Revisiting the pyramid, grandma and other things

The coronavirus has taken our world by storm. There has been little time to react and it will take more time to adapt. In a matter of days, our economy and societies have undergone an acid test like they had not in a long time. Important questions, many of them existential, have had to be asked. Perhaps, the most personal and intrusive one is to decide what is essential and what is non-essential, and by what, the question really has come down to who is and is not essential. This one is rather traumatic, because for many it has meant that they lost their jobs, part or all of their income, with all the implications about their livelihoods, security, sense of purpose and future.

Those who know me know that I look at many things through Maslow’s pyramid of needs. To me, the current troubled times that we are going through and how people cope -or not- with it, is very much the same as revisiting Maslow’s pyramid. Until a few months ago, the world economy seemed to run on all cylinders and although a recession seemed to be overdue, as one tends to happen every decade or so, there was very little that indicated that the economy would slow down drastically. The stock markets where like a fun fair. Then, everything freezes over. The topic of essential vs. non-essential sent us right back to the pyramid. All of a sudden, the lower layers of the pyramid took precedence. Physical security and security of food and shelter became obvious again, and the more superficial matters had to step back a bit.

Not only did many household budgets take a painful hit, store shelves were often scarcely filled. This pandemic has shown that our economic model is really built around quantitative growth and abundance, but should conditions change drastically, it is not as agile and resilient as we may have liked to think all this time, especially when nobody really wants to have inventories. Empty shelves did not remain empty for just a couple of days but it took more like a couple of weeks for some products to reappear in satisfactory quantities, and some items have hardly reappeared at all even a couple of months into this crisis. Shelves were empty, and yet farmers dumped their products, in particular dairy farmers literally pouring milk down the drain. An outrageous food waste has been taking place, in a time where food banks are overwhelmed and can get enough to help the ones in need. There is some thinking to do about connecting the links of the value chains, because it shows very little value and does not behave like a chain, either.

The small pop-and mom shops actually did rather well in this mayhem. They adapted quickly to ensure social distancing. They took orders for pick up and for delivery, and actually prepared them without errors. Most of all, they showed no disruption of supplies. The small meat store had meat and the baker had bread. They may be a bit more expensive than supermarkets, but the value of not wasting time and risking contamination to find only half of what is on your shopping list outweighs the slight price uptick. Grocery chains did not perform anywhere this level of service. At least, here I am talking about the part of the world where I live. Online ordering, pick and delivery have been subpar, and that is for those who actually were able to set up something. Orders were incorrectly filled and even after so many weeks, it is rather cumbersome.

A look at what flew off the shelves is quite revealing and a confirmation of our revisiting Maslow’s pyramid. Remember the trendy times from before the Corona Wars? Yes, it feels like an eternity but in fact it was not that long ago. When it came to food, many of us had been convinced that the good old-fashioned foods that previous generations, all the way back to the early times of agriculture, had become about irrelevant, that farming was going to be revolutionized, mostly by people without any background in agriculture. Cows were farting and that was unacceptable to some billionaires, as clearly the debonair ruminants were up to kill us with their gasses. I wrote my thought about that in previous articles. We had to give up animal products altogether. Sure. Then, the virus came and we stopped flying around in planes, we have to work from home and forget about morning and evening commute, our factories had to shut down and our energy use dropped dramatically. Then, all climate monitoring showed the same thing: greenhouse gasses emissions dropped significantly and the quality of our air improved, and all of that with the same numbers of cows and farm animals. Understand me well, some animal farming systems will need to change dramatically to adapt to a climate friendly approach of agriculture. We were supposed to all become vegetarians and vegans, and yet the most striking thing I could see in grocery stores was that meat, dairy and eggs were about all gone. People hoarded the recently forbidden fruit and apparently were proud to do so. With most of the staple animal products gone, what was left in the stores, then? Well, the sections with plant-based animal products surrogates were still aplenty even though the shelf space for those is usually rather small. No shortage of soy- and pea protein burgers, but no ground beef. No butter except the fancy expensive more “natural” ones, but plenty of margarine on the shelves. No milk today, but lots of soy and almond milk. No regular eggs, but no shortage of the expensive ones produced with special feed, supposedly healthier for us. On the protein side, consumers left massively the higher layers of Maslow’s pyramid, forgot the trendy products and hypes of all sorts to rush back to the basics.

Other categories that showed an amazing comeback are flour and pasta. What a change of heart! Here, too, consumers went back to the basics. Baking and cooking have been among the most popular activities during the pandemic lockdown. What happened to carbs and gluten? Weren’t they supposed to be the incarnation of all evils? Weren’t they supposed to make us fat and sick, to a point where self-proclaimed sometimes questionable dieticians and marketers worked really hard to convince us to not buy any of those staple products but instead choose for the much more expensive gluten-free alternatives that would fill their pockets? Well, not only the pasta, flour and baking sections in the stores were desperately empty because the staples products were back in favour, but the amazing part was that the shelves with gluten-free and other carb-alternative diet products were left about untouched. Flour is back, and so is bread and baked goods because 1) they are fun to make, 2) they are cheap to make and 3) they are good for you, of course with moderation that is. That is the stuff I am advocating on my other blog, “The Sensible Gourmet”. Take a look at it is you have time and you will see the many advantages of preparing food yourself. Baking and cooking are so much more than just that. They are an act of love and they are a unique way of connecting people and generations. This is what we are witnessing here. The need for social contact and love, the second layer from the bottom in Maslow’s pyramid is as popular as the bottom layer about basic physical needs. Baking is just a trip back to grandma’s kitchen. It is a reminder of our childhood and the atmosphere of grandma’s kitchen and the complicity that it brought around the stove. It is a reminder of the happy moments of tasting warm dough and making a mess with chocolate cream. In the current uncertain times, it is a safe haven where love and comfort bring us a badly needed protection from a harsh reality.

But the journey into nostalgia is not only limited in the kitchen. The poorly agile supply chain to large grocery stores and empty shelves showed that food supply is not a given. This has not gone unnoticed and if baking and cooking are popular right now, so is gardening. People transform their lawns into veggie gardens and those living in apartments buy and grow herbs, tomatoes or strawberries in pots on balconies to find some sense of food security. Empty shelves and long distances bring a reflection of where food should be coming from. There is a renewed attention for local food production, this time not some much as a trendy phenomenon, but for food security reasons, which in turn is becoming trendy. As usual with such issues, the conversation is more about a philosophical “we-should” approach but nobody really addresses the important part, which is how to make it work financially and for the local producers to be competitive, especially when many consumers are going through a violent financial crunch. Other questions would be to figure out who the farmers would have to be and where they should farm, as there used to be a lot of farming around cities, but the farms got bought, paved and developed in the past, so they will never come back. Urban farming could be a possibility, but so far, except some fancy expensive greens or massive subsidies, urban farms hardly survive. As someone who has a garden, I can tell you that growing your own food has advantages. I do not have to worry about residues, as I do not spray any chemicals. I also can tell you that the cost of a seed is much lower than buying produce from a store, but the untold reality about gardening is that to have a garden, you need to buy one and that if you look at it from an economic point of view and were to calculate your cost as if it were a commercial operation, you will have to include the price of the land on which you have your garden. Nonetheless, gardening is a great hobby. Personally, I find it very soothing to work the ground and take care of the plants with nobody around. It probably feels like a bubble or a cocoon and I can imagine that this is also part of the renewed interest about gardening.

So here we are. We revisited Maslow’s pyramid of needs. We took a trip back in time to grandma’s kitchen and garden. Grandma (at least both mine who were born in early 1900s) knew scarcity. She knew the value of things and would never waste anything. She would not throw food away, as it was too precious, and the same thing is true about everything, being bits of candle, bits of soap, water or old socks that would be repaired. About this, it was interesting to see a run on sewing machines in France recently, as they were on ad. Grandma knew what sustainability meant, even without a university degree on the subject. It was engrained in the way they were raised. Other things that my grandmas used to telling me to do were to always cover my mouth and nose when sneezing, wash my hands after touching things from others, in particular money. Sounds familiar? After all, they had grown up in a time when there were not many vaccines, tuberculosis and long ailments were shortening many lives and they also had been through the Spanish flu.

