Feeding the future with focus on health and environment

February 2, 2017

In my opinion, the food and agriculture sector does not receive enough praise for its performance. Over the past four decades, the world population increased by 80%, which means that farmers have been able to supply food for an additional 3.3 billion people during that same period. Unfortunately, the number of hungry people has remained about stable, around a billion people. Every person who is hungry is a hungry person too many. There cannot be any discussion about that, and there still is a lot of work to be done. This is no small feat. Clearly, there is plenty of room for improvement, especially when you consider that about a third of the food produced is wasted but that means that the potential to supply future food demand is there.

nutrition

Image created by Paula Nettleton Source: Educational Materials Center (EMC), Central Michigan University

The discussions about meeting future food demand always tend to focus on production volumes. Of course that is the minimum requirement but to meet all other challenges, it is necessary to broaden the scope beyond volumes. Production is only half the equation. The other half is consumption. There is a lot of work to help consumption patterns contribute to a balanced future between supply and demand. The ongoing increase of obesity and diabetes are at least as worrying as hunger because of the negative health, environmental and economic consequences. One of the most important roles in the future for the food and agriculture sector will be to help people feed themselves properly. There is a need for this and it goes far beyond a marketing exercise. The basis for success will have to be education about nutrition and home economics. There already is action in these areas but it will be necessary to move towards a collaborative education, centred on physiological needs and how any particular food product contributes –or not- to healthy meals. The purpose will not have to be about enticing consumers to eat more volumes but to make educated decision and pick the right ingredients. Changing the focus from always more to always enough will also require a change in which foods to produce and what their future physical and organoleptic qualities will have to be. It also will change the dynamics of markets and on which criteria farmers get paid. Collaborative education will have to be carried out by and with full involvement of all stakeholders. It will have to place human physiological needs as the primary focus. Consumer well-being will have to come first, before particular interests and before volume.

Making future food and agriculture sustainable requires that we address both production and consumption. Waste and excess do not fit in a sustainable future. Food waste is only a part of the total picture. When food is wasted, all the inputs required, such as water, energy, fertilizers, crop protection and money, are all wasted in the process. Overconsumption is not a sustainable strategy either. It takes a lot of resources to produce all the excess calories and protein than end up producing nothing else than excess human body fat. Until the rise of mass consumption, our grandparents knew what sustainability meant. It was about saving and about moderation. These two concepts vanished from the moment that consumption goods became so cheap that and consumers lost touch with scarcity and long-term negative effects, also known as negative externalities. It would be an eye opener to quantify these externalities and include them in the cost structure of consumer products. The consumer price and/or the producer margin would look different! Although it is quite a difficult exercise to quantify the externalities, just carrying it out would give some good insights about the limitations of the current economic model and in which areas it needs to change. Such a calculation would help rethink many of the existing financial incentives that drive the economics of food and agriculture, in particular many subsidies that find their origin in times where the objectives were quite different than the ones of the future. For example, health issues related to food should be considered as externalities. Many governments have calculated estimates of the cost generated by these two diseases. If society were to be able to quantify what part of the amount should be factored in food, as well as lifestyle and distributed between the entire chain from farm to patient, and to try to estimate the relative part of responsibility between the different links of that chain, it certainly would give a good indication of how to look at future economics of a healthy and satisfied society. The price of food would change but the key would be to have it change in a way that helps a better nutrition and better health while keeping good food affordable.

Copyright 2017 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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Food, Inc. or just the description of America?

January 22, 2011

A couple of days ago, I watched the documentary Food, Inc. Although the underlying theme is that the four large US corporations that dominate food would try to keep the American consumers ignorant of their activities, I saw this documentary much more as a review of the US society over the past 60-70 years.

