How much do consumers really know about food?

December 3, 2019

Perhaps it is a case of multiple copy-and-paste events but I was surprised to read and hear recently in several occasions something that intrigued me. According to some research, millennials would know a lot more than their parents and previous generations about food and how it is produced. It surprised me because I wish I could bump into millennials who know something about food. Actually I wish I could bump into people from any generation that would have some significant knowledge of food and agriculture. I also disagree with those who claim that people have never known as little about food and agriculture as nowadays, but those have their own hidden agenda.

The main reason marketers are interested in the millennials is that this group has much more money than previous generations, or at least that is the thinking. Since the world population has more than tripled since 1950, representing an increase of more than 5 billion people, it is no surprise that millennials represent a financial force. However, one should look at the average individual financial situation of a millennial compared with previous generations. If the group has more money as a whole but less on an individual basis, their consumption pattern might not be as expected. Also, it would be wise to compare between regions as the boost might be different depending on whether they live in emerging countries or mature developed countries. 

So, have I been sleeping too much lately or do I meet the wrong people? Or is it a matter of confusing terms as it seems to happen more and more. Do millennials have more knowledge about food, or is it perhaps that they have access to more information? As Einstein supposedly said, “Information is not knowledge” and this might be truer more than ever in today’s world where we are constantly buried in information, some of it being accurate and most of it being not so, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. It would be good to think about several concepts that we tend to consider synonyms while they are quite different: data, information, fact, knowledge, truth and wisdom. I will try to explain the difference by using a very food and agriculture related metaphor.

Imagine data as a field of potatoes. There are plenty of plants and potatoes in the field and you are going to harvest. All you do is to collect all the potatoes from the field and eventually bring them to a place where you will sort out what you have harvested. At that stage, potatoes are just like data. It is raw units without any processing of any sort. All you can tell at this stage is how many potatoes you have, what they are and what the total volume is.

Once the potatoes have been harvested, you are going to look at them in more detail. You are going to sort out the small ones from the larger ones. You are going to sort out the ones that may have been damaged or are not proper to send to market. Depending on the criteria that are useful for you, you are going to distribute your potatoes into small groups according to various qualities and uses. Each group or package has a particular relevance. You want to make these groups in such a way that they are useful, practical and to make something good out of each group. Each group contains information that either your customers if you sell the potatoes or the person who cooks will use to decide what to do with the potatoes. Are they for mashing, for frying, for sautéing, for baking, etc…?

Once the potatoes have been sorted out, you have information and that information could fit on a label. If the label is accurate, anyone using the group of potatoes will have some knowledge of what the bag contains, but they will not have all the knowledge. Will other users know when the potatoes have been harvested, what variety they are, how they have been produced and by whom and if they are safe to eat? Here is why regulations, traceability and transparency increase the amount of information to the user who will use the batch of potatoes. As long as the information is correct, it equates to some knowledge. If the information in incomplete, so is the knowledge. If the information is incorrect, it is neither knowledge nor truth and can lead to wrong decisions by the user. If the information is incorrect on purpose, it is deception and even fraud (think about the case of horse meat that was labelled as beef in Europe a couple of years ago, the numerous cases of fraudulent fish names or the fact that many honey pots might contain more corn fructose syrup than honey but labelled as if it were all pure honey). Here is a case for information vs. misinformation vs. disinformation vs. deception and lies.

So imagine that the gossip mill now says that your potatoes have been contaminated by some disease or some creatures roaming in your field. How can you tell and how can the user of your potatoes tell? You grew the potatoes and you sorted them out, so you can tell if there were signs of disease, such as for instance black spots. You grow potatoes and you know what kind of disease of defect that may mean. How do you know and how do you translate the information (presence of black spots) into the knowledge of what the cause is? You know from experience, and that is exactly the difference between information and knowledge. Experience can be your own or someone else’s that you consult on the problem at hand. You and they have gathered experience into knowledge. Experience links information and facts into knowledge and understanding. Acquiring knowledge is a learning process. Reading information is not. So, what will happen with the person at home buying a bag of potatoes and finding black spots? If they do not have the experience, their imagination can go wild and they will enter their interpretation into the gossip mill (aka as social media). Many people without knowledge will forward the posting. Since they have no knowledge of potatoes they will not know if they should or not blow life in the gossip, but since something “weird” happened, how could they resist the urge to share and they will forward the information to the larger community and add their own comments such as “ew!!” , “gross!!”, “unacceptable!!”,  “shame!!” or even “boycott Christophe’s potatoes because they are weird and probably not naturally grown, etc…” and that is how a simple little problem can spin out of control and how ignorance and basic human nature attraction for gossip will change the fate of my growing potatoes.

Information is one thing and knowledge is another, but what about the truth? If I come with facts to explain what the deal is with my potatoes, two things can happen: people will believe me or they will not. Trust is an essential part in having customers believing the explanation. If people do not trust me, there is a good chance that will not believe me. If they trust me, that is not a guarantee that they necessarily will trust me. Trust is always difficult to earn. It is difficult to earn the first time. It is incredibly easy to lose. To regain a second time, it is much more difficult than it was the first time. Trust depends on other people’s beliefs and it depends on the ability to convince. But when you take the broader picture of the gossip mill, in which other people will bring arguments against my explanation, there is competition for trust, whom do they trust more, me and my explanation or the social media mob? People do not necessarily trust those with knowledge, they trust those they believe. That can be dangerous. After all, it is easy to have an opinion. Everyone can have one on everything. having an opinion is not the same as to be an expert. No knowledge is required to have an opinion. usually, all it takes for people to give their opinion is to believe they know. Perhaps, this is the worst when it comes to information: people who think they know but don’t. I come across quite a few of those.  Beliefs always weigh more than facts, and that is why facts alone are not helpful when it comes to telling the true story about the potatoes. Being disappointed by my potatoes would not be a rational experience. It would be experienced by the users as a breach of confidence in the produce and the supplier. The first step is to connect at that emotional level of the disappointment. Only by connecting emotionally is it possible to gradually bring the conversation to more rational aspects. The other important part in regaining trust is to make sure to not disappoint again. People accept one mistake but they do not take well the same mistake when it is made again.

