Tomorrow’s grocery shopping

Grocery shopping has undergone deep changes over the last 100 years and, like anything else, it will do the same in the future. The current Covid-19 pandemic is contributing to this evolution. Regardless of whether it will be over soon or not, one thing is sure: it has forced us to make adjustments and in a way, the virus has just accelerated changes that were already in the works. Here is how I see what to expect.

First of all, Covid-19 has changed how we live, and therefore how we shop. Online retail was growing but then it became almost a necessity for grocery stores to jump on board and engage in online sales. It was not always smooth. It took time for many outlets to organize taking orders, preparing them and get the orders ready for pick-up or for delivery. There was a lack of staff. The staff was not trained properly and there were all sorts of logistics issues to fix. Without getting in details, stores have been able to get a better presence online and ensured a better and smoother service over time, and rightly so, because many people have discovered the convenience of shopping at the time of their choice, not having to drive to the store, not having to be in the herd, which was already a pain in the neck before the pandemic, and not having to wait in line to check out. It saves them time and stress. These are the main reasons why I expect online grocery sales to stay and grow further. The offering and the navigability of online stores will have to improve as for now, it is still a tedious experience. The execution of orders is still a challenging area. More staff is needed and at the moment, this part of the business is the busiest and currently the largest employment opportunity at Wal-Mart. Amazon has also hired large numbers of new staff. Yes, it takes time and manpower to fill orders. It is nothing new. I used to do that part at my parents butcher’s shop. I used to prepare orders and deliver them to the customers who required it. Of course, my parents’ store was a relatively small operation and our phone and my brain (and my legs and arms, too) were all it took to get things done. The volume of business of modern grocery store is such that it could just be a family thing. My point is that preparing orders and executing them is nothing new and actually not all that complicated, and it is a pillar of good customer care.

Here is where I see more changes in the future. Having to manage so many new people to fill order –or to be personal shoppers to put it in fancier words- is a complex task. Such staff is usually paid little, not particularly motivated and always looking for better job opportunities, not to mention they can get sick or absent. Of course, the numbers and he economics will have to adapt, but I believe that in the future, order filling staff will be replaced by robots, connected to order software. The robots will manage orders, prepare and pack them. There are already robot waiters in some restaurants, so it is not so far-fetched. The robots also will be connected with the warehouse and the inventory management software. They will re-order for the warehouse, ensure first in first out, eliminate loss and waste and know exactly where to pick what and complete the entire job much more efficiently than humans and that on a 24/7 basis, and not require being unionized. I believe that corporations will like that.

Another area where I see potential for change is the sharing of online platforms. French retailer Carrefour offered that possibility to small retailers who had to close because of the Covid -19 lockdown in France. Thus, small stores did not have to venture and spend on developing their own online presence, which could have been challenging, not to mention stressful considering the circumstances. Further, cashing in fees for a online platform can be a business, too. What Carrefour offered is in fact the same as large online retailers like Amazon and Alibaba have done for independent sellers for years now. It is also not all that different from an EBay type of concept. Sharing of online platform will be a way of making the jump for small stores and from, there they will decide whether to keep using such platforms or build their own.

Order pick-up will certainly be a solution of choice for quite some time. Home delivery will have to evolve further, simply because it can be costly, except for outlets that can offer free deliveries for a minimum purchase amount, which is already the case. Deliveries might also be carried out by driverless vehicles in the future, such as Kroger has been testing for some time. Of course, there is always the possibility for restaurant delivery organizations to make the move to help retailers. After all, many of them want to be listed on the stock market and that will mean the necessity for them to keep growing always more and that will mean going beyond restaurants as per today. Here, the key will be to drop their fees. What these organizations charge for meal deliveries is rather brutal for pop-and mom restaurants and volume will have to take over fee based on bill percentage.

