Food, Inc. or just the description of America?

A couple of days ago, I watched the documentary Food, Inc. Although the underlying theme is that the four large US corporations that dominate food would try to keep the American consumers ignorant of their activities, I saw this documentary much more as a review of the US society over the past 60-70 years.

As usual with this kind of documentaries, there is a mix of commentaries with pictures without presenting anything specific about the relation between the text and the images. The chicken farmer from Pennsylvania is angry, but it is not clear exactly at what. She removes dead chickens, but we do not hear what the cause of death is. To me, with my experience in chicken production, it seems that her chicken house is in very poor shape, and I am not sure about her level of commitment and overall technical performance. The Tyson grower seems quite a bit happier than the lady chicken farmer who ends up being terminated by Perdue. Unfortunately, the crew cannot film inside his chicken house and we never hear to know exactly why, but the commentary tends to imply that Tyson wants to hide something. Unfortunately as well, no representative from the large food companies mentioned wished to be interviewed, and that creates the impression that they want to conceal something. The chapter about the staff policies of meat companies is quite interesting. If this seems a surprise for the journalists, it was not for me. In Europe, we knew 20 years ago how harsh contracts were for farmers and plant staff. This is the product of free job market mechanism with a slight reminder of a certain thinking about labour force in the old south. Certain things simply die hard. John Steibeck’s Grapes of Wrath had shown several decades ago how agricultural labor force could be exploited. The reminder that meat packing plant workers used to have decent wages is an indicator of two things. One is a reflection of the disappearance of the American middle class in the manufacturing sector, and the other is that meat plants would purely and simply suffer tremendous financial losses if they had to reset wages the way they used to be. There might be some concerns about their financial long-term sustainability. They are not ready to cope with production cost increases, and they can hardly reduce personnel costs much anymore.

The family of four that lives on a diet of fast food is also a typical example. They do not have time to cook, and that justifies eating only burgers with fries and pop. The fast food meal for four comes down to almost US$ 3.00 per person. You can make a healthy meal for that money. The luxury meal that I prepared for my spouse on Christmas Eve was hardly more expensive than this. For that family, like for many American households, money is tight and they need to do the best out of a limited budget. The filmed visit to the supermarket tends to focus too much on the broccoli at US$1.29/lb. That price would be too high. That is possible, but there is more than broccoli to choose from. Potatoes, rice, carrots, beans, cabbage or onions are much cheaper than broccoli, and by combining them, it is possible to prepare quickly a healthy nutritious diet, including some meat. The mom works long hours and has no time to prepare diner. I accept that, but the teenage girl could do that to help her mother. My parents also worked long hours, and dinner was not before 9 pm. This is why I learned how to cook. When there is a will, there is a way. Then, we learn that the parents suffer of diabetes. This is not really a surprise considering such a crazy diet, and this problem is spreading to more and more American families. When you add the medication costs to the price of the fast food meals, preparing a healthy meal as I described above is really the best deal in all respects. In the land of individualism, where people are expected to take charge of their destinies, it is a bit strong to reduce the discussion to the agribusiness having “altered” foods, thus presenting this family as victims. I disagree with this. They made a choice, which may be the most convenient, but not the wisest. The alternative certainly requires some effort, and that may be difficult to handle. The blaming game, which is even more popular than baseball in the US is not leading anywhere. Most of all, why do they have to order pop with their burgers? They can cut their calorie count by filling bottles with tap water. Making sandwiches is easy and quick, too. This is a lot cheaper and a lot healthier, and it does not require much work at all. Last year, I had written an article in which I was showing the similarities of human behaviour and how we produce food. Food, Inc. makes this comparison quite vivid.

Then, the documentary shifts to food safety and presents some footage of meat processing plants. That is certainly a very important item in the US, where the number of recalls for bacterial contamination is simply astronomical. I found this part very interesting because in my many years in the meat, poultry and fish businesses, I have spent several years in close contact and even supervised plant operations as well. What this movie from 2009 showed gave me the same impression that I got the first time I came to the US in 1998, and toured what was by then one of the largest chicken processing plants in the country, in Alabama. Americans certainly love everything big, just like the calorie count of their meals. They love huge complicated plants where the molecules (chlorine by then in that particular chicken plant that smelled more like a swimming pool than anything else, and ammonia in the case of the plant featured in the movie) are supposed to do the work. Unfortunately, with such layouts, visual control is rather difficult as it appears in the documentary. When a plant is such a thick forest of pipes, chains and rotating parts, not only is it very difficult to see what is happening, but it is the best amusement park you can imagine for bacteria. They have so many niches where they can settle and grow in peace. The more complex the layout gets, the more difficult it is to sanitize the plant. The hamburger factory has installed cameras and management claims that this helps them to control what is going on in the several plants they own over the country. My view on meat processing plant supervision is that it has to be done in an ongoing manner, online, with the supervisor being on the plant floor, not sitting in his office. I doubt that cameras will eliminate food contamination issues. Moreover, online quality control requires motivated staff, which also requires proper wages and benefits. Food safety is less a technology matter than it is a matter of management and motivation of staff. Another important element that I noticed is that the boss of the hamburger plant describes himself as a mechanic. I had expected him to see himself as a food producer who wants most of all to offer safe food to consumers. I did not hear that statement. I also would have liked to see him eat some of his ammonia-marinated burgers. I am a meat lover, but I really do not need that on my plate. When I think that, in The Netherlands, we were not even allowed to use chlorine in the slaughterhouse water… We had to work on eliminating the causes of the problem instead of applying never-ending layers of technology band-aid. And we did significantly reduce the causes!