So, do the younger generations know about their food is produced? They may truly think that they do, but that is not the same as actually knowing. I also have mixed feelings about opposing generations. It is likely that millennials have different concerns, different values and different beliefs than their parents and grandparents. Yet, I have the strong feeling that I see more variation within a generation than I see between generations. Millennials may be exposed to a lot of information, but do they sort out the information in a rational way or do they simply choose the information coming from people they believe or who share the same values? I believe (I won’t be bold as to say I know) that the latter prevail. The difference may not be that one generation knows more about food and agriculture but that they are more concerned about it. That is not the same and it has little to do with knowledge. I also suspect that the concern is not just about food but it is more of an existential concern in times of uncertainty. It always seems that people are more critical about their food when they are pessimistic about the future. When everything goes well, those concerns do not seem to weigh as much.

What effect it will have on future food and agriculture depends largely on whom future consumers decide to believe. Psychology plays a very important part in food choices and I do not expect that to change any time soon. It has advantages but also disadvantages. Is it wise to think this way? Wisdom is the ability to discern the truth from beliefs to make the right decisions. The future will tell if wisdom will go in parallel with information.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


What’s ahead for plant-based foods?

November 27, 2019

Over the past year, there has been quite a bit of talk about alternative proteins and in particularly the so-called plant-based products. Let’s face it; the hype (which I already mentioned in my previous article about cow farts) has been very well organized to inflate what has been going on in the markets. Probably, it is part of the culture of “disruptive” tech start-ups. They are quite good at using social media, making the wildest claims about how they are all going to change the world. When it comes to food, what will happen before you know it is that there will be no need for farms anymore. Just take a look at Sci-Fi movies and it is there! Yeah, right. The problem, well one of the problems, I have with this is that I have heard it before. Actually, I heard similar things before today’s disruptors were even born. In the 1970s, after the Apollo programs, we would not eat traditional foods anymore. No, our meals were going to be contained in pills. Yeah, right. It did not happen. Around the turn of the century, we had the new economy, not just a new economy, but the new economy thanks to dotcoms and internet. The old economy was history, for ever. Yeah, remind me how the dotcom bubble burst and how a few years later the old economy demonstrated it was still alive and kicking through its Great Recession. More recently, we all heard that Amazon was going to “disrupt” retail so much that brick and mortar retailers were going to go down. Yes, Wal-Mart was finished. Not. Actually, Wal-Mart is doing quite fine and for a simple reason. Solid businesses follow what is happening in their markets and they make the proper changes. And that is exactly what happened with most retailers around the world. They went digital and they started to sell online and deliver to customers. Similarly, e-books were going to kill paper books and online diplomas were to mean the end of universities. Well, paper books and bookstores certainly have had difficult times but they did a nice comeback. And universities are still very much alive, while the MOOCs are the ones that seem to have left the building. There is more to life than digital versions of the original products and services. Silicon Valley and co suffer of a good dose of hubris. Maybe, they should attend to that before it might become their demise some day.

The thing with so-called disruption is that the only businesses that actually get disrupted (in the true sense of the word, not the trendy sense) are the ones that are asleep and not paying attention. They would have died anyway. The businesses that are awake adapt. That is pretty basic business stuff. Since I got started about disruption, I would just say that I do not like that term because as I mentioned earlier, it is taken in its new trendy meaning, which really means nothing else than innovation and change, but those words are too mundane. I will agree that disruption sounds more dangerous. It makes you feel like a rebel and a threat. Yeah, isn’t it something that we all fantasize over when we are kids, being a tough rebel?

Let me be clear, I am all for innovation and for having implemented changes in a number of businesses; I know that it is a constant of life, but I am interested in change that is a natural evolution toward real improvement. I am much less interested in gadgets and made-up hypes that have as primary goal to fill the pockets of a few. I guess I am not easily impressed and it is not because something is the flavor of the month that I forget about my good old well rooted-in critical mind.

So let’s go back to the plant-based protein products. First, they are nothing new, even if the current business owners want to make us believe that their products are jewels of high-tech. If so, how come that so many companies are going in the very same market on such short notice? The answer is simple, those products are not difficult to replicate. Plant-based alternatives are not new and they have been around for a couple of millennia for some of them such as tofu, koftas and falafel. Soy burgers have been around since the 1930s, really becoming mainstream in the 1980s.

What makes the current ones so different? Honestly, not that much at all. So why the hype? For two reasons mostly. One is the use of social media which are great tools to inflate whatever message you have and that so many people are willing to relay for you without even knowing what they are talking about. But it makes them feel part of the tribe for as long as it lasts. The other one is that this time big money has been invested in those companies and wants to cash in big, so they are putting their resources and their relationships at work to reach that goal. When your product is the talk of the day every day in every media outlets, it sounds like it has taken over the world. It’s just good old-fashioned smoke and mirror tactics. Just find out which billionaires and venture capitalists have put money in these companies and you will realize that it is a beautiful exercise in investor-driven social-media-led push marketing for a production-driven commodity business. Here in Canada, we have seen the exact same pattern with cannabis stocks after the country legalized cannabis sales a year ago. A lot of hype was aimed at having money buying stocks so that the founders could make great capital gains. It almost sounded that because of the new legislation, every Canadian would splurge on pot, either breathing it or eating and drinking it. Yeah right. As if making something legal would inevitably turn people into addicts. Pot users could already find all they needed before the legalization, as is the case everywhere in the world. So, the market was already well defined. Nonetheless, cannabis stocks shoot up like rockets because when greed kicks in people get gullible. Actually, I suspect greed is as addictive as drugs. Early investors sold on time with big fat capital gains and one year later, the share price of cannabis stocks are stagnating to low levels again. I expect something similar to happen with plant-based protein stocks. It is already kind of happening already, especially with Mr. Big Bucks-who-blames-cows-for-farting-for personal-gain having sold his Beyond Meat stocks quite conveniently before they started to stumble.

