Future implications and consequences of the ChemChina-Syngenta deal

February 16, 2016

The purchase of Syngenta by ChemChina did not go unnoticed. Many commentators are trying to see all sorts of reasons and all sorts of consequences, mostly depending on whether there are pro or anti GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms). When it comes to China, the best approach in my opinion is to look at it in a very pragmatic manner, simply because the Chinese have been quite pragmatic over the years. Their approach of food and agriculture is the same as for all other economic activity. It is dictated by the need for the government to ensure social stability or at least prevent social unrest. They will do what is good for China, meaning what is good for the Chinese government. It is not aimed at pleasing any other country or the financial markets. They still follow the principle express by Deng Xiao Ping: “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”.

In both Future Harvests and We Will Reap What We Sow, I was announcing such a move, simply because it makes sense when looking at the economic and demographic changes the world is going through. The purchase of Syngenta is a very good move for China because it kills several birds with the same stone.

The Chinese seed sector was –and still is- fragmented and far from effective. By bringing a heavy weight company like Syngenta in their market, they will establish a much stronger seeds and genetic business to meet the challenges of the future. Syngenta brings expertise that will help China speed up the learning curve and create a critical mass of production that will be able to meet some serious volumes. It will stimulate further consolidation in China and also stimulate innovation and progress for other Chinese seed producers, if they want to stay in business. I read many derogatory comments about China’s quality approach. It is amazing how many people are stuck in clichés from the past. China is improving in many areas and quality is one of them. There is a generation of entrepreneurs who are quite bright and competent leading businesses. It is quite clear to me that Syngenta is and will be a quality player in the future, under Chinese leadership. Those who think this deal is bad news for Syngenta’s employees will be disappointed. I believe the contrary. They will get many more challenges to tackle and their jobs will be more focused than they were before or would have been if it had been bought by a North American company.

The purchase of Syngenta sends a clear message that China wants to be in control of its seeds. By buying such production assets, China will not have to go on the market, or at least will be much less dependent, to buy seeds from outside. It will strengthen China’s bargaining position towards other seed suppliers. Thus, China will be in charge of strategic choices that are good for China’s agriculture instead of having to choose from suppliers who do not have China’s long-term food security at heart or who would try to impose their conditions to China.

Regarding the topic of GMO, the purchase of Syngenta certainly offers China access to the technology, but it is not the main reason for the purchase. What it does though, is to offer China the option of using genetic engineering technology if they consider it useful. If they choose to do so, they will approach the use of the technology as a resource that supports their food security goals only and they will develop the products they actually need, not the products other suppliers would want to sell them. Whether China will use GMO is up to China and nobody else. Trying to see the Syngenta purchase as a sign of China’s attitude towards GMO is in my opinion wishful thinking more than anything else. When it comes to seeds, they will not look at the cat’s color. They will focus on having one that catches mice.

Further towards the future, the Syngenta purchase will have other long-term effects, and outside of China, too. China will be a significant seed producer and supplier. With an organization like Syngenta, there is no reason why they should limit business to China. I expect to see China playing a much more important role in the seed market outside of its borders. In particular, I expect to see China eye the huge African seed market. China has been active for decades in Africa and contributes to many economic development projects. China does not interfere with African politics but focuses on how it can help Africa developing and playing a future role for China. Considering the potential of African agriculture and its significance for China’s future food security, the new Syngenta should be instrumental for future progress of agriculture in Africa. A side effect of such a strategy would reshuffle the cards of the world seed market and bring a new and different equilibrium. There is quite a bit of activity on the mergers’ side. Syngenta had been the object of interest from other potential buyers, especially Monsanto. DuPont and Dow already brought their agriculture activities’ together. BASF seems to be looking at reshaping its activities. Further consolidation and mergers will take place in the coming months and years. What will be the next big merger? I can think of two possible ones: BASF and Bayer or BASF and Monsanto. I also see the possibility of Monsanto not being considered a purchase candidate at all by anyone.

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


Future evolution of genetic engineering

December 9, 2010

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are one the most, if not the most, controversial aspects of modern food and agriculture. So far, the focus had been on offering farmers alternatives to pesticides and herbicides. The proponents of GMOs praise the progress made and they claim that agriculture production benefits from this. Opponents warn about all sorts of potential disasters in health and environment. The reality is that GMOs have been around for about a decade and a half, and they are here to stay. There is currently no sign that they would be banned from the Earth, especially since genetic engineered traits have been found outside of farm fields, as I had mentioned in a previous article.

