Transparency is a market-driven exercise

March 2, 2016

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

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 PR is obsolete, but most food producers still have not come to this realization.

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

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

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


My second book is published

May 30, 2012

There it is!

After several months of work, We Will Reap What We Sow is now published. Hopefully, it will get as much attention as Future Harvests.

Click on the thumbnail below to view a short introduction video (Duration: 1:52)

More details are available on the We Will Reap What We Sow page


A five-dollar meal is not much of a challenge

August 18, 2011

Those who follow my blog know about my last fancy Christmas dinner, which came down to five dollar per person, including aperitifs and wine. My everyday meals usually cost me less than three dollars, and they are balanced. They include a soup or a salad, a main course and a dessert. I suppose my being French gives me an advantage, as composing such meals is for me the most natural thing in the world. It simply is the way it is, at least in my world. All it takes is to have some time to cook, which usually takes about half an hour of my time.

Half an hour is nothing, especially when you compare it with the amount of time that people waste by checking their cell phones and emails for new messages just to find out that “you have no new message”.

It is time that people rediscover the simple things that make life interesting. Cooking dinner is not only a lot of fun, but it is actually very easy, too. Eating with all family members at the same table at the same time, while having turned off the TV, the computer and the cell phones is a special time. It creates a bond between family members, it is a moment of sharing, and it contributes positively to the development of children. Taking the time to enjoy the meal without to rush anywhere is amazingly relaxing.

The key for saving money on food and at the same time eating better is to do it yourself. Convenience has a price, and so does having someone else preparing your meals, even if they are paid minimum wage. The savings are huge, both in money and in health. My rule of thumb, in North America, is that making dinner it costs a tenth of what the local pub or restaurant would charge for it.

The five-dollar challenge is not much of a challenge, really. All it takes is to shop smart. Just check the pictures of dishes that I have taken in my own kitchen! All for less than $2.50 per person.

Click here for the slide show of dishes and breads!

All photos taken by Christophe Pelletier (click on the thumbnails to enlarge the pictures, they will open in a different tab)

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Food, Inc. or just the description of America?

January 22, 2011

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.


What if agricultural subsidies were a good thing?

September 23, 2010

Over the past decades, agricultural subsidies have received an increasingly bad publicity, especially as a major part of the WTO Doha round of negotiations is aimed at removing them.

Yet, with an increasing world population and the need for more food production, one can wonder whether agricultural subsidies really are a problem. History has shown that subsidies can be a very effective way of boosting production. For instance, subsidies have been a major element for the European Union to increase its agricultural production in the decades following WWII. To show how effectively money talks, you just need to see how financial incentives have made European vintners pull off vines, then replant them pretty much at the same place later. Subsidies have encouraged Spanish farmers to plant many more olive trees than the olive market needed. Subsidies work. When people are paid to do something, they usually do it quite willingly.

The true problem with subsidies is to have a cost-effective system. Subsidies must help produce what is needed. They are only a means and they must not become an end. Subsidies also need to deliver the right incentive to be effective. Too often, they have adverse effects because they do not encourage the right behaviour. An example of subsidy that seemed to aim at the right action and yet did not deliver proper results is the subsidy on agricultural inputs by the Indian government. They subsidize fertilizers with the idea that, this way, fertilizers would be more affordable for farmers and therefore the farmers would be able to increase their yields. As such, this is not a bad idea, but the practice showed a different outcome. Farmers with little or no money were still not able to buy enough fertilizers, and richer farmers just bought and used more fertilizer than necessary. The result has been an over fertilization in some areas and an insufficient fertilization in other regions, as I explained in more details in my book, Future Harvests.

For subsidies, too, quality must come before quantity.

Subsidies must be a part of a comprehensive plan towards the essential goal: feeding more people. They must be part of a market-driven approach, and they should not to entertain a production-driven system. Subsidies, or should I call them government support, take many forms and many names, from straight subsidies to grants, “market support mechanisms”, “export enhancement programs” or specific tax regime for farmers, etc… There is quite a bit of semantics involved. Perhaps the stigma on subsidies comes from their being granted by governments. Aren’t private investments just another type of subsidies? After all, that money aims at encouraging more production. The main difference is about the kind of return. Private investors look for a capital return, while governments look for a societal return.

A positive example of effective money incentive linked to a comprehensive approach that involved government and private companies is the rice production boost in Uganda (which I also present in Future Harvests). This effective policy helped increase production 2.5 times and turned Uganda from an importing rice country to a net exporter within 4 years!

I believe that the main bone of contention about subsidies is the competition on markets. Every player involved on world markets, either importers or exporters wants 1) to have the best conditions to compete against others and 2) wants to make conditions for others to compete as difficult as possible. The untold story is that many countries would like others to cut their subsidies while keeping (some of) their own. Only the competitor’s subsidies are unfair. Moreover, addressing subsidies is not enough. At the same time as subsidies, all import restrictions, such as anti-dumping tariffs or import duties should be looked at, as they are blatant attempts to skew the competitive positions.

The issue is not really aimed at developing a comprehensive plan to feed the world. The Doha round started in 2001, but since then, we have had the food riots of 2008 and the spectre of further food inflation. This, too, should be taken into account.

