What a waste!

Nobody can have missed it. The hot topic of the past month was the so-called global food crisis. If you believe the media, the conventional ones as well as the social media, we are facing food shortages. For those who follow my articles, it will be no surprise that I am inclined to challenge such statements.

When 40% of all the food produced is wasted and lost, it is not possible to talk about food shortages. As I had explained in “Hunger is about more than just food production”, there is plenty of potential to increase food availability. Currently, and with this extremely sloppy 40% food waste, the world agriculture feeds quite reasonably six billion people. Unfortunately, this is not the case for one billion hungry people. By eliminating the waste, we could supply enough food to feed nine billion people. Not in 2050, but today already! That is not ideology or political agenda. It is simple math. Interestingly enough, the amount of the 40% food waste corresponds with the 70% more food the FAO says we should produce to feed nine billion. The more food we will save, the less we will need to push production up.

Unfortunately, the food waste issue receives little attention in the media. This is surprising because there would be some sensational articles to write about it. A little bit of guilt here, a little bit of horror there. That should sell some newspaper or get people watching TV. If this does not happen, it is probably because the food situation is not dire. From time to time, I receive requests from journalists. Sadly, the stories that interest them have to be scary, such as doomsday scenarios including food shortages and the imminence of food riots everywhere, to be followed of course by World War III. I do not do that. Other type of topics that journalists love is science fiction stuff, such as meat artificially grown in labs and anything related with high-tech, or freaky stuff like eating insects and worms.

The food crisis was not so about shortages. If it had been the case, we would have seen pictures of people fighting for food. It did not happen. Actually, it is a price crisis. The price increase of commodities futures results from the depreciation of the dollar (as I was predicting in “The danger of a weakening US dollar”), and the strategy of what the financial media likes to call hedging against inflation. The later is really smart stuff, as investors rush into buying commodities to hedge against potential future inflation. The high demand for commodities results in price increase. That is the best guarantee to get inflation. Brilliant!

The media attention has been interesting to follow, though. Every newspaper wanted to have a piece about the subject. And they really published a lot. Everyone became a food security expert, from restaurant critics, to balcony gardeners and other economy reporters. Depending on the sources they wanted to use, the sponsors, and of course their paying audience, everybody could find about anything and everything about the subject. Some made a bit of sense, but many reports were sadly erroneous.

For some pundit, we are just one bad harvest away from a global food crisis. That was true 10,000 years ago, that was true just before the Irish famine, and it will be true as long as farmers do not control the weather. Is that worth receiving coverage? For many, it has been an opportunity to push their respective agendas. For some, the only way is high-tech big agriculture. Hmm is that so? For others, only small-scale organic farming will save us. Hmm again. For others, eating meat is responsible for all the problems. Did I say hmmm already?

In this frenzy of food apocalypse reporting,  I simply have not seen one article dedicated to food waste, just like I have not seen any sensible research about how the price of commodities is set, either. When the total market for financial derivatives is US$ 600 trillion, while the world GDP is only US$ 60 trillion, something is a little out of balance, would not you think? The daily trading volumes of commodities largely exceeds the actual physical daily consumption of these commodities. Are all the traders only adding costs in the food chain?

However, let’s come back to the waste part. What the math I presented at the beginning of this article shows, is that the future is not so much about producing more, but about producing better and smarter, consuming better and smarter, and organizing the supply chain more effectively to ensure that food indeed reaches consumers.

The waste issue is rather simple to sum up. In rich countries, and also increasingly among the wealthier in emerging countries, the food waste occurs at the consumer end of the chain. In developing countries, the waste occurs at the post-harvest level. Food rots before it had a chance to reach consumers. In these countries, food losses are the result of an insufficient infrastructure. Another area of major food waste is fisheries. Because of (ironically) highly efficient trawlers, many fish species, as well as large quantities of edible fish are lost as they are crushed in fishing nets