The coronavirus has hit abruptly and showed we do not really have a contingency plan or a preparedness plan, another problem has been lingering for some time. Climate change could have even much more devastating effects and although we have been warned times and times over, our actions to adjust have been very meek. Perhaps the virus should bring us to think about the next crisis and how to absorb the shock, if we really can or want to.

The current crisis has led us to look for more security but will we learn from it and will it last? The question is what this will mean for the future? How will retailers adapt, if they do? How will supply chain adapt? How will food producers manage a transition to a 5-foot economy, as the Dutch government calls it? How will farmers and food producers find the work force of the future? What products should have priority in the future of food and agriculture, and will the marketing realign along grandma’s lifestyle or will we feel compel to revert as soon as possible to the pre-coronavirus times? These are critical questions to ensure that we will keep having food supplies secure and affordable. I will come back on these questions in future articles.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

My next book will be a little different

Over the past few weeks, I have been avidly writing a book of poems around the theme of food and farming. It is now rather advanced and I should be publishing it late Spring 2020. There will be about 70-75 poems. It is a refreshing diversion from my regular activities of food futurist, which tend to revolve around technologies and consumer trends, although I have managed to find some poetry about the future of food and agriculture and those topics. Surprisingly, there is poetry with drones, sensors, data and artificial intelligence. I have been experimenting with different poetry formats such as haiku, villanelles and limericks. It is a lot of fun to do and it good to use both brain hemispheres in harmonious balance and have them fully connected rather than grow one at the expense of the other, which would be like having one huge biceps and the other one all skinny.

Some poems treat of serious matters such as hunger, suicide among farmers, food waste or environmental matters, but most are rather cheerful, like the villanelles and humorous like the haiku and the limericks. It is full of bees, birds, fertile fields, winemaking, gardening, calves, little lambs and piglets. There is also a section that I call “Destinations” that focus on some countries and their food cultures that I particularly like. I am thinking of making a French version of the book when I am finished, as the poems are in English.

I came up with poetry in an unexpected manner. A former member of my team in my time in aquaculture here in Canada, recently died suddenly at a much too young age. Of course, I was stunned as his passing away was the last thing I had expected. He was a great professional and very instrumental in the turn around that I led here, but most of all he was a gentleman with great human qualities whom I held in very high esteem. After hearing the sad news, I started to write my thoughts in the form of a poem about him. Why did I use poetry? I have no idea but it came naturally. “His” poem will be in the book. But after writing that poem, I felt the urge of keeping writing poems, this time around one of my passions, which is food and farming.

That is the story. I will keep you posted with the next steps.

Insects and worms

Here is a topic that I have started to address quite a long time ago, long before it got popular with the bobos. Actually, it became popular only after the mainstream media got knowledge of the UN FAO views on insects as a source of food for people in the future.

Yuk vs. Yum

The main thing I hear regularly about insects and worms is the “yuk” effect. Yuk is mostly a western countries’ issue. In Asia and Africa, insects and worms are actually quite popular. I can understand that crawlies might not look as appetizing as a steak, but I always like to bring some perspective by showing other foods considered delicacies in western countries that are not all that different from insects, such as lobster, shrimp or snails. People are willing to pay a steep price for those. There is a difference, though: the flesh ratio of lobster, shrimp, langoustines, snail, crab and similar creatures is much higher than that of crickets, for instance. It is also true that Westerners prefer meatiness, while many Asian cultures like crunchy and having to chew and suck the flesh out of the shell or off the bones. Nonetheless, insects are not all that bad. Worms are actually much meatier than insects and why would they not follow the path of snails. As you may know, I was born and raised in France, which is often viewed as a country of snail eaters. It is true to same extent, but here is some history about snails as food in France. First thing to realize is that snails were eaten commonly in times where other animal proteins were not abundant and expensive. Those who could not afford meat would look for alternatives. Snails were one option. Another was… guess… frogs found in ponds! But the French would not eat just any snail. After all, they were French and therefore discriminating about food. Two types of snails were popular because of their meatiness: the “Petit Gris” (Little Grey) and the Escargot de Bourgogne (Burgundy Snail), the latter being rather big and meaty. As you probably know, the British would be disgusted at the idea of eating snails (the “yuk” thing), until the wealthier decided that it was fashionable to eat “escargots” instead. Yes, it tastes much better when you say it in French. So maybe all that needs to happen is for the snobs, bobos and other hipsters to decide to eat exotic insects and worms in the language of their (the insects’ and worms’, not the snobs’) country of origin. And they already do but it is a small niche. I can find some insects around but the price per pound is even higher than caviar, so no thank you! That is what frustrates me about many of those start-ups. And understand me well, I am all for innovation and entrepreneurship. I believe money should be the reward for a job well done, not the end for just a promise that has not yet materialized. Despite all their nice claims to save the world, the environment and being so incredibly responsible about everything, they are actually interested primarily in trying to score financially and be sold to a large corporation that will be willing to overpay for their shares based often on a concept that still needs to prove itself, but after all why not. But to do that, they actually lock themselves in small niches in such a way that there are only two ways to move forward: one is to stick to high margin pricing and have little growth possibilities, the other is to slash the prices to get more volume moving but often transforming the specialty into a commodity. What other reason would there be to focus on Western markets that say “yuk!” while there is a huge potential in Asia and Africa but for lower margins? You guessed it: pleasing the shareholders who want sell their shares and cash in as soon as possible.

Anyway, human nutrition is only part of the equation. Just like snails were an alternative for lean times in France, the consumption of insects and worms in parts of today’s world are also an alternative to other animal protein too expensive to buy. You can bet that when given a choice, many insects and worm eaters will choose for a juicy steak. Human consumption of food is not all that much led by sound rational nutrition. If we were all rational with food we would 1) eat balanced meals, 2) we would not overeat day after day to get ourselves in debilitating diseases and 3) we would not waste some much food. So, we are not rational, and that is the main difference between human food and animal nutrition (except for pets, for which we have decided to introduce the same irrationality with the same consequences for our furry friends). Animal nutrition is all about meeting properly the nutritional needs of the animals, never let them overeat and not waste any feed because it just costs money to the farmer. Actually, animal nutrition should be an example for humans in many respects. The difference between humans and cows, pigs, chickens and fish is that the animals do not put any psychology in their food. They eat to live and they do not live to eat… mostly. This is why I have said for years that I think insects have their highest potential as an ingredient for animal feed, well, as long as the price is competitive with other alternatives.

Here are some clues why feeding insects and worms to animals makes perfect sense. First, here is some wisdom from anglers. What bait do they use when they go fishing for trout for instance? They use a decoy that looks like a fly, because they practice fly fishing, and they use the fly because fish eat flies, and other insects! It is just this simple. Fish feed producers are currently going this road. Another example is about a customer of mine when I used to work in the poultry business. He was from the UK and when the “mad cow” disease hit in the UK in 1996, discussions turned about eliminating meat and bone meal from animal feed, as the suspect reason of transmission was the use of contaminated meat and bone meal produced in rendering plants containing sheep infected with scrapie, a disease. Meat and bone meal was used because it has a high protein content, good nutritional value and it worked fine for many years. Nonetheless after the mad cow crisis, meat and bone meal had to be removed and my customer told me with a straight face (remember that he was the managing director of a poultry company) that there was no reason to put meat and bone meal in chicken feed because chickens are vegetarians. Isn’t that a disaster to have disconnected people from Nature (I wrote an article a long time ago about this topic)? Chickens are vegetarians. Yeah, right. Anyone who has seen chickens roaming around a farm yard will tell you that they eat worms and insects. They are not vegetarian at all. Actually, in spite of many claims of people opposed to animal farming and meat, it is difficult to find a species of monogastric (one-stomach species, like humans, pigs or poultry) that does not consume animal protein. Usually, all the species that they mention as being vegetarians are polygastrics (digestive tract consisting of several stomachs, like ruminants) which have the ability that monogastrics do not have to eat grass and other cellulose-rich materials and being able to transform them into meat and milk as I mentioned in my article about “cow farts”. Anyway, back to my friend (because we became good friends –we are still in touch from time to time after 20 years or so) from the UK and his vegetarian chickens, I replied that not only chicken do eat worms and insects but worms process dead material, kind of like a rendering plant. Well, that was a bit awkward and the real reason came up. It was much better to tell me that his customer would not want chicken meat from animals fed with meat and bone meal and that it was final, and that he needed me to go along with that. Although not quite rational, that was a better reason than the bogus vegetarian chicken argument. His customer, a leading UK retailer had strong views about animal feed. Among their arguments was that feeding ruminants, which are vegetarian from nature, with animal protein was comparable to cannibalism; or that using fish meal could be acceptable only the day they would see a cow grabbing a fish out of the water to eat it. Such arguments were partly emotional of course, but had some rooting in good old-fashioned common sense, which I would never blame anyone for using. So, use good common sense and also solid factual science to feed yourself. It is not mutually exclusive and it does not stop anyone from being a true gastronome. You can take me as an example of that, as it is another brand of mine, The Sensible Gourmet!