What is ahead for plant-based meat alternatives?

The first thing to think about is what those products are. What do they mimic? They mimic beef burgers mostly and sausages to some extent. They do not look as much like fresh beef burgers as they do the basic sad frozen ones. My point here is that they look like cheap commodities. And the thing about looking like a commodity is that it makes your product a commodity. The fact that so many other companies can replicate similar product in such a short period of time just confirms that it is a commodity and certainly not a niche specialty. The first rule for a niche to resist competition is that the product/service is quite difficult to replicate and match. Clearly, that basic first rule does not apply here. The only product that escapes the commoditization risk is the plant-based shrimp. Shrimps are a commodity but there is such a shortage of seafood compared with demand, shrimp prices are high and should remain high for a while. Imitation shrimp profit margins should be more resilient.

The second thing that comes to mind is the price of plant-based protein products. I can give here only what I can see in the stores around where I live in Canada. The regular price for a half-pound package of plant-based burger is CAD7.99 (that’s CAD15.98 per lbs). That is about twice the regular price of a pound of ground beef, but I can buy ground beef on ad for CAD3.99 and even from time to time CAD2.99. The price gap is quite big, and that will have to change if the plant-based burgers want to gain substantial market share. I believe this is starting to happen with a Canadian brand of plant-based burgers advertising last week at CAD4.99 for half a pound (that’s down 40% from the regular price) and this week the American brand was for sale at CAD5.99 for half a pound (25% down from regular price). Price drop has to be compensated by additional volumes to achieve profit margin goals. Here a word of advice to the CEO of that American company who expressed not being interested in hearing about his competitors (weird statement but what the heck, who can you fear when you think you are God): pay attention to your competitors because they want to take a slice of the pie and possibly your entire pie with it; their growth will not be your growth. Prices start to show some action and the big meat companies who are about to enter have not made their mark yet. That is going to be fun, because the hype created this idea that the market potential is huge and they are ramping up to produce large volumes. The meat and poultry industry has a long history of overcapacity, oversupply and profit margin destruction. I suspect that they will bring some of that experience in the plant-based imitation meat. I think things are going to be interesting. Prices are going to go down and raw materials (soybeans and peas) probably will increase in price to match demand. Prices down plus costs up is the perfect equation for squeezed margins, both for plant-based and animal protein by the way. The ones who will benefit the most are the crop farmers to some extent, but mostly the producers of protein isolates (the raw material used to produce the imitation burgers), the highest margin will be in the health and wellness protein supplement sector, basic low-cost plant-based burgers should well because of attractive pricing, and perhaps the consumers to some extent.

But for consumers, a couple of other things will play a role. One of them is perception. Do they like the product? And with perception comes value. Will the perceived value be higher than the price gap between the imitation product and the original beef? Perception is not just about the product but also about the company. So far, producers are perceived as small start-ups, which is often translated by consumers as small, brave and pure. If they knew actually how much big money and Big Agriculture is behind, I wonder how that would affect perception, and this time will come because, after all, are we not in a transparent food system by now as all food corporation like to claim?

Plant-based burgers producers brag about the many places where they have their products offered to consumers, but being on the menu of a restaurant is not the same as having consumers actually buying it, but they present it as it were, and stock markets react accordingly. There has been a lot of buying out of curiosity because of the hefty social-media hype but the perception is a different story. I have read many reviews and I cannot see any significant trend one way or another. There are those who praise the product and there those who trash it. Online reviews are notorious for the amount of fake reviews and I am sure there are plenty of those on both sides for obvious hidden agenda reasons. Fact is however that only after a few weeks in the trial, the Canadian restaurant chain Tim Hortons removed the plant-based burgers from its locations except in British Columbia and Ontario. Plant-based burgers “opponents” mention a number of characteristics they do not like: high price, highly processed products, high sodium content, long list of ingredients and some ingredients they can hardly read and have no idea what they are. I will make a mention of sodium content here. In the stores around my place, I can find only one Canadian brand and one American brand. I compared the sodium content of their products with regular potato chips. Here are the numbers: potato chips 230 mg sodium for 50 g product, Canadian brand imitation burger 540 mg sodium for 113 g (that’s 239 mg Na per 50 g of product – slightly more than the potato chips!!); and American imitation burger 340 mg sodium for 113 g product (that’s 150 mg Na per 50 g of product – that’s two thirds of the potato chips sodium content). Why don’t they add sodium and let people decide how much salt they want to put on their burger? I know the answer to that question but I will let you figure it out. I rarely buy potato chips but when I do, I buy the half sodium ones, which are lower in sodium than even the American imitation burger. You can make the same comparison with what you find in your stores and draw your own conclusions.

The third thing to expect is the push back from the animal protein producers, and that has already started. There are many fights about definition of meat and dairy. Let’s face it, the producers of plant-based products know very well that if they advertise to carnivores with an herbivore undertone, it will not work very well, so they try to make their products look more carnivore-like. There are also fights about environmental claims about benefits of plant-based vs. animal protein, many of them unsubstantiated. Altogether, plant-based products keep many lawyers busy. The fact that there many legal battles does not bode well. In France, there is an old saying: “better a poor agreement than a good lawsuit”. It will be interesting to see how that will translate for the future of plant-based. Of course, bold statements such as the plant-based sector bring the US meat and dairy sectors to complete collapse by 2030 is not a great way to make friends. Plus, please refer to the beginning of my article for why existing businesses are much more resilient that newcomers tend to think, but hey they have to attract investors’ money after all so no claim is bold enough.