Retailers are working on improving their part. For instance, Wal-Mart has initiated a large program to offer food to food banks, as part of their zero-waste strategy. European retailers did something similar several years ago. Consumers must do their part, too. Throwing food away is inexcusable for people who have refrigerators at home. People need to get some basics of household management. When I was a kid, there were classes about this at school, but it disappeared somewhere in the 1960s. Throwing away food is bad economics. Although nobody would think of throwing away coins and bank notes in the garbage, throwing away food is exactly that. That money could be used for better purposes.  Throwing food in the garbage, or as I have recently read in a local paper here in Vancouver throwing it in the toilet pot, is pretty much an immoral act, especially when so many lack food. Of course, not throwing away food in North America will not solve hunger in Africa, but there are other consequences to think about. Producing food requires a lot of energy (for production of fertilizers, for transport, for agriculture machines, packing plants etc..) and water. Wasting food means that the water and energy have been used for nothing! It is pure waste. Some may think that this is not relevant in Europe or North America. Do not be so sure, because for instance California is struggling with water scarcity, while exporting its water to other regions in the form of produce and other perishables. The gas emissions created for the wasted food will have been for nothing. Not wasting food actually reduces the environmental impact of agriculture, and this particular impact is the consumers’ responsibility. They need to know about this, because their behaviour influences the quality of the environment.

In rich countries, there is no food shortage, but we could use more leadership in informing and educating consumers to do the right thing. This is not only a matter for retailers or food service, but for all levels of the society. Rising awareness about the cost of wasting food should be on the agenda of all community leaders. Schools, parents, religious and political leaders should all address this topic in their respective circles. Food waste is where economics meet morals.

The post-harvest losses in developing countries are also both about economy and morals. The moral part is about their populations who already have so many difficulties to afford enough food, while almost half of it rots because of poor storage and infrastructure. The economic part is about the waste beyond the food losses. In many developing countries, water is scarce and most of them use large amounts of this water to irrigate food crops. Many developing countries already struggle to have clean drinking water, yet almost half the water used for irrigation is wasted together with the food. This is not acceptable, morally and economically. Moreover, some governments subsidise water for farmers to irrigate. Yet half of these subsidies are wasted with the food. Some governments also need to subsidize food for low-income families and to counter food inflation, simply to allow their people to buy food. If food availability were about to almost double by fixing the infrastructure, this would have some very positive consequences. Today, close to half the food receives zero money for revenue, while the production costs have been made to produce all of it, the eaten food as well as the wasted food. By eliminating the post-harvests losses, the currently lost quantities would create revenue that is currently missing. Considering the volumes of food involved, the total amount of new revenue generated in all these countries would be astronomic. Everybody would win. Retailers and wholesalers would increase their sales substantially. Farmers would make more money. Storage companies would have a business. Transport companies would have more business as there would be much more food to bring to market. More food available would also mean less inflationary pressure on food prices. This new activities would create jobs. This would help more people have a better income and be able to afford food a bit more easily. Governments would not have to spend as much money to subsidize food. A population that eats better would not be as tempted into social unrest as a hungry mob. At the production level, less food waste would mean less waste of water, energy and inputs. This would alleviate water problems, and increase the efficiency of the use of energy. All of this has a positive impact on the environment. According to the FAO, the cost of fixing the post-harvest losses in developing countries is about US$81 billion. Considering the quantities of extra food involved available “almost for free” since it has already been produced, the US$81 billion sound like a bargain. Indeed, agriculture represents 5.8% of the world GDP (source: CIA Factbook), or roughly US$ 3.5 trillion! Therefore, saying that post-harvest losses must be in the neighborhood of US$ 1 trillion is probably conservative. One would expect to see the payback time for infrastructure investments to be rather short. Someone needs to crunch the numbers, to take the lead and to show to all parties involved what their advantage will be. I certainly would be happy to do that. All actors of the food chain will have to participate, private sector as well as public sector. The return will be high in all respects, financially of course, especially once the current social and environmental externalities will be eliminated as the result of an efficient supply chain.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The fertilizer of the future?

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.

Why we will change our eating habits, one way or the other

In the discussion about producing enough food for the 9 billion people the world will have by 2050, one of the sensitive issues, especially in the overfed world, is about what to eat and how much of it. There always is resistance to change, and changing eating habits may be even among the most difficult challenges we have. Eating habits are developed unconsciously since early childhood, and switching to conscious choices is not easy to achieve. It requires will power and self-discipline.

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, do not expect this to be the case.

Changing eating habits will happen in two ways. One will be voluntary and the other will be a consequence of food prices.

