of water waste, especially meat and eggs recalls. From the numbers presented above, it is easy to see how much water is lost when dozens of tons of animal products must be destroyed, not to mention the huge food waste that this represents.

When it comes to food and water, aquaculture offers interesting possibilities for the efficient production of protein. Fish produced in the ocean do not consume freshwater. This saves large amounts that can be used for other purposes. However, one of the challenges for the fast-growing aquaculture industry will be to be able to source feed ingredients that do not directly compete with other farm animals and direct human consumption. Land-based aquaculture is developing the very interesting concept of aquaponics, which is a combination of fish production in tanks combined with the production of vegetables indoors. The system recycles the water used for the fish tank, and helps fertilize the plants with fish waste. This is a very water–efficient system that can help produce large amounts of food on a small area, making it fit for urban farming units.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The danger of a weakening US dollar

November 1, 2010

The global economic situation is still fragile, and one of the symptoms is the nervousness about currencies. All it takes is a rumor to see a particular currency drop within minutes. The actions taken by central banks during the financial crisis have consequences. The amount of debt and the ability, or inability, of individual countries to manage the situation will influence the relative strengths of all currencies.

One currency has a special status. Because of the economic and political influence of the USA since World War II, the US dollar is the currency for most commodities. This special status also influences the actions of financial markets. Since the stock market plunge of October 2008, investors have become cautious. The value of stocks and commodities does not follow fundamentals anymore. A lot of cash has left the markets and, more than before, the active players in the market place their bets for short-term returns. Most transactions are computer-generated. Software programmers have developed algorithms that allow computers to make transactions based on technical analysis within a millisecond. This maybe a technological beauty, but such programs do not analyze data. They act mechanically, in a very sophisticated manner of course, but mechanically nonetheless. When it would have taken half an hour for traders to panic, the computer can now deliver the same result in less time than it takes to blink. When you add to this that investors, and especially speculators, borrow large sums of money to play with derivatives instead of doing so with the actual assets, the consequences for the real economy may be rather high.

Considering the amount of debt that the Federal Reserve Bank has issued, also known as the amount of money they printed, the burden for both taxpayers and the American economy is heavy, and will remain that way for a long time. The bank crisis is not over. Unpaid mortgages and foreclosures will keep on weighing on the health of the financial sector for quite some time.

The low interest rate may help the American economy to some extent, but the key for a true economic recovery will be job creation. So far, the unemployment situation does not seem to present much improvement anytime soon. To consume, Americans need to make money. With the tightening of credit conditions, they now have started to save money again, instead of spending it at the mall. Before the crisis, on average, Americans were spending 105% of their income, thanks to credit cards and loans based on their theoretical home equity, which supposedly would only go up. Retail accounted for 70% of the GDP. Clearly, this model will not come back. All of the above explains why the US dollar will weaken over the long-term. To alleviate this trend, the USA should increase interest rates, but in the current situation this probably would stop the recovery. The USA are somehow stuck.

Lately, it looks like most of the trends in stocks and commodities prices are linked to the relative strength or weakness of the US dollar. Commodities have become currencies. When the US dollar drops, the price of stocks and commodities goes up, and vice-versa when the currency drops. The logic behind this is simple. Investors are interested in protecting the value of their capital. Instead of owning actual dollars, they prefer to own assets. This is why the demand for materials, oil and agricultural commodities is firm. By switching from cash to finite resources, investors want to ensure that they will, at the very least, be protected from the erosion of the currency. Most of the demand is not for the real commodities, though, but for futures contracts. By borrowing money, they can buy even more of such investment vehicles than they normally would, or should. The higher demand for commodities results in an increasing price, in US dollars that is. Since they buy as the US dollar weakens, they will get more dollars back when they sell, although with the potential depreciation, this might not be an actual profit, but at least it is not a loss.

What may be the consequences for food prices? We have had a flavor of what a run on commodities can do in 2008. This time, the level of leverage will be lower than by then, because investors will not be able to access loans as much and as easily as they could prior to the financial crisis. Nonetheless, increased demand for oil futures contracts together with an increased demand for agricultural commodities futures contracts will result in food inflation. Ironically, the most vulnerable country for this are the USA themselves, because the price inflation will be in US dollars, and that is the only currency that they have. Food inflation will put more stress on the income of Americans, and depending on the level of inflation, this can bring the country back into a recession. Considering the importance of the US economy, the whole world would suffer the consequences.