Considering how critical financing is for farmers, and that many farmers (more than half in the USA) need a second job to make ends meet, some form of financial support is generally very useful. Also, let’s not forget that we will need farmers for the future and agriculture needs to be an attractive profession if we want to have the people that we need to produce all the food!

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Involve in order to convince!

September 16, 2010

A couple of days ago, I came across the following quote: “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may not remember, involve me and I will understand”.

I cannot confirm who the author is, as it has been attributed to brilliant thinkers such as Confucius, Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin or an unknown Native American. It does not really matter.

This quote brought me to start thinking about what it could mean for the agricultural and food sectors, as they are under fire on a regular basis. Why cannot it convince the public of its message(s)?

Opponents of agribusiness tell a lot about their opinions, they also show a lot of pictures, documents or footage of what they criticize, and they certainly are very active involving as many people as they can. The agriculture and food sector, including aquaculture, also tells a lot, shows some, but not enough about their daily operations, and they seem to have a hard time involving enough outsiders of the industry.

I read many blogs and articles from both sides and I regularly come across the “agri-food” authors wondering why the public is so difficult to convince. After all, the industry claims to have the scientific facts that prove its points. The industry is wondering whether the difference in communication effectiveness is linked to budget amounts or whether it has to do with the quality of the PR officers from both sides. I do not think that it has much to do with either. I have concluded that it comes from the ability to make people understand the story. Therefore, it has to do the ability to involve the public with the industry.

To involve the public, it is necessary to create an emotional connection first. This is critical and, unfortunately for the agribusiness, this appears to be a difficult area. Indeed, how to connect with people who have little, if any, connection with the agricultural world and who rarely get to see the reality by themselves. Media and internet are the channels where they find information. Opponents of agriculture have an easier job in the sense that they want to change the system. The worst that can happen to them if they fail is the status quo. They win nothing, but they lose nothing, either. The industry is the one that has the most to lose. Generally, this translates into a defensive approach, and that does not communicate well. Per definition, being defensive means having lost the initiative. Only the ones who have the initiative can lead, and only the ones who lead have followers.

Connecting emotionally means exactly what it says. Rational arguments do not work. At least not until the connection is made. The typical response of the agri-food sector is about bringing scientific facts, but how to convince people who 1) do not trust you, 2) who are worried about their food and 3) who do not have the scientific knowledge to comprehend these scientific facts? Cold scientific explanations will not work. All this does is creating distance. Not ideal when you need to connect.

I always like to make a comparison with parents of children that just had a nightmare. The children’s fears are not rational, but they are quite real, as you certainly can remember. Normal parents try to comfort the children. And how do they do that? They ask what the problem is. They listen. They empathize. They tell the children that they will go with them to the bedroom and show them that there is no green monster hiding under the bed. They will lie down on the floor and look under the bed. Then, they will take the child to have a look, and that is involving the child! This is how they connect emotionally, which allows them to switch to rational arguments and get the child to go back to sleep. Of course, they will not close the door and leave a little light so that the child does not feel thrown back at the green monster again. They empathize again.

Do you think that telling the child that there is no scientific evidence of green monsters would work, or that research has showed that nightmares are not real? And do you think that dismissing the child’s fear as unfounded and therefore about stupid would work, although that is pretty much the truth? Of course, it would not work, and the child would remain fearful and possibly lose trust in the parents in such a case.

If the agribusiness wants to win the public’s trust, it will have go look under the bed and, together with the public, take a peek at it. The public could hardly care less for the industry’s scientific facts, but it cares about being listened to and being empathized with. Interesting challenge, is it not?

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Insects on the menu

May 31, 2010

I came across a very interesting article from the French newspaper Le Monde, titled “Insects, the steak of the future”.

Photo: AFP/Mario Tama

The article reviews the potential of using insects as a food source to complement the traditional food production in order to meet the needs of the increasing world population.

Here are the main points.The nutritional quality of insects is high. They are a source of protein, fats, minerals (especially iron and zinc) and vitamins.

The production performance of insects out performs the one of traditional livestock, with a feed conversion ratio (number of kg of food to produce 1 kg of insect) ranging between 1 and 2.

There are already 1,400 species of insects consumed regularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Among the favorites, they name beetle larvae, ants, caterpillars, locusts, crickets, silkworm chrysalis, scorpions and spiders (although the two latter ones technically are not insects).

In most cases, insect consumption is the consequence of food shortage, but there is also a festive consumption of the bugs. The author mentions that in the old Roman Empire, caterpillars were a delicacy. Of course, in some Western countries, some restaurants offer insects at a premium price for a certain self-proclaimed sophisticated elite… After all, a lobster looks very much like a large aquatic bug.

However, trying to convince Western consumers to switch to insects and other bugs for their protein will be a tough call, especially when served in their original form. An possible alternative would be to process them into sausages and ground patties. There also could be the possibility to texture the protein in similar ways as it happens with soy.

Another interesting potential for insect is to use them as a raw material for animal feed. Bugs and worms can also be a good source of protein for poultry and pigs. After all, in nature, this was a regular part of their diet. Similarly, for many fish species, insects are a natural source of food. Currently, fish feed is made of increasingly expensive raw materials, such as fish meal, fish oil and vegetable oils, for which they compete with human consumption, or are used for feed destined to other farm animals.

There are talks about organizing the first congress on insect as a food source as early as 2012.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.