There is a growing awareness of the health consequences due to overconsumption of food. All the stakeholders seem to blame each over for obesity, diabetes and other heart conditions, and try to convince the public that they are not the cause of the problem. Whose fault is it? Is it meat? Is it corn syrup? Is it fast food? Is it salt? Is it lifestyle? Is it the parents’ fault? Is it the schools with their vending machines offering snacks and soft drinks? We all have read such statements. Here is a scoop: overweight is caused by consuming more calories than are burnt through physical activity. Ailments are the results of rich and unbalanced diets. Eating (and drinking) too much, and too much of the wrong things is bad for you. There is a reason why gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins! Actually, our societies should have a close look at that list, because we might be in trouble.

In Western countries, we eat too much, and that should not be a surprise to anyone. Obesity and diabetes are becoming society problems in the USA, but other countries are following the same path. Europe and China have a rising percentage of obese people, especially young people. Even in Africa, there seems to be an increase of the number of overweight people. A recent study confirmed this (click here for the interactive chart). Awareness about health problems has already generated action. There are government campaigns. Food producers are reviewing their formulas and are working toward healthier products, in particular by lowering the content of salt and sugar of their foods. More and more consumers are also adjusting their eating habits, mostly by changing what they buy and where they buy it. The trend towards healthier and more natural food is growing and it will not stop. Only biotech companies seem to ignore this fact. This food trend is not just in Western countries but in China, too, the demand for natural and organic foods is increasing. After all, nobody really feels happy with being fat or unhealthy. If some people are taking action to improve their diets and its impact on the environment, this voluntary choice is still about a minority of the population, today. One of the reasons for this is that healthy diets seem more expensive than the junk fattening eating habits. I say seem, because those who can cook know that it is quite simple to make delicious balanced meal for less than the supersize combo deep fried so-called menu.

Money matters. That is a fact. This is why money is probably the best incentive for change. And the future will bring us plenty of incentive to change our diets. The current concerns about food prices, and the food riots of 2008, have created awareness about food supply. Although the price hike is more the result of investors, not necessarily speculators, looking for a safe haven for their US dollars through transactions in futures contract, the reality is that the commodity markets, even on paper, becomes the “official” market price. This enters the real economy and affects the price of food for households all over the world. The poorer countries are more sensitive to food price inflation, and this has the potential to cause very serious unrest.

Regardless of the current causes of food price increase, simple economics show that when demand increase, while supply has difficulties to keep up, prices increase. And this is exactly what will happen. In a previous article, I showed that the potential for meeting food demand, or I should say the demand for nutritional needs, of 9 billion was there. Quite easily. However, in this calculation, I indicated the road to success includes reducing food waste and a reduction of the quantity of meat in the diet. This means that we need to change our behaviour towards food.

If there is a sensitive topic about diet, this has to be meat. Opinions vary from one extreme to another. Some advocate a total rejection of meat and meat production, which would be the cause for most of hunger and environmental damage, even climate change. Others shout something that sounds like “don’t touch my meat!”, calling on some right that they might have to do as they please, or so they like to think. The truth, like most things in life, is in the middle. Meat is fine when consumed with moderation. Eating more than 100 kg per year will not make you healthier than if you eat only 30 kg. It might provide more pleasure for some, though. I should know. My father was a butcher and I grew up with lots of meat available. During the growth years as a teenager, I could gulp a pound of ground meat just like that. I eat a lot less nowadays. I choose quality before quantity.

The future evolution of the price of food is going to have several effects. The first one is the most direct. As food becomes more expensive, consumers look for the more affordable alternative first. If their budget is tight, they buy slightly smaller portions. People will slightly reduce their food intake. Those who were over consuming might actually benefit from a positive impact on their health. For those who already were struggling, this will be more difficult to deal with. From all the food sorts, animal protein will be the most affected by an increase of the price of food commodities. Already today, there are clear signs from the meat and poultry companies that the price of feed is seriously squeezing their margins. As usual, passing the price increase to consumers will take time, as retailers will resist. If the price of agricultural commodities is to stay high, consumers will inevitably have to accept price increases for food in general, and for meat and other animal products in particular. The price of meat is going to be affected by other factors than just feed prices. The need for more control on food safety issues, the stricter environmental regulations that will come for animal husbandry, on the land and in the sea, a change in animal husbandry practices, especially a lower use of antibiotics and farms with lower densities of animal will all contribute to an increase in costs. Energy will become more expensive, too. A whole system based on cheap commodities is about to change, simply because there will not be any cheap commodity anymore. These are all adjustments to rebalance our consumption behaviour from the unbridled overconsumption of the past decades, when consumers were not thinking about the consequences of their actions. The industry will figure out how to increase efficiency to contain some of the cost increases, but the change of farming practices will make meat significantly more expensive than it is today. The price of ad-lib cheap meat is ending. The future dynamics of food prices as presented here will be ongoing. A long as we will not have adjusted our diets to a new equilibrium, meat will keep increasing faster than other basic food staples, until meat consumption, and therefore meat production, will reset to different levels. Do not expect this to happen overnight. It will be a gradual process. There will not be any meat or fish riots. If food riots happen, they will be about the basic food staples, simply because the first ones to riot will be the poorer among us, and their diet is composed mostly from rice, wheat, corn, cassava or potatoes. Should the situation become dire, governments will intervene to ensure food for the poorest. Such price systems are already in place in many developing countries, and they are likely to be maintained, and even strengthened.