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

What do consumers really want to know about food?

My previous article about what consumers know about food is only part of the equation. What is as important is to know what they want to know and why. When it comes to knowledge of food, consumers can be divided into three main groups. There are those who know about food and most are always interested to learn more. Then, there is the (large) group of people who do not know. Some are willing to learn. Usually, they are confused by all the contradictory points of views that they hear or read and they just do not know who they should believe. This open-minded sub-group gathers people from all walks of life. They may have their biases but they are willing to change their minds. Another sub-group among those who do not know much about food gathers people who do not know and do not care as long as their food is safe, tastes good to them and has the right price. Then there is the third group, the difficult group of those who think they know but don’t. Usually, they are not willing to learn because, well, they already know it all and they are certainly not looking forward to have their certainties challenged. This group can be divided into two sub-groups, too: those who think they have the monopoly of science and those who think they have the monopoly of morals.

In this article, I will focus on the people who have the willingness to learn about food. What would be the point of trying to spend time if that willingness was not there? Also, all I can tell is my personal experience when meeting with people who are asking questions about food and where it is all going. Actually, I always found that the conversations I have had with people asking me about food and agriculture went quite well. I guess the secret for that is to not try to force people into any conclusion. Let them decide for themselves. People do not like being told what they should know and believe. It is a very normal reaction, and that is why so-called “educating” the consumer will never really achieve much. Just have a relaxed talk without any particular agenda other than to listen and respect each other’s point of view.

Further, even though marketing experts always like to define specific areas of attention, the mapping of consumers is not all that useful when it comes to the food conversation. Of course people are concerned about health, environment, origin of product, production methods, etc… When you look at what consumers want to know, it really comes down to two main issues. One is “How do I know that my food won’t make me sick -or worse?”, and the other one is “Can I trust the food producer?” These two issues are quite interconnected and not easy to address for food suppliers. The first issue, which really comes down to the topic of food safety is work in progress. There has never been full absolute food safety in the past and it will not be possible to guarantee that in the future, either. A large part of food safety issues actually happen in the consumers’ homes because of poor food handling. Many consumers do not know the basics of proper food handling. But even at the producer’s level, no production system is immune. Problems happen just as well with industrial production as with farmers’ market type of food. It happens with large producers just as it happens with small producers. This is where the issue of trust plays an important role. Consumers want to know which suppliers they can trust for food that does not contain anything harmful or/and weird. In previous posts, I have raised the issue of trust many times and mentioned how difficult it is to earn. Why do some food producers earn trust and others not? It has been the idea of brands since day one: the consumer can recognize the producer easily and know that the product is reliable every time. In our world flooded with information, rumours and stories of all sorts, and with a reach like never before, this is not sufficient anymore. If the question of how to earn trust is often difficult to answer, another way of looking at it is to do what I like to do when I cannot get an answer: to look at it from the opposite angle. The question then becomes what makes consumers not trust a producer? I am sure that you can make a list of reasons very quickly. Here I can give you a few: not knowing the producer, bad or unknown reputation, unreliable quality, regular problems, hiding information, not answering questions, lying to the customer, saying one thing and doing another, etc… It has a lot to do with quality of the product and quality of the communication, and consumers want to know what the quality of both is.

Traceability and transparency address those concerns to some extent. They are certainly helping by creating a much required communication and openness. However, the question remains whether food suppliers are on the same wave length as what consumers want to know. Traceability and transparency are not new concepts. They were part of my dealings with my customers some 25 years ago, and I still have the same reservations today as I had by then. I can state without any doubt that traceability is essential but I would like to see it become a proactive tool, instead of about just recording history. I remember telling one of my customers by then that I thought that traceability in order to be able to explain on rather short notice what went wrong was really short changing the customer. With today’s mass digitalization, which makes getting the information about the records even quicker, I believe that my point has become even more important. Traceability cannot just be about finding out the cause of a problem after the customer has found out. I always have considered that the customer can never be the quality control of a supplier. If producers have traceability systems that allow them to tell within moments what went wrong, then the system has to be able to prevent the problem from happening. The traceability system has to be connected with the quality assurance system. With the rise of sensors, internet of things, data collection software and artificial intelligence, the traceability system must become the frame for quality assurance and the high-tech devices will have to allow a real time 100% quality control on physical, chemical and biological quality criteria. It will have to be able to shut down the production line as soon as a deviation from the quality standard occurs. Traceability will move from “writing history” to “making (clean) history”. There are already a lot of possible quality defects that are prevented from being sent to consumers but it has to be even better in the future. Ideally, the objective must become zero recall, because even if recalls help prevent problems from getting worse, their incidence is creating a feeling of insufficient safety.

Regarding transparency, I believe that there is a disconnect between what food producers are doing and what consumers are looking for. Of course, the best way to be fully transparent is to put every bit of data and information in the system. From a consumer’s point of view, what is transparency really about? Do you know anyone who wants to check every detail of the production of what s/he buys? Consumers might be interested to know from which farm their food comes from. They might be interested in knowing the farmer’s name and see pictures. Will they want to be interested in digging as far as to know when chickens were born and when, what feeds they ate during their life and where the feeds came from and what they were made of and where the ingredients used for the feed came from and when they were produced, or would they really be interested in knowing the genealogy of the chickens and look up for where the parents and grandparents were raised, or have the production details in the slaughterhouse? I doubt it. In my opinion, the highest value of transparency for consumers is that the food producer has it and is willing to show everything if questions arise. In other words, the producer is not trying to hide or misrepresent anything.  After all transparent means exactly that: you can see for yourself through the window and you do it without having someone telling you what and where to look. More than the content of information presented, it is the food producer’s attitude that matters. The role of social media also amplifies the need for transparency, but it also may contain some pitfalls for producers. A recent survey by Deloitte shows that Millennials and GenZ assess producers by their values a lot and that their loyalty will be to the values and not to the brand. I believe that values are going to be a critical aspect of how consumers choose from whom they will buy their food, and anything else. The combination of social media with heightened sense of individualism (some would say narcissism) and yet at the same time a strong trend towards polarization and tribalism around sets of values and beliefs means that food producers will have to navigate skillfully in the future.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

How much do consumers really know about food?

Perhaps it is a case of multiple copy-and-paste events but I was surprised to read and hear recently in several occasions something that intrigued me. According to some research, millennials would know a lot more than their parents and previous generations about food and how it is produced. It surprised me because I wish I could bump into millennials who know something about food. Actually I wish I could bump into people from any generation that would have some significant knowledge of food and agriculture. I also disagree with those who claim that people have never known as little about food and agriculture as nowadays, but those have their own hidden agenda.

The main reason marketers are interested in the millennials is that this group has much more money than previous generations, or at least that is the thinking. Since the world population has more than tripled since 1950, representing an increase of more than 5 billion people, it is no surprise that millennials represent a financial force. However, one should look at the average individual financial situation of a millennial compared with previous generations. If the group has more money as a whole but less on an individual basis, their consumption pattern might not be as expected. Also, it would be wise to compare between regions as the boost might be different depending on whether they live in emerging countries or mature developed countries. 

So, have I been sleeping too much lately or do I meet the wrong people? Or is it a matter of confusing terms as it seems to happen more and more. Do millennials have more knowledge about food, or is it perhaps that they have access to more information? As Einstein supposedly said, “Information is not knowledge” and this might be truer more than ever in today’s world where we are constantly buried in information, some of it being accurate and most of it being not so, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. It would be good to think about several concepts that we tend to consider synonyms while they are quite different: data, information, fact, knowledge, truth and wisdom. I will try to explain the difference by using a very food and agriculture related metaphor.