Retail will evolve further and there is no shortage of possibilities. Although everyone claims to collect data and know their customers, I think that it is more something in the realm of talk than actual effective execution. I have loyalty cards but I never get any shopping advice. My shopping news is either through the generic flyer that I find in my mail box like all other shoppers. And if I take a look online to see what is attractive, I have the exact same online flyer, as the paper one, with absolutely nothing specific or special about my own particular needs. I thought they would know what I buy and don’t buy and help me accordingly, but no, none of that ever happens and I do not have the feeling that is in the works. Hello, retailers! One the most daunting thing that shoppers go through is to make the bloody weekly shopping list. What do we need? What are we going to eat? What do they have on ad for us? Should we buy at retailer A or retailer B? No answer to any of that ever comes my way. If your retailer sends you personal shopping lists and tips, specific nutrition and menu tips you are lucky, and I am not. But I doubt it because I have never met anyone who did get of shopping tips. Retailers like Amazon do give some shopping tips and online ads also appear when I browse on Internet, but as far as I am concerned, they tend to miss the mark about every time. Perhaps, my being a frugal person makes me one of those difficult individuals to influence and to get to buy stuff but I really think that shopping tips should be a lot more on target than they are. I also believe that to improve this situation, it would be much better to have a voluntary and active participation from the shoppers themselves by having them giving more inputs about their needs and wants, although this of course enters the slippery area of online privacy, but you aill have to admit that it is a lot easier to serve customers well when they are in a position of telling you what they are exactly looking for. And in these times of “Internet of Things” why not combine store information with producer information and process it in a virtual production information and shopping advice system where people can make choices based on their values, their needs and all relevant information they need to make their decision, in a totally transparent manner? With such a system, why not even include a virtual tour of farms and packing facilities and show people where their food comes from and how it is produced and by whom? It could be accessible at home, could make use of VR helmet and could be consulted at a convenient time, not in the stressful rush of the in-store shopping with others breathing in their necks, especially if shoppers do not wish to go inside the store again.

Yet, as I show in this picture below, data servers and supermarket aisles look surprisingly similar. Every purchase and consumption is a transaction that goes way beyond money and product. It is a transaction between data – and therefore lifestyle choice, personal choices and values – versus the price shoppers pay. Why not include it in the shipping experience, then? I believe the answer is in the area of business thinking. In spite of the many claims, it is still a primarily production-driven, volume-driven cost-obsessed model, and not enough of a service-minded customer-oriented value-obsessed model. Of course, there is no reason why this would not change and anyway, the former model I mention is pushing for some positive innovations, such as cashierless stores where you can come in buy and leave without going through the tedious checkout lines or the even so much more fun do-it-yourself checkout where half the people I see seem helplessly stuck unable to figure out which button to press.

With what I just described, one could easily wonder why to have large supermarkets anymore. Why should the corporation spend all that money in prime –therefore expensive- locations, with fancy stores with light and all sorts of amenities, while in the future, most of the shopping might actually be just a warehouse order filling activity. This is an even more relevant question for staple foods and undifferentiated commodities? Since commodities are really mostly about low cost, then retailers keep your costs down and focus on specialties and value for the store experience. I see several areas for which this would make sense. Non-perishables should be in the warehouse and not take much space in the shopping area real estate. But perishables are another game. First, they are perishable products and they have to receive special care to avoid loss and waste. Second, people like to use their senses to purchase perishables. They like to touch them, to see them and inspect them, and to smell them. Perishable shopping is still a highly sensory activity, and it quite personal. Some people like their meat lean and others prefer a marbled one. People like to take a look at the produce to make sure it is not damaged, bruised or blemished or that it is ripe. They like to make sure it is fresh. Some people like baked goods to be well-baked and others prefer when it is on the paler side. Color is an important factor. For all these reasons, leaving the choice to underpaid staff who do not know the customers and do not care overly for them is quite a bit risky in terms of customer satisfaction, and I am not even talking about cases of mistakes such as delivering bacon instead of the ordered pork tenderloin I heard of at the beginning of the pandemic and the early times of packing orders for curbside pick-up. No, perishables will require special attention and my guess is that personal service will be high on the list.

When it comes to produce, I expect another evolution. Produce is delicate and with too high waste along the supply chain and in the store. Local production may have its advantages in term of sustainability, in particular when it involves truck road transport, but it makes a lot of sense about freshness and waste reduction. Just like the fruit and veggies that I get from my garden, picking fresh ripe produce just on time makes a world of difference. Just ask my wife about how it tastes compared with what we used to buy from thousands of kilometers away. In such a quality approach of perishable retail, why not get them locally. Urbanisation push produce farmers further way and yet, there is an amazing acreage that can be used to grow produce in cities, and interestingly enough a lot of that acreage is on top of supermarket, malls and warehouses. So why not build greenhouses on top of the store and sell the produce superfresh downstairs?

If you have to point of sale, it is much easier than being an urban farmer looking for customers. The store is there, people come to buy all sorts of things, just add the produce from the roof farm. Actually that is what a number of retailers have already started. France’s Carrefour, again, is one of them, but Benelux’s Ahold Delhaize has been working on the same thing and I am sure other will come and offer freshly picked local (roof) lettuce, leafy greens and tomatoes and strawberries.