The same critical factors to keep food prices in check are very much the same as the ones that I presented in the previous article that I mentioned earlier: food waste reduction, moderate meat consumption per capita; and economic development, especially in Africa.

For more on similar topics, please visit my other website The Sensible Gourmet

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Investing in agriculture requires thorough research

Since the price hike of food and other commodities in 2008, agriculture is one of the hot topics in the investment community. This is also fuelled by the perception that the world might face a food crisis. For those looking at investing in the food sector, there are many possibilities, but in this sector as in many other investment types, caution is required. The investment community is a pool of sharks, and the name of the game is to sell at a profit. Beware of the salesperson!

According to Jim Rogers, a famous investor and former partner of George Soros, farmers will be the ones driving Maseratis in the future. He believes firmly that, in the future, those who actually produce the commodities, instead of brokers, will make fortunes. It is a very interesting point of view, although history tends to show that the power in food value chains is in both ends of the chain: genetics and marketing to consumers. Becoming a farmer is not an investment. It is a job, and a busy one. Farmers need to generate cash on a regular basis to provide for their families and keep the farm in business. Land is not liquid. Investing is about reaping the profit when selling at a higher valuation.

For those interested in owning farmland, there are possibilities to buy large acreage in many countries. A recent article published in CNBC presents some strategies.  Large private investors seem interested in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Canada. Prices of farmland have been firming up in the US. There are people advertising for Brazilian farmland who promise you a yearly guaranteed (not clear how, though) of 12%. In the former communist Eastern European countries, many farms are for sale. Net importing countries such as China, India and Arab countries choose to invest and develop farmland in Africa. For investors with a strong stomach, Africa may be a place of choice. The continent is pretty much for sale. However, the ownership of the land is not always very clear and the rules of engagements may vary. If you only wish to lease land, you might be interested in Ethiopia: the country is offering 100-year leases for $1 per acre. Although some offers may seem irresistible, buying farmland or a farm is a complex endeavour. Many factors weigh and things may not be as they seem. What is the quality of the soils? How is the climate, and in particular are there risks of floods or drought?  Is there proper access to water? What are the local regulations in the country where you are thinking of buying? How much bureaucracy should you expect? Who are the suppliers, and how they deal with their customers? Is there access to quality supplies? What are the banking facilities and what type of credit can you get? How are the infrastructures for storage and logistics? What access to markets do farmers have, and how is the marketing chain organized? Today’s situation may not be a good predictor of the future, and problems may loom ahead, as Jason Henderson, vice president and Omaha Branch executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City told in an interview to Agri-pulse.

If farming or owning farmland is not your thing, there is always the possibility to invest in commodities with futures contracts. Instead of buying the hard commodity, which would take quite some space in your garage, you just do the same but on paper only. This is a risky business though and it should be left to the pros. Originally, futures had been introduced to give farmers the possibility to fix in advance the selling price for their crops, instead of waiting for the spot market at harvest time. Futures contracts have been taken over by the Wall Street geniuses who brought us the Great Recession. Also realize that nowadays the future contracts prices reflect the supply and demand situation of paper contracts, not of the actual physical market. The result is that futures markets are all about speculation and most transactions are made with borrowed money. Speculation may be about the weather, planted acreage, expected yields or plant diseases. Any news is cause for rumours and markets may change direction without warning. If agricultural commodities interest you, you may prefer to invest in funds that include these commodities, and therefore offer a lower risk. Another possibility to get money at work in the agriculture and food sectors is by buying shares of companies involved in agricultural value chains. For instance, when commodity prices increase strongly, the logical (?) thinking of stock investors is that the next food crisis is ahead and that the world is about to run short of food, which will stimulate farmers to plant more and therefore require more inputs. Especially shares of fertilizer suppliers always shoot up in such situations, all the more so as there are just a few of them. This gives them a strong bargaining position, and they pass on sharp price increases to the farmers… which is why the margins of farmers usually suffer after a year of high commodity prices. In the agricultural sector, it is important to remember what I said about which links in the chain have the strongest position, as this will affect their bargaining position and their ability to get, or to keep, the added value. Weak links will always underperform, while the stronger ones will outperform compared with the average of the sector, that is for as long as these companies are managed properly. Investing in stocks always require a thorough financial analysis, as well as a good understanding of the quality of the management. How does the future look like for a particular company? Does it have a sustainable competitive advantage? How does the future look like for the sector of activity of this company? What is the track record of performance? Does it depend on world market prices or is it more predictable than that? How is the valuation of the company?