Then, the documentary presents the “natural farmer”, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. He certainly is very successful, but by his own admission, he has no plans is growing much more than he currently is. If there is more demand than he can supply, that will be the customers’ problem. By looking at his chicken slaughter installation and system, I doubt that he can supply much volume, but we never got to hear how big his business is. He is a niche producer, and his customers appreciate him, since one of them claims it to be worth driving 5 hours to get to his shop. That is 10 hours drive including the way back. One can wonder if the footprint of that food is all that great when it comes into the consumer’s home. How many of such farmers are necessary to meet consumer demand? And what is the price of the food they sell? Could this feed the family of four on a very tight budget that eats from the fast food drive-through? The movie never answers these questions.

The story of Stonyfield Farm yogurt was cause for more optimism. They offer the organic alternative. According to the CEO of the company, they are the third yogurt brand in the US and the most profitable one. This is a success story. They sell to Wal-Mart and fit in the retailer strategy towards more sustainable food. It also shows that organic has long passed the stage of hippie small-scale and that is a rational modern business, which the industrial agribusiness tends to refuse to see. The one thing that was missing about this story, though, was how the farmers who supply the milk perform financially.

Probably, the scariest part of Food, Inc. was the one about the lobbying and the politics. In the material country, this is no surprise. This does not make it any less scary, though. Since winning elections is about how much money candidates have in their “war chests”, the actual vote ballot is a banknote. The ones with the most bank notes have the most power. Reality is less idealistic than the idea of a “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. The system seems to have evolved to somehow reminiscent of an aristocracy structure. The US is a republic, but maybe a little less of a democracy after all. The money power is not only political, but in society where suing is a lifestyle, justice tends to favour the richer ones, simply because the poor cannot offer the fight very long. This power of money through lobby and lawmaking might not be as strong as one think, though, Last year, an oil lobby backed-Republican Senator of Arizona wanted to pass a bill to kill solar energy in the state. A Chinese company, Suntech Power, had plans to open a solar panel factory in Arizona (a Chinese company opening a manufacturing facility in the US. That is interesting is it not?) If this bill had passed, they would have lost the business. What did they do? They threatened to stop the project and kill the jobs. Do you know what happened? The Republican Senator did not proceed with his plans. Maybe China will help eliminate the negative effects of lobbies. Nonetheless, for now, lobbies are still active and powerful.

Then the conclusion of the documentary comes in a rush. Buy local, from the farmer’s markets. This is nice, but millions of households cannot afford that food. Moreover, production is not even remotely close to meeting the national food demand. You can vote three times a day to choose the food system. Americans voted a long time ago to have instant gratification, and they chose for the consumption society. Never things would have evolved to what they are if consumers had rejected it from the start. Nobody forced Americans to drive to a fast food restaurant and stay seated inside their cars to eat. Nobody forces them to drink pop, eat potato chips or candy bars, to think that the right size for a steak is 9 oz., to pour ketchup on everything, just as they did not have to spend more then they earned and dig themselves in huge debt.  I do not consume any of those items, yet my self-esteem is good, though.Freedom requires a bit of will power. Freedom of choice does not imply that one should not resist temptation. The American consumer’s behaviour has been a boon for the industry. Nothing is better than consumers who just consume without asking questions. Fortunately, this is now changing gradually. Americans realize that consumer goods producers have looked at them in a similar way as the livestock in feedlots, passive and submissive. Unlike what the makers of Food Inc. may say, all Americans are responsible of the society they have. The industry is, of course. But consumers are just as much. In order to change, consumers are going to realize what role they have played in the consumption society. They can vote, but the US is one of the countries with the lowest turnout at elections. The ones who choose not to express themselves just miss an opportunity to change things. Most Americans have lost faith in their politicians. Yet, there is a democratic force that can, and in my opinion, will restore true democracy. This force is the food retail, with Wal-Mart as the leader. They do not wait for politicians to make laws when it comes about food should be produced. They do not care much about the games played in Washington, DC. They just listen to the people and they offer the workable solutions to meet these wishes. Unlike politicians, they do not set their objectives for the next four years. Wal-Mart has already done more about sustainability of food supply than lawmakers have. Earlier, they had decided not to sell milk from cows injected with growth hormone. Yesterday, they announced their decision to make healthier food affordable to their customers. They represent such a purchasing power that they can force their suppliers to change their practices and their purchasing strategies, enforcing the change all the way back in the supply chain to the seed producers. Be assured that the food industry will do what the retail tells it to do, because without the retail, they are out of business. Their purchasing power is so much larger than the one of the people buying on farmers markets. People should cast their vote and give power of attorney to the retailers. Really, the food retail is just one step away of enforcing change on antibiotics, hormones, animal welfare and GMOs; even if the politicians have not made up their minds. Just compare the size, financially and in jobs, of Wal-Mart and Monsanto. Who is the true giant?