Quality of products and quality of service will be the top demands and the old concept of small butcher, baker, greengrocer store will be the answer, although with a modern touch and with help of technology. I expect future supermarkets to be just that. They will be markets, like in the old days and they will be super, as they will wow their customers with prime shopping environment, prime products and prime personal service. A side advantage of this will also be that it reduces the use of packaging and has the potential to require no plastic whatsoever. After all, the purpose of plastic packaging has been to replace human labour by allowing self-service.

Copyright 2021 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Update on my poetry book

I am almost finished with the book, which will have Down to Earth as its title. I am going to make a French version as well, the title of which will be Vers de Terre.

The book contains 90 poems about food and farming. As a strong believer in the benefits of using both brain hemispheres, I composed poems that range to more “classic” themes to themes dealing with new technologies in food and agriculture. There is something for everyone in these poems.

I divided the content into six sections (click here to see the table of contents):

  • Fields: poems about plants and agriculture
  • Pastorale: poems about animals and animal husbandry
  • Characters: poems about people from food and agriculture
  • Edibles: poems about food
  • Destinations: poems about countries and their foods
  • Gravitas: poems about serious subjects

I also mixed many poem formats:

  • Sonnet, because of its elegance and structure
  • Haiku, for its powerful and concise impact
  • Villanelle, because it is so musical and light
  • Limerick, just to try to be funny
  • Rondeau, for classicism
  • Cinquain,  for modernity and concision
  • Free style, to let my mind wander without the rigidity of predetermined format, which I did mostly in rhymes but sometimes without rhymes but for a feel of rhythm and visual or sensory impressions

Next to the simple pleasure of poetry, I wrote these poems in a way that can be conducive to read and discuss them with an educational function in mind.

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

Positively setting the stage in my office

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A substantial part of my work consists of speaking engagements, in particular keynote presentations to conferences. Of course, Covid-19 has been a bit of a disruptor. Yet, many events organizers have adjusted to the new situation and virtual conferences have now become a new format. If I felt at first like I was going to have lots of time on my hands, I have been rather surprised by the ongoing interest for the future of food and farming, and by the many requests for virtual speaking engagements that I have received. I am as busy as ever. In a way, there is some irony –or maybe just a sign that I saw certain things before others- because virtual meetings have been on my list of services for a decade. Few had used that possibility until Covid-19 raised its ugly head. Virtual meeting are now happening.

At first, it was a matter of simply accommodating, getting on Skype or Zoom, just like everybody else. I can understand that lockdowns took everybody by surprise and it is a matter of first things first. I just want to go the next level. Zoom meetings are nice but, and I do not know if you will agree with me, there is a bit of a depressed atmosphere about it. People do not dress as they would for business in the “real” world and everybody looks a little subdued and droopy. It feels a little soft. Often, it has more to do with not setting the camera in the right spot but nonetheless, I want virtual meetings and conferences to feel as dynamic, energetic and upbeat as the “real” ones. We are not going to let the virus get us down, are we? It is a matter of mindset, really.

Virtual meetings will stay, even after we have defeated the virus. The old in-person conferences will return but many people and event organizers will have discovered the value and the benefit of virtual events as well. This why I have organized my home office as a stage, where I can stand and look at the audience right in the eyes (although through the lens of a camera). Every time, I am just trying to replicate the feeling of an in-person meeting. A positive mindset is always contagious, hopefully more so than Covid-19. I have a whole array of tech gizmos to be able to do presentations, as I mention in the video. In a number of occasions, I needed to get in touch with my inner MacGyver.

I just want to let you know that virtual meetings and conferences are on my list of services. I hope that it is something that appeals to you and if you are interested, let’s get in touch and see what we can organize.

Christophe Pelletier

How to be a food futurist?

Probably, the question that I have been asked the most in all my years as a food futurist has been “What does a food futurist do and how and you do it?” Of course, being a food futurist is just like any other business. There is no one-fit-all approach. Different people and organizations have different needs and different expectations. As a food futurist, I have had to define my niche. That said, the term futurist is used in many ways and can cover very different activities. In the food and agriculture sector, the theme of the future of food and farming has actually shifted more and more as a marketing gimmick for many organizations. It has lost its role of foresight to just be another term for what used to be new product development. Personally, I do not use the word futurist to be a consultant under a sexier and trendier name. I focus on the future in a way that I described in my article What future do you want? Although the futurism market is segmented, just as any other market, I see a number of characteristics that make a futurist truly add value.