As usual with this kind of documentaries, there is a mix of commentaries with pictures without presenting anything specific about the relation between the text and the images. The chicken farmer from Pennsylvania is angry, but it is not clear exactly at what. She removes dead chickens, but we do not hear what the cause of death is. To me, with my experience in chicken production, it seems that her chicken house is in very poor shape, and I am not sure about her level of commitment and overall technical performance. The Tyson grower seems quite a bit happier than the lady chicken farmer who ends up being terminated by Perdue. Unfortunately, the crew cannot film inside his chicken house and we never hear to know exactly why, but the commentary tends to imply that Tyson wants to hide something. Unfortunately as well, no representative from the large food companies mentioned wished to be interviewed, and that creates the impression that they want to conceal something. The chapter about the staff policies of meat companies is quite interesting. If this seems a surprise for the journalists, it was not for me. In Europe, we knew 20 years ago how harsh contracts were for farmers and plant staff. This is the product of free job market mechanism with a slight reminder of a certain thinking about labour force in the old south. Certain things simply die hard. John Steibeck’s Grapes of Wrath had shown several decades ago how agricultural labor force could be exploited. The reminder that meat packing plant workers used to have decent wages is an indicator of two things. One is a reflection of the disappearance of the American middle class in the manufacturing sector, and the other is that meat plants would purely and simply suffer tremendous financial losses if they had to reset wages the way they used to be. There might be some concerns about their financial long-term sustainability. They are not ready to cope with production cost increases, and they can hardly reduce personnel costs much anymore.

The family of four that lives on a diet of fast food is also a typical example. They do not have time to cook, and that justifies eating only burgers with fries and pop. The fast food meal for four comes down to almost US$ 3.00 per person. You can make a healthy meal for that money. The luxury meal that I prepared for my spouse on Christmas Eve was hardly more expensive than this. For that family, like for many American households, money is tight and they need to do the best out of a limited budget. The filmed visit to the supermarket tends to focus too much on the broccoli at US$1.29/lb. That price would be too high. That is possible, but there is more than broccoli to choose from. Potatoes, rice, carrots, beans, cabbage or onions are much cheaper than broccoli, and by combining them, it is possible to prepare quickly a healthy nutritious diet, including some meat. The mom works long hours and has no time to prepare diner. I accept that, but the teenage girl could do that to help her mother. My parents also worked long hours, and dinner was not before 9 pm. This is why I learned how to cook. When there is a will, there is a way. Then, we learn that the parents suffer of diabetes. This is not really a surprise considering such a crazy diet, and this problem is spreading to more and more American families. When you add the medication costs to the price of the fast food meals, preparing a healthy meal as I described above is really the best deal in all respects. In the land of individualism, where people are expected to take charge of their destinies, it is a bit strong to reduce the discussion to the agribusiness having “altered” foods, thus presenting this family as victims. I disagree with this. They made a choice, which may be the most convenient, but not the wisest. The alternative certainly requires some effort, and that may be difficult to handle. The blaming game, which is even more popular than baseball in the US is not leading anywhere. Most of all, why do they have to order pop with their burgers? They can cut their calorie count by filling bottles with tap water. Making sandwiches is easy and quick, too. This is a lot cheaper and a lot healthier, and it does not require much work at all. Last year, I had written an article in which I was showing the similarities of human behaviour and how we produce food. Food, Inc. makes this comparison quite vivid.

Then, the documentary shifts to food safety and presents some footage of meat processing plants. That is certainly a very important item in the US, where the number of recalls for bacterial contamination is simply astronomical. I found this part very interesting because in my many years in the meat, poultry and fish businesses, I have spent several years in close contact and even supervised plant operations as well. What this movie from 2009 showed gave me the same impression that I got the first time I came to the US in 1998, and toured what was by then one of the largest chicken processing plants in the country, in Alabama. Americans certainly love everything big, just like the calorie count of their meals. They love huge complicated plants where the molecules (chlorine by then in that particular chicken plant that smelled more like a swimming pool than anything else, and ammonia in the case of the plant featured in the movie) are supposed to do the work. Unfortunately, with such layouts, visual control is rather difficult as it appears in the documentary. When a plant is such a thick forest of pipes, chains and rotating parts, not only is it very difficult to see what is happening, but it is the best amusement park you can imagine for bacteria. They have so many niches where they can settle and grow in peace. The more complex the layout gets, the more difficult it is to sanitize the plant. The hamburger factory has installed cameras and management claims that this helps them to control what is going on in the several plants they own over the country. My view on meat processing plant supervision is that it has to be done in an ongoing manner, online, with the supervisor being on the plant floor, not sitting in his office. I doubt that cameras will eliminate food contamination issues. Moreover, online quality control requires motivated staff, which also requires proper wages and benefits. Food safety is less a technology matter than it is a matter of management and motivation of staff. Another important element that I noticed is that the boss of the hamburger plant describes himself as a mechanic. I had expected him to see himself as a food producer who wants most of all to offer safe food to consumers. I did not hear that statement. I also would have liked to see him eat some of his ammonia-marinated burgers. I am a meat lover, but I really do not need that on my plate. When I think that, in The Netherlands, we were not even allowed to use chlorine in the slaughterhouse water… We had to work on eliminating the causes of the problem instead of applying never-ending layers of technology band-aid. And we did significantly reduce the causes!