Food inflation will hit globally, because the demand on paper will be higher than the physical demand, and because, the focus will be in the price expressed in US dollars only. The exchange rate between other currencies with the US dollar will not be taken into account immediately. This will happen when consumers start to offer enough resistance. The resistance can be less consumption of consumer goods in rich countries, but it can be riots and violence in poor countries. Although food inflation has not hit consumers too much, yet, the high price of animal feed ingredients is already a concern for companies involved in animal productions. Processors will face a dilemma between a decrease of margins and the need to fill their plants at full capacity to keep costs down. Their margins and the farmers’ margins will be under pressure, because the retailers will resist price increases as long as they can. Another area of margin pressure for farmers will come from the price of inputs, fertilizers in particular. If the rumor, based on paper contracts, turns into the idea that demand for agricultural production is really increasing sharply, suppliers will hike their prices as soon as they can. If farmers get higher prices for their products, they also will pay much more for their inputs.

Reactions to food inflation will be the strongest in Asia. The situation is already sensitive, and the share of food in the household budgets is still relatively high, especially compared with Western countries. For many people, food is already difficult to afford. The situation is such that the Indian government is considering offering subsidized grains to 75% of the population. This represents about 800 million people. This is roughly the combined population of the EU, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand together!

What happens with currencies, stocks and commodities exchange markets will have direct as well as indirect consequences. We all need to follow the developments, because we all will feel the consequences in our wallets, eventually.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The quiet revolution of food retailers

October 28, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


What a game changer my book is!

September 7, 2010

Future Harvests has been published less than two weeks ago, and it is going to change my company rather profoundly.

What started as a blog on the side of The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd. is now about to become the very core of my business.

Not only the book sales are already higher than I would have thought, the book is creating much interest for my other activities. The book has already been shipped not only to Canada or the USA, but also as far as South America, Asia and Europe. This is truly amazing.

The reactions to the announcement of the book’s publication have been amazingly enthusiastic and they made me feel like I had just produced something that many were waiting for. This is both very rewarding and very humbling, because working on solutions for future food supply to an increasing world population is a huge task. Since the publication, people with whom I never had contact before, from all around the world, have approached me, thanking me for having engaged in this venture.

New contacts are asking me to participate in conferences and to organize workshops and seminars for them. The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) is interested in having me on one of their programs. Of course, the concrete discussions are still to come, but I have to admit that my Food Futurist is now showing incredible potential.

The part on policy making and strategy is getting more attention, too. This activity has the potential to become a solid business that will need to involve more people in my organization. I have already started to develop a plan for this. I can see interest coming from companies, professional associations and governments, not only in Western countries, but in many emerging countries, such as in South America, Southeast Asia, India, or Russia to name a few.

The first step that results from all of the above is for me to formalize the Food Futurist further into a more structured activity than it has been so far. This has started with my defining and posting the mission on all the business pages of the website. The mission is “To help our clients challenge today’s certainties, shape the future, and manage the transition with a targeted and practical action plan for the coming 10 years and beyond”.

The following step is going to be to develop business around this mission and the principle expressed in Future Harvests.

If you are interested in this, please do not hesitate to contact me. Talking is cheap. If you know people who would be interested, please pass it on to them.

As Humphrey Bogart’s character said in the movie Casablanca, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”.


The Russian heat wave gives some people sunstroke

August 10, 2010

The heat wave combined with the drought in wheat-producing region of Russia is causing some concerns, as the wheat production will be affected. That is annoying but not terribly threatening. Moreover, the price of wheat, as well as the prices of other agricultural commodities were due for a rebound because farmers had reduced production after the price fall of the previous year.

But when politicians and speculators get involved, the problem takes a new dimension.  Vladimir Putin announced a possible ban on Russian wheat exports and hell broke loose. The crisis then appears on all media. From mainstream media to the financial press, the world must know that we are in very big trouble, apparently.

Bloomberg and CNBC reports on the price of wheat on the commodity exchange. The speculators are there, looming. The Wall Street Journal asks whether US farmers should plant more wheat and take advantage of the good wheat prices. The Financial Times reports about the quiet doubling of the price of barley. This is bad news for beer drinkers. Food inflation is around the corner. And what if Ukraine and Kazakhstan have the same problem? The Black Sea region is one of the main wheat producers. Even Lester Brown, of Earth Policy, flooded twitter this morning with an unusual amount of tweets expressing his concerns about the effect of climate change and the rise in temperatures. This is all well-known and well-studied stuff, but suddenly my friends, we are close to the end of the world. Or are we really? Mr. Brown even suggests that an increase of 14 F in temperature in the Mid-West would cause a drop of corn production by 50%. Considering that US corn is used for three purposes: biofuels (not food), high-fructose corn syrup (not food) and animal feed, the consequences for Americans would be positive: less driving, less soft drinks and less meat, all three items for which they largely over-consume, at the expense of their health. The ones who would hurt the most would be the Mexicans.

