The sockeye salmon returns with some lessons

September 3, 2010

This could have been the third example, after canola and vines, of what I called earlier “Science being taken hostage”, but this story actually goes beyond just the tactical use of selected science.

The Fraser River sockeye salmon is returning in record numbers to British Columbia (BC) in Canada, the highest numbers in a century. This good news comes at a time when discussions about the disappearance of sockeye were reaching a climax. Last year, the number of returning sockeye salmon was very low and considered by some as alarming. Scientists, and pseudo-scientists, were presenting their own conclusions and they were debating about how the future looked.

Those who are not familiar with the salmon issue in BC need to know that for 20+ years, a war between environmentalists and salmon farmers have been waging. Although all the participants in this debate claim to base their statements on science, Nature is just throwing facetiously some oil on the fire. Environmentalists have accused salmon farms of being the cause for the (apparent) depletion of wild salmon stocks. Much of the accusations rested on research carried out by a local environmentalist who linked her sea lice counting and mortality of juvenile pink salmon to fish farms. Until last year, she seemed to have something of a case, as returns of pink salmons into BC rivers were low. Last year, though, the pink salmon returned in large numbers, which contradicted her theory. For years, the fish farming industry did what it had to do. It always denied any responsibility in the decreasing numbers of pink salmon, using the selected relevant science to support its case.

Ironically, when the pink salmon returned massively last year, salmon farmers were cheering the good news, but environmentalists had been rather discrete to express what should have delighted them. Maybe good news is not always good news. To make things more twisted and controversial, last year’s returns of sockeye salmon, which is a different species of Pacific salmon, were quite low. Although environmentalists never addressed any concern about salmon farms and sockeye numbers, they suddenly saw a connection. The debate became so animated that the Canadian Prime Minister himself decided to set up an inquiry about the disappearing Fraser River sockeye salmon. An inquiry commission was set up with the objective of reviewing with all parties involved the situation, and then present some conclusion. Of course, science(once again) must be the basis for the investigation. I can give you the summary of what the conclusion of the commission would have been, and still might be. “The ecology of salmon is complex and it was not possible to identify any culprit for the disappearance of sockeye salmon with certainty. The commission recommends a number of actions to be taken by all stakeholders in their respective fields of activity. The commission recommends the set up of a monitor group to report and address any new development that can lead to a better understanding and management of the sockeye population”. Something of that nature. The thing is that the life cycle of salmon is quite complex and involves a vast array of environmental conditions in the mountains, in the lakes and rivers and in the ocean. It takes 4 to up to 6 years for a sockeye to return to its birthplace and many events can take place on their route. The high return depends on how many eggs were laid, how many hatched, how many juvenile salmon survived in fresh water and later in salt water. The survival rate can depend on how much food they had available on their trip, or on the population of their natural predators. And all this may be the result of human activity, but also of natural causes. Fact is very few people really know, and can really know what happened. Yet, most of the participants claim to have the knowledge that explains a drop in the sockeye population. There just seems to be less knowledge available about why the population increased.

The whole controversy is not so much about science as it is about politics. In the highly polarized political world of BC, looking for consensus is obviously not enough fun. Fighting is where the joy is, even if it means that everyone may lose in the end. Let’s face it; it does not take a genius to figure out how to have a harmonious cohabitation of fisheries and aquaculture. Unfortunately, there is little action in that direction. Once the problem is solved, there would be nothing left to criticize. Being a critic is a remunerated job.

With the high numbers of fish coming back, a new claim appears: salmon farms are not causing any problem at all, without presenting any science-based proof of that. Of course, this conclusion is already challenged. Remember what I said about polarization. The controversy will go on, as time goes by and future returns will probably show lower levels again. Salmon farmers are not off the hook.