At his juncture, and to think of how this technology –and business- will evolve, it is worth asking a few questions.

Has the use of GMOs been successful for agriculture and food production?

There are several levels in this question, actually. From the yield point of view, it is rather difficult to answer objectively, as there is little possibility to compare the respective performance GMOs and non-GMOs. From what I gather, it would appear that the Bt cotton may have delivered better results. For corn, the picture is much less clear. Actually, some varieties have proven to have rather disappointing performance. For instance, the genetically engineered corn from Monsanto failed to produce in South Africa, and recently their SmartStax variety (developed together with Dow) has had lower results than expected. This forced the company to drop the selling price per unit from US$24 down to US$8! The stock market did not appreciate. Clearly, GMO producers can make mistakes, and this is not particularly reassuring.

However, GMOS have delivered some benefits, too. In Argentina, the use of glyphosate-resistant soybean has allowed the production of soybeans to recover strongly from the brink of disaster. After many years of intensive monoculture of soybeans, the soil had been damaged to a nearly point of no-return, With the use of glyphosate-resistant plants, combined with no-tillage technique, farmers have been able to rebuild the level of organic matter in their soils. The result has been a huge increase of production, as farming conditions have been restored.

Opposite to this success story, a study from China concluded that the use of Bt cotton changed the ecosystem in such a way that pests that are naturally not sensitive to the Bt toxin thrived in cotton fields. This forced farmers to use other regular chemical pesticides to fight them, and the overall use of pesticides was actually higher than before the introduction of Bt cotton. The number of glyphosate-resistant weeds is a growing concern in many areas of the USA, and farmers need to use other methods to eliminate the weeds. Currently, the situation has come to a point that Monsanto is offering a rebate to its customers to buy and use herbicide from their competitors, so that at least they keep buying their genetically engineered glyphosate-resistant seeds, because they do not have the solution of the problem in-house. These two examples demonstrate a simple fact: genetic engineering is not a panacea that solves all the problems. It must be used as a part of a well-thought set of techniques. Producing one type of crop with the included traits without understanding the ecosystem that a field is, simply does not work. A field is not a dead zone. A biologically very active system resists constantly the attempts of humans to get it under control. Since the odds of developing a resistance for all available products is statistically close to zero, rotating herbicides and pesticides strongly increases the chances of eliminating the “super weeds” and the “super bugs”. Of course, companies would rather not promote their competitors products by advising farmers to rotate herbicides and pesticides.

Are GMOs necessary?

Considering the rather mixed results, it is quite difficult to answer this question with certainty. The technology of genetic engineering is useful because it offers the possibility to introduce desirable traits in plants. However, genetic engineering deals with genes, and the actions of the genes, as well as their interactions with other genes, are very complex. This is still a field where we have much to learn. Caution is required. Genetic engineering is only one of the many ways we have to increase and improve production. It certainly is not, as some would like to make believe, the only way. This is also important to keep in mind when it comes to developing countries. In these countries, the problem is not that all other techniques have reached their potential. Many farmers do not even have access to just good seeds. If they had, together with proper financing, access to input and adequate techniques, they would achieve much better yields. Since they are poor, how could they even afford to buy GMOs? In my previous article, Hunger is about more than just food production, I indicated how Africa could become a net exporter without GMOs. On the other hand, in developed countries, such as Europe, where farmers achieve outstanding technical results, for instance wheat yields 2.5 to 3 times as high as in the USA, what could be the incentive? Europe is food secure, actually several European countries are among the world’s largest exporters of food and agricultural products. Why would consumers be hungry for GMOs, while food is already affordable? People may not always be rational, but there is always a strong logic about why they do what they do.

Are GMO safe or not?

In all objectivity, there is no certain answer to this question, either. Until this day, there has not been any proven disaster linked to GMOs. Since in biology things may take a long time to come out, there cannot be any certainty that something is not already changing, either. This debate is between those who think that progress always brings some new uncertainties that should accept, and those who think that we should not take chances. Genetic engineering is still a young science, and 15 years is a very short period in ecological terms.