Imagine data as a field of potatoes. There are plenty of plants and potatoes in the field and you are going to harvest. All you do is to collect all the potatoes from the field and eventually bring them to a place where you will sort out what you have harvested. At that stage, potatoes are just like data. It is raw units without any processing of any sort. All you can tell at this stage is how many potatoes you have, what they are and what the total volume is.

Once the potatoes have been harvested, you are going to look at them in more detail. You are going to sort out the small ones from the larger ones. You are going to sort out the ones that may have been damaged or are not proper to send to market. Depending on the criteria that are useful for you, you are going to distribute your potatoes into small groups according to various qualities and uses. Each group or package has a particular relevance. You want to make these groups in such a way that they are useful, practical and to make something good out of each group. Each group contains information that either your customers if you sell the potatoes or the person who cooks will use to decide what to do with the potatoes. Are they for mashing, for frying, for sautéing, for baking, etc…?

Once the potatoes have been sorted out, you have information and that information could fit on a label. If the label is accurate, anyone using the group of potatoes will have some knowledge of what the bag contains, but they will not have all the knowledge. Will other users know when the potatoes have been harvested, what variety they are, how they have been produced and by whom and if they are safe to eat? Here is why regulations, traceability and transparency increase the amount of information to the user who will use the batch of potatoes. As long as the information is correct, it equates to some knowledge. If the information in incomplete, so is the knowledge. If the information is incorrect, it is neither knowledge nor truth and can lead to wrong decisions by the user. If the information is incorrect on purpose, it is deception and even fraud (think about the case of horse meat that was labelled as beef in Europe a couple of years ago, the numerous cases of fraudulent fish names or the fact that many honey pots might contain more corn fructose syrup than honey but labelled as if it were all pure honey). Here is a case for information vs. misinformation vs. disinformation vs. deception and lies.

So imagine that the gossip mill now says that your potatoes have been contaminated by some disease or some creatures roaming in your field. How can you tell and how can the user of your potatoes tell? You grew the potatoes and you sorted them out, so you can tell if there were signs of disease, such as for instance black spots. You grow potatoes and you know what kind of disease of defect that may mean. How do you know and how do you translate the information (presence of black spots) into the knowledge of what the cause is? You know from experience, and that is exactly the difference between information and knowledge. Experience can be your own or someone else’s that you consult on the problem at hand. You and they have gathered experience into knowledge. Experience links information and facts into knowledge and understanding. Acquiring knowledge is a learning process. Reading information is not. So, what will happen with the person at home buying a bag of potatoes and finding black spots? If they do not have the experience, their imagination can go wild and they will enter their interpretation into the gossip mill (aka as social media). Many people without knowledge will forward the posting. Since they have no knowledge of potatoes they will not know if they should or not blow life in the gossip, but since something “weird” happened, how could they resist the urge to share and they will forward the information to the larger community and add their own comments such as “ew!!” , “gross!!”, “unacceptable!!”,  “shame!!” or even “boycott Christophe’s potatoes because they are weird and probably not naturally grown, etc…” and that is how a simple little problem can spin out of control and how ignorance and basic human nature attraction for gossip will change the fate of my growing potatoes.

Information is one thing and knowledge is another, but what about the truth? If I come with facts to explain what the deal is with my potatoes, two things can happen: people will believe me or they will not. Trust is an essential part in having customers believing the explanation. If people do not trust me, there is a good chance that they will not believe me. If they trust me, that is not a guarantee that they necessarily will trust me. Trust is always difficult to earn. It is difficult to earn the first time. It is incredibly easy to lose. To regain a second time, it is much more difficult than it was the first time. Trust depends on other people’s beliefs and it depends on the ability to convince. But when you take the broader picture of the gossip mill, in which other people will bring arguments against my explanation, there is competition for trust, whom do they trust more, me and my explanation or the social media mob? People do not necessarily trust those with knowledge, they trust those they believe. That can be dangerous. After all, it is easy to have an opinion. Everyone can have one on everything. having an opinion is not the same as to be an expert. No knowledge is required to have an opinion. usually, all it takes for people to give their opinion is to believe they know. Perhaps, this is the worst when it comes to information: people who think they know but don’t. I come across quite a few of those.  Beliefs always weigh more than facts, and that is why facts alone are not helpful when it comes to telling the true story about the potatoes. Being disappointed by my potatoes would not be a rational experience. It would be experienced by the users as a breach of confidence in the produce and the supplier. The first step is to connect at that emotional level of the disappointment. Only by connecting emotionally is it possible to gradually bring the conversation to more rational aspects. The other important part in regaining trust is to make sure to not disappoint again. People accept one mistake but they do not take well the same mistake when it is made again.

So, do the younger generations know about their food is produced? They may truly think that they do, but that is not the same as actually knowing. I also have mixed feelings about opposing generations. It is likely that millennials have different concerns, different values and different beliefs than their parents and grandparents. Yet, I have the strong feeling that I see more variation within a generation than I see between generations. Millennials may be exposed to a lot of information, but do they sort out the information in a rational way or do they simply choose the information coming from people they believe or who share the same values? I believe (I won’t be bold as to say I know) that the latter prevail. The difference may not be that one generation knows more about food and agriculture but that they are more concerned about it. That is not the same and it has little to do with knowledge. I also suspect that the concern is not just about food but it is more of an existential concern in times of uncertainty. It always seems that people are more critical about their food when they are pessimistic about the future. When everything goes well, those concerns do not seem to weigh as much.

What effect it will have on future food and agriculture depends largely on whom future consumers decide to believe. Psychology plays a very important part in food choices and I do not expect that to change any time soon. It has advantages but also disadvantages. Is it wise to think this way? Wisdom is the ability to discern the truth from beliefs to make the right decisions. The future will tell if wisdom will go in parallel with information.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

What’s ahead for plant-based foods?

Over the past year, there has been quite a bit of talk about alternative proteins and in particularly the so-called plant-based products. Let’s face it; the hype (which I already mentioned in my previous article about cow farts) has been very well organized to inflate what has been going on in the markets. Probably, it is part of the culture of “disruptive” tech start-ups. They are quite good at using social media, making the wildest claims about how they are all going to change the world. When it comes to food, what will happen before you know it is that there will be no need for farms anymore. Just take a look at Sci-Fi movies and it is there! Yeah, right. The problem, well one of the problems, I have with this is that I have heard it before. Actually, I heard similar things before today’s disruptors were even born. In the 1970s, after the Apollo programs, we would not eat traditional foods anymore. No, our meals were going to be contained in pills. Yeah, right. It did not happen. Around the turn of the century, we had the new economy, not just a new economy, but the new economy thanks to dotcoms and internet. The old economy was history, for ever. Yeah, remind me how the dotcom bubble burst and how a few years later the old economy demonstrated it was still alive and kicking through its Great Recession. More recently, we all heard that Amazon was going to “disrupt” retail so much that brick and mortar retailers were going to go down. Yes, Wal-Mart was finished. Not. Actually, Wal-Mart is doing quite fine and for a simple reason. Solid businesses follow what is happening in their markets and they make the proper changes. And that is exactly what happened with most retailers around the world. They went digital and they started to sell online and deliver to customers. Similarly, e-books were going to kill paper books and online diplomas were to mean the end of universities. Well, paper books and bookstores certainly have had difficult times but they did a nice comeback. And universities are still very much alive, while the MOOCs are the ones that seem to have left the building. There is more to life than digital versions of the original products and services. Silicon Valley and co suffer of a good dose of hubris. Maybe, they should attend to that before it might become their demise some day.

The thing with so-called disruption is that the only businesses that actually get disrupted (in the true sense of the word, not the trendy sense) are the ones that are asleep and not paying attention. They would have died anyway. The businesses that are awake adapt. That is pretty basic business stuff. Since I got started about disruption, I would just say that I do not like that term because as I mentioned earlier, it is taken in its new trendy meaning, which really means nothing else than innovation and change, but those words are too mundane. I will agree that disruption sounds more dangerous. It makes you feel like a rebel and a threat. Yeah, isn’t it something that we all fantasize over when we are kids, being a tough rebel?