Regardless of all the fights and arguments, the market will decide and as usual markets will decide on price and value. The value will be about money but also about health and environmental aspects as well. The question, though, will be whether the price differential will be worth it. I indicated prices earlier. In terms of potential market share, from reliable sources I have found it sounds like plant-based might represent 2% of the protein market in 2020 and perhaps reach 10% in 2030 in the USA. To gain more market share, plant-based imitation meat products would probably need to be offered at half the price they are now at least, everything remaining equal, further. If they don’t adjust their pricing, they will be happy to amount to 5%. Also and because the market could be crowded, plant-based protein producers will have to differentiate themselves from the competition and the characteristics that I mentioned earlier will weigh more, and so will the use of GMO ingredients or not play a role. Of course, there is a good chance that, as usual with the food industry, they all will try to differentiate themselves the same way, thus shifting their universe a bit to the right but all offering more or less the same.

If going plant-based protein is more efficient than meat, and it is because it removes one layer in the food chain, then it would only be logical that plant-based be cheaper both in price and in cost, but it’s not because unfortunately most “future of food” products are not meant to cater the hungry poor. So, here is another price to keep in mind: the price for a pound of cooked beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils is around CAD0.99 per pound. If you wish to switch to vegetarian, using the wholesome grain in the first place without industrial processing is quite a financially attractive proposition and I believe that they will be winners for the future from a global perspective, not just the US market with its First World solutions for First World problems. The thing is that the First World does not seem to know about cooking anymore, in spite of trendy flashy kitchens. The market will also decide which businesses succeed and which ones fail. Start-ups little gods or not, the percentage of failure remains the same as ever: about 75% of businesses do not make it longer than 3 years. Often, the reason is ignoring competition and not understanding that it takes much more than production methods to win over customers. As for the animal protein sector, what will be the consequences? I have written a few articles about the subject (do a search on meat and protein in the search bar on the right hand side of this page to get the list of articles). I will simply finish with a chart that show past consumption and estimates of animal protein consumption for the future based on UN FAO data and you will see that animal protein are really not expected to suffer from competition of alternative protein sources.

There will be plenty of room for everybody: animal protein, plant protein, processed or wholesome, as well as traditional products and all sorts of innovative alternatives. There is no need for cockiness, belligerent statements and inexact claims. The markets and future economics will sort out the winners. In the end, we all have to work together and the key will be about producing and consuming sustainably. Production systems will change. That is normal. And it is going to take the efforts of all 10 billion people and their food choices, not just from food producers.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Is animal farming really on the way out?

October 22, 2018

Lately in the food world, one can read many stories about alternatives to protein from animal farming. Animal farming also gets blamed for its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. With so much finger pointing, one can wonder whether animal farming has a future. Proponents of alternatives do all they can to convince everyone that the writing is already on the wall. Personally, I believe that things are far from being that simple.

To predict what scenarios are likely for the future, it is necessary to look at the issue from its many dimensions, both on the production side as on the consumption side. I prefer to look at it first from the consumption side because consumer markets shape production systems more than production systems shape consumer markets.

From the consumer end, there is already much to say. First, as the population is increasing and more people are able to afford protein, the demand for protein is increasing and will continue to do so in the coming decades. I wrote already many articles about this during the nine years of this blog and the topic is also part of my books. The fact that more and more people can afford food is a positive development. The problem is that more and more of them now actually consume more than they should. Overconsumption boosts the need for more production beyond what nutritional needs are. Overconsumption comes down to excess, waste and pushes our use of resources too far. The goal must be to help people to eat balanced meals and not to overeat. If the purpose of the suppliers of alternative protein is to push for consumption of their products and not address the issue of overconsumption, they will be just as guilty as the current protein suppliers. The future challenge is not just to replace one overconsumption with another. It is to stop overconsumption. Unfortunately, as long as our economic model is about volume growth, one should not have too many illusions. Future food prosperity is really about having always enough, not about always more. To achieve this goal, we must shift from sheer volume growth thinking to high quality (including production of course but also social and environmental) with faire distribution of the created wealth between all links of the value chains, and in particular a fair price for farmers through proper planning between supply and demand. The purpose is to supply affordable food instead of just cheap food with all the consequences that we all can see of the race towards always cheaper. Unfortunately, the volume-driven model is heavily subsidized in the wrong places and that will also have to stop if we want change.

Consumers also need to realize the true value of food instead of taking it for granted because future food is anything but for granted. Regardless of the type of protein, one thing is sure: it is precious and rare. This is much more so than for carbohydrates. Protein should be treated with respect. Here are two examples why I make this point. I remember in the 1990s the CEO of Tyson Foods explaining in a conference that the poultry industry is a producer of lean protein and he lamented that, in the US at least, the favorite use was to deep fry it in cheap oil, and thus completely change the nutritional quality of chicken meat. The second example was during a presentation by the CEO of a German fish fast food restaurant chain called Nordsee, who was mentioning that breaded fish was very popular, but not so much because fish is healthy but because fish sticks were used to be a carrier of ketchup from the plate to the mouth. If the true purpose of meat for some consumers is to be a carrier of oil or ketchup, then this is a problem. Never should a product that required the sacrifice of an animal be used to soak into cheap and unhealthy product when over consumed. Speaking of sacrifice, it is good to remember that the word “sacrifice” comes from the word “sacred”. It is true that often our dealings with animal protein looks more like sacrilegious. This is a useful detail to think about when considering consumption of meat. The thing is that animal protein should never really be a commodity. It should remain special. But that is not the way or economic model has decided.