Then, the documentary presents the “natural farmer”, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. He certainly is very successful, but by his own admission, he has no plans is growing much more than he currently is. If there is more demand than he can supply, that will be the customers’ problem. By looking at his chicken slaughter installation and system, I doubt that he can supply much volume, but we never got to hear how big his business is. He is a niche producer, and his customers appreciate him, since one of them claims it to be worth driving 5 hours to get to his shop. That is 10 hours drive including the way back. One can wonder if the footprint of that food is all that great when it comes into the consumer’s home. How many of such farmers are necessary to meet consumer demand? And what is the price of the food they sell? Could this feed the family of four on a very tight budget that eats from the fast food drive-through? The movie never answers these questions.

The story of Stonyfield Farm yogurt was cause for more optimism. They offer the organic alternative. According to the CEO of the company, they are the third yogurt brand in the US and the most profitable one. This is a success story. They sell to Wal-Mart and fit in the retailer strategy towards more sustainable food. It also shows that organic has long passed the stage of hippie small-scale and that is a rational modern business, which the industrial agribusiness tends to refuse to see. The one thing that was missing about this story, though, was how the farmers who supply the milk perform financially.

Probably, the scariest part of Food, Inc. was the one about the lobbying and the politics. In the material country, this is no surprise. This does not make it any less scary, though. Since winning elections is about how much money candidates have in their “war chests”, the actual vote ballot is a banknote. The ones with the most bank notes have the most power. Reality is less idealistic than the idea of a “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. The system seems to have evolved to somehow reminiscent of an aristocracy structure. The US is a republic, but maybe a little less of a democracy after all. The money power is not only political, but in society where suing is a lifestyle, justice tends to favour the richer ones, simply because the poor cannot offer the fight very long. This power of money through lobby and lawmaking might not be as strong as one think, though, Last year, an oil lobby backed-Republican Senator of Arizona wanted to pass a bill to kill solar energy in the state. A Chinese company, Suntech Power, had plans to open a solar panel factory in Arizona (a Chinese company opening a manufacturing facility in the US. That is interesting is it not?) If this bill had passed, they would have lost the business. What did they do? They threatened to stop the project and kill the jobs. Do you know what happened? The Republican Senator did not proceed with his plans. Maybe China will help eliminate the negative effects of lobbies. Nonetheless, for now, lobbies are still active and powerful.

