Is the food company grab the next step beyond the land grab?

In parallel with land tenure deals in developing countries, I foresee a new trend to develop strongly in the years to come.

In order to increase food security, countries in Asia and in the Arab world will invest more aggressively in food and agriculture companies.

In China, the search for acquisitions is gaining momentum. A first attempt, although failed, by China’s Bright Food group to acquire Australia’s CSR sugar is an indicator is this trend to come. But China is not the first country to initiate this.

For instance, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund created Hassad Foods to invest in food related projects in Qatar and abroad. The purpose of Hassad Foods is to help Qatar achieve food security. They aim at developing their activities in South America and Africa, with the expressed goal of completing at least six projects by the end of 2010. Their focus is on basic crops such as sugar and wheat, but they look at projects in the poultry and livestock sectors as well. As countries realize the limitations and the political risks of focusing only on farmland ventures, they will diversify their possibilities to improve their food security situation.

As the approach of sovereign funds is to focus on long-term food security, the type of investments in food companies might change as well. This will be a different approach from activist investors, such as hedge funds, that try to influence short-term management decisions purely for share price purposes.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Insects on the menu

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

Photo: AFP/Mario Tama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Future Harvests – The book is coming soon!

 

The editing of my book “Future Harvests – The next agricultural revolution” is about completed. All that is left to do is developing the cover and start the publishing.

I have already received orders, even before the book is out. That is quite a good sign. And a great surprise for me.

If you wish to be updated automatically when the book is published, just subscribe in the sidebar window on the right.

To describe the topics addressed, I have posted three short promotional videos on YouTube. In previous articles (The fun of writing this book and The next agricultural revolution), I had already given an idea about the content of the book.

Video #1: The Fundamentals (duration 2:37) – Introduction to the background and fundamental principles mentioned in the book “Future Harvests – The next agricultural revolution” to achieve food security for 9 billion people in 2050. Topics such as demographics, the shift in economic power, the control of food  and food security strategies are reviewed. Sustainability, innovation, efficient market driven food production and strong leadership are required.

or click here if video does not appear

Video #2: The Actions (duration 2:12) – A short review of some of the actions mentioned in the book to achieve the objectives. Solving the water challenge, finding new land for production, urban farming, hydroponics, farming the desert, rebuilding fisheries and developing aquaculture further are all possibilities.

or click here if video does not appear

Video #3: The Questions (duration 3:08) – A sample of some of the questions raised in the book. They cover technology, land deals in Africa, improving yields, restoring soil fertility, change in consumer needs, organic farming, risks of conflicts, biofuels or meat are some of the topics presented.

or click here if video does not appear

If you know someone who could be interested by the topics on this page, please pass it on!

The hot regions of the future

Food strategies for the world

Food strategies around the world

In this article, the term hot does not refer to climate, but to strategic and active food producing regions. Not only is the population growing, but also the demographics vary greatly between regions and this will change deeply where from and where to the trade is going. Here are, briefly, the main changes as I see them happening as we go forward.

The aging and increasingly health-conscious West will not show any increase in consumption per capita, and very likely it even will drop, as older people need less food than the youth and also because the shift from quantity to quality will continue. Of course, immigration policies in these countries might offset this somehow. The direct consequence of this is that suppliers are going to have to look for alternative markets for agricultural products. They should not have to worry too much, as there will be plenty of people to feed in other regions.

Asia, with about half of the world population is definitely a huge market, although it presents a great variety of conditions and situations.

The largest economy in the region, China, is developing a middle class with more disposable income. This results in a change of diet, with relatively more protein, especially animal protein than by the past. Although being the largest meat producing country in the world, China is struggling to feed its population, and I expect that it will remain a net food importer. Further, the country has major challenges to overcome when it comes to availability and quality of water. However, in the long run, the past one-child policy will affect the Chinese demographics and influence their need for food, as well as the dynamism of their economy at large, by the way.

The second largest economy, India, is very dependent on the monsoon for its food supplies, and climate will remain a challenge. They seem to struggle to be able to secure their self-sufficiency, rural development is still a challenge and poverty remains a concern to reach prosperity.