Let me be clear, I am all for innovation and for having implemented changes in a number of businesses; I know that it is a constant of life, but I am interested in change that is a natural evolution toward real improvement. I am much less interested in gadgets and made-up hypes that have as primary goal to fill the pockets of a few. I guess I am not easily impressed and it is not because something is the flavor of the month that I forget about my good old well rooted-in critical mind.

So let’s go back to the plant-based protein products. First, they are nothing new, even if the current business owners want to make us believe that their products are jewels of high-tech. If so, how come that so many companies are going in the very same market on such short notice? The answer is simple, those products are not difficult to replicate. Plant-based alternatives are not new and they have been around for a couple of millennia for some of them such as tofu, koftas and falafel. Soy burgers have been around since the 1930s, really becoming mainstream in the 1980s.

What makes the current ones so different? Honestly, not that much at all. So why the hype? For two reasons mostly. One is the use of social media which are great tools to inflate whatever message you have and that so many people are willing to relay for you without even knowing what they are talking about. But it makes them feel part of the tribe for as long as it lasts. The other one is that this time big money has been invested in those companies and wants to cash in big, so they are putting their resources and their relationships at work to reach that goal. When your product is the talk of the day every day in every media outlets, it sounds like it has taken over the world. It’s just good old-fashioned smoke and mirror tactics. Just find out which billionaires and venture capitalists have put money in these companies and you will realize that it is a beautiful exercise in investor-driven social-media-led push marketing for a production-driven commodity business. Here in Canada, we have seen the exact same pattern with cannabis stocks after the country legalized cannabis sales a year ago. A lot of hype was aimed at having money buying stocks so that the founders could make great capital gains. It almost sounded that because of the new legislation, every Canadian would splurge on pot, either breathing it or eating and drinking it. Yeah right. As if making something legal would inevitably turn people into addicts. Pot users could already find all they needed before the legalization, as is the case everywhere in the world. So, the market was already well defined. Nonetheless, cannabis stocks shoot up like rockets because when greed kicks in people get gullible. Actually, I suspect greed is as addictive as drugs. Early investors sold on time with big fat capital gains and one year later, the share price of cannabis stocks are stagnating to low levels again. I expect something similar to happen with plant-based protein stocks. It is already kind of happening already, especially with Mr. Big Bucks-who-blames-cows-for-farting-for personal-gain having sold his Beyond Meat stocks quite conveniently before they started to stumble.

What is ahead for plant-based meat alternatives?

The first thing to think about is what those products are. What do they mimic? They mimic beef burgers mostly and sausages to some extent. They do not look as much like fresh beef burgers as they do the basic sad frozen ones. My point here is that they look like cheap commodities. And the thing about looking like a commodity is that it makes your product a commodity. The fact that so many other companies can replicate similar product in such a short period of time just confirms that it is a commodity and certainly not a niche specialty. The first rule for a niche to resist competition is that the product/service is quite difficult to replicate and match. Clearly, that basic first rule does not apply here. The only product that escapes the commoditization risk is the plant-based shrimp. Shrimps are a commodity but there is such a shortage of seafood compared with demand, shrimp prices are high and should remain high for a while. Imitation shrimp profit margins should be more resilient.

The second thing that comes to mind is the price of plant-based protein products. I can give here only what I can see in the stores around where I live in Canada. The regular price for a half-pound package of plant-based burger is CAD7.99 (that’s CAD15.98 per lbs). That is about twice the regular price of a pound of ground beef, but I can buy ground beef on ad for CAD3.99 and even from time to time CAD2.99. The price gap is quite big, and that will have to change if the plant-based burgers want to gain substantial market share. I believe this is starting to happen with a Canadian brand of plant-based burgers advertising last week at CAD4.99 for half a pound (that’s down 40% from the regular price) and this week the American brand was for sale at CAD5.99 for half a pound (25% down from regular price). Price drop has to be compensated by additional volumes to achieve profit margin goals. Here a word of advice to the CEO of that American company who expressed not being interested in hearing about his competitors (weird statement but what the heck, who can you fear when you think you are God): pay attention to your competitors because they want to take a slice of the pie and possibly your entire pie with it; their growth will not be your growth. Prices start to show some action and the big meat companies who are about to enter have not made their mark yet. That is going to be fun, because the hype created this idea that the market potential is huge and they are ramping up to produce large volumes. The meat and poultry industry has a long history of overcapacity, oversupply and profit margin destruction. I suspect that they will bring some of that experience in the plant-based imitation meat. I think things are going to be interesting. Prices are going to go down and raw materials (soybeans and peas) probably will increase in price to match demand. Prices down plus costs up is the perfect equation for squeezed margins, both for plant-based and animal protein by the way. The ones who will benefit the most are the crop farmers to some extent, but mostly the producers of protein isolates (the raw material used to produce the imitation burgers), the highest margin will be in the health and wellness protein supplement sector, basic low-cost plant-based burgers should well because of attractive pricing, and perhaps the consumers to some extent.

But for consumers, a couple of other things will play a role. One of them is perception. Do they like the product? And with perception comes value. Will the perceived value be higher than the price gap between the imitation product and the original beef? Perception is not just about the product but also about the company. So far, producers are perceived as small start-ups, which is often translated by consumers as small, brave and pure. If they knew actually how much big money and Big Agriculture is behind, I wonder how that would affect perception, and this time will come because, after all, are we not in a transparent food system by now as all food corporation like to claim?

Plant-based burgers producers brag about the many places where they have their products offered to consumers, but being on the menu of a restaurant is not the same as having consumers actually buying it, but they present it as it were, and stock markets react accordingly. There has been a lot of buying out of curiosity because of the hefty social-media hype but the perception is a different story. I have read many reviews and I cannot see any significant trend one way or another. There are those who praise the product and there those who trash it. Online reviews are notorious for the amount of fake reviews and I am sure there are plenty of those on both sides for obvious hidden agenda reasons. Fact is however that only after a few weeks in the trial, the Canadian restaurant chain Tim Hortons removed the plant-based burgers from its locations except in British Columbia and Ontario. Plant-based burgers “opponents” mention a number of characteristics they do not like: high price, highly processed products, high sodium content, long list of ingredients and some ingredients they can hardly read and have no idea what they are. I will make a mention of sodium content here. In the stores around my place, I can find only one Canadian brand and one American brand. I compared the sodium content of their products with regular potato chips. Here are the numbers: potato chips 230 mg sodium for 50 g product, Canadian brand imitation burger 540 mg sodium for 113 g (that’s 239 mg Na per 50 g of product – slightly more than the potato chips!!); and American imitation burger 340 mg sodium for 113 g product (that’s 150 mg Na per 50 g of product – that’s two thirds of the potato chips sodium content). Why don’t they add sodium and let people decide how much salt they want to put on their burger? I know the answer to that question but I will let you figure it out. I rarely buy potato chips but when I do, I buy the half sodium ones, which are lower in sodium than even the American imitation burger. You can make the same comparison with what you find in your stores and draw your own conclusions.

The third thing to expect is the push back from the animal protein producers, and that has already started. There are many fights about definition of meat and dairy. Let’s face it, the producers of plant-based products know very well that if they advertise to carnivores with an herbivore undertone, it will not work very well, so they try to make their products look more carnivore-like. There are also fights about environmental claims about benefits of plant-based vs. animal protein, many of them unsubstantiated. Altogether, plant-based products keep many lawyers busy. The fact that there many legal battles does not bode well. In France, there is an old saying: “better a poor agreement than a good lawsuit”. It will be interesting to see how that will translate for the future of plant-based. Of course, bold statements such as the plant-based sector bring the US meat and dairy sectors to complete collapse by 2030 is not a great way to make friends. Plus, please refer to the beginning of my article for why existing businesses are much more resilient that newcomers tend to think, but hey they have to attract investors’ money after all so no claim is bold enough.

Regardless of all the fights and arguments, the market will decide and as usual markets will decide on price and value. The value will be about money but also about health and environmental aspects as well. The question, though, will be whether the price differential will be worth it. I indicated prices earlier. In terms of potential market share, from reliable sources I have found it sounds like plant-based might represent 2% of the protein market in 2020 and perhaps reach 10% in 2030 in the USA. To gain more market share, plant-based imitation meat products would probably need to be offered at half the price they are now at least, everything remaining equal, further. If they don’t adjust their pricing, they will be happy to amount to 5%. Also and because the market could be crowded, plant-based protein producers will have to differentiate themselves from the competition and the characteristics that I mentioned earlier will weigh more, and so will the use of GMO ingredients or not play a role. Of course, there is a good chance that, as usual with the food industry, they all will try to differentiate themselves the same way, thus shifting their universe a bit to the right but all offering more or less the same.

