Consumers shape food production systems

October 21, 2010

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.

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How to attract people to food production?

October 18, 2010

With the population increase, food production becomes an increasingly strategic activity. Yet, the food sector does not seem to have the appeal it deserves, and attracting new people appears to be a challenging task.

In countries where the percentage of the active population in agriculture is low, many young people simply have never had any exposure to food production. Their food knowledge is limited to their visits to the local supermarket. Since one can love only what one knows, this seriously restricts the number of potential candidates. In a previous article, “Who will be the farmers of the future?“, I had already asked the question of who would be the farmers of the future. To get the attention of the youth, the food sector needs to become more visible and more approachable. There is a need for more interaction between education and visits to farms and food processors. As I mentioned in “Nutrition basics should be taught in school”, such activities should be part of the normal curriculum. Understanding food is understanding Nature, and understanding Nature is understanding who we are. Food, together with water and air, is the one thing that we cannot live without. This should make clear beyond any doubt how important food production and food supply are for the future of our species.

To attract new people to the food sector, it is also quite important to tell what kind of jobs this sector has to offer. These jobs need to be not only interesting, but they also must offer the candidates the prospect of competitive income, long-term opportunities, and a perceived positive social status. Many students have no idea about the amazing diversity of jobs that agriculture (including aquaculture) and food production have to offer. This is what both the sector and the schools must communicate. Just to name a few and in no particular order, here are some of the possibilities: farming, processing, logistics, planning, sales, marketing, trade, operations, procurement, quality, customer service, IT, banking and finance, nutrition (both animal and human), agronomy, animal husbandry, genetics, microbiology, biochemistry, soil science, ecology, climatology, equipment, machinery, fertilizers, irrigation, consumer products, retail, research, education, plant protection, communication and PR, legal, management, knowledge transfer, innovation, politics, services, etc…  Now, you may breathe again!

All these types of activities offer possibilities for work that can be both local and international. These jobs can be indoor or outdoor occupations. Employers are both small and large businesses. Jobs are available in industries, in government agencies, in not-for-profit organizations. Agriculture and food are about life science, and life science is about life. Not many economic sectors can offer such a broad choice of professions.

This said, getting more students in the field of food production will require relentless communication about the present situation as well as about future perspectives. It is necessary for colleges and universities to envision the future. Educating students today must help making them operational for the challenges of the future. Education is nothing less than developing the human resources that will increase the prosperity, the stability and the dynamics of the society of tomorrow. Attracting new students goes further than just agriculture and food production at large. Within food production, every sector also competes to attract new people. Some healthy competition should benefit the whole food chain.

Clearly, there is a need to identify future trends, future challenges and future needs to produce better food and more food. This will require a practical approach. Identify future needs is not an intellectual exercise. It is about providing people with food on a daily basis for the years to come. Identifying future challenges is a team effort between education, research, farmers, businesses and governments. All must work together to create a more secure future. If we want to avoid suboptimal solutions, there cannot be walls between the links of the food production chain.

In my opinion, the most effective way to work towards developing the proper curriculum and attracting students for the jobs of the future is to have a market-driven approach. The question is not only what type of jobs will be needed, but also where will they be needed? To be effective in this process, it is necessary to develop a vision of the things to come for the coming 10 to 20 years, which is the purpose of The Food Futurist (see mission statement). In our fast-changing world, today already belongs to the past. Developing a curriculum on current issues will not prepare students properly for their professional lives, and neither will it serve society properly. Only by identifying what skills will be needed is it possible to offer the best job perspectives for future food professionals, and being able to overcome future challenges. And feeding 9 billion people by 2050 is quite an objective! Identifying the challenges of the future indicates where the best job opportunities are. The action plans to develop tomorrow’s curricula will depend greatly on geographic location. Clearly, India will face with very different demographic, environmental and economic situations than North America, Europe or Brazil will. However, when it comes to food, we will become even more globally interdependent than we are today. This offers many opportunities to train people for work abroad, too.

As my head teacher in Animal Production, the late Julien Coléou, taught us in the first lesson of our final year at the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon: “To live is to learn, to create and to fight”. When it comes being prepared for the future, these three pillars of life all need to be on the curriculum.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Who will be the farmers of the future?

November 11, 2009

While most of the discussions about the future of agriculture and food tend to focus about how to feed 9 billion people, and about whether it should be organic or industrial, one question seems to be left aside, though it is a very important one: who will be the farmers.

If the forecast of the UN is correct and by 2050 when we are 9 billion, 70% of the people will live in cities, while today this number  is only 47%, this means that in fact the rural population will decrease by about 25% from the current numbers (2.7 billion vs. 3.6 billion today). This means that there will be a lot less farmers in the future.

Farmer of the futureSo, who will they be and where will they be?

A lot of the good agricultural land is in the Northern hemisphere, and in areas where not only the population numbers  are stagnating, but these are regions where the average age of the population is increasing from an already rather high level of about 50% of the population older than 37. These regions, North America, Western Europe and Eastern Europe are not likely the countries where we can expect a surge in urban population. This will happen mostly in Africa, Asia and Arab countries.

These Northern hemisphere countries already have large commercial farming structures and, unless they train many new farmers, the concentration trend is likely to continue, meaning even less farms, and larger farms than today.

In countries where the agriculture infrastructure is more fragmented and farms are smaller, which are the countries where the urban population is going to increase the most, there clearly is a need to rationalize production and increase yields to feed this new population that will have very little possibilities to grow food where they live. This means a “revolution” in the way agriculture will have to be organized and structured. Asia and South America have already engaged in this process for a few decades, yet depending on the countries they will face different challenges, mostly about access to water and ensuring the sustainability of their environment.

The continent where agriculture has stayed the most traditional is Africa, where a large share of the land is used for subsistence. Many African countries have struggled for years with poor policies and a lack of investment to help a proper development. This has resulted in lower yields over time. As such, this also means that Africa is the continent with the highest potential for improvement, although this would have to be managed very carefully, as climatic and socio-cultural conditions are very sensitive.

Therefore, we can conclude that in the future, not only will we have fewer farmers, meaning fewer farms, but also in the same time, we will need to increase production and train a new generation. All of this will require a fair amount of capital that many farmers alone cannot afford, especially considering how their income situation usually is.

This will be no surprise to see more capital coming from large corporations, investors and governments. This is already happening in Africa with the land purchases and leases, and we can expect his to happen. There is a huge (rather captive) market where demand probably is going to outpace supply, and there is a lot of capital waiting to enter markets where money can be made in trade activities.

Farmers wanted!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Consulting Group Ltd.


Educating the consumer – Nutritional information only is not enough

October 15, 2009

Last week a survey was published in the US about whether fast food customers were using nutritional information to make their choice. The result was that although they could read how many calories their meal would include, they did not choose for a healthier lower calorie meal.

Apparently, this was a shocker. It was not to me, and this for a couple of simple reasons. First, people do not go to a fast food restaurant to nibble on a knackebrod. Secondly, information disclosed is never enough to make people change their habits, especially if they have a craving for what they buy. Otherwise, why do some people still smoke when they can read in big letters on the pack that it will kill them?

Parents play a crucial role in getting good eating habits

Parents play a crucial role in getting good eating habits

If we want to make people change their eating habits, information is necessary, but by far not sufficient. When it comes to food, we are dealing with many complex issues that have to do with psychology and with taste and a behaviour that we have acquired at a very young and developed as we grow up in the environment that our parents have provided. Further, we all know how skillfully marketing has use these psychological “weaknesses”.

In the US, there is currently quite a debate on health care and obesity is one of the main issues. In many ways, our eating habits are a reflection of our life style and of our society, as I have mentioned in my article “If we are what we eat, what will we eat in the future?” Therefore, trying to induce a change in our eating habits can only succeed if we make broader changes in the way we live.

Next to information, what consumers need is education. Unless they have an understanding of what the data they get really means, how can we expect them to act upon it?

Teaching children about nutrition will help them eat properly

Teaching children about nutrition will help them eat properly

We need to teach children about the basics of nutrition and of metabolism as early as possible, and this education must include their parents, too. There is no big mystery behind what causes obesity, diabetes and other food excesses related ailments. It is quite easy to explain what functions the different food groups fill and how to compose healthy meals, as it is really just a matter of adding up and keeping the right proportions.

It would be highly useful to educate everyone about where food comes from and how it is produced. A program like “Know your food, know your farmer” introduced in the US is useful, but “Know your farming” is just as needed.

What parents also need to understand is that it is their duty to give their children a balanced diet, although it might mean that they, too, should have one, but most importantly, when it comes to decide what is on the table, the children do not dictate what they want simply based on what they like.

Education, though, goes much further than just parents and schools, and retailers, restaurants and the agribusiness need to co-operate more than they currently do, even though some are more active than others in this field. If we want to solve a society problem, the whole society must participate. It is rather interesting to see how the meat industry in the US is reacting to the proposal of a meat-free Monday in school cafeterias. I can understand the resistance to government intervention in telling how people should feed themselves, although when this leads to many health issues, one could argue that if the people cannot make the right choices, maybe someone else should set stricter rules to help them. I also can understand that such a meat-free Monday is a bit threatening to the meat industry, as it means (a tiny little) bit less business in the short-term and maybe quite a bit more if it meant that the next generation might cut on meat consumption. On the other hand, what the meat industry in developed countries needs to realize is that there are plenty of people in other countries who are longing for meat, and these new markets have more than the potential to replace the volumes lost in their domestic markets.

Another great source of information is consumers’ organizations, like the ones I know in Europe. They are independent and they provide many surveys and comparisons on consumer products. They have been very useful in helping consumers gain more awareness about what they consume. Unfortunately, such open and objective information is not directly available in all countries and this is a weakness in the fight for health.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Nutrition basics should be taught in school

August 5, 2009

When food costs twice!A recent report showed that the annual medical cost of obesity reached $147 billion (see article). On the other hand the contribution of the meat and poultry industry in the US is $832 billion annually. Therefore, we can expect ongoing arguments between economic interest and health care costs for a while. The simple fact is that too many Americans do not eat a properly balanced diet and that should change.

The most efficient way to improve eating habits is by understanding nutrition and educating children at an early age about health and food, and about diseases caused by either unbalance or excess. Food safety is not only about bacteria or residues, but also about handling food properly and eating right.

People know actually very little about proper nutrition. The average person may have some ideas about how many calories he/she needs on a daily basis, but it hardly goes much further than that. Only few people know how many grams of protein they should consume on a daily basis. They know even less how many grams of fat they need. When it comes to carbohydrates, the situation is just as confused and confusing. Most people do not even know how the different groups of carbs (starch, sugars and fibers) are metabolised and what ratio between them they should consume. The result is a diet that has negative long-term effects.

If the FAO estimates the daily calorie needs at 1,800 for an average human being, the averages in developed countries are much higher, reaching about 3,500 on average for Western countries and even 3,800 in the US. The same conclusion is true for protein and other nutritional elements. It should be no surprise then that when people eat twice as much as they should, they get twice as big as they should, too. The reality is that in developed countries, people do not eat what they need, but they eat what they want. And they want too much.

Balanced nutrition is not difficult to understand, but someone needs to teach it. As parents have about as little knowledge and understanding as their kids do, schools would be quite well inspired to put nutrition on their curriculum. After all, schools are the places where future generations are educated to do the right things in the future, or at least it should be part of their mandate. Helping people eating right is part of creating healthy and prosperous societies. Sick societies will not be leaders. Of course, including nutrition in the curriculum is not enough for schools. They must also provide foods and drinks that contribute to healthy eating. Offering kids access to junk foods and junk drinks in vending machines may generate revenue for schools, but it works against helping kids to have a healthy diet. If they have the choice, kids will not spend their lunch money on water and broccoli. The responsible adults in charge must help them make the right choices. Offering treats is not to schools to decide, but only to the parents.

Copyright 2009 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.