The fun of writing this book

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?

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”?

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?

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.

Health and environment as growing drivers of food production

Health concerns will gain more importance in the future in the decision process of consumers when they buy their food.
More and more, we can hear and read about concerns and even rejection of the current production systems. Although this bad publicity is not always based on the most objective facts, it has been able to find a growing audience.

It must be true, it was in the newspaper

It must be true, it was in the newspaper

Since most consumers have little or no knowledge of agriculture and food, their only source of information is in the popular media. On the other side of the discussion, the agri-food industry is not getting through, because its message tends to be too defensive and too technical. Unfortunately for the industry, errors from the past (for example, the use of DDT) or cases from other industries (for example, tobacco) contribute to cast a shadow on its credibility. As I wrote my previous article “Less controversy thanks to transparency”, the agribusiness will achieve much more by opening up and having consumers visit their premises so that they can tell what they saw. They must organize more Open House days.

Therefore, for now, consumers have a certain perception of how food is produced, and it is not so relevant to argue whether this perception is correct or not. Perception simply is reality, and consumers act according to what they believe is true.
A little bit of this...There is a growing concern about environmental and health aspects of food production. About the environment, you can list very diverse things such as the depletion of wild fish stocks in the oceans, the interaction between aquaculture and wild fish stocks, manure and smell of intensive animal husbandry and impact of manure on soils and drinking water, deforestation of rainforest for ranching of beef or about growing GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). On the health side, consumers worry about food poisoning due to bacteria, such as E. Coli, listeria, campylobacter and salmonella, but also about residues of pesticides or antibiotics, as well as they worry about the use of hormones in animal productions. As the discussions get more animated in the US about the reform of health care and the cost of obesity, more and more people are wondering about whether the fast food diet is a proper one. Next to this, animal welfare is a growing concern by more and more consumers.
The answer to many of these worries has started to appear in the last few years with the growth of the organic market segment. When we see the growth and the performance of a retailer such as Whole Foods, there is no doubt that organic foods have a growing audience.

The concerns about the environment are forcing retailers, food service and businesses involved in the production chain of food to make changes. Some of the actions they have taken can be seen as marketing or PR, but they also have become mainstream. Just a look at how many restaurant and supermarket chains have already implemented sustainable seafood programs indicates how serious this change in consumer attitude is. Fast food chains are also actively working on reducing their environmental impact and set standards on where they source their meat, based on environmental concerns, such as no beef from ranches deforesting the Brazilian rainforest.
In the past, we have seen some examples of production methods that had to be abandoned, simply because no solution to cope with environmental problems could be found. This has been the case in The Netherlands where the level of intensification caused such manure surpluses and risks of animal disease to such a point that after many years of looking for viable technical solutions in vain, the government decided that the size of the national herds had to be reduced.
Similarly to what happened in Europe over the last decade, we can expect that much stricter rules in the use of antibiotics will be applied, and I expect a similar trend to a progressive elimination of the use of hormones in animal husbandry. About animal welfare, there should not be any surprise the day that only husbandry systems that allow enough “recreation” area for animals will be allowed. All of the above is going to have an impact on how and where food is produced. Systems will become less intensive, and progressively we will see more techniques to improve efficiency to compensate.

Past Food?

Past Food?

As I also had mentioned in another article (Future price of fish and meat: up), it is simple logic that with more people to feed, food is going to become more expensive. However, the relative prices of various food products also need to go along their relative health benefits. Today, it looks like only wealthy people can afford a healthy diet, as the price of “good” food is substantially higher than the price of what makes a nutritionally unbalanced meal. This clearly does not work in the direction of a healthier population at large.

The way consumers think will define the way we eat and produce our food. Many changes in consumption patterns, in production systems and in product offering are under way. I will get back later with more details on what my views are on this.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Innovation and tradition shape the future

Tradition in food can be quite resilientIn order to understand what changes are ahead of us, we need to realize that opposite forces are engaged in shaping the world of the future. As we all know, accepting change is always a slow and sometimes a difficult process. There are those who see the possibilities and those who see the drawbacks. The first train was going, supposedly, to get cows stop giving milk, but we now know that cows love to watch trains passing by. Probably, the first caveman who drew a picture of an animal on the wall was considered by some as a great magician and probably by others as pure evil. As such, such a struggle is very useful, as on the one hand it shakes immobility and open new doors, and on the other hand it prevents us to rush into the unknown without thinking first.