Altogether, I found that the movie was raising good questions, but it was not giving much hope for a quick change, either. This is a weakness, just as the lack of specifics of the pictures. They need to make a sequel in which they will show how things can change for the best, make food affordable and farming sustainable, and how they see the US making the transition. I missed that. The documentary is not as specific to the food industry as it seems. A similar movie with a similar commentary could be made on about every industrial sector of the US, from energy to electronics, telecommunications, the car industry, the banks or the pharmaceutical industry.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The rise of the non-profits and how they shape food production

In the years before the current economic crisis, the non-profit sector was already creating more jobs than the for-profit sector. Last year, the total of all operating budgets of non-profit organizations passed the US$1 trillion mark. This makes non-profits the eighth economy in the world. This amazing number seems to have been rather unnoticed, yet it has quite some significance for the way economy might evolve in the future. They are a force to be reckoned with.

They are perceived as independent, although this is not necessarily the case, and this tends to give them a higher moral status, especially compared with the for-profit sector. As I had written in a previous article, nobody has the monopoly of morals, but non-profits have a PR advantage in this area. A part of their strength comes from the loss of trust in government, science, industry and politics by the general public. In the food and agriculture sector, the influence of non-profit organizations is growing, and it challenges the way food is produced.

Just like in the for-profit sector, the size of non-profits as well as the quality of their message varies. Similarly to many corporations, the integrity of some non-profits is questioned. However, in order to motivate individuals and organizations to donate money, they need to have and to keep enough credibility. Competition exists in the non-profit sector, too. Only the ones that do the best job can survive. Nonetheless, non-profits have been instrumental for many changes in food production. It is also clear that change and improvement comes only from being challenged. In this article, I just want to name a few examples of the power of non-profits and their ability to cause visible change.

First, here is an example as recent as last week. The HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) came out with video footage of what they called inhumane treatment of pigs at a Smithfield Foods pig farm. For those who may be unaware of who these two organizations are, the HSUS is a non-profit organization strongly opposed to intensive animal husbandry. They want to end factory farms. Smithfield is the world’s largest pig processor. The HSUS and the US meat industry are no friends. They have opposite views on animal husbandry and meat production. They accuse each other of the usual shortcomings and lies, as is the case between industry and its opponents. What I found quite interesting in this case, though, was the communication of Smithfield about the “crisis” on Twitter. Here, I can only speak about my perception, which was that Smithfield was quite nervous about this matter. Obviously, the HSUS scares them, and not just a little bit. The pork company came with numerous tweets about the problem, and in my opinion too many messages. As long as the investigation is not completed, any communication is unnecessary, and potentially confusing. I got confused to the point that I even wondered how they actually implement the procedures about animal welfare that I believe they have. They even communicated that they would have emergency audits from authorities in the field of animal behaviour and animal handling, such as Temple Grandin and Jennifer Woods, from Alberta, Canada. The farm is in Virginia. That sounds rather drastic if all procedures are in place and followed. The end of the story, at this day, is the report of the Virginia State vet, who did not notice any violation during his visit. There is no way of knowing whether something bad actually happened. The vet’s reports also mentions that the farm will have to be monitored, which makes sense in the context. Smithfield also communicated to have fired three employees for violation of animal welfare procedures, which tends to confirm that the HSUS had put their fingers on something true. Of course, the background of the story is that the HSUS finds that Smithfield does not make the move to banning gestation crates for sows fast enough, as the company had announced a few years ago. They compare Smithfield with other US hog producers who have already implemented change of husbandry systems. Regardless of this specific case, the reaction of the world’s largest pig producer tells me that the HSUS is going to win its battle to reform substantially the US meat industry. It will not happen overnight, but it is just a matter of years.

Another example, still in the pig sector, comes from The Netherlands. The largest supermarket chain, Albert Heijn, part of Ahold, the fourth largest retailer in the world, will sell only pork produced in animal friendly conditions, according to a protocol set up together with Vion, The Netherlands’s largest pork producer and Dierenbescherming, a non-profit organization dedicated to humane animal treatment. I remember when I used to work in the pig industry in the late 1980s in The Netherlands; Dierenbescherming was considered a rather extremist organization that supposedly did not get the realities of meat production. How things can change in 20 years!