And this brings me to what goes beyond the discussion about science in the salmon debate. It illustrates several topics that I address in my book Future Harvests: sustainability and market orientation. With the high numbers of sockeye, the word out there is to catch as much as they can. I was talking with a fish broker last week. He told me that there is so much fishing activity in the plans that there is a shortage of ice and of totes to hold the fish in processing plants. A few weeks ago, the BC environmentalists denounced the certification of Fraser River sockeye as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, claiming that the low return numbers of last year told a different story. Now, the numbers are so high that fishermen seem very eager to fish as much as possible and sustainability concerns have disappeared. It could be a good idea to take only what is possible to process and sell, and let the surplus of fish to swim back into the rivers and lay as many eggs as possible. This would help keeping high numbers for the return in 4-6 years from now. It would be rather sad to deplete the future stocks. Although fishermen have always criticized salmon farming companies for being driven by profit only, their attitude with the current situation follows pretty much that logic, though. With prices going down, I expect to hear soon some fishermen complain that there is too much sockeye. Question is who will get the blame this time?

This rush to catch that many fish illustrates the lack of market-oriented thinking. In fact, it could hardly be any more production driven. Fish brokers wonder where to sell all that fish. Simple economics tell that the price for salmon will fall. This has already started, and is likely to continue. Maybe saving more salmon to go reproduce in the rivers would have contributed to get better prices, too. In economics, this behaviour is known as the “preference of the present”. For instance, when you have a limited amount of water to cross the desert, you will choose to drink it up to satisfy your thirst, instead of rationing it and keep some for tomorrow.

Tonight, I will go for sushi!

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Future Harvests – A preview of the book

July 24, 2010

My book, Future Harvests, is expected to be published before the end of August.

Here is a preview to give you a flavor of the content.

For a full view, please click on the thumbnails.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a sample containing the table of contents and the preface of the book:

 

For the video trailers, please visit my YouTube channel.


Future Harvests – The book is coming soon!

April 9, 2010

 

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

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

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

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

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

or click here if video does not appear

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

or click here if video does not appear

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

or click here if video does not appear

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


The fun of writing this book

January 20, 2010

Over the last few months, I have been working quite a bit on writing this book about the future of agriculture.

I must say that compiling in one book a wide range of topics that, without any doubt, will be part of the future of our food production has been an exhilarating experience.

From demographics in full motion to the latest in technology, we can envision many different scenarios to set up the most efficient food production possible, as local farmers, industry NGOs and governments will need to find optimal solutions with the land, the water, the labor force and the capital available to them. Water and soil will be of vital importance, and their proper management is essential for the stability of many countries.

In the future, there will be no room left for wastage and inefficiencies, or we all will be punished if we get complacent. Similarly, we will need to change our thinking and accept that solving future problems will not be about transferring a one-fit-all model to very diverse situations. We might have had the illusion that it once worked, but it actually did not. We will learn from the mistake of the past to perform better. Sustainability is not an option; it is the only choice, because per definition what is not sustainable is doomed.

As food is a necessity, and since when we share between 9 billion people there is less left for each of us than when we shared between 4 billion, efficiency will be paramount. This will affect food prices and social stability. Technology is necessary but it is not the panacea in itself. The most needed resource for the future is strong visionary leadership to help us develop the plan for the next decades.

Let’s prepare ourselves for a deep change and we must accept the idea that we might have futuristic farms run by robots, satellites and computers in some regions as well as local urban gardeners in the heart of the cities, where 70% of the world population is expected to live. We will have small organic farmers and we will have large industrial farms using genetically engineered crops, but we also will have large highly efficient semi-organic farms that will combine the best of both worlds. We still will have specialized farms as well as mixed operations. Hydroponics and aquaponics will grow substantially in the future.

Today’s diet will be revisited and excesses will be out of place. Should we become vegetarians or do we simply need to eat less meat? Will aquaculture live up to the expectation and become the main source of animal protein? You will find out in the book.