From the production side, agriculture has followed a similar pattern as most other industries. It is about lowering costs (nothing wrong with that) and standardization (maybe a topic more susceptible to debate). Regardless of what people may think of intensive animal husbandry, this system is not here per accident. It is the reflection of how we look at economy and ourselves. Have no illusion about alternatives to animal protein; they follow exactly the same economic philosophy. I always say that the dominant production system is the one that matches the desires of the larger number of consumers. The saying “we are what we eat” is very true. If you look at it that way, you can see that our economy is just as much about intensive human husbandry as it is with farm animals. Economy is organized around three components: resources, labor and capital. Depending on the prioritization and distribution of these three components, we build different systems. A simple example can illustrate what I mean is mechanization: workers have been replaced by machines backed with capital investment in machines. The tricky thing about heavy injection of capital is that the system becomes capital-dependent. The capital must deliver a return on the investment and very often the only way is inject even more capital, just to keep the head above water. It is good for the bankers, but as many farmers and food producers will tell you, less so for them.

So, will animal farming eventually disappear? Of course, it is difficult to answer this with certainty. My opinion is that it is not going to happen any time soon, if it ever happens. What will change are the production systems. After all, the current intensive production systems have not been around since the dawn of times. They are actually fairly recent. They have changed and are continuously adapting. Production systems that are not environmentally sensible will disappear, simply because they will not be able to be profitable and competitive. The reason for this is simple: sooner or later they will not be able to ignore the negative externalities anymore from their production costs. Environmentally sensible systems will take over. Note that I do not use the term environmentally friendly but I use environmentally sensible instead. I believe it is a much better reflection of reality. Will this transition be smooth? It might be, but it is much more likely that it will not be.

Another question to reflect about is whether animal farming is unnecessary? My answer to this is: no! First, like it or not humans are omnivores. Our dentition can testify about that. That is the result of dozens of thousands of years and it is ingrained in our system. It is nature. We are mammals, even though there’s no shortage of groups who try to even deny our biological reality and try to reduce people –and animals- to legal entities. Between Laws of Nature and man-made laws, we will see which ones will prevail. Our first food –milk- is animal in nature. There always will be people who want to eat animal protein. Every time that economic prosperity has increased, meat consumption has increased. It does not happen per accident. When money is tight, meat is often the first thing to decrease. To get back to the question, I believe that animal farming is alright, as long as it is respectful of the environment, of the animals, and also of the farmers. I believe that animal protein is a privilege what we must cherish, not a right that we should take for granted. Animal protein is not the sole source of protein and there are many delicious dishes to make with vegetal protein. Look at Indian cuisine! If the purpose of animal farming is to stuff oneself, then yes I am with those who have an issue that approach of farming and consumption.

Of course, most of the opposition to animal farming takes place in Western countries. It is kind of a First World problem. If certain animal farming systems are environmental time bombs, other systems are actually beneficiary. In many developing countries, having a few goats or cattle is actually essential for the economy and for the survival of farmers. Pastoral systems contribute to prosperity and social stability. Another important point is the biology of ruminants. Just as much as I was mentioning the biology of humans as the results of dozens of thousands years of evolution, the same is true for animals. Ruminants are amazing processors of cellulose. Humans can thrive on grass, because we are not equipped biologically to extract nutrients from it. Ruminants are experts at that. Since there is about twice as many hectares of grasslands as there is of arable land, grasslands represent a huge food potential and ruminants are superb transformers of cellulose in high-value foods for humans in the form of milk and meat. The key is that must be done sensibly and by taking future consequences into account. Many societies around the world know the value of farm animals. If ruminants are excellent transformers of cellulose, it is also important to mention that they have never evolved to be grain eaters, at least in large quantities. Sooner or later, this will become a much more vivid issue than it is now.

Suppliers of alternative protein bring a number of arguments why their products have the potential to replace “traditional” animal meat. The environment plays a central role, in particular the issue of greenhouse gasses. They also address the animal welfare as a driver for their products. The issue of slaughterhouse by-products is also a valid argument. Theoretically, texture proteins, lab meat, insects and vegetarian diets do address these concerns, indeed. So can alternative protein push animal farming out of business? The answer is complex and I will try to answer it as concisely as possible.

The animal protein market is huge and one cannot expect to replace it overnight. Since the demand for protein is going to increase further, alternative protein would probably happy to take only a chunk of the growth. They have to create their spot in an existing and very competitive market. Textured proteins have been around for decades and they have never represented a threat to traditional meat. That does not mean that it could not change of course. Lab meat is all new and there is at this stage no solid indication that they can even compete with traditional meat on world markets any time soon. They are still a long way of representing a force in the animal protein business. Time will tell. An important detail for both textured protein and lab meat is the number of factories, incubators and texturing lines that they need to build to replace animal farms. That will represent huge investments for which they will have to earn the money to carry out. Competing with traditional animal proteins means engage fully in a commodity markets where margins are often thin. They will compete with independent farmers who are often contracted by corporations and often hardly make minimum wage. These suppliers will have to fight against the huge animal protein corporations and deal with retailers and food service companies with strong bargaining power. Will they really want to take the road to commodity markets? I doubt it, or it will be a very long journey. When I hear or see their pricing objectives, nothing tells me that they are really willing to target the mass animal protein market. It looks more to me that they will try to work from a targeted marketing strategy and will work their way into niches for quite some time. Another hurdle is the consumer perception for their products. Vegetarian products already have exposure and are well-perceived. Lab meat may be a more difficult challenge. The mere fact that lab meat producers want to call it clean meat instead and are already facing opposition from meat producers who claim that lab meat is not real meat shows that they have not solved the perception challenge, yet. Even the term meat is not a given.