Greenpeace is one of the most active organizations that try to change how food is produced. The agriculture lobby is not too enthusiastic about their actions, but Greenpeace gets things changed. They addressed the issue of beef production in Brazil and its relation to deforestation. They achieve more than the Brazilian government by reaching agreements with beef producers in a region where the “law of the gun” tends to prevail, but also mostly with the beef producers’ customers. The main fast food companies (McDonald’s, Burger King, etc…) and retailers like Wal-Mart have pledged not to buy beef that would be produced at the expense of deforestation. Be assured that something like this has quite some leverage. A similar situation has happened about the production of palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia. Greenpeace’s action to save the orang-utans’ natural habitat has resulted in large users such as Nestle and Unilever to purchase only sustainable palm oil products. This has more impact than government action. I had mentioned a few weeks ago, the ranking for seafood sustainability by Greenpeace of retailers. Costco, which came last, first tried to contest the results. However, within a couple of weeks they reduced their seafood assortment from 15 to only seven, sustainable, species.

Another non-profit with influence on food production is World Wildlife Fund (WWF). They created in 1997, together with Unilever, the Marine Stewardship Council, which role is to set sustainability standards and conduct certification of fisheries. In 2009, the WWF created, together with the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which has a similar mandate as the MSC, but for aquaculture.

Another typical example came with the wish list of a prominent seafood industry representative for 2011. On that list, he chastises environmental organizations for their negative and critical picturing of the seafood industry. Especially Greenpeace and the WWF are on his “bad guys” list. That is not surprising, but the irony is when he expresses his wish for further development of clean energies to stop the risks of pollution by oil spills and other contaminants. When it comes to other industries than his, he sounds very much to me like a Greenpeace and WWF supporter.

These are just a few examples, but they show without any doubt that the message of non-profit organizations has an audience, and with environmental issues becoming common media material, their influence will only increase. It is also clear that, more and more, retailers, foodservice and, to a lesser extent, consumer goods manufacturers are joining them. The businesses with direct contact with the consumers (aka the public) are leading this change, as I had mentioned in “The quiet revolution of food retailers”.

The next step that I foresee to enforce more transparency is the development of WikiLeaks-like activities that will make public confidential internal memos and other information not destined to publication. This will bring deep changes in the way food is produced. Of course, where there is change, there is resistance, too. The food industry’s reaction is normal in this process. The winners of tomorrow will be the companies that understand where the business environment is heading, and that will see the opportunities to implement change faster and better than their competitors.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Swimming in circles – Part II: BC salmon farmers are proud!

In Swimming in circles, I was mentioning that salmon farmers should communicate more about their people, their work and the pride of doing what they do. My article had caught their attention, as I have several contacts and retweets and other things of the same nature. I do not know if my article is the cause, or if communicating pride was in the works anyway, but over the last few days, I have seen quite a number of messages and blogs on that very theme. Of course, this made me curious and I clicked on the links. The titles were clear: they are proud of being salmon farmers, but the text comes a bit short of communicating the passion. That is too bad. I had expected better.

I do not think that the message will reach the public this way. What the salmon farmers need to do is to come over here to Vancouver and talk to people in the street. Only by having personal contact, will they have a true chance of convincing the passers-by. One of the reasons why the environmentalists are successful is exactly because they go to the people to bring their message. They ask you in the street if you have a minute to talk about whatever it is they want to talk to you. The salmon superheroes that I was mentioning in that previous article of mine understand that communication is a contact sport. They went to the offices of the salmon farming companies in Campbell River to hand over the (super?) condoms, even if that meant having to deal with the company’s security officer.

I know to ideal spots in Vancouver for such interaction with the public about salmon farming. The first one is in Kitsilano, at the corner of 4th Avenue and Vine Street. There is the Capers Community Market (now owned by USA’s Whole Foods Market). This is a store selling many organic food items, sometimes for twice the price as at the Canadian Superstore, for the very same items. Environmentally conscious Kitsilano shoppers are quite eager to pay the voluntary eco-tax (Unless in their case it is the ego-tax. Not sure). Interesting details: the David Suzuki Foundation, a strong opponent of salmon farming in open nets, has its offices in the very same block as this store. Great way of killing two birds with one stone.

The second spot is the Fishermen Wharf, near Granville Island. Fishermen sell their catches there to the same ecgo-tax volunteers. The public is welcome there with a sign telling “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed salmon” and other similar “friendly” slogans. After all, fishermen are proud, too.

The locavore’s dilemma

There is a growing trend, or at least a growing noise in favour of eating locally produced food. The “locavores” as they are called, claim that 100-mile food is the way to a more sustainable agriculture and consumption. Is this approach realistic and could it be the model for the future?