Accurate predictions

In my opinion, this is the number one key performance indicator of a futurist. Since the job is about what is not here yet, what the futurist says as to be a prediction, in the true sense of the word, with the prefix pre, meaning before, and diction being what s/he tells. A good futurist is someone who tells the future accurately before it happens and before everyone else. Accuracy is of course essential to spot a good futurist. Someone who consistently predicts accurately is of course highly valuable. If the futurist makes predictions with a low rate of accuracy, someone’s time is being wasted. As far as I am concerned, in my career. Often, I met skepticism or disbelief but generally speaking, my predictions came true some time later. The same thing happened with business strategies. In particular, since I started this blog, I made many predictions in my articles and in my books. I also made many for my customers. Most of them are out there and I leave it to you to decide whether you think my predictions have been accurate. I have my own opinion on the subject. As a teaser, I have compiled a number of them in my page Some of my past predictions.

An actual futurist

As I said earlier, there are many ways to be a futurist. The way I look at it, a futurist must present the future before it happens. It is the result of research and analysis, and the vision that comes out has to be substantiated with strong arguments. Since it is about the future, it cannot be about what already exists. Writing the present in the future tense does not make it a prediction. Many futurists, especially those who like to focus on technology tend to stick too much on presenting catalogues of what is already in the works. To me, this is not a foresight job. It is a journalist, a story teller and/or a student’s job. Similarly, presenting the future as a way to sell particular products categories or advocate for some production systems, whichever they might be is not a futurist’s job, they are sales rep’s, advocate’s, activist’s or a lobbyist’s jobs. Personally, I never advocate anything. I do not let my feelings or opinions stay in the way, either. I just present arguments to weigh in favour or against, so that my customers can decide for themselves. Actually, this way of working sometimes made me change the way I looked at the future myself.

A good futurist must be ahead of the pack, which can be lonely, and come up with an original angle. If it is not original, then it already exists and then the story is not a prediction anymore. In such a case the futurist is more of a follower than a leader. A good futurist anticipates. If there is a requirement to carry out a thorough rational and objective analysis, being a futurist requires a strong intuitive side and a strong sense of anticipation. People who have rational and analytical skills combined with intuition and a “sixth sense” are quite rare. Usually, most people are strong on one side only. Having both is a gift, for the futurist of course, but especially for the customers.

Independent and candid

Good futurists must be objective. They must be able to present a vision of the future that is not biased. This is where things can become difficult. Often, the futurist wants to please the customer and will emphasize the bits that make people happy and avoid the topics that are sensitive or even controversial. Yet, in my view, useful futurists will tell things the way they see them, regardless of whether the customers likes what they hear or not. Being candid allows telling the full story. I see resisting candour as actually short-changing the customer by holding some bits of the future. It might be tactically useful as customers who love everything might be more inclined to have repeat intervention for the futurist, but they might miss much other beneficial information. Sometimes, it is the other way round. The customer is the one who does not want to hear about certain topics.Then, I wondered why they would pay someone while applying what is a form of censorship. I have no interest in such assignments.The future has to be a bit shocking and disturbing; otherwise something is missing in the picture. The future should trigger resistance and requests for further explanations. After all, futurists are not oracles or gurus, although sometimes people seem to like seeing them that way. No, a futurist presents a vision and from there, a conversation must follow. Especially, it some bits of the vision strike a nerve, it is essential to go to the bottom of things and understand what substantiates the vision. This dialogue is critical to get the full value of a futurist. Otherwise, it is no more than a flat presentation, often quite entertaining, but with limited staying power. I guess I can say I have staying power since I have been doing this since April 2009. I have seen many others venturing as food and/or agriculture futurist but choosing the past of least resistance and they lasted a couple of years at the most. If I were to pinpoint a frustrating part of being a futurist, I would say that it would be the lack of this getting to the bottom of things. I find people are not curious and inquisitive enough, or perhaps they are too nice and do not want to engage in a passionate dialogue. They should because the vision is just the tip of the iceberg. The future encompasses much more that the vision and customers should dive deep to see the entire iceberg. At least, I wish they would. This why I always organize my schedule to have plenty of time available for my customers after my presentations. Often, informal after hours conversations are more conducive than formal stage time for good conversation.