Where does that leave us for the future and the issue of animal farming greenhouse gas emissions? Considering the time that I believe it will take for alternatives, I do not see that they will play as big a role as they think and/or claim. I believe that reducing greenhouse gasses emissions will have to be enforced. Regulations on production systems will have to address this. This has to happen today already. There is no time to wait until these emerging industries will have developed critical mass. Also production volumes will have to be addressed. It is likely that if we want to be serious about curbing the environmental footprint of animal husbandry, they will not be many alternatives to capping production volumes. That will be a tough one as nobody will want to be at a disadvantage with their competitors. There will be the exact same discussions as there already are with climate change and those who refuse to participate. Neither governments nor corporations will take effective measures. The answer lies with consumers. They are the ones who have the power to reduce animal protein production and changing production systems. From an environment point of view, the only real option is a reduction of global consumption of animal protein. That is the easiest and fastest path to solve the problem, but I do not expect a massive shift from omnivore to vegetarian of such amplitude that anything significant will happen. Unfortunately and just like with anything else related to climate change and overconsumption, only a minority will really act voluntarily. On the consumer side, if prices remain too cheap to trigger a change in behavior and a reduction of consumption, then overconsumption will simply continue. What I wrote in my previous article will fully apply to the topic of animal protein and animal farming.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

 


Food fights will go on and it is a good thing

March 28, 2016

A funny thing happened to me when I moved from Europe to North America in 1999. In Europe, I was used to having demanding customers. Issues about how food is produced have been rather common during pretty much my whole life (I will turn 55 later this year so that you have an idea of how long it has been).

When I came to North America, I dealt with a completely different situation. I did not get some of those 30-page product specification documents from retailers, foodservice and manufacturers with all the do’s and don’ts of how to produce food. I just got some 30-page disclaimers and liability documents, for the customer to dodge any heat should there be a law suit some time down the road instead. Before, I left Europe, I remember my Managing Director from the poultry company I worked for telling me how lucky I was because “over there (North America), customers hardly ask anything, you just sell them what you produce”. I remember looking at him and thinking that it could not be possible. I was wrong and he was right. For as much as European consumers were picky on all things such as hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, animal welfare, feed composition and origin, North American consumers, and retailers as well, seemed totally uninterested about production methods. It was almost eerie and to be quite frank, it was boring, because I could not see any challenge. One of my American colleagues enjoyed telling that it was the way it was and that it would never change because that is how Americans are. I disagreed but it certainly appeared he was right for a few years. Things have changed now. The American consumer has become more demanding and the dynamics of the discussions have become quite similar to what I had known in Europe for decades. It is actually rather easy for me to “predict” the future as I am living in an ongoing déjà vu nowadays.

The debate about food has indeed evolved into food fights. If there is one thing that I always found remarkable in my professional life in the food and agriculture sector is the issue of the producer-consumer relationship. Maybe it comes from my family background, but I have never understood why the food industry is so defensive when challenged by consumers or any organizations. My father used to be a butcher and I spent quite a bit of time around the shop and with him on the markets. I discovered very early that customers would ask the weirdest things but that what matters is not the factual truth but whether they trust the supplier. If you cannot deal with that fact, I suggest you do something else than producing food. Food is loaded with emotions and that is that. If consumers were rational, there would not be any diversity in foods and other consumer goods. They always would do the right thing and would not pay attention to all the marketing efforts that support the world economy. If consumers were rational, I bet you that they would deconstruct any PR by spotting all biases. If consumers were rational, they would focus on nutrition only and they also would reject anything that is unsustainable. I have a feeling that a lot of people who resent consumers’ emotions would actually be out of business because they would deal with a much tougher audience than the current consumers. Be careful what you wish for. Further, it is also clear that those who criticize consumers for not being rational, are not rational themselves in their consumption patterns, either. Nobody is.

Last year, a book titled No more food fights hit the shelf. Considering the author is actually supporting the conventional agriculture and has a problem with consumers and activists who challenge the food system, it is actually ironic. It reminded me of the words of my Managing Director about the North American market. What could be better than the good old days when the agribusiness could push their products to lethargic consumers? It sure must have been a good time, but it is gone. The book’s author, just like the agriculture sector, does not want anybody questioning the food system. They don’t want anyone looking over their shoulders and find out the bad and the ugly, at the risk of not showing the good either. I do not understand the food producers’ reluctance. If you are proud of what you do and what you produce, as they claim, you are proud to show the world and to share that goodness. You are also willing to always improve and make your customers satisfied. In my opinion, the attitude is really more about being production-driven –or should I say production-centred- than market-driven. The difference is that the former is about oneself and the latter about others. That difference actually reflects quite well in term of whom consumers trust. They trust the latter group, but are very distrustful of the former. I can understand both attitudes because I have filled functions that were more oriented towards technical operation as well as commercial functions.

I started my professional life in a position in a technical and scientific field, which suited me well by then because I was a hard-nosed rational fellow with a tendency of not accepting unfounded non-sense. Then, by accident, I got myself involved in a commercial role, which opened me new doors, and my eyes, too. The successful experience led me to other commercial positions and the lessons that I had learned in my father’s shop, I rediscovered on a daily basis in the multinational company. There is a huge gap of perception of the customers between the different departments of a company. Very often this discrepancy is reflected in the dynamics of the sales and operations departments of a business. One wants to say yes and the other wants to say no.

Food fightPersonally, I find being challenged a very good thing that can happen to a producing company. I would agree that negative feedback is never pleasant, but even though the message can be rough, it is feedback after all. In this regard, it should be handled in the same way as customer complaints, the good kind of handling that is, not the denial kind. The latter is usually more of a reason for a customer to drop a supplier than the problem that occurred in the first place. Business, like it or not, is first of all about human interaction. Money is only a means to secure it. In the course of my career, I had to deal with “consumer resistance” in quite a few occasions, but what it put into motion brought me most interesting and rewarding experiences. They helped me to learn about business and to understand the complex dynamics of entire value chains faster than ever. They helped me grow and that experience has made me one of those who understand the ins and outs of marketing, production and management in a variety of discipline the best. I am thankful to my “difficult” customers forever.