A related question about this is: “Is there a moral issue about GMO?” There certainly is something about morals in the debate. There is the theme of playing to be God. There is the theme of corporate profits vs. people and environment. There is the theme of the control of food by a select few, and that is about power. There is the theme of secrecy vs. transparency. This is also about a certain vision of the world, and about which values should prevail. There is the New World set of values vs. the “Old World’s”. None of these themes has much to do with science, but they are quite important to many people, and they will remain so for a long time. The controversy and the debate are far from over. The food retailers, such as the giant Carrefour, are now entering the debate. A new interesting element is the awakening of the US consumers who start to question food production; while until recently, they were rather passive in that area. Many things will happen and change. At this stage, it is rather difficult to say what will emerge.

What is at stake?

Next to the themes that I have just mentioned, the most at stake is money, and a lot of it. This industry would never have developed if they had not been granted the possibility to apply for patents and collect royalties on their intellectual property (IP). Without IP, there are no GMOs. Patenting life is in itself a controversial topic. This is especially more so when a whole plant becomes private property while only a tiny part of it has been altered. The original whole plant was the collective property of humanity. Without asking permission to mankind, and not even offering to pay a rent for this collective property, GMO producers have managed to become the owners. For many people, there is a feeling of wrong entitlement.

The key element is IP. This is understandable, because most GMO companies are spin-offs from molecule makers, from the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Their business has always been about investing large amounts of money in R&D to put new molecules on the market. Their philosophy behind GMO production is the same. They think like molecule makers, not like farmers. The objective is to develop products for which they can collect royalties to pay back for the R&D expenditure. The driver for this is the need to develop high margin products to satisfy the expectations of the shareholders. This is why GMOs were a logical step to replace gradually the chemical herbicides and pesticides, for which margins have been eroding. Something else needed to be developed to bring out solid financial results and future prospects. With the patent period ending soon, the existing GMOs will become generic products that will no longer be IP. This forces the producers to think of new traits to include, thus generating more IP for royalties. This leads to a new generation of GMOs

What will be the next phase?

We will see two different paths for genetic engineering. One is a market-driven genetic engineering aimed at solving actual problems that farmers need to overcome. This will not be so much about IP and royalties, but it will be about practical and affordable solutions. This area will be taken over gradually by plant breeders and to some extent with government support. They will focus on issues such as drought resistance, flood resistance, ability for plants to grow in saline soils, and ability to transform solar energy more efficiently into food by enhancing photosynthesis processes. An interesting case to follow is China. Over there, the government is already leading a nationwide restructuring of the currently fragmented seed industry to make it more efficient, and deliver solutions that will help the country improve its food self-sufficiency. Since China is quite involved in farming investments in Africa, we can expect to see Chinese seed producers become more aggressive on that continent, too. China has also clearly expressed that genetic engineering is a part of their new approach.

The molecule makers, as I like to call them, will choose a different path. They will look for sophisticated products for which they can receive a high margin in the market. Their objective will be to introduce as many traits as they can in plants and help them produce… molecules. They are more interested to produce high-tech novelties. They will become the Apple of biology. Chemical synthesis will be replaced by biotechnology. Their areas of interest will be pharmaceutical production and health, more than agriculture. The industry will introduce genes in plants to produce medicines that can be used to treat all sorts of diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, possibly Aids, and many others. They will also focus on the development of healthy nutritional components, such as high Omega-3 fatty acids content in oil seeds and the elimination of allergic components in current foods.

This next phase will see a change in the landscape of GMOs. Companies will make strategic choices about which segment they want to operate. There will be divestment of activities, and there will be new Mergers & Acquisitions, too. It is very likely that GMO producers will focus on biotech and sell their herbicides and pesticides activities to the companies that will choose to specialize in chemicals only. Pharmaceutical companies will get closer to GMO producers, and we can expect to see a new generation of biotech start-ups that will aim at being taken over by larger corporations. Some companies will choose for business-to business, while others will choose for consumer products. For pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals, companies will subcontract farmers, while remaining in charge of the marketing of the molecules.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Follow the water!

November 15, 2010

Without water, there is no agriculture, there is no food, and there is no life. It is obvious, and yet the water question is too often neglected. The quantity and the quality of water available are absolutely crucial for the future production of food. It will influence where and what type of food we can produce. It will define food security and world politics. Since 70% of fresh water use is for agricultural purposes, it is clear that water will soon be power.