Emerging South Asian countries, on the other hand, for instance Vietnam, show a different picture. They have a young population and want to benefit of the economic momentum coming from China. They are actively developing agricultural and aquaculture production for export purposes, and they keep on this policy. Aquaculture is very active, as some of these countries have a very extensive shoreline, like for instance The Philippines.

Although food security in the region remains uncertain, and the scare of last year’s food price increase, some countries are trying to establish structures to protect from such risks. For instance, a number of ASEAN countries are trying to set up a rice cartel, some sort of an OPEC for rice, in order to have more control on the market and the prices. Of course, we will have to see if this will work as planned.

Another region that is showing booming demographics is the Arab world and the Middle East. Many countries in the region are wealthy thanks to oil, but also have the disadvantage to be located in desert areas. Attempts to increase food production have met their limits, and they do not guarantee food security. The main reason is the shortage of water and trying to grow more food would create a drinking water crisis. This is why some Arab countries are developing other strategies to “outsource” their food production like mentioned in the article “The Great Unseen Land Grab”. Other countries, like Qatar, are considering investing in food companies in order to secure their food supplies.

Some players are already making their moves

Some players are already making their moves

I expect stronger ties between the Middle East and former soviet republics. Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are joining forces in the “Black Sea Wheat Pool”, another agricultural OPEC. Although we will see how this combination works. Another area that I see booming in the future is the Mediterranean region, which is the interface between Africa and Europe. Although immigration has been a hot issue in the past, there is a great potential for a win-win situation for both sides if managed properly. The idea of creating an Economic Zone around the Mediterranean has already been brought forward and considering the demographics of the region, it makes quite a lot of sense.

Africa, although plagued by many problems, be it natural, social, political, humanitarian or health, as a huge untapped potential. The plans of Arab and Asian countries to lease land on this continent and develop agriculture for their needs, could give the necessary impulse to develop African economies. I also believe that South Africa has the potential to be the driver of the economic surge for the continent.

Last but not least. South America and Brazil in particular, is going to play a major role in agricultural production. They have an amazing potential, but also many issues to solve, especially on the environmental and political level. Their position of producers of basic commodities as well as high value products like meat gives them a strategic role in the international food trade, and the upcoming merger between JBS and Pilgrim’s Pride in the US and between JBS and Bertin is another step in the creation of agribusiness giants, following the merger between Perdigao and Sadia.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

How much can the rule of 80-20 tell us about the future?

We all have heard about this rule across all industries, including agriculture and food. Eighty percent of the food would be produced on 20% of the farms and vice-versa. If it still applies in the future, it can indicate us how our food production and supplies will look like in the future. Of course, this is always a theoretical exercise, but it is quite convenient to elaborate on our thoughts.

As the population is expected to grow quite strongly in the coming decades, especially in urban areas, this could indicate two dominant trends:
• Further size increase of the largest farms and further industrialization of agriculture and food for global markets, although the number of farms in this segment would not increase strongly.
• Strong increase of the number of small farms involved in specific value chains and strongly linked with their local economy.

Industrial agriculture
Producing more, yet in a sustainable way. That is the challenge!This group will continue to be involved in mass production of commodities for global supplies, like this is the case today.
Yet, they will face an increased pressure to adapt to the requirements of sustainability, which technically is quite possible. New systems and more efficient technologies will be the pillars of its growth and development. They will have to find ways of reducing the amount of chemicals in crops and the amount of pharmaceuticals in animal productions
The requirements for capital will be quite high and the sector will be led by increasing larger corporations, by an increasing level of capital by large private investors and, last but not least, by some governments. This agriculture will innovate further and will be developed thanks to this capital. It will use automation and mechanization to reduce the dependence on labor. Mergers & acquisitions will continue in the agricultural sector and a few large blocks will remain, dominating their sectors.
Their mandate will be about more control the natural conditions of production and about reducing to a minimum their impact on air, water and soil, by using less polluting transport methods, water preservation, effluent treatment and soil preservation. They also will have to engage in maintenance of their environment.
The role of this type of agriculture will be to bring to market large amounts of affordable food for the masses, and should play an important role in strategies around food security, which is where corporations and government will interact on a regular basis.