Countries will have to think on how to guarantee food security to their populations. If it is not done well, this challenging task might end up in serious conflicts. Foreign and private investment in land and farming will continue in Asia and Africa. If managed properly, they will bring much prosperity to these regions, but if not managed properly, then we can fear the worst.

All these topics and many more will be presented in the book and I hope that it will help readers to understand all the variables that are at play, as well as it will help them get a more objective view of many controversial topics such as GMOs, nanotechnology or in-vitro meat. Once readers will have finished the book, they will be able to figure out whether and how we can feed 9 billion people. Thanks to examples from all over the world in as diverse countries as Uganda, Kenya, the USA, China, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Argentina, France, The Netherlands, Cuba, Kazakhstan and many more, we discover a myriad of different situations and solutions that illustrate human ingenuity to produce food.

However, for now just a few more months of patience as I need to get through the process of publishing.


Aquaculture: the solution to feed 9 billion people?

December 8, 2009

Last week, BioScience published an article based on the research of a group of researchers from the CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas), the Spanish High Council for Scientific Research.

They present their views on the potential of marine aquaculture to provide enough food for the growing world population. The authors of the report do not see fisheries as a significant option anymore, as the wild fish stocks are depleted, and the amount of time to replenish the stocks will be too long for fisheries to be able to meet the needs of the population. Aquaculture has gradually compensated the demand for fish that fisheries were not able to supply, and half of the seafood consumed today already originate from aquaculture. It is the fastest growing food supply activity and the projections for future growth are very strong. The researchers think that marine aquaculture could multiply its production by a factor 20 by 2050 and thus would play a major role in providing the world population with animal protein.

They bring up some interesting facts about agriculture and land animal farming. For instance, it takes 10 times more water per calorie to produce meat than it does to produce grains. Further, animal meat products represent only 3.5% of food production, but they consume 45% of the water used in agriculture. Considering demand for meat is expected to increase by 21% between 2005 and 2015, and will keep on increasing, this will only exacerbate this situation.

Another point that this group raises is the global nitrogen-use efficiency in animal productions. According to their sources, it is slightly more than 10% for land animals (5% for beef and 15% for pork), which makes their production a major source of nitrogen inputs to the environment. In contrast, marine animals have much greater nitrogen-use efficiency, at about 20% for shrimp and 30% for fish. Therefore, marine aquaculture culture releases two to three times less nitrogen to the environment than livestock production does.

From an environmental point of view, the idea of shifting the production of animal protein from the land where it uses scarce resources such as land and water, to the ocean where space and water are no limitations anymore sounds very sensible. From a nutritional point of view, replacing meat and dairy by seafood that is rich in healthy components such as omega-3 fatty acids is quite attractive, too.

They also notice that the land available for agriculture is shrinking, due to soil degradation and urbanism. Further, there is a growing scarcity of fresh water and increased competition for water as well. Therefore, activities on land do not offer the potential to grow all that much more food to feed the growing population. Even freshwater aquaculture faces these limitations. Freshwater aquaculture currently 57% of total aquaculture, therefore there is an untapped potential with marine aquaculture, as it does not use fresh water.

Of course, the main challenge to execute such a development of marine aquaculture production is to find the proper quality and quantity of feed. The researchers do not see the use of fishmeal and fish oil as an option anymore as they predict that the species used to make these products will not be able in sufficient quantities. Replacement by protein and oils from agriculture crops is an option for the short-term, but as aquaculture volumes would increase, the competition for these ingredients with meat production will make them too expensive, and for the reasons explained above, depending on land agriculture to feed marine species will face crop production limitations. Therefore, they prefer to envision a total new approach of aquaculture feeds, and recommend developing a new feed chain based on aquatic ingredients, such planktons, microalgae and seaweed. This approach makes sense, but the time lines to develop such a supply source and the cost of production of such an “aquatic” feed still need to be investigated. Several “seaweed farms” in production in China show interesting results and they seem to promise a strong potential of production for feed.

Another development that they expect is offshore aquaculture. Aquaculture operations located in coastal areas, although they are easier to access and generally in quieter waters, are very often located in zones where there are local issues to deal with, such as interaction with wild fish or recreational activities. Moving offshore can reduce these issues.

As you can see, developing the future of aquaculture is not simply a matter of growing fish in pens, but it requires a broader thinking that includes not only the oceans but agriculture on land, too. The future of food will require from us the ability to manage the whole planet!

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


How sustainable is “sustainable”?

October 2, 2009

The more as read about new certified sustainable foods sources, the more I start to wonder about how really sustainable they are. As I have mentioned before, I believe that sustainability is the only way forward because, per definition, what is not sustainable has no future, but I am beginning to have doubts about the credibility of some certification schemes.

There are two things bothering me:

  1. I thought that I had heard something about fisheries collapsing all over the world, but it sounds like more and more seafood is sustainable, and in such quantities that large retailers can offer it. Almost every week there is at least one new certified fishery and many more to come from what I hear. Does this really add up?
  2. Sustainable foods seem to follow the same logic as the consumption society that has brought us in such trouble already. The message seems to be: consume more of it because it is sustainable! I just miss the “consume with moderation” message.

Clearly, certifying sustainable food is a business, and definitely a big business growing further. Moreover, the more food programs certified, the more captive audit customers, therefore the more revenue, it produces.

In addition, it is very clear that there is a lot more “green” talk in business and marketing than actual improvement, at this stage.

Sustainability is a very serious matter, and therefore it is of the utmost importance that certification standards are above any suspicion. Only their credibility will allow us to make the proper progress towards a better future.

Funding and accountability to consumers are two important tools to guarantee such high standards and integrity. I like France’s Label Rouge model, because certification is carried out and supervised by the Ministry of Agriculture, therefore funded and accountable to the French people, their consumers.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Sustainability: A land of confusion?

September 17, 2009

The more I read and hear about sustainability, the more confused I get about what the people making statements about it really mean, if they mean anything at all.

Very clearly, everyone now goes sustainable or green or whichever other term they choose. It is almost as if sustainability is a completely new revolutionary concept. No, it is not. That was the way people lived for ages, before we started thinking that we did not have to live by Nature’s laws. Yes, in the old times people would repair their socks instead of throwing them away. What were they thinking?

Two things really worry me about the current sustainability approach. The first one is companies appointing one person in charge of sustainability. Can sustainability be a separate entity in an organization or has what should be our most basic thinking been so forgotten that someone needs to reinvent it? I do not think so. Sustainability is everyone’s concern and if there is a CSO (S for you know what), it should be the person at the very top, imposing sustainability thinking to every employee in the company. This topic is too important to delegate. The second one is how quickly businesses that have shown some serious deficiencies in the sustainability area now come out very quickly with all sorts of announcement and even certification proving how well they are doing. Of course, on the other hand, there are the market watchers claiming that some of these claims are not true.

For instance, I am getting more and more confused by how quickly, and almost on a weekly basis, restaurants and supermarkets are able to source sustainable seafood. As such, this is great news. Yet, it makes me even wonder if there indeed was an overfishing problem. Something just does not quite add up.

There are those who seem to reduce sustainability in food production to organic or to small farms, almost as if the Amish way, with all due respect for the Amish, is the only way forward. I disagree with this rather reductionist thinking. I believe that with all the technology that we currently have, we can be sustainable and modern.

Therefore, for those who, like me, are confused about what they hear and read, here are a few statements about how I think about the subject, and I hope that they are not confusing to you.

  1. Per definition, what is not sustainable has no future. Therefore, just do it, instead of talking how you would do it.
  2. Everything that continuously depletes a source of our basic essential needs is not sustainable. Think about it before depletion reaches the point of no return!
  3. Everything that continuously increases the level of harmful components in what we breathe, drink or eat is not sustainable. Think about it before increasing water, air, soil and food pollution!

It is just this practical.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.