This movement is rather popular here in Vancouver, British Columbia. The laid-back residents who support the local food paradigm certainly love their cup of coffee and their beer. Wait a minute! There is no coffee plantation anywhere around here. There is not much barley produced around Vancouver, either. Life should be possible without these two beverages, should not it? The disappearance of coffee –and tea- from our households will make the lack of sugar beets less painful. This is good because sugar beets are not produced in the region. At least, there is no shortage of water.

But this is not all. There is no cocoa plantation around here, and believe me, there are many people who are addicted to chocolate. British Columbia does not produce citrus or other warm climate fruit. If we are to become locavores, we must say goodbye to orange juice, to lemons, to bananas. Even the so popular sushi must disappear because of the lack of rice. There are no rice fields in this area, and neither are there wheat fields. The Asian population certainly would have a hard time eliminating rice from their diet. The lack of wheat means no flour; and no flour means no bread, no pastries, and no cookies. The carbohydrate supply is going to be tough. If we must consume local, our lifestyle is going to change dramatically. Potatoes and cabbage is the way of the future. But before going all local food, the local locavores must realize that British Columbia produces only 48% of all the food its inhabitants consume. One out of two locavores would have to starve. Going exclusively local would also affect deeply the source of animal protein. Most of the animal feed is made of ingredients that come for much farther than 100 miles. The chickens and eggs would become less available. Farmed salmon, BC’s largest agricultural export could not use the type of feed they currently use, as fishmeal and fish oil come from Peru and vegetal oil comes from farms located far away. There would go many jobs with very little alternatives. If we look beyond food, other agricultural products such as cotton and wool would not be an option anymore. Cars would disappear, because the main component of tires, rubber, is not produced under this climate. The 100-mile rule will solve traffic problems. If local consumption is the rule for food, should not it be the rule for everything as well? China would probably have different views about this. Not only would their manufacturing collapse, but also if they have to produce food within 100 miles of the consumer, they would have to give up importing agricultural commodities. For them, a true locavore system would mean famine. The same would be true here in British Columbia. When people are hungry, they are not so picky about the distance from the producing farm.

The problem with concepts such as local consumption is that the basic idea has some value, but the idea quickly evolves into an ideology, and ideologies tend to make their followers stop thinking pragmatically. Today, the idea of eating locally in a place like Vancouver is possible because supply easily meets demand, thanks to the 3,000-mile foods. This is ironical. If the distance to market has to be within 100 miles, farmers in low population density areas, such as many regions of North America, South America and Central Europe, would have a different type of problem. They would produce an abundance of food, but because there are not enough people to consume it locally, the law of supply and demand tells us that the price of agricultural commodities would plummet, food would stay in storage and farmers would go out of business, while people in China, and in British Columbia, would suffer hunger. Clearly, the 100-mile diet needs some amendments.

Intuitively, it sounds logical that locally produced food has a lower carbon footprint than food that comes from 2,000 to 10,000 miles away. However, this is only partly true. The mean of transportation affects the carbon footprint. The environmental impact of transport is much higher for road transport than it is for rail transport, which is also higher than water transport. The type of transport also depends on the type of commodity brought to market. Perishables need to reach consumers as quickly as possible for shelf life reasons, while dry goods, such as for instance grains and oilseeds do not face the same kind of deadline. The quality of the logistics is also crucial to reduce the carbon footprint. A fully loaded truck is much more efficient than a local truck dropping small quantities in many places, thus driving around most of the time with empty space in the trailer.

The emphasis should not be so much on local as it should be about the search for efficient and low environmental impact. More than the distance from the farm to the consumer, it would be more useful to provide consumers with information about the actual carbon footprint of the products they buy. They would have the possibility to make the right choices. Retailers, too, would be able to make decisions about their sourcing strategies. Clean products and clean producers need to be rewarded for doing a good job. Here in Vancouver, local food products are more expensive than similar offerings from California, Mexico, Ecuador or Chile. How do you convince families with a tight budget to spend more for local products that look pretty much the same? This problem needs to be addressed. Currently, farmers markets are much about marketing. They sell the experience as much as their production methods. Only a wealthy minority can afford to buy on these markets. The prices are not based on production costs plus farmers income. They are as high as possible, because the farmers can ask these prices. The wealthy city dwellers are willing to pay a substantial premium above what they can buy from the local supermarket. In this relation farmer-consumer, the price bargaining does not take place. If these farmers were to try to sell to a grocery retail chain, they would never get the prices they get from the consumers who will not haggle about the price. This is why more farmers try to sell directly to consumers: they make more money that way. However, this might change in the future. A number of retailers are working towards offering “farmers market” products into their store. This already makes market farmers nervous.

Is local production for local markets the way of the future? My answer is that it partly will be and it partly will not. I do expect a shift of the location of production for perishables. Consumer habits will change, too. In the West, consumers have been spoiled. They can eat anything from anywhere at any time of the year. This luxury probably will not be affordable for long anymore. The superfluous will naturally be eliminated.