Then the conclusion of the documentary comes in a rush. Buy local, from the farmer’s markets. This is nice, but millions of households cannot afford that food. Moreover, production is not even remotely close to meeting the national food demand. You can vote three times a day to choose the food system. Americans voted a long time ago to have instant gratification, and they chose for the consumption society. Never things would have evolved to what they are if consumers had rejected it from the start. Nobody forced Americans to drive to a fast food restaurant and stay seated inside their cars to eat. Nobody forces them to drink pop, eat potato chips or candy bars, to think that the right size for a steak is 9 oz., to pour ketchup on everything, just as they did not have to spend more then they earned and dig themselves in huge debt.  I do not consume any of those items, yet my self-esteem is good, though.Freedom requires a bit of will power. Freedom of choice does not imply that one should not resist temptation. The American consumer’s behaviour has been a boon for the industry. Nothing is better than consumers who just consume without asking questions. Fortunately, this is now changing gradually. Americans realize that consumer goods producers have looked at them in a similar way as the livestock in feedlots, passive and submissive. Unlike what the makers of Food Inc. may say, all Americans are responsible of the society they have. The industry is, of course. But consumers are just as much. In order to change, consumers are going to realize what role they have played in the consumption society. They can vote, but the US is one of the countries with the lowest turnout at elections. The ones who choose not to express themselves just miss an opportunity to change things. Most Americans have lost faith in their politicians. Yet, there is a democratic force that can, and in my opinion, will restore true democracy. This force is the food retail, with Wal-Mart as the leader. They do not wait for politicians to make laws when it comes about food should be produced. They do not care much about the games played in Washington, DC. They just listen to the people and they offer the workable solutions to meet these wishes. Unlike politicians, they do not set their objectives for the next four years. Wal-Mart has already done more about sustainability of food supply than lawmakers have. Earlier, they had decided not to sell milk from cows injected with growth hormone. Yesterday, they announced their decision to make healthier food affordable to their customers. They represent such a purchasing power that they can force their suppliers to change their practices and their purchasing strategies, enforcing the change all the way back in the supply chain to the seed producers. Be assured that the food industry will do what the retail tells it to do, because without the retail, they are out of business. Their purchasing power is so much larger than the one of the people buying on farmers markets. People should cast their vote and give power of attorney to the retailers. Really, the food retail is just one step away of enforcing change on antibiotics, hormones, animal welfare and GMOs; even if the politicians have not made up their minds. Just compare the size, financially and in jobs, of Wal-Mart and Monsanto. Who is the true giant?

Altogether, I found that the movie was raising good questions, but it was not giving much hope for a quick change, either. This is a weakness, just as the lack of specifics of the pictures. They need to make a sequel in which they will show how things can change for the best, make food affordable and farming sustainable, and how they see the US making the transition. I missed that. The documentary is not as specific to the food industry as it seems. A similar movie with a similar commentary could be made on about every industrial sector of the US, from energy to electronics, telecommunications, the car industry, the banks or the pharmaceutical industry.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


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.


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.


Some basics about nutrition and metabolism that can improve your life

August 12, 2010

With obesity on the rise in more and more countries and legions of diets with little results, if any, I had been thinking about writing something about proper nutrition and some of the key physiological mechanisms involved in human metabolism. It is a bit away from envisioning the future, although the fight against obesity will gain momentum in the years to come.

There are many misconceptions out there. For instance, we all have heard that carbohydrates are not good, fat is not good or meat is not good. This is total non-sense. Carbohydrates, fat and protein are good. Actually, they are indispensable to our health. What is bad is too much, especially too much of the nutritionally poor quality carbohydrates, fats and protein sources.

Obesity and overweight are increasing health issues. In the world there are about as many overweight people as they are people suffering from hunger: around one billion people in each group. What causes overweight? The answer is simple. A person gains weight when he/she ingests more calories than he/she burns. The cause can be either too rich a diet and/or not enough physical activity. In most cases, it is a combination of both. The source of unburned calories are metabolized into fat and stored in the fat tissues. This is a problem, because fat tissues are poorly irrigated with blood vessels. This makes the stored fat difficult to eliminate. The body will use calories coming from the meals before it uses the fat reserves. This is why it is so difficult to get rid of extra pounds. The only way to use the fat reserves is through long intensive physical activity.

Some might wonder why our body does not tell us when to stop eating. Actually the body does, through two physiological mechanisms. One is a mechanical mechanism. When the stomach is stretched, the nervous system sends the information to the brain that the stomach is full and the brain makes us stop eating. The other mechanism is biochemical, through the blood composition, the brain sensors can detect when we have ingested enough energy, and the brain makes us stop eating. We feel “full”.

This could make you think that we should never overeat because the brain would let us know on time. Theoretically, this is true but the modern lifestyle has found a way of deceiving the brain. The biochemical mechanism takes time to react. It needs to detect a glycaemia level high enough to act. When we eat food and beverages that are highly concentrated in energy, and therefore have a relatively small volume, we ingest more calories than we would need before the stomach gets stretched, and before the glycaemia level rises in the blood to the normal level. Such foods are generally low in fibre and high in fat, such as fried foods. Soft drinks are not filling and they contain many calories. You can imagine the result of a combo bacon cheeseburger-French fries-pop package meal! The carbohydrates that they contain pass in the blood almost instantaneously. One of the advantages