Experience and specialization

There are futurists who will talk about the future of everything. It can be done but it depends for which purpose. Like anything else in life, there is a trade-off. I chose to focus on food and agriculture only. The reason is simple. I want to spend my time to deepen my expertise in this field. A person has only so much time and if I tried to do the same quality of work for all sectors of life, I would have to cut the time I can allocate to each of these sectors. It is the old joke of being a generalist vs. being a specialist, the generalist being someone who knows less and less about more and more things while the specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less. In a way, I have specialized in food and agriculture, but I see myself much more as a generalist, though. Of course, my personal and professional background help me, although my experience and using my critical mind through my education and professional experience also help me a great deal to know what works and what does not. I do not see my work as a food and agriculture futurist as a continuity from the past. On the contrary, I want to look at the sector with new eyes all the time. Otherwise, I would be like many futurists/consultants who are trying to recreate the old jobs they lost. I do not have any particular interest in this approach. Even though I have chosen to focus on food and agriculture, I do follow everything I can outside of food and agriculture. If I did not, I would not be good at what I do. I spend a lot of time following other sectors of activity and even economy, politics, history and philosophy to be able to understand all the interconnections that will shape the future. The future of food and agriculture will not originate from food and agriculture only. In a way, I probably could talk about many other sectors as well, but it would be at the cost of my in-depth analysis of all sectors. There, too, I would have a feeling of shortchanging the customer. Let’s say that I am a specialized generalist. I know less than specialists in their areas of specializations but I connect the dots and have the full 360 picture of the sector, and they cannot. I believe that this is a good approach, as my customers’ feedback tells me. But once again, the market is segmented.

Connecting the dots

The ability to get the big picture both within and outside the food and agriculture sector, together with the understanding of how all the interactions affect what can happen, where, when and how is a major asset in the work of a futurist. Nothing and nobody is on an isolated island. Just like my jiu-jitsu teacher used to say “it is all about action and reaction”. Even if certain things seem to have nothing directly with each other, I look at our world as a huge set of gears rotating together, or sometimes getting stuck. It is amazing how our world, present and future, is shaped by many events often far way and taking place at different times. It is better to keep your eyes and ears wide open. In particular, with food and farming, we are dealing with life, which is a nexus between the Earth, the air, the water and energy. Life is all about ecosystems and ecosystems evolve on equilibriums. This is what makes food and agriculture so interesting and so dynamic. The systems constantly have to maintain themselves and function in a delicate balance between many elements. The many levels for life to sustain itself make it powerful, yet vulnerable.

Critical thinking

Since the work of a futurist consists of a lot of research, it depends on the work of many others. Some are reliable and others less so. When browsing for information, it is essential to be able to sort out what is solid from what is not. To do this, it requires some serious critical thinking, as well as knowledge and experience. Not everything that is out there is true. It is important to know where reliable sources are and it is at least as important to know which sources are not. Personally, I do not care if what I read or watch -and I do a lot of that on a daily basis- comes from an expert, a Nobel prize, a high-rated university professor, an social media influencer (beware of those!), a billionaire or a celebrity. Even those who are considered in the know do not always say sensible things. The amount of useless stuff that I come across is quite impressive. In particular, the amount of myths, misinformation and fallacies that are carried around by people who either do not even read the stuff or do not have the knowledge to assess if something is true or false, or do not make the effort to do some critical thinking would really surprise you. Or maybe it would not. I am glad that I am naturally equipped with a seriously critical mind and I also am lucky that I have been in an education system with teachers that fostered this quality. Critical thinking is essential to a futurist. With a lack of it, the futurist can end up looking like a fool.

Open-mindedness

I mentioned the need for independence and objectivity earlier. It is also true that we all look at the world through a prism that we received from our parents, our culture, or teachers and our life experiences. I do not think that anyone can claim to be 100% objective and unbiased. This is where critical thinking helps a great deal, in particular by thinking critically about our own thinking (still following me?). It may sound a bit schizophrenic but with some practice it can be done without medication (just joking here). Without critical thinking, there cannot be any open-mindedness and without open-mindedness, there is no room for critical thinking. People who miss one of those or both, have no alternative than to fall in a binary world, the kind of binary world that the thought police and the political correctness brigades scourging social media try to impose. Let’s face it, people with an open mind and critical thinkers are dangerous, even subversive. They tend to scare the brigades I just mentioned. Especially, they escape their power. Yet, a good futurist must wade above that because anything that restricts our potential to develop a vision of a different world will ruffle some feathers, sometimes. Open-mindedness is essential to do this part of the work. Indeed, how can anyone think of a different world if they cannot accept for themselves first that it could be the way of the future?

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

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.