If going plant-based protein is more efficient than meat, and it is because it removes one layer in the food chain, then it would only be logical that plant-based be cheaper both in price and in cost, but it’s not because unfortunately most “future of food” products are not meant to cater the hungry poor. So, here is another price to keep in mind: the price for a pound of cooked beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils is around CAD0.99 per pound. If you wish to switch to vegetarian, using the wholesome grain in the first place without industrial processing is quite a financially attractive proposition and I believe that they will be winners for the future from a global perspective, not just the US market with its First World solutions for First World problems. The thing is that the First World does not seem to know about cooking anymore, in spite of trendy flashy kitchens. The market will also decide which businesses succeed and which ones fail. Start-ups little gods or not, the percentage of failure remains the same as ever: about 75% of businesses do not make it longer than 3 years. Often, the reason is ignoring competition and not understanding that it takes much more than production methods to win over customers. As for the animal protein sector, what will be the consequences? I have written a few articles about the subject (do a search on meat and protein in the search bar on the right hand side of this page to get the list of articles). I will simply finish with a chart that show past consumption and estimates of animal protein consumption for the future based on UN FAO data and you will see that animal protein are really not expected to suffer from competition of alternative protein sources.

There will be plenty of room for everybody: animal protein, plant protein, processed or wholesome, as well as traditional products and all sorts of innovative alternatives. There is no need for cockiness, belligerent statements and inexact claims. The markets and future economics will sort out the winners. In the end, we all have to work together and the key will be about producing and consuming sustainably. Production systems will change. That is normal. And it is going to take the efforts of all 10 billion people and their food choices, not just from food producers.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The joy of independence and what’s in it for you

Perhaps, it has to do with unwinding towards the end of the year after a busy period, but lately I have increasingly been feeling a strong satisfaction with my activities about the future of food and agriculture. If the time of the year may play a role, I believe that it has a lot to do with the enthusiasm and the many smiles and conversations that I have had with my recent customers and audiences. They clearly feel happy about what I brought them and I feel happy about a job well done. As such, this is not a new observation, as it has been going on since day one I ventured on my own exploring how and where we will be getting which foods in the future. It just that now it reaches the level of bliss. I feel super-energized and I guess it shows. That is the kind of stuff that simply is contagious. I totally master the subject and the topics I deal with on an on-going basis. Last week, the chair of the conference for which I was the keynote speaker introduced me in about these terms: “often we get the feedback that they [the futurists speakers] don’t understand our business, well be assured that the one we have for you today, Christophe Pelletier, understands it quite well, and I am sure you are going to enjoy what he is going to say”. The presentation went very well and I guess I made many interesting points, as the following speakers made quite a few references to my presentation to emphasize their points.

You may ask where does the feeling of satisfaction come from? It is not just about mastering the subject. It is in the way that I reach that quality and to me the most important thing is my being independent, not just as a business but even more so as a mind. I do not think I could deliver the quality that I do if I were not so totally independent in my thinking. I put a lot of effort in exercising critical thinking. If forces me to be both open-minded and never take anything at face value, even (or more so especially) if the information that I review comes from so-called influencers. I am naturally suspicious of influencers. I double check about everything I read and hear. I also have a special ability to quickly do math mentally and see if all the information presented adds up. The words always sound great but when you quantify, you quickly realize that the numbers often do not support much of the story. When I was hired by BP Nutrition (which later would become Nutreco), and started my professional career, 32 years ago, I told my bosses that I had serious second thoughts on the use of antibiotics in animal production and I thought it could be dome with much less. I also expressed my concerns about housing systems for calves (boxes), for hens (cages) and sows (tethering). Needless to say that those were bold statements from a rookie to a solidly well-established agribusiness corporation to make. Well, look how much change there has been and still is on those issues. I was lucky to have open-minded bosses who were interested to hear why I thought the way I did. I was even luckier to have a boss in the pig department who let me lead a group of piglets that I would help toughen up by boosting their immunity system through tougher climate conditions. Those piglets were indestructible. They looked more grey than pink and looked rough at the edges but healthy as can be. By then, it was too early to initiate a revolution on antibiotics but I had shown the potential. Later in poultry, I also showed how the economics of animal welfare worked on profitability and demonstrated that proper animal handling was actually financially better.

The critical thinking and double-checking are areas in which I seem to differentiate myself from many other people in my field. I see way too much cases of copy and paste reports and way too many second-hand unchecked almost facts. My approach and my process are not opaque, on the contrary. I present it to my clients and audiences, so that they understand where I coming from when I say what I say. It allows them to also react and thus, we have a conversation which purpose really is about getting to the bottom of things. It is not about what I believe vs. what you believe but it is about what you know and what I know so that we get the best of both worlds. In a way you could say that my brain is an open source for my customers. It is not about influencing through a seductive story or a pre-decided assumption of absolute expertise; it is about convincing based on solid facts. My purpose is not to tell anyone what they should think. After all I have to walk my talk because I do not like being told what I should think, either. My purpose is to bring as many elements as possible to my customers to let them come to the most rational and sensible conclusions. I was just mentioning expertise and although I guess I am perceived as an expert in my field, I really do not know what an expert really is. My angle is to connect to the day-to-day realities of my customers and to present them with information and knowledge that is useful and practical to them. I do not do presentations that are catalogues of technologies or of trendy stuff, for better word. That is easy to do. You can ask your 12 year-old nephew to do a Google search of the future of agtech or the future of food and he will present you a list of items that would make him look like an expert, especially if it is a presentation that has a limited amount of time. Recently, a member of one of the audiences was telling me he appreciated my presentation style because it did not seem learned by heart and regurgitated mechanically like he was saying he sees happening too often. That was one of the nicest compliment I could get. Indeed, I live the future of food and agriculture and I have understood, processed and integrated all the knowledge that I share. It comes naturally. Actually, I do not have any cue cards to help me. All I do is to time my presentations but for the rest I talk in the same way I would if I had a one-on-one conversation. I also like to get eye contact with audience members. To me, it is an exchange with the audience. I maybe on the podium, but I never consider myself being on a pedestal. My mind is free. My mind tells a story that has no hidden agenda, nor does it tell what I might think the audience would like to hear or would not like to hear. It has happened that potential customers would want me not to address certain things they don’t like. That is a problem, because I am not trying to shock or upset, but I cannot add value if censorship comes in. I present objective facts for which I have background information. I welcome conversation. If you have a different opinion, let’s hear about it. Conversation is how we learn and improve, and it is true for me, too.

Being a free and independent mind is important, but having an independent business is just as important. I have no conflict of interest whatsoever. Nobody has shares in my company but me. Because I have an independent mind and I work in an objective and honest manner, I do not advocate any product, service or system whatsoever. I present my views on pros and cons, though. And I explain why I think the way I think, so that we can have a constructive conversation. I do own any share of any business I talk about, or if I did I would disclose it immediately. I do not have side function in any association and I am not on the board of any company that would influence my thinking or induce a bias in my thinking. If I did, I would disclose it immediately. That independence is what allows me to add value. My customers do not have to worry that I might be pushing any particular hidden agenda. Not every consultant can say the same, and let’s face it, it is easy to spot those who have vested interests in the story they tell. In particular, beware of organizations that include terms that imply some sort of intellectually authority such as Institute, Center, Forum, Think Tank or Foundation, or which names ends with “ity”, as those very often work for -or are part of- special interest groups, sometimes they are pro-this and sometimes they are anti-that. It does not matter on which side they are, they are not on the side of independence and objectivity. But they are a perfect fit for customers and conferences that want to push those particular agendas and/or preach to the choir, but let’s be clear about that when it takes place. Those are not my target group. The line between conflict of interest –or hidden agenda- and misleading is thin. I want nothing to do with that.