Local food value chains
Closer to natureThis sector should undergo a strong growth and be build in a market-driven approach. These are the farmers that produce specialty products aimed at serving either a very specific segment of the retail or foodservice market.
This trend, which has been already initiated around concepts such as organic or authentic, will evolve into a more integrated local economy, and the initial concepts will probably become less differentiated as food production in general, be it industrial or traditional, will use more sustainable techniques.
Contrarily to the common belief, this agriculture will be developed thanks to very efficient techniques, but will be centered relatively more about labor and relatively less about capital. In this case, efficiency does not necessarily mean intensification.
We must not underestimate the significance of this part of the food production, as it will play an important role. However, we must not expect this type of agriculture to be the solution to feed the world, and this is not the purpose of the farmers involved in such food production chains.

This type of farming will grow in two different environments:

  •  In “developed” countries to serve a increasing, but aging, population more demanding about the origin and the production methods, and who is ready to pay a premium for the perceived better quality. The angle will be about quality, transparency, sustainability, traceability and as close to zero a use of chemicals and pharmaceuticals. In some areas, it could help strengthening a local economy and local communities.
  • Developing a local economy thanks to agriculture (Picture: FAO) In emerging countries, the development of a local agriculture, and aquaculture, will be a key driver of economic development for under industrialized and/or under urbanized regions. It also will be a way of slowing down the migration of population to urban centers and limit social problems, by creating satisfying economic conditions and by securing food supplies locally. This farming will be about basic needs, before marketing.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Corn seen staying below $4 through 2014

Update on April 11 2011: Obviously forecasting is a difficult task!

For May 2011, Corn  is at $7.60/bu and Soybean at $ 13.84/bu

(Original article was of August 2009)

Here is a report about a research of the University of Missouri on some agricultural prices through 2014.

Prices are not seen increasing much, which tends to confirm an earlier report of the FAO.

Corn: $ 3.47/bushel in 2009/2010 to $3.98 in 2014/2015
Soybean: $9.44/bushel in 2009/2010 to $9.74 in 2014/2015
Nebraska direct steers (1,100-1,300 lbs.): $85.07 in 2009 to $100.05 in 2014
Twelve city wholesale broiler price: $.80/lb. in 2009 to $0.91 in 2014

The future price of meat and fish: up

With a world population increasing strongly and an agricultural area that will not grow accordingly, the law of offer and demand clearly indicates that agricultural prices will increase in the future. This is true for agricultural commodities such as grains, but the increase will be even stronger for animal products, such as meat, poultry, dairy and fish.
This will be the result of an increasing and very likely quite aggressive competition between the need to feed people with the basic commodities, the need to feed farmed animals and possibly for some time the need to produce biofuels.
Since it takes more than one and even several kilograms of animal feed to produce one kilogram of meat, the feed conversion ratio (FCR) will affect by which factor the price of the various animal products will increase.
Efficient productions like chicken will be successful and will remain quite competitive pricewise against other sources of animal proteins, thanks to its low FCR, to its low water use and to the good agricultural value of its manure. In the aquaculture sector, efficient productions such us tilapia and pangasius have a bright future ahead, as they can help feed a large population for an affordable price. In general, aquaculture has the opportunity to fill the huge gap left by depleted wild fish stocks, although it will have to solve some issues in order to be successful (see my article titled “The lessons of intensive animal husbandry to aquaculture“). In terms of price, the scarcity of wild fish will make these quite expensive for the future.
Less efficient species such as pigs and beef cattle will see the price of their products increase relatively much more. Pigs also have the disadvantage of producing low quality manure, which will limit the level of intensification. However, pork plays an important role in some cultures, and therefore, it will still show a reasonable volume growth, with geographical variations.
A high FCR species such as beef cattle will probably undergo the most dramatic change. Higher feed costs, linked to a relatively high capital need will probably push a number of farmers to shift to other more efficient productions. Highly intensive systems such the feedlots will also undergo major changes, as regulations on the use of antibiotics and hormones will make them financially inefficient. Further, their high impact on the environment because of the manure will also work against them. I do not expect the 99-cent beef burger to be here for all that much longer, burgers will continue to exist, but just quite a bit more expensive. On the other hand, I can see good possibilities for specialty beef products, such as grass-fed beef, but customers will have to pay the right price for it. Grass is the animal feed that we all seem to underestimate, yet it covers vast areas of very often fragile soil, and cattle is one of the few species that can transform it into high value protein.
In the aquaculture sector, a carnivore species such as salmon will also meet its own limitations. Although, salmon feed has shifted from mostly fish oil and fishmeal to a much more complex mix of vegetal oils, this production will see its production costs rise strongly. I expect salmon to become a luxury product again.