The need to preserve water and use it efficiently is going to be one of the main challenges to overcome for the decades to come. This will stimulate innovation and the development of new technologies and new techniques.

Field sensors that measure the level of humidity in the air and in the soil connected with “crop per drop” irrigation systems can allow the distribution of the right amount of water at the right time, thus saving waste through evaporation and drainage. The selection of plant varieties will focus more and more on water efficiency. Drought-resistant plants that can thrive in arid conditions are in the works. For instance, a trial on wheat in Australia has delivered promising results, as the yield was 25% higher than non drought-resistant varieties. Researchers, through hybridization and genetic engineering, are working to develop varieties that can use less water and produce similar yields as per today. Although high tech may bring solutions, other methods deliver good results, too. Agro forestry, the production of crops under a cover of trees seems to help farmers achieve satisfying results in the Sahel region. The foliage of the trees helps reduce evaporation from the soil. Combined with proper techniques to apply organic matter and fertilizing elements, farmers can create better conditions for plants to grow.

Another field of research is the development of alternatives to traditional desalination, which is very demanding in energy. Transforming seawater into fresh water for the production of food is not simple, and it is expensive. The technology is here.  Israel has used it for decades. Currently in the United Arab Emirates, a project of floating islands covered with solar panels to provide the energy to desalinate seawater is being developed. This system has the advantage to produce both fresh water, which is precious in desert countries and clean energy at the same time. A project, called The Sahara Forest Project aiming at producing food in the desert is currently in the works. It combines solar energy, modern biomass production and a type of greenhouse, built by the Seawater Greenhouse company, that helps the humidity produce by the plants to condensate.

In many countries, the problem is not so much physical scarcity of water as it is a lack of proper infrastructure to collect, pump and irrigate efficiently. The population density contributes to the problem, because the more people, the less for each of them. In many countries, for instance in India, the equipment is old, inadequate and poorly maintained, because of a lack of finance of governments and farmers. The result is a waste of water resources, and a suboptimal production. Another area that has potential for improvement is the collection and the storage of rainwater. A large quantity of water runs off and is not available for food production because there are not enough containers, if any. Developing and improving storage infrastructure will definitely help farmers to produce more food.

If the availability of water is important, so is its quality. In China, the situation is a lack of both, because of the heavy pollution of many streams and rivers. In many areas, the water is there, but it cannot be used, as it is fit neither for human consumption nor for agricultural production.

The respective situation of countries about water availability will determine their ability to feed their own people or not. In Arab countries, irrigation has led to a high level of salinity and it has depleted drinking water reserves. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has now abandoned its policy of increasing food production to become be self-sufficient. Saudis are actively purchasing land in African and Asian countries to meet their food needs. China and India, that represent about 40% of the world population, are following a similar approach and invest heavily to help develop land in Africa. In countries where drinking water is scarce, there are discussions about the need of not exporting, as export of food is actually water export as well.

If a number of countries face a water shortage, others have a different situation. This is the case for large areas of North America and South America. Especially Brazil disposes of large water reserves. Together with a favourable climate, Brazil has many advantages to produce food, especially animal protein. According to Osler Desouzart of OD Consulting, the production of 1 kg of beef requires 16,000 litres of water, while it takes 6,000 litres for 1 kg of pork and only 2,800 litres for a kg of chicken. This shows why Brazil has been gaining market share in beef and poultry. It indicates that intensive animal production will be more challenging in countries where water is not as abundant. This also tends to show that poultry will be the most successful type of land animal production. The US and Canada have large water reserves, although there are also clear regional differences. The South West of the US becoming increasingly arid, and one can wonder if California, that currently produces most of the fruit and vegetables for the North American continent, will be able to keep its production levels. It is likely that fresh produce will be gradually produced closer, even inside, the large urban centers in the northeast as well. Considering the emphasis on water preservation, it is also interesting to note that before the housing crisis in the US, the most irrigated type of plant production were lawns, using three times as much water as US corn. Food recalls are another source of water waste, especially meat and eggs recalls. From the numbers presented above, it is easy to see how much water is lost when dozens of tons of animal products must be destroyed, not to mention the huge food waste that this represents.

