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.

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.

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.