Another type of investment that is gathering momentum in the agri-food business is new technologies start-ups. With worries about the future of oil, and especially oil prices, and the challenge of providing enough water to produce crops, many new technologies try to find their way to market. The sector of new technologies attracts many investors, probably because it seems reminiscent of what happened in the tech sector, therefore giving hopes of high return. I come across such ventures regularly, and every time I hear enthusiastic stories from the owner or from the venture capitalists involved. In many cases, the story is about how this new technology is going to revolutionize the way food is produced, or even it will be the solution to hunger. Returns on investments always sound amazing, making one wonder why this has not been on the market for some time already. For such projects, too, it is essential to do the proper research on the claims that the owners and financiers are making. In many cases, I find difficult to get the proper background to support the financial results that they claim. In even more cases, I do not see any real thorough market research, and instead of explaining in which niche they will operate, the market story is about macroeconomics. The macroeconomics may be true, but except for the unlikely event that the particular technology would indeed take over the world within a few years, they are not a relevant description of the actual market possibilities within the foreseeable future. Of course, there are also projects that have strong cases, but they are a minority.

In all cases, a number of simple rules can save you from a very painful experience.

  • Do not invest in something you do not understand.
  • Do not mind hypes and tips.
  • Take all the necessary time to do your research, and do it thoroughly.
  • When in doubt, do not invest.
  • Ask as many questions as possible. When investing, information is power, and lack of information is weakness.
  • Ask independent third parties, and never ask advice from someone who has a vested interest in your transaction.
  • Buy low, sell high.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is exactly that.
  • Investing is not mandatory, and if you miss an opportunity, there will be other bargains later again.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The locavore’s dilemma

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)

For more on similar topics, please visit my other website The Sensible Gourmet

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The danger of a weakening US dollar

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.

Consumers shape food production systems

Although it is tempting to think that food production systems are created by agribusiness, they depend greatly on the choices and the attitude of consumers and society. For humans, food is not just about nutrition, but it is loaded with a high emotional content.

Consumer choices are highly irrational. To demonstrate this, here are some examples.

When the mad cow disease, or BSE, hit the UK in 1996, beef consumption dropped, but the behavior of consumers was odd. A leading retailer put British beef on sale at 50% off the normal price. They had their best weekend sales ever by then. When asked why they had bought beef, while there were concerns about health risks, some consumers gave answers such as “At that price it is worth taking the risk” or, even better, “ I will freeze it and eat it once the mad cow crisis is over”! At the same time, customers’ visits to the leading fast food chain drop sharply and beef burgers were not in demand, although their beef was from the Netherlands, a country free of BSE by then.

In Europe, mostly in France, consumers used to demand veal to be white. Not slightly pink, just plain white. To achieve this, calves were fed a milk powder diet, which kept them anemic. Yet, at some point, consumers denounced this technique as being against proper treatment of animals. The demand of white meat with a normal diet could not be reconciled. It took years before consumers finally understood that veal was supposed to be pink.

For most customers, white eggs are perceived as being from intensive cage production, while brown eggs are perceived as being more “natural”. Everyone with knowledge of the industry knows that the color of the shell has nothing to do with the nutritional quality of the egg. The belief that the egg color indicates a difference persists, though.

Some blind tests carried out between “industrial” and free-range chicken meat carried out in the Netherlands in the 1980s showed interesting results. When consumers were not told which was which, they could not clearly taste a difference, while when they knew which meat was from which production system, they overwhelmingly gave the preference to the free-range chicken.