When it comes to food and water, aquaculture offers interesting possibilities for the efficient production of protein. Fish produced in the ocean do not consume freshwater. This saves large amounts that can be used for other purposes. However, one of the challenges for the fast-growing aquaculture industry will be to be able to source feed ingredients that do not directly compete with other farm animals and direct human consumption. Land-based aquaculture is developing the very interesting concept of aquaponics, which is a combination of fish production in tanks combined with the production of vegetables indoors. The system recycles the water used for the fish tank, and helps fertilize the plants with fish waste. This is a very water–efficient system that can help produce large amounts of food on a small area, making it fit for urban farming units.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The quiet revolution of food retailers

October 28, 2010

While many debates continue in the political and “parapolitical” world about many aspects of food production systems and the impact of human activity on the environment, retailers lead a quiet revolution. Without making the headlines, they gradually change the way their suppliers will do business in the years to come.

Such an evolution is certainly welcome, especially in a time where important decisions need to be made. Political leaders seem unable to reach any agreement on environmental issues, as the world could see at the late Climate Summit of Copenhagen. In the food sector, there are many discussions going on about sustainability and genetic engineering, to name the two hottest items, but the political class does not seem to generate clear and concrete action plans.

Just like what happened in the 1990s about food safety in Europe, retailers are taking the initiative to create momentum on the current issues. The problems that plagued the food industry in Europe, such as salmonella in poultry, the mad cow disease, or the dioxin in Belgian fat for chicken feed showed a number of weaknesses that needed to be addressed. In the case of BSE, UK retailers did not wait for British or European legislation to demand meat and bone meal-free feed for farm animals. As I was working for a company supplying the UK market with chicken meat, I can testify that these were dramatic times. Tough decisions had to be made on a very short notice that had serious financial consequences. By then, a couple of reasons made the retailers took the lead. First, the inability of the government to prevent and tackle the issues was creating a bit of a vacuum on leadership. Consumer confidence in their institutions was fading, and retailers were the only ones, true or not, perceived to take the proper actions to protect the public. The second reason was the fact that many retailers had their own private labels. In this case, the problem was not the supplier’s problem anymore because the supermarket chain could have risked serious PR damage if a food safety issues would have been associated with their brand.

This time, retailers are again in the position where they can present themselves as the consumers’ champions. Legislation is slow to move and make significant decisions. The involvement of interest groups adds to the infighting and delays decision-making.

To prepare for the future, they already have come out with plans and communication on how and where they want the food they sell to be produced, and they try to offer a choice to consumers. By doing so, the most active among them are setting new standards, and forcing the whole production and supply chain to think about the things to come.

In previous blog posts, I have mentioned some of such initiatives, and in Future Harvests, I described the increasing leadership role of food retail in agricultural practices.

In particular, I mentioned the carbon footprint labelling on dairy products by Tesco, Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index questionnaire to suppliers, and the seafood sustainability programs of many retailers. Marks & Spencer started their Plan A in 2007 with the objective of making their business more sustainable. To achieve this, they are involving their suppliers and the farmers producing for them to carry out the changes that M&S finds necessary for a better future.

More recently, new initiatives indicate that retailers are pursuing further on such initiatives. Wal-Mart came last week with their plan for sustainable agriculture. In the UK, Sainsbury let know last week that they were committing GBP40 million to invest in farming. Earlier this week, Carrefour unveiled their “Reared without GMO” program. In their stores in France, they will sell 300 food items labelled as being GMO-free, to offer consumer a choice based on transparent information. If Carrefour ventures into this, one can be sure that they do so because they already know that this will be good for their business. By gaining market share, it is very likely that their competitors will soon react by issuing similar programs. The EU Commission may be struggling to figure out how to deal with GMOs, but Carrefour says “Let the consumers tell us!” Vox populi, vox dei!

Of course, such initiatives do not please everyone. Today, I could read in a blog for a US magazine backed by the meat industry some interesting reactions about Carrefour’s new plan. Some readers were bringing up the typical arguments. Meat would be so expensive in Europe. Well, meat is quite affordable in France, even without GMOs, so think again! The other argument was about freedom of choice: people should be able to eat what they want. By labelling its food item, Carrefour does just that. French consumers are free to buy at Carrefour or somewhere else, and they have the right to choose what label they prefer. The freedom of choice is ironic coming from the US meat lobby, since American consumers do not have that freedom. Reared with GMOs is pretty much the only choice in the US. For now, that is. However, it is interesting to see on Carrefour’s press release that the pictures of fish, chicken and pork chops are exactly the same, regardless of whether they would be grown with or without GMOs.