As the economics of energy, and therefore of food, will change, producers will increasingly locate their operations closer to cities; and even inside cities. Urban farming is a growing activity. Although it started mostly in poor neighbourhoods as a way of having a small patch of land for personal consumption, more sophisticated and efficient systems are being developed. My expectation is that production, and consumption, of vegetables and fragile fruit (for instance strawberries) will gradually become more integrated in the urban landscape than they are now. I also think that we will see animal productions, such as fresh dairy, poultry meat and eggs relocate closer to consumer markets. An interesting development is aquaponics, the combination of greenhouse produce with fish production in tanks. The production of non-perishables will not relocate. It does not have to. What will probably change is the transportation infrastructure in many areas where these commodities are produced.  This is good news for coffee drinkers and chocolate addicts. After all, transport of commodities over long distance is not just the result of cheap oil. The Silk Road and the spice trade by the Dutch took place before mankind even knew about oil. Trade has always been a force of progress for humanity. It helps an increasing number of people to have access to goods that make their lives better. The rules of trade may not always be fair, but like all human activities, it is a work in progress. Limiting our food supply to 100 miles would be a regression. Subsistence agriculture has not demonstrated that it could feed the world. Most of the people suffering of hunger live in subsistence agriculture areas.

(This topic is one of the many that are presented and discussed in my second book, We Will reap What We Sow)

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

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Helping farmers produce better

Meeting food demand depends for a large part on the ability of farmers to produce adequate quantities of the food products of the right quality. To achieve such an objective, farmers depend on their business partners. To feed an increasing world population, helping farmers succeed is not an option; it is a necessity.

There is no argument against producing better. A market-driven and more efficient production reduces the amount of waste, and it increases the amount of food available for consumers. It reduces the impact on the environment and it actually reduces the cost of production. However, it is important to realize that actions to produce better often are investments, as the effect is not always immediate.

From a value chain point of view, efficient production starts with high-quality ingredients. If the world wants farmers to produce higher volumes, they must have access to good genetics. Seeds that have the potential to deliver high yields, or farm animals that can produce and grow fast, while using feed and water efficiently, are an absolute necessity. Genetics and agriculture must also take genetic diversity and sustainability into account, but with poor genetics, farmers will not be able to meet food demand, and they will not be financially viable for the long-term. Vision and proper strategy are the elements to deal with this dilemma.

Farming inputs, such fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and animal feed, must help plants, and farm animals, to express as much of their genetic potential as possible. Suppliers can play a very important role in helping farmers use the proper products in the right amounts, in the right place, and at the right time. The same principle applies for food processors and distributors. It is their role to help farmers deliver what the market needs when it needs it. They must encourage this by rewarding financially the farmers who do things right. This is in the interest of all the parties involved. Farmers make more money with their products. Processors get products that are more efficient to process, thus saving on costs. Distributors gain market share because they offer the right product to their customers, thus increasing customer satisfaction, appeal and loyalty. The advantage of doing things right is that it becomes more difficult for business partners to switch to a competitor. By being the best partner in business, the need for complicated contractual and legal agreements becomes a little less relevant. It is about loyalty and mutual security.

To achieve this kind of ideal situation requires a lot of effort, commitment and communication. Market needs must be translated in clear product specifications. The knowledge on how to be able to meet the required standards needs the proper channels to be transferred to farmers. Access to information has become much easier with the development of communication tools such as Internet and cell phones. Smart phones are helping further, and now farmers, anywhere in the world, have much faster access to market and technical information than by the past. This helps them make faster and better decisions. However, better technologies and better communication tools are not enough. Extension services are crucial. In my book, Future Harvests, several examples show how positive this is for food production. One is the policy of the Ugandan government that resulted in a boom in rice production, making the country a net exporter of rice. The second example is about the extension services of a food corporation, McCain Foods, in India, that helped farmers produce a better quality of potatoes, meeting market requirements, and earning substantially more this way. Another illustration of the positive effect of knowledge transfer is about the farming leader in Burkina Faso who helped increase food production with simple techniques, and stopped the exodus of population. Proper education and on-going training is part of the food production of the future. The human factor in knowledge transfer is as important as ever. Only people can know what the specific situation of a farmer is. Knowing the farmer is the best way to help them set up plans and strategies to improve their technical and financial performance. A farmer being independent business owners, their main concern is to generate enough revenue to stay in business, and to offer a decent standard of living and a secure future for their families. Helping them in these objectives is the way to get their attention and loyalty. Extension services need to offer the most effective solutions by taking into account the level of skills of the farmers, as well as their financial situation. Some farmers can afford and use high-tech solutions easily. Others may have money, but lack the skills to use certain techniques or technologies. Others may be technically savvy, but may lack the money. Extension service people are the ones who can help farmers make the best choices. They also must assist farmers to get the proper financing if this is the limiting factor, for as long as the money would used to deliver the proper return.