Consumption per capita will decreaseWhat will a higher price mean?
There again, simple economics tell us that this will influence the level of consumption per capita. The price increase will moderate the level of consumption and the price differential between the type of protein, as well as health concerns, will cause a shift between the respective consumption of the different products. In Western countries, people consume quantities of animal products that are substantially higher than what they actually need, and this has led to many health issues. The decrease in consumption will help make people healthier, and reduce the burden of health costs in that part of the world.
In developing countries, the situation is different, as consumption trends show an increase of consumption of animal products, from rather low levels, though. In these countries, consumption per capita will increase, but will not reach the levels that Western countries have shown, simply because prices will be too high to get to such levels.
The decrease of consumption per capita that we will see in developed countries does not mean that the meat industry will get into trouble.  Less average consumption per capita in the West will be more than compensated by the growth in emerging countries, where population numbers are significantly higher, and this will lead to a higher global demand of animal products. The main change is that the consumers will be distributed geographically rather differently than they are today. This also means that production will be located in different areas than today.

Just as a teaser: if Western countries consumers were to reduce their meat consumption to just the necessary maintenance needs, it would free volumes enough to cover the maintenance needs of meat for the whole population of China!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

G8 shifts focus from food aid to farming

Here is an interesting article from the Financial Times describing the new approach from G8 countries towards food security. It connects with my previous posting, and shows how strategic agriculture is becoming. It is also nice to see that some world leaders look at this issue in a more sensible manner than in the past, shifting from “give a man a fish, he will have food for a day” to” teach him to fish and he will have food every day”. Well, that is if we manage to replenish our oceans, which is a topic on which I will write in the future.

Of course, it must be clear that if they choose this new approach, it is because they have an advantage in doing so.

The competition for the control of food has started

A couple of recent articles (Foreign cropland deals and Professional investors look toward overseas farmland) show clearly how much action there currently is about securing food sources in the future. Many players are involved, from countries buying or leasing foreign land, to investment firms and hedge funds.

Agricultural commodities have become quite hot and are expected to become even hotter.

In the future, we can expect to see more of such land acquisition, we will see more alliances, like the “Black Sea Wheat Pool” in which Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are supposedly joining forces to build a strong wheat sort of OPEC. Although considering the relationship between Russia and Ukraine about natural gas, one can wonder what will happen with this.

Taking control one piece at a timeWe must expect strategies about food supplies that will remind us of what we have seen about oil supplies. Politics are going to play an increasingly important role. After all, we can live without oil, but not without food. There will be aggressive moves from countries that are not self-sufficient, first friendly like the land purchases and leases, but there probably will be a point when this might not be enough and regional conflicts will happen. Some exporting countries will also take a more aggressive stance on prices and on availability, but they also will have to be aware that too much arrogance might end up in serious tensions.

In my view, we are going to see very interesting tactics that will include food, energy, trade agreements, diplomacy and military threats as part of the whole bargaining process.

Similarly, we can expect to see more tensions between private firms involved in food and governments. Locally, we can expect nationalizations of land and factories. More regulations of the markets will take place, probably after excesses from privately owned money, investors and businesses will create another “bubble” with agricultural commodities futures contracts, that will end up destabilizing food markets in a somehow similar manner as the financial world has acted for many years before it faced a meltdown.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.