In the 1990s, British and European consumers, and retailers, were challenging food industry practices because they were worried about their health and about the lack of transparency about food. Nowadays, in the USA, consumers are increasingly suspicious of their agribusiness, because they are worried about their health and the lack of transparency of the industry. Beef recalls because of E. coli, egg recalls because  of salmonella, spinach contaminated with manure are in the news on a (too) regular basis. They are also increasingly aware, and suspicious, of the relations between interest groups and their government agencies, and how this influences decisions on what they eat.

Retailers are now saying that they are not waiting for politicians to make decisions. They have defined their vision, they know what they want, and they are passing the message on to the suppliers. What would happen in agribusiness USA if Wal-Mart took a similar approach as Carrefour?

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Consumers shape food production systems

October 21, 2010

Although it is tempting to think that food production systems are created by agribusiness, they depend greatly on the choices and the attitude of consumers and society. For humans, food is not just about nutrition, but it is loaded with a high emotional content.

Consumer choices are highly irrational. To demonstrate this, here are some examples.

When the mad cow disease, or BSE, hit the UK in 1996, beef consumption dropped, but the behavior of consumers was odd. A leading retailer put British beef on sale at 50% off the normal price. They had their best weekend sales ever by then. When asked why they had bought beef, while there were concerns about health risks, some consumers gave answers such as “At that price it is worth taking the risk” or, even better, “ I will freeze it and eat it once the mad cow crisis is over”! At the same time, customers’ visits to the leading fast food chain drop sharply and beef burgers were not in demand, although their beef was from the Netherlands, a country free of BSE by then.

In Europe, mostly in France, consumers used to demand veal to be white. Not slightly pink, just plain white. To achieve this, calves were fed a milk powder diet, which kept them anemic. Yet, at some point, consumers denounced this technique as being against proper treatment of animals. The demand of white meat with a normal diet could not be reconciled. It took years before consumers finally understood that veal was supposed to be pink.

For most customers, white eggs are perceived as being from intensive cage production, while brown eggs are perceived as being more “natural”. Everyone with knowledge of the industry knows that the color of the shell has nothing to do with the nutritional quality of the egg. The belief that the egg color indicates a difference persists, though.

Some blind tests carried out between “industrial” and free-range chicken meat carried out in the Netherlands in the 1980s showed interesting results. When consumers were not told which was which, they could not clearly taste a difference, while when they knew which meat was from which production system, they overwhelmingly gave the preference to the free-range chicken.

Here, in Vancouver, there is a strong trend towards organic foods produced locally. Farmers markets flourish and the environmentally conscious consumers choose to buy their “natural” food on these markets. Ironically, many of them drive in their gas-guzzling SUVs to go there. So much for caring for the environment.

Who, with a rational mind, would choose to eat junk? Yet, junk food is quite a popular item in North America, and it has been a growing trend in many European and emerging countries as well.

In the case of tobacco, not a food, but an agricultural product nonetheless, the warning on the package is quite clear. Yet, some people decide to smoke.

The list could continue and I am sure that everyone has more examples of irrational behavior. Consumer demand (both the rational kind as the irrational one) determines what farmers and food companies produce and sell. In this regard, consumers also share a responsibility in what is produced, how it is produced, where it is produced and how it is distributed to them. Blaming retail or the agribusiness alone for the kind food systems that are in place is unfair.

Of course, it would be interesting to imagine what people would eat if they were rational, and what impact on our food production this would have. A rational diet would follow proper nutritional recommendation, and to this extent would follow the same principles as those used in animal nutrition. However, this would not have to be as boring a diet as what animals are fed. A rational diet does not need to be a ration. After, the human genius that is cooking would help prepare delicious rational meals. It would be like having the best of both worlds. The emotional, social and hedonistic functions of food would remain. The key would be about balance and moderation. If people were eating rationally, there would not be any diet-related illnesses. There would not be obesity. There also would be a lot less food waste. This would improve the level of sustainability of agriculture.