As Cicero stated, “The sinews of war are… endless money”. This tends to be overlooked by many who talk about increasing food production. If farmers do not have access to enough money to be able to produce the food the world needs, they simply will not. Developing agriculture requires serious investments, either from individuals or from governments. Asian and Arab countries know this and this is why they spent massive amounts of money in African and Asian countries, and even in Brazil and Argentina. If farmers cannot buy the basics to produce efficiently, they will have poor harvests. If farmers cannot be profitable, they will stop farming. This is important to realize that being a farmer must be attractive financially, too, if we want to motivate the next generation to be in agriculture. Money is important, but just for food production, more is not necessarily better. To get good results, we must ensure to have the right amount of money at the right time at the right place for the right purpose. The money must be aimed at producing for the market. Financing agriculture is about meeting food demand, not to produce blindly. Just like there is a need for efficient market-driven precision agriculture, the future of agriculture financing must evolve to efficient food-market-driven precision financing.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Swimming in circles

If there is a never-ending feud in the food industry, the one here in British Columbia (BC) about farmed salmon certainly should be put on top of the list. The fight between salmon farmers and environmentalists has been going on for as long as the industry has been around, and it looks as if it will keep lasting for a long time to come.

In previous articles, I have addressed some of my views about the poor perception of some areas of food production and the inability of the industry to connect. The BC salmon industry certainly seems to have difficulties to fight this battle.

I still do not quite understand why they have such a hard time. On the other hand, maybe I just do know too well why.

The controversy is much fiercer in BC than it is in other farmed salmon producing countries. Perhaps, this is because BC farms salmon in the only region where wild salmon is still quite abundant, and this region of the world is still a direct interface between wilderness and human activity.

Opponents of salmon farming came out last week with “superheroes” who were going to put things right of course. Here is their website. Clearly, some people have a lot of imagination. Another PR event was the release, also last week, by the salmon farming industry of a 30-minute video, titled Silver Harvest,  that would put things right of course. Here is the link to Silver Harvest. These two recent PR activities made me come to write the following lines.

I have not so much to say about the superheroes stunt, except that their creators are a bit short on sense of humor and of creativity. Captain Condom? Batman and Spider-Salmon? Come on, anyone can do better than that.  Since they are there to save the wild salmon, the least they could have done is to give the names of the wild Pacific salmon. I had expected Captain Sockeye, Lady Pink, King Chinook, Mighty Coho and Superchum instead. Unless they are stuck in teen years, they sound more like Halloween pranksters.

The industry video was announced with lots of fervor by industry tweets and I was curious to see if finally they would reach the hearts of the public. There, too, I ended disappointed. After a good start, a farmers’ crew sailing to the farms, I thought they would glorify the farmer’s job by showing a typical day at the farm. Not really. The video then focused about how many mistakes the industry made in the past, making me think that, after all, the industry opponents were right to be as active as they had been. I am not going to go in details about a number of statements that made me raise my eyebrows. I prefer to express here what I would like this industry to communicate, instead of the constant defensiveness, the constant reference to facts and science that do not interest the public. Is this video aimed at the public? I am not sure it is, and I am not sure it should be. Who are farmed salmon consumers? For BC farmed salmon, they are mostly North American consumers, and to a lesser extent Japanese and other Asian nationals. Are these consumers concerned about the type of containment system? Hardly. They hardly care where the fresh salmon they buy in stores comes from. With Chile’s ISA epidemics problem that about decimated their production, consumers shifted to Norwegian and BC farmed salmon massively without any further concerns. When Chile’s production returns to previous levels, they will switch back to Chilean salmon just as easily. One of the most important criteria for consumers is the price in the store. Most consumers have no idea how farmed salmon is produced. Only a tiny minority of consumers know, and those who allegedly care do not eat farmed salmon anyway.

I would have liked to see the video showing all the tasks carried out on a farm. I would have loved to see the camera follow a farmer explaining what viewers could see going on on-site, explaining them what they do and why they do it. I would have enjoyed seeing the pride of being a salmon farmer and of providing people with food. Farms employees are good people who want to do a good job that is meaningful to society. They should say very clearly once and for all that they do not accept to be stigmatized and ostracized. They are family people. They have kids to feed and to bring up. They must make clear that no group of society that has the monopoly of morals and ethics. They have to say that enough is enough, and that they deserve respect, even if some do not agree with what they do for a living. A couple of years ago, an email from one of the environmentalists stated that “it is so much fun to torment the salmon farmers”. Harassment is not a sign of superior intelligence. Salmon farmers must also state that if people have ideas to improve production while also ensuring economic activity, they are open to suggestions, but that only constructive and productive criticism is acceptable. The public would understand that.