When hysteria hits, it is always good to sit back, reflect quietly and maybe enjoy a cool drink, as long as we can afford it.

What is really going on? Well, we have a climatic event that affects wheat production. It is not new. We have managed worse crises in the past.

The excitement comes from two events. First, speculators have been active for quite some time on the wheat market and this gives them a good opportunity to jack up the prices. Although, remember the price hike of agricultural commodities of 2008! It was all on paper and not so much in the physical world. Yet, people were hoarding food in supermarkets like there was no tomorrow. Are we going to see the futures contract impact the real economy once more. I believe that if this happens again, we will see governments take action to regulate the trading of futures contracts. The bad thing about this is that the example of the new Wall Street regulations have been very slow to take shape and will take a long time to be implemented. Therefore, the “golden boys” still have some good times ahead with markets. Second event, which has reinforced the first one is the declaration of Vladimir Putin. Should we worry about it? Yes and no. Russia is now famous for its muscle showing policies. When oil prices were jumping up, the Russian government played quite rough with oil companies, especially Shell and BP. Their relation got a chill, and later they became good friends again. Russia’s policy on import of meat and poultry shows a similar pattern. Import restrictions alternate with more relaxed policies. Russia is struggling to achieve a satisfying level of food security and it uses all the means it has to develop and protect its domestic production, while sending a message abroad that Russia is strong. In my first language, a roller coaster is called “montagnes russes” (Russian mountains). That is quite relevant to describe this country’s style.

Is the world food situation at risk? As usual, we need to be vigilant, but there is no need for more panic than last year. What we need is a global production plan and increase production on a regular basis, simply because there is an increasing number of mouths to feed. If our approach is knee jerking on the actions of speculators, we will not achieve greatness. Farmers should consider planting more when the market demand increases. That is market-oriented production! If the farmers rush to plant more out of short-term speculation, they will experience the same as after the situation in 2008. Their suppliers (the ones listed on the stock markets) will increase the prices of inputs, especially fertilizers and gobble up the margin away from the farmers, like in 2009. The reality is that food is going to become more expensive, especially animal products. We need to get used to this idea right now, because over the long-term, this trend will not disappear. We need to act with vision and determination to achieve the goals, as I describe in the soon-t0-be-published “Future Harvests”.

Today ended up on a positive note after all. US Agriculture Secretary Ed Vilsack declared that we were not facing a wheat crisis. And wheat prices eased on news that farmers were planting more. Famine averted.

We need more long-term focused leaders and fewer speculators.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


China corn imports forecast to rise 9-fold by 2015

July 8, 2010

Interesting article found on World-Grain.com.

The article is based on a study carried out by Japan’s Marubeni Economic Research. The need for more meat and animal feed will drive the increase.


Insects on the menu

May 31, 2010

I came across a very interesting article from the French newspaper Le Monde, titled “Insects, the steak of the future”.

Photo: AFP/Mario Tama

The article reviews the potential of using insects as a food source to complement the traditional food production in order to meet the needs of the increasing world population.

Here are the main points.The nutritional quality of insects is high. They are a source of protein, fats, minerals (especially iron and zinc) and vitamins.

The production performance of insects out performs the one of traditional livestock, with a feed conversion ratio (number of kg of food to produce 1 kg of insect) ranging between 1 and 2.

There are already 1,400 species of insects consumed regularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Among the favorites, they name beetle larvae, ants, caterpillars, locusts, crickets, silkworm chrysalis, scorpions and spiders (although the two latter ones technically are not insects).

In most cases, insect consumption is the consequence of food shortage, but there is also a festive consumption of the bugs. The author mentions that in the old Roman Empire, caterpillars were a delicacy. Of course, in some Western countries, some restaurants offer insects at a premium price for a certain self-proclaimed sophisticated elite… After all, a lobster looks very much like a large aquatic bug.

However, trying to convince Western consumers to switch to insects and other bugs for their protein will be a tough call, especially when served in their original form. An possible alternative would be to process them into sausages and ground patties. There also could be the possibility to texture the protein in similar ways as it happens with soy.

Another interesting potential for insect is to use them as a raw material for animal feed. Bugs and worms can also be a good source of protein for poultry and pigs. After all, in nature, this was a regular part of their diet. Similarly, for many fish species, insects are a natural source of food. Currently, fish feed is made of increasingly expensive raw materials, such as fish meal, fish oil and vegetable oils, for which they compete with human consumption, or are used for feed destined to other farm animals.

There are talks about organizing the first congress on insect as a food source as early as 2012.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.