Will consumers become more rational in the future? I do not think so, but I believe that they will become better informed and more critical over time. Especially with the rise of social media, information circulates much faster and trends can gather momentum faster than in the past. More programs for healthier eating are currently running and action is taking place at many levels. In particular, schools are a place where much can be achieved. One can wonder how long the “lunch money and self-service system” will last. Having schools placing vending machines selling items that are highly unbalanced foods and leaving the decision over to kids to decide what they want to eat was of course a disaster waiting to happen. I cannot believe that anyone would expect kids to consciously making the choice of spending their lunch money on broccoli and mineral water. Kids will choose what they like best, not what is best for their health. They need adults for guidance.

Attitude towards food is changing all over the world. Currently, I can see two major trends growing. One is taking place in North America and the other is happening in emerging countries.

In North America, consumers are waking up and starting to question the way their food is produced. This is a major change compared with their attitude until a few years ago. When I moved to this part of the world in 1999, I was amazed by how easy consumers, and retailers, were for the food industry. Consumers simply seemed to consume without trying to know about production methods. Hormones, antibiotics or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) seemed to be accepted. This was a sharp contrast with what I had known in Europe, where all of the above was meeting strong resistance from consumers and retailers. What I currently see happening currently in North America reminds me strongly of what I had seen happen in Europe 20 to 30 years ago. The similarities are almost disturbing. Consumers are losing trust in government agencies, and retailers seem to be the ones to champion food quality, traceability and production methods. This will have much more profound consequences in the way food is produced in the USA and in Canada than the agribusiness seem to realize, or is willing to admit. The population is aging, the generations are changing and the values about food are shifting. The current opposition is not a short-term fad. Consumers will make different choices. Some food producers see that and are already adapting, but many producers still seem to think that opposition will pass. I believe that they are in for a surprise. The expressed plan of Wal-Mart to buy more from small and mid-size farms, to reduce waste, and to develop sustainable sources of agricultural products is a very clear signal that business is changing!

In emerging countries, consumers are changing their eating habits, too, but for a different reason. They now have better wages and more disposable income. The previous “”subsistence” diet made of mostly grain, such as rice, wheat or corn, are now including more animal protein, as well as fruit and vegetables. In these countries, consumers are not overly critical of their food production and distribution systems, but issues that arose in developed countries affect the way food is produced, especially in the area of food safety. These consumers probably would like to experience the same level of food security and affordability of food as in the West over the past 5 decades, but the growing population, and the financial markets will temper this trend. Food prices will be firm at best and they are more likely to increase in the future on an ongoing basis.

There is no doubt in my mind that consumers and retailers are increasingly going to put the emphasis on sustainability, health, food safety and transparency. This may sometimes lead to conflicting objectives with the need to produce more food globally. This does not need to be a problem, but this is why the world needs strong leaders to show the way towards meeting both the objectives of better food and of more food.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Since we cannot beat Nature…

September 9, 2010

It is convenient to paraphrase the saying “if you cannot beat them, join them”. This applies to our dealing with Nature just as well.

As a species, we have been very successful in conquering our environment and exterminating what threatens us. Actually, we have been successful up to a certain point. The very success that generated the current pace in human population increase brings the next challenge. Sustainability is just as much about the population increase as about how we use the resources. In 1950, there were “only” 2.5 billion humans on Earth. Compared with almost 7 billion today and the expected 9 billion in 2050, it sounds almost like a desert. How does this relate to sustainability? When 2.5 billion people behaved badly, from an environmental point of view, it had consequences, but there was room and time to correct the situation. When 7 or even 9 billion people consume, possibly waste precious resources, damage the environment and pollute beyond what is acceptable, the consequences are a lot more serious and a lot faster to hit back at us.

Sustainability is not just about production techniques, but it is at least as much about our attitude. Sustainability is even more a moral and behavioral necessity than one of a technological nature. The natural instinct when facing a problem is to look for the fastest and easiest way of solving it. This preference of the present tends to make us forget about the long-term effects of our actions. This behavior also tends to ignore how Nature works.

The first rule to remember is that Nature simply does not care whether we exist or not. Nature was there long before us, and it will be there after us, too. The calls to “save the planet” are in fact calls to save humanity. Nature is an open field where evolving life forms compete and fill the spaces left available. This is also what mankind has done since the beginning of its existence: compete, fight and conquer new habitats.