I wish the video had shown all the steps of production from the egg to the delivery to the final consumers. The content would have been similar, but it would have told an enthusiastic story that could have ended with a group of friends having a blast at a barbecue party with some farmed salmon on the grill. They could have addressed the very same topics but, instead of vague statements of being sustainable, responsible, etc…, well the usual politically correct stuff, they had the opportunity with Silver Harvest to show specifically the precise actions that they have taken, and demonstrate the improvements they made. Thus, the viewers would have seen firsthand the daily activities that ensure that the fish they produce indeed meet all the standards that they claim to use. That does not really happen in Silver Harvest. Instead, I got to listen to a list of topics without real cohesiveness between each other and the announced purpose of the video. People do not like to be told how they should think. They love to come to the conclusions themselves. They do not like being lectured. The public is not stupid, just ignorant. After all, no group has the monopoly of knowledge and science. In Silver Harvest, the speaker who, in my view, would reach the public’s hearts is Richard Harry, President of the Aboriginal Aquaculture Association. He made such a clear and strong plea for the communities that depend so much on aquaculture for their livelihoods.

Too few consumers have a chance to visit a salmon farm, especially considering how far away from farms they live. The camera could have been their eyes. Most people with whom I have talked about farmed salmon in Vancouver simply tell me that they know nothing about salmon farming, but they hear “things”. I always enjoy telling them how farmed salmon is produced, about the good things as well as the areas for improvement. After such a conversation, they usually look at the issue with a different perspective. They are interested in learning more, but they need to know that they can trust the one telling them the story.

Talking spontaneously from the heart about one’s passion is what reaches and wins others’ hearts the best.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The danger of a weakening US dollar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The quiet revolution of food retailers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Consumers shape food production systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Regaining the consumer’s trust

I read many blogs, articles and opinions about food on a regular basis. Yesterday, I came across an interesting blog post on Meatingplace.com. Yvonne Vizzier Thaxton, an authority in the US poultry industry, wrote the article, titled “Consumer trust” after she found out about a survey carried out by the Center for Food Integrity. Basically, the survey concluded that as farms were growing in size, consumers started to wonder if they still had the same values, and although small farms still have the public opinion’s trust, large-scale farms are looked at with suspicion.

That article brought me to think about trust, how it works, and what to do to win it back once it has been lost.

Instead of trying to figure out which group of the population to influence, as the author suggests, I prefer to go back to the basics. If I stop trusting someone, what would he/she have to do to convince me that he/she is trustworthy again? The empathic exercise is a much better way to find out what might work or not. In my opinion, that is exactly what the food sector should do first, instead of pushing the same message without much success.

First, people stops trusting when they are disappointed, when they feel betrayed or when they feel unsafe. By finding out which one of the above caused the loss of trust, and what more specific reasons made the public change their minds, the food sector will already make huge progress.

The second thing to keep in mind is regaining trust is even much more difficult than winning it in the first place. The baggage will stay in the way for a long time. Therefore, a lot of patience is required. There will be no quick fix. A cute video clip, well-thought press releases will not be enough. Far from it. Trust is not something that can be forced, it must be earned. Trust is the result of consistent and positive behavior that benefits the other party.

Once people have lost trust, per definition, they do not believe anything they hear from the distrusted party. In fact, they will hardly listen. Therefore, words will have little impact, unless they go along with actions that confirm that the message is true. If the food industry does not want to change and hopes that communication will be enough to change the public’s mind, nothing will change. When you want someone to prove to you that he/she is reliable, you want to see tangible proof that something is changing in your favor. The most powerful communication tool that really works for regaining trust is the non-verbal communication. The distrusted one must sweat to win trust back. This does not take away that verbal communication must continue. It will keep the relationship alive, but it will not be the critical part for turning around the situation.

Here is just an example to illustrate this. The US meat and poultry sector has undergone many recall procedures about bacterial contamination over the years, and at this day, this problem seems to continue. The industry takes measures to solve the problem, because such recalls are very costly, but as long as there will not be an obvious change in food safety, and recalls keep on happening, consumers will keep doubting how their meat is produced.

Food suppliers have no other choice than to listen to the consumers. The customer is always king. The customer is always right, even when he/she is wrong. A lot of this is about perception. Here is an example of the above. Last June, Greenpeace came with a ranking of Canadian retailers about their seafood procurement, and in particular about their sustainability score on seafood. Costco scored poorly, and their first reaction was to dismiss Greenpeace’s assessment, by basically saying that they are professionals who know what they do, and that they do not really need advice from Greenpeace. Yet, a few weeks later, Costco reorganized its seafood assortment from 15 species back to seven sustainably produced seafood species. That is successful non-verbal communication.

Regaining the consumers’ trust will require transparency, integrity, honesty, a lot of patience and communication, and most of all action towards change that meet the market’s demand. This does not mean that all consumers wishes can be met. After all, life is a continuous negotiation. Food producers and the public need to meet somewhere halfway. Market-driven always trumps production-driven.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.