Change is part of our lives and that will not change. The problem that we face about change is actually about the pace of change, more than over the change itself. Over the last century, this pace has just increased steadily, thanks to more and more efficient technology.

If we look back the lifespan of the oldest living person, which brings us back to the end of the nineteenth century, just take a minute to think of all the changes that have occurred since then. There was no car industry, no antibiotics, no commercial airlines, no TV, no internet or cell phones, no supermarkets, just to mention a few things that we take for granted nowadays.

Although such a change is dramatic and has affected the way we live today, it has been a process that has needed time. Usually, it is said that more than 60% of the products that exist today did not exist 10 years ago and if we extrapolate this to decade to come, we can expect some even more spectacular changes.

Innovation is in constant motion and technology helps us to conceive and to use much faster than by the past. Yet, it is interesting to see that even with such a pace of change, traditions still play a very important part in our lives. Even with lots of modern gadgets, most cultures keep their specific characteristics. Their respective values do not evolve as much as our “things“, these just become part of the culture. This is an important point when it comes to innovation: what you offer must meet a need, if it does not, it will either fail, or at best be a fad.

Having a look at the future, you must wonder what the underlying trends of innovation are since it started. I can see several major constant areas of innovation:

  • Reducing physical labor.
  • Helping us live better and longer.
  • Increasing efficiency.
  • Helping communication.
  • Increasing mobility.
  • Offering more leisure and entertainment.
  • Making some people a little wealthier.

What could this mean for food production in the years to come?

  • high tech agriculture - photo BayerMore technology to improve efficiency of water use, fertilizer use, animal feed use, land use, energy use (objective: zero waste).
  • More mechanization, automation and robotising, especially in software more than hardware, working on precision (intelligent technology).
  • Greater focus on health and natural solutions for food and for agriculture/aquaculture/fisheries (objective: zero residue and zero contaminants in water, air, soil, and food).
  • Projects to repair environmental damage and include agriculture/aquaculture/fisheries in environmental management (restore and maintain sustainable food production).
  • Policies, and politics, to increase food production (disease control, regulation, more government intervention at strategic level, incentives).
  • Redistribution of markets with geographical shift of production and consumption areas.
  • Shift from convenient to practical food solutions (bulk meal components).
  • More education on agriculture, food and nutrition (balanced diets, food safety, traceability).

While such changes will come over time, consumers will still be looking for some level of tradition in foods. This can be about authenticity, regional specialties and recipes, or choosing to buy directly from farmers. Obviously, this is not a rational process, but it is more about the perception of “true” and “natural” production systems. After all, nostalgia is a constant of human emotions, too.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Rebuilding fisheries is a must for the future

Rebuilding fish stocks will be good for us allAs everyone knows, fish stocks have been depleted to levels that are not acceptable. This is the result of short-term thinking combined with highly efficient but stupid fishing methods. Not only fish is a high value food source, but oceans are complex ecosystems that we cannot afford to lose. Although aquaculture claims to be the way to compensate the supply of wild fish, this is only true within limits, as some aquaculture species are fed with fish meal and fish oil, and replacement of these products is also limited by the quantities that agricultural crops can supply, and consequently their price.

As one of the points that I mention in my presentation “Twelve trends for the future of food production” (under Presentations tab), we can expect that programs will be set up to rebuild wild fish stocks and bring the volumes back to levels with which sustainable fishing methods and quotas will help provide us with more secure supplies. This will be some sort of a stimulus plan for seafood with all stakeholders involved: government, fishermen, aquaculture industry, retailers, food service and consumers.

A recent report published by the Pew Charitable Trusts has reviewed the possibilities and the economic impact of rebuilding fisheries in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean, as well as the downside of doing nothing. A Canadian research has worked in a similar direction and tend to show that rebuilding fish populations is possible, citing a number of successful cases (see article).

All that comes out from these reports is that the situation, although quite serious, is far from lost, but it requires political will and organization to make it happen. This is exactly why all parties involved from whichever country concerned will have to act in a coordinated manner.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The future price of meat and fish: up

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

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

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

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.