Here, in Vancouver, there is a strong trend towards organic foods produced locally. Farmers markets flourish and the environmentally conscious consumers choose to buy their “natural” food on these markets. Ironically, many of them drive in their gas-guzzling SUVs to go there. So much for caring for the environment.

Who, with a rational mind, would choose to eat junk? Yet, junk food is quite a popular item in North America, and it has been a growing trend in many European and emerging countries as well.

In the case of tobacco, not a food, but an agricultural product nonetheless, the warning on the package is quite clear. Yet, some people decide to smoke.

The list could continue and I am sure that everyone has more examples of irrational behavior. Consumer demand (both the rational kind as the irrational one) determines what farmers and food companies produce and sell. In this regard, consumers also share a responsibility in what is produced, how it is produced, where it is produced and how it is distributed to them. Blaming retail or the agribusiness alone for the kind food systems that are in place is unfair.

Of course, it would be interesting to imagine what people would eat if they were rational, and what impact on our food production this would have. A rational diet would follow proper nutritional recommendation, and to this extent would follow the same principles as those used in animal nutrition. However, this would not have to be as boring a diet as what animals are fed. A rational diet does not need to be a ration. After, the human genius that is cooking would help prepare delicious rational meals. It would be like having the best of both worlds. The emotional, social and hedonistic functions of food would remain. The key would be about balance and moderation. If people were eating rationally, there would not be any diet-related illnesses. There would not be obesity. There also would be a lot less food waste. This would improve the level of sustainability of agriculture.

Will consumers become more rational in the future? I do not think so, but I believe that they will become better informed and more critical over time. Especially with the rise of social media, information circulates much faster and trends can gather momentum faster than in the past. More programs for healthier eating are currently running and action is taking place at many levels. In particular, schools are a place where much can be achieved. One can wonder how long the “lunch money and self-service system” will last. Having schools placing vending machines selling items that are highly unbalanced foods and leaving the decision over to kids to decide what they want to eat was of course a disaster waiting to happen. I cannot believe that anyone would expect kids to consciously making the choice of spending their lunch money on broccoli and mineral water. Kids will choose what they like best, not what is best for their health. They need adults for guidance.

Attitude towards food is changing all over the world. Currently, I can see two major trends growing. One is taking place in North America and the other is happening in emerging countries.

In North America, consumers are waking up and starting to question the way their food is produced. This is a major change compared with their attitude until a few years ago. When I moved to this part of the world in 1999, I was amazed by how easy consumers, and retailers, were for the food industry. Consumers simply seemed to consume without trying to know about production methods. Hormones, antibiotics or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) seemed to be accepted. This was a sharp contrast with what I had known in Europe, where all of the above was meeting strong resistance from consumers and retailers. What I currently see happening currently in North America reminds me strongly of what I had seen happen in Europe 20 to 30 years ago. The similarities are almost disturbing. Consumers are losing trust in government agencies, and retailers seem to be the ones to champion food quality, traceability and production methods. This will have much more profound consequences in the way food is produced in the USA and in Canada than the agribusiness seem to realize, or is willing to admit. The population is aging, the generations are changing and the values about food are shifting. The current opposition is not a short-term fad. Consumers will make different choices. Some food producers see that and are already adapting, but many producers still seem to think that opposition will pass. I believe that they are in for a surprise. The expressed plan of Wal-Mart to buy more from small and mid-size farms, to reduce waste, and to develop sustainable sources of agricultural products is a very clear signal that business is changing!

In emerging countries, consumers are changing their eating habits, too, but for a different reason. They now have better wages and more disposable income. The previous “”subsistence” diet made of mostly grain, such as rice, wheat or corn, are now including more animal protein, as well as fruit and vegetables. In these countries, consumers are not overly critical of their food production and distribution systems, but issues that arose in developed countries affect the way food is produced, especially in the area of food safety. These consumers probably would like to experience the same level of food security and affordability of food as in the West over the past 5 decades, but the growing population, and the financial markets will temper this trend. Food prices will be firm at best and they are more likely to increase in the future on an ongoing basis.

There is no doubt in my mind that consumers and retailers are increasingly going to put the emphasis on sustainability, health, food safety and transparency. This may sometimes lead to conflicting objectives with the need to produce more food globally. This does not need to be a problem, but this is why the world needs strong leaders to show the way towards meeting both the objectives of better food and of more food.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

What a game changer my book is!

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

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.