The reason is simple. By being very demanding, customers forced us to be better than ever and be resourceful to find ways of both meeting their expectations and allow us to remain profitable. Quality only improves through pressure from customers and a competitive environment. It very rarely happens as the result of a voluntary decision, simply because there is a cost at first. In the case of my past professional experience, needless to say that adjusting to consumer demands was never an easy process internally. On the one hand, there was the source of the company’s revenue – in other words salaries – at stake, and on the other hand, the natural drive to keep production costs under control. The key was to not lose our focus on the one essential parameter: the margin. Margin management with market vision really delivered amazing results in such situations. Another essential point was to negotiate everything and always get something in return for any effort made on our part. I remember some very tense conversations with Marks & Spencer in the time the talks were about the removal of meat and bone meal from animal feed. We showed them the impact of their demand on our bottom line and made clear that if they helped out on the bottom line we would go along. Because we were offering top quality chicken, we were able to find an agreement. For as much as we could not afford to lose their business, they did not want to lose us as a supplier, either. The willingness to accept challenges from the market and the drive to always improve our products and service served us. We would not have been in a position to ask anything in return if we had produced a basic commodity. By aiming at being the best, we had a sustainable competitive advantage. Finally we were able to have them accept to buy more from us so that we could dilute the extra cost over a larger volume and have more efficient logistics. The result for us was actually more volume of above average margin products. The customer had to say goodbye to some suppliers who were not ready to go the extra mile for them, and we also said goodbye to customers who would not support us in the cost effort. In the end, a very tough challenge ended up in a strong long-term profitable win-win situation. We came out of a crisis that could potentially have destroyed us stronger and more respected than ever. This is only an example of a tough market challenge. I went through similar situations in the various sectors –feed, pig, poultry and aquaculture- in which I have worked. The added value got in the millions per year each time.

Food fights are good, but they work only by picking the right partners in the market. As a producer, you need to have customers and make the right choice to achieve this goal. As a consumer, you need to find a producer that listens to you and meet your expectation. They will be disagreements along the way, but in the end both parties can benefit, but it will not just fall on your lap. Fights are a part of life. On the first day of my last year in the Agricultural University, the head teacher had a short presentation. He said that life is about:

  • Learning
  • Creating

Those two points were very well received by the students. Of course, it fits quite nicely with a crowd of intellectuals. The third point was received by the chilliest silence I can remember. The third point was…

  • Fighting!

Yes fighting is an integral part of life. We all fight all the time. We fight with competitors, with other drivers, with customer service representatives, with sales people, with the tax man, with retailers, waiters. You name it and it you will find an example of fighting. So no more food fights? Forget it, it won’t happen. In my experience, the only reason why anyone asks for a fight to stop is when they are losing. In this case, if they are losing, it is more because of their refusal to listen to where the market is going than because of those bad irrational consumers. The smart food producers, big or small, have all made moves in the direction of consumers’s demands because they know that is where the growth and the future are.

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Transparency is a market-driven exercise

March 2, 2016

Among all the trends in food markets, transparency is a tough demand to meet. As such, it is only natural that consumers have questions about what they buy and want to be sure that they buy something they feel comfortable with. In times when the food economy was local with everyone knowing each other in small communities, the food supply chain seemed transparent. With the separation of rural areas and urban centres and the increasing distance, both geographical and relational, between consumers and the different links of the chain, the distance in trust increased, too. Add to this a few scandals through the years and the result is a feeling that something is broken in the world of food.

The renewed desire for transparency is nothing than a cry for trust. Since the personal relationship with suppliers in many cases no longer exists, trust cannot be just a matter of knowing the farmer, the baker or the miller. Today’s transparency is about verifiable facts. Today’s consumers, unlike their parents or grandparents, do not want to be told a story anymore. If they don’t trust you, they won’t believe you anyway. They are used to search online for everything, with more or less success when it comes to the truth, but they nonetheless want to find out for themselves and figure out on their own what to think. Today’s concept of transparency is replacing PR, which is a one-way push communication technique. Today’s consumers want a one-way pull information platform. That is all the difference. PR is obsolete, but most food producers still have not come to this realization.

The prospect of having to collect, update and disclose all information through the chain from DNA to retail store or restaurant seems a daunting task and for many food producers, it feels like an overwhelming request. It seems and feels that way because it is. It is rather close to some Herculean task. One of the questions I often get is how much do consumers want to know and should everything be available? My answer is that in theory, consumers want to know everything and so it all should be available indeed but in practice, it is somewhat different. Consumers do not really want to know everything about how their food is produced. Well, maybe some do but they are very few. Most consumers do not even read nutritional labels, so they won’t bother spending hours or more to learn everything about the bread or the chicken they just bought unless something serious triggers it. So, what do the large majority of consumers really want? They don’t want to know everything but they want you to be able to answer them any question they have. They want the certainty that, should they have a question about their food, they will get an answer, the truth and that nothing will be hidden from them. Transparency is much more about trust and truth than it is about hard data. Yet, the way to get there is through data and open access.

TransparencyThe amount of data that can be collected is huge and so is the task to set up your transparency system. However, regardless of how much data you collect and share, your transparency performance will always depend first on making transparency one of the pillars of your organization. By that, I mean have the genuine willingness to engage in a candid and honest interaction with your customers and consumers. Genuine, candid and honest are key words when it comes to transparency. People will sense if you are so indeed. If they sense the opposite, you will not gain trust and the perception of your company will further deteriorate. Consumers will forgive honest mistakes when you admit you made one and are willing to do what is needed to correct it, both inside your organization as towards your customers. Consumers will accept that you do not necessarily have all the answers ready but that you are willing to do the research and come back diligently to them with the information. Although immediate response has become an expectation in the digital world, people understand that sometimes a bit of time is needed. Although data is important for transparency, attitude is at least just as much. By being responsive and handling difficult conversations in a mature manner will get you a long way. In a transparency approach, there is no need for defensiveness. You open the doors and you get out of the way! Of course, the mix of transparency and data brings the issue of boundaries. There is a fine line between what is useful information for customers and what is critical information about the company and information that affect competitiveness. Consumers will understand that some information is sensitive enough to not be disclosed. In this process, too, it is essential to be genuine, candid and transparent as long as it is not an attempt to hide something. Remember, transparency is a tool to increase the consumer’s trust and loyalty!