Related imageI remember the day I started my own business, 17 years ago. It was a strange mix of feelings. On the one hand, I felt rather alone. I remember having this visual of me all alone in front of a vast deserted area. It was like I was the only person in the world with nobody around to connect. It was a little scary to say the truth, yet I felt quite Zen. On the other hand, there was this intoxicating feeling of being so free that at last now I would be the only one to decide for myself what I would want to do and what I would not want to do, to decide what goals I would set for myself and how I would want to achieve them. It was a mix of solitude and yet of full control over my life. On the professional side of my life, I chose the purpose to be happy by making my customers happy, meaning adding value to them and help them succeed. I guess I do, because all my customers have actually found me through my blog, my books, my presentations and word of mouth. I have never had to do any cold calling ever. And that maybe what gives me the most joy: what I do is useful to my customers and they notice!

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Cow farts, or quite a bit of hot air?

Very likely, the only reason why one would have missed all the “commotion” around cow farts is to have been stranded on a desert island without any access to some telecom network. Who would have thought that those poor ruminants were actively busy suffocating us? Just in case anyone would doubt this is the case, some influential billionaires were ready to join the fight against animal protein and put their money to work in protein alternatives to save the world. Yeah, right. I will get back later on this with my views on the altruism of the one percent.

First things first. Cows have been blamed for climate change based on research. Actually, it is useful research, but like any research and statistics, it needs to be put in context. Here is a chart that shows the results of that research from Clark & Tilman, from the University of Minnesota.

On that chart, I have added two productions based on literature: Norwegian salmon fillet and Chinese aquaculture ponds. I did not put an emission number as it did not come from the same source and methodology as the Clark & Tilman research, but it is my best guess of where they would fit. My purpose here is to make the same point as the one I want to make on beef: there is a broad diversity of production systems and it is necessary to look at each of them on an individual basis.

The research results are an average of many different production systems, 742 in total for the entire research. The results are averages and that is a weakness because averages do not mean much if there is no mention of the standard deviation within the group. Before pointing fingers, they should analyze the variance between the various production systems for a particular type of food. Another weakness of their research is that it does not indicate which share of each link in the production and supply chain contributes to the environmental footprint. In the case of ruminants, where is the problem the largest? On the grasslands? In intensive fattening operations? In the logistics of meat? In the logistics of feed? And so on and so on. Several years ago, Brazilian beef producers were upset about a research showing that their footprint was much larger than the European Union’s, and they strongly disagreed. Yet, in the EU, most of the beef comes from the dairy herd (as you can see on the chart, the dairy footprint is much lower on average), the infrastructure is quite good and in particular, there is massive use of waterways, which have a much smaller carbon footprint than road transport by trucks, especially on sometimes terrible road conditions, on which there sometimes is massive loss of grains that fall off the trucks. Anyway, without getting into too many details, the bottom line of this story is that production and supply systems vary greatly between regions and those differences translate in differences in terms of environmental footprint. Another issue with the carbon footprint of beef from that study had also been pinpointed by another research from the Oxford Martin Programme at Oxford University that also showed that methane has not the same lifespan and long-term effect as CO2.

Back to GHG emissions of agricultural products, overall conclusion here are

  1. Don’t jump to conclusions and especially do not generalized
  2. Go beyond average numbers and look at the individual production system
  3. Learn from the best to improve production and supply systems
  4. Identify which links of the chain are the weakest ones in terms of greenhouse gasses and fix the weaknesses
  5. For governments, subsidize the systems that are the cleanest and tax (or possibly ban) the dirtiest

Another aspect to look at when it comes to ruminants is cellulose. There is plenty of cellulose in the world and the thing is that we, humans, do not have the enzyme (cellulase) to break down and metabolize it. Ruminants can break down cellulose thanks to the micro-organisms they have in their rumen, and this is how we can indirectly eat grass in the form of milk and meat provided by ruminants. This is all the more important as the world area of grasslands is twice the size of the world area of arable land. Actually there is between 3 and 4 times as much grassland acreage as arable land, but many of such grasslands barely can sustain animal farming so with twice the size of arable land, I give a safe estimate of what is usable. The beauty of using ruminants on grasslands, besides milk and meat, is that grazing is actually an amazingly circular economy (very trendy term nowadays and that should appeal) system: the animals eat the grass, and poop their excrements on the pastures and thus fertilizing and regenerating them. Another interesting fact to know is that grasslands actually fix more carbon on Earth than forests do, so proper grassland management is actually a great tool to mitigate climate change on a global basis. Sorry to disagree with all the anti-cow hype but ruminants are very useful. In quite a few of my past articles, I have mentioned the concept of externalities, or in other words the long-term costs (negative externalities) or benefits (positive externalities). Ruminants on grasslands generate quite some positive externalities and that should be taken in the conversation. Ruminants eat grass. That is a fact of Nature, and too bad for our societies which try desperately to make us lose our connection with Nature and even our own biology by transforming us mostly in passive thought-controlled not questioning anything consuming units. Ruminants eat grass and that is why I see grass-fed beef as a winner in the future of animal protein, not in volume but in value both nutritional and environmental, and actually from a farmer’s income point of view, too. Another statistic that everyone should have in mind in the discussion about livestock is that the UN FAO estimates at 1.7 billion (yes billion with a B) the number of people whose livelihoods depend on livestock.

So, from what I just wrote, do we want to remove two thirds of agricultural land from our potential from food production and do we take away the livelihoods of another 20% of all people on Earth so that hipsters from San Francisco and opportunistic billionaires can cash in on a very artificial hype? Food production used to be production-driven, then we started to convince ourselves that we changed it into market-driven (which has been mostly marketing-driven really) and now we are in a situation of making (some) food products investor-driven, which is not really about solving large-scale problems, but a mix of production-driven marketing-driven to play on people’s concerns about health and environment to convince them to buy new products and boost the share price of start-ups. We haven’t changed anything really: we still have the same volume-driven approach of always more that we know is not sustainable. Beware the pendulum will swing back. Let people choose what they want to eat. Don’t preach because most of the preaching, like all preaching is about control. I am an omnivore but I also cook and enjoy many vegetarian recipes. I do not believe that I should eat meat at every meal or every day for that matter. I also, and that may be because I can cook quite well, I do not need to get my plant-based servings from a food processing plant. I also believe that cooking and home economics, along with agriculture, should be taught in school, because they are essential for true sustainability. Moreover, since there is sexual education in school, it only seems normal that these matters belong in everyone’s curriculum.

I would say beware of social media as it is not a reliable source of information. It is only a digital form of the good old human habit of gossiping, and as such can spread all sorts of misinformation, just like the pre-digital era gossiping used to do. The difference is the number of people that can be reached.

So, to conclude, I would like to pinpoint a couple of things:

  1. Animal farming has indeed a higher carbon footprint than crops
  2. Therefore, it has to be carried out in a sustainable manner and what is not sustainable must be eliminated
  3. Therefore, animal protein production and supply systems will have to change in the future and they will change
  4. Meat is a valuable food and source of nutrients, but it is not for recreational everyday gluttony. After all, animal had to give their lives for us to have meat, and the concept of sacrifice should be present in our minds
  5. And to finish, a bit of a joke but not quite it either: there are indeed cow farts but there is also quite a bit of bullsh*t about the topic.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Food wasted is money wasted

For a change, here is something slightly different than my previous posts. I believe it is an eye opener, though. I have published this article on a new blog that I have started recently, and that I would like to introduce here. The blog is still in the beta phase but shows a strong start. Its name is The Sensible Gourmet. It is more focused on good food, as I like to prepare it at home, sensible nutrition and home economics. My purpose is to show that anyone can make great healthy meals worth of a good French restaurants for just a few dollars. I believe that sooner or later, there will be interesting synergies between both websites. Without further ado, here is the article:

Since it has been making headlines in the mainstream media for some time, you must have heard about it. It is estimated that about a third of all food produced in the world is not eaten and wasted. Recently, I was reading that Canadian households throw about half the food they buy in the garbage. This is bad economics. Here are simple figures to make my point.

You might remember the campaign a few years ago about the challenge of making $5 meals. Those were the days of the Great Recession of 2008 when some people discovered that economy is not always up and economic hardship made them realign their priorities. But time goes by and with economic recovery, being money-savvy has become boring again and who does still care about the $5 meal challenge today? You can see in the text of my Gallery page that all the great dishes I photographed cost even (much) less than $5, so not much of a challenge if you actually can cook and have a good sense of money. So, I will take $5 for a meal per person and with two meals a day that will be $10 per day per person.