Nature does not care whether a particular species goes extinct. Only some people do. When a species disappears, others compete to take over the vacuum left, and life goes on. Nature is all about creating balances between species. This is why when a species’ population grows fast because of favorable conditions, it always becomes victim of its success. Even insects deplete food resources beyond what could have sustained them. When the food is gone, they simply die by the millions. As far as Nature is concerned, if climate changes, if the nitrate content of drinking water is too high, if soil is eroded, it does not matter. Let the best species win!

This ability of Nature to constantly adjust to changes in populations of life forms also explains why our efforts to kill threats in agriculture and food production will never be quite successful. Farmers may kill lots of pests and weeds thanks to chemicals, pharmaceuticals and now genetically engineered crops, they also create a vacuum for others or better organism to conquer. This is why we face antibiotic-resistant bacteria or herbicide-resistant weeds. This is simply the result of natural selection and evolution happening right before our eyes. Organisms mutate constantly and when a trait helps them survive some of our techniques and products, they thrive. The problem for us is that if forces us to find more specific treatment products as we go on, and this is getting more and more difficult. Are we going to have to fight ever increasingly resistant and strong superbugs, super bacteria and super weeds? If so, we are facing an uphill battle, because we are always at least one step behind new mutations and natural selection. It is not impossible for us to keep the upper hand, though, but the margin of error when looking for solutions will become thinner and thinner.

To stay ahead of the game, farmers and all the people involved in food production need to thinks like ecologists. Science and technology will be the basis for progress, but thinking only like chemists is too limiting. Managing ecosystems is one of the underlying principles of sustainability in food production. We will succeed only by understanding the big picture and thinking like chess players, and anticipate what the several following moves will be, as well from Nature’s side as from ours. We cannot make Nature checkmate, but Nature can do that to us.

The secret ingredient is long-term responsible thinking, even if this goes against the short-term interests of shareholders.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Science taken hostage (cont’d) – The genetically engineered vines

August 27, 2010

Another example of what I had presented in my previous post about the “killer canola” is the case of the genetically engineered vines in France.

Last week, a group of opponents to GMOs went into a trial field of the French Agricultural Research INRA and pulled out vine plants. Two associations reacted strongly to this act of vandalism. The French Association for Scientific Information and the French Association for Plant Biotechnology stated that this act demonstrated that “science and technology are the targets” of such action groups. Of course, this statement is “colored” with some bias, and a little bit of paranoia always adds to the dramatic effect. What I see here is just that instead of a constructive debate about the use of genetic engineering, the rhetoric slides into partisanship and name-calling. Clearly, science does not really weigh much in this. The reality is that two groups with different views on how the world’s future should like oppose each other. The debate is more about politics than science. The people who pulled out the vines just do not want GMOs. Period. Nothing will convince them otherwise. The scientists and technicians see such an act as a threat to their jobs and to their beliefs as well. They will fight back. You can find more details in the article from the French agricultural magazine La France Agricole.

Interestingly enough, the French Minister of Research spoke during an interview about the matter. One of the arguments she brought up was that the “vandals” should be fined the value of all the work involved, meaning all the materials and salaries of the researchers. INRA is a state-owned research institute. As such, that is an interesting idea. Although, she is the Minister and she could use her position to press charges. However, there is no mention of such action from her part, at least explicitly. Would her indignation be only for political reasons? Another interesting aspect of this story is that France, although conducting research on GMOs is one of the fiercest opponents of the use of GMOs in agriculture. Where does science fit in all this?

The thing with science is that it does not take sides. Science is not biased. The same statements apply to Nature, too. It only serves to explains why things are the way they are. Technology, on the other hand is man-made, and therefore assists their users to pursue their agenda and goals. Another aspect about science, especially research is its cost. Conducting research is quite expensive and requires large amounts of funding. Since getting funding is quite similar in its process as selling a service or a product, researchers need to convince. Using drama and even fear works rather well and “polishing” scientific results and conclusion to get the yes to funding is not an unusual practice. The “climategate” story using the emails from researchers telling that they overstated the consequences of climate change is just an example of what extremes scientists sometimes need to go to be able to continue their research and in some cases keep their jobs. Sometimes, scientists are just so convinced about their own conclusions that they also report slightly beyond the truth. Mendel, the “father” of modern genetics supposedly “improved” the results he got with the crossing of his peas to demonstrate how characteristics were passed on through genes.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.