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Adapting our thinking to the future – part 1

May 3, 2013

Everybody will agree that the coming decades are presenting many new challenges. Never before have we faced such a population growth and demand for about everything, food and water being the most essential. The difference between success and failure will reside mostly in our attitude towards change and our willingness to adapt to a different new situation. For obvious reasons, the economic model of mass consumption and resources depletion that generates a mindboggling amount of waste is coming to an end one way or another. A new system needs to come and will come. Whether it will be the easy way or the hard way really depends on us all and in particular on our leaders. I like to tell that our future will be only as bright as our leaders. It is a bit of a joke, but not quite.

The circular will look linear when approached from the right angle

What does need to change in our thinking and attitude, then? In a finite world, we must understand that always more is not sustainable. This is especially true when several billion people are thinking of having the same consumption lifestyle as developed countries have had over the past 60 years or so. The pie is not big enough to allow that kind of party (and neither is the bakery that must produce the pie). This is where we seem to be stuck in our thinking. We have learnt to think linear in the past several decades. It can go only in one direction, and it has to be up, doesn’t it? God forbid of anything going down. In the field of farming when I hear the linear argument, I like to mention two things. The first one is that if farming stats must go linear, there should not be any farm left in developed countries in the not so distant future, and the same should happen in developing countries, too, just a bit later. No farm means no food. Apparently, that does not seem acceptable. There goes a crack in the linear thinking. My second argument against thinking blindly linear is that in biology and in population dynamics, there are no linear functions. All curves are curbed in some way. There are bell curves, sigmoid curves, exponential and logarithmic curves, just to name a few. None of them are linear. If we want to plan our relation with our environment in a prosperous manner, we need to leave the linear thinking and start thinking curbed, and the curve that fits the ability to renew indefinitely our access to essential resources best is the circle. Circular thinking is the never-ending linear. That is just as much of a thinking revolution as moving away from the concept of a flat earth to embrace the idea of a spherical one, or to fathom the curbed space. Shifting from linear thinking to circular thinking simply means a shift in thinking from always more to always enough. All it means is that we need to change our ways, but it certainly does not mean the end of the world. It would only mean the end of a world. With a growing population, circular thinking actually presents a lot of business opportunities, especially considering that the alternative is going nowhere eventually. There is no doubt that those who will catch these opportunities will be the winners of tomorrow.

Such a change in thinking also results in rethinking the meaning of growth. Currently, growth, and the GDP as its favorite indicator, means mostly volume and consumption. Actually consumption is probably not the correct world to describe our societies. Buying is a more correct one. Producers want consumers to buy. Consuming in this process is really optional. What counts is the act of purchasing over and over again. We think of growth as quantitative growth. Future growth will have to be a qualitative growth. With so many new people who will need employment in the decades to come, it will be crucial that future growth will have to fill a positive social role. Similarly, to have a livable planet, the future will have to contribute positively to maintaining a healthy environment. Social and environmental responsibility will become the standard. There is no escaping this. Well, that is with the angle of building a prosperous future. If not, chaos is always a possibility.

One of the most visible consequences of a growth model based essentially on quantity and mass purchasing is waste. As consumption goods became cheaper credit became easier and disposable income increased, consuming has become about buying and throwing away. The mountains of garbage in landfills around the world should be a reminder, although we seem to have located them far away from the eyes of the wealthy and in the backyard of the poor. Quite convenient. This way, consumers could forget about the consequences of their actions… and keep on buying and throwing away. Although this happens for all consumer goods, this is especially immoral when it comes to food in a world where about a billion people do not have enough to eat. It is immoral, simply because food means the difference between life and death, and wasting food is indirectly contributing to the death of others. It is also immoral because food waste is also the waste of all the inputs used for the production of food, be it water, energy or money. Waste is an indicator of the level of efficiency. Highly efficient systems generate little or no waste. Inefficient systems generate a lot of it. I will let you judge how efficient you think we are. Waste is also an indicator of our attitude. It is not just about morals, but also about discipline. Our societies waste a lot, because we still are much too lenient with ourselves, and also because in many cases the financial incentives to do the right thing are sadly lacking. We choose the path of least resistance.

As life became easier in a number of countries, people have started to lose some essential reflexes for survival. It is not necessary to go all that much back in time to see the change. My parents, grandparents and ancestors grew up in times that were not of plenty, simply because there was no consumption society, and incidentally there was the occasional war. People would not waste anything not so much out of morals, but because they simply could not afford it. Yes, mass wasting is the fruit of luxury. My elders would not waste and they were very skilled at circular thinking. They knew that nothing is created or lost, but that everything is transformed. As resources were not plenty, the right answer was to show plenty of resourcefulness. This is how things were by then.

To take the example of food waste, they would make sure that leftovers would be on the table the next day. They would most certainly not end up in the garbage. They would feed the pigs with what they could not eat themselves. Actually, they were turning low value products such as potato peels in high value protein in the form of pork. When I was in the agricultural university, my animal nutrition teacher once told a joke that I have never forgotten, especially considering that I have spent a substantial part of my professional life in animal production. He told us that modern animal husbandry was the art of turning high value protein into cheap fat. Not quite untrue, and so much the contrast with the pork made out of table scraps. This contrast is very much present in the ongoing debate about meat production systems.

We can find many answers for the future by looking at the past. In our current times of science-based facts obsession, many seem to look down at words such as experience, wisdom and philosophy. This is not wise. Our elders might not have known all the scientific background of what they were doing, but they knew what was best for them to survive. They knew how to manage a finite world of finite resources to sustain themselves. Passing on that knowledge, experience and wisdom was an essential part of survival. There was no conflict between modernity and that knowledge, experience and wisdom. They integrated the new and the old to build a better world. Although, there is still a lot of work to eradicate poverty, let’s not forget that the result has been the emergence of prosperous societies in which a record number of people are living now.

(Part 2 of this topic will be published soon)

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


What a waste!

April 12, 2011

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.