Over a year that is $10 x 365 days = $3,650 dollar in food per person

Let’s take the world average of a third of food wasted: $3,650/3 = 1,217 dollars thrown away in the garbage per person per year.

If you take a household of two persons, that is $2,434 wasted per year. For a household of four, that is $4,868 per year. In the shameful case of the Canadian average of 50% (apparently, American and Australian households do not do much differently than the Canadians), these numbers become respectively $3,650 and $7,300 per household per year.

Another way of looking at the impact on household budget is to take the share of the food budget in the entire household budget. In Western countries, food represents roughly 10% of the household budget. Then, it is easy to see that 50% food waste represents 5% of the household income, and a third would represent 3.3% of the income.

Just as in my previous article about cooking in which I presented a calculation of how much money cooking can save you, you can see how much money you can save by not wasting food. That is free money that you can use to pay your mortgage or anything else useful to make your life better now or for the future.

These two examples, cooking at home and not wasting food, save literally thousands and thousands of dollars per year to your household, and the amazing thing is that this is YOUR money. You can make it work for you or join the legions of people struggling financially because of poor sense of home economics. This is easy money to keep on your bank account. All it takes to save this money is just some sense of organization in the kitchen and a bit of discipline.

After reading the article about the poor Canadian performance (I live in Canada), I did my own estimate of how much food I throw away, and I got to a figure less than 1%! Next to that, I compost all food scraps and I use the compost in my garden where I grow my own produce, which also saves me money and it is all produce free from any chemical whatsoever!

And when it comes to food waste, there is of course the issue of waste at the level of restaurants and retailers. Don’t hold your breath too much. I have heard about this problem for about 50 years and it clearly has not improved all that much despite the active communication campaigns when the issue makes the media headlines. I recently read that the US retailers Kroger and Walmart were re-evaluating their “ugly produce” concepts as they notice that consumers prefer to pick the pretty ones, which sounds like they might give it up. So much for social and environmental responsibility that we always hear so much about. When it comes to the $$$, then it is a different tune. There is a reason why there are different quality grades and why people make the choices they make. It is called market and price. It is also about knowledge and perception. it is also about store ownership. I can tell you this: when I was a kid, I used to go with my father on the market. We made sure that we would never throw anything away and that all our products would be sold by the end of the day. It required sensible planning and also the proper commercial thinking, which sometimes included to adjust the pricing on slow days. Money always talks to customers. it also talks to business owners. Trust me when it is your money that is in the business, you look at it quite differently than when it is someone else’s.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

My 2019: What’s ahead?

The past year ended with its yearly ritual, the conference on climate change. The charade has become so predictable it is hardly interesting anymore. Nonetheless, they followed their traditional operation procedure:

  • Step 1: it will be challenging as there are strong differences of points of views between the participants
  • Step 2: Oh no, we might not have an agreement and we are running out of time to fix the problems
  • Step 3: We cannot seem to find any agreement but wait, they are going to have an additional meeting that was not on the schedule for the night in a last attempt to reach an agreement
  • Step 4: Hoorah! A miracle happened; the participants found an agreement and signed it
  • Step 5: (say it mumbling for better effect) well, the agreement did not include any of the really important points on which they cannot agree again but this is a breakthrough though, and the process will go on as next year’s conference will take place and this time we promise the points of disagreement will be discussed

I have to say it is all looking like the movie Groundhog Day. Personally, I am getting a bit weary of all the repetitions and in my field just as well. I hardly read anything new or interesting about the future of food and agriculture. Yet, there are no shortage of articles and reports but what they contain I had already written in my two books that are seven and nine years old. I even see more and more illustrations pictures of such articles that look eerily reminiscent of the cover of my second book We Will Reap What We Sow (which by the way is priced incredibly low –less than US$4.00- at amazon.com lately but apparently not on the other amazon country websites –don’t know why but it is a bargain for as long as it lasts). Here are a couple of examples of these illustrations

(From Food Business News December 2018)

(From Food Navigator October 2018)

(my book, from 2012)

If this shows that I often am ahead of the pack, which is a good thing for a futurist, I wish I were not this much ahead. In one of my previous articles, I was announcing that financial market troubles were coming back. Well guess what.

For me, the current “problem” is that I am not learning anything new and I do not see any real attempt to prepare for a prosperous future. Yet, by the sound of it, we will have plenty of food. Aquaculture will feed the world, so will insects and so will GMOs and so will organic agriculture and so will lab meat and so will synthetic foods and so will algae and so will small farms and so will industrial agriculture and so will tech and so will vegetarianism and so will vegan, etc etc… Sounds like we can sustain hundreds of billions of people, except for a couple of simple important details: all these options will compete with each other for resources, all of them will have to be profitable and sustainable… and they won’t be. Also, for as much as there are lots of start-ups and innovation (pronounce disruption if you want to sound trendy and modern), they do not really address any fundamental problems but are aimed at developing niche businesses instead with the hope to be bought by some large corporation for a high share price. Besides, the new innovation model is “innovate now, think of the consequences later”, which is the opposite of what responsible innovation should be in my opinion, but hey you have to do what you have to do to become rich quick. In the same spirit, I am rather disappointed by the so-called billionaire philanthropists who suddenly seemed to show some change of heart from their previous years of hard-nosed capitalism and greed. Since their net worth never seems to drop, I suspect that their charitable foundations and activities are just an excuse to develop financial constructions to move their money around without being hit by taxes. Actually, I do not see them donate their money but they do invest actively in start-ups or buy shares from existing corporations and cash in nicely when those are bought. The takeovers of Syngenta and Monsanto must have been great boons that made it worth their while to even promote those companies as being the future. No, they are not philanthropists; they are investors. Philanthropists give money away; investors are after capital gains. It is not quite the same. How many of these philanthropists have donated money to rebuild Puerto Rico? Have they even been there when Maria hit? And there are more examples of disasters where money that these guys do not need would have helped greatly to rebuild livelihoods but they did not show up. Let me try for a second to think of myself as a wealthy billionaire. Let’s say I would have 50 billion dollars of net worth. If I gave half of it for humanitarian goals (philanthropy from philo=loving and anthropos=human being), I still would have 25 billion dollars in the bank, which might sustain me for the rest of my life if I decided to live frugally, I suppose (yes it is sarcasm). The other 25 billion could do a lot of good. Of course, I would drop significantly on the list of the world’s most wealthy but I hope my ego could cope with that. Have you seen any of these investors rebranded as “philanthropists” actually do any such thing? Anyway, let me move on with the rest of this article.

Since I do not like to do the same over and over again, I am looking at 2019 as my last year with a focus on the future of food and agriculture. I will have done it for ten years, which is good enough and not only my writings are still as relevant as when I published them, I still see them as the most comprehensive look at the topic. I will not walk away from food and agriculture but I think I will focus on other things and my article for this year will show a shift of scope. I need change and I need variety, and it is missing at the moment. What I intend to do this year is a series of what I would call “what’s ahead” articles by presenting concise points about a number of topics that will be of increasing importance in the future. It still will be related with food and agriculture but will also take a look at the bigger picture. As such, it will be a bit of a repeat from my books but with focus on action points and breaking points. Among the topics I have in mind, here is already a tentative list:

  • Agriculture production location
  • Food prices
  • Water
  • World trade
  • Migration
  • Economy
  • Winners and losers
  • Urbanism
  • Social unrest
  • Health
  • Wars and conflicts
  • Big bang of fusion of ecology and economy

For the sake of variety, I will alternate with articles about lighter topics about proper nutrition and consumption behaviour. Expect to read quite about the following words:

  • Humility
  • Moderation
  • Common sense
  • Sensibility
  • Integrity
  • Altruism
  • Responsibility and co-responsibility
  • Pragmatism
  • Leadership
  • Courage
  • Respect
  • Vision
  • Incentive
  • Balance
  • Comprehensiveness
  • Practical
  • Transition
  • Commitment
  • Sacrifice
  • Love
  • … and probably many others

That’s all for now. Have a great 2019! And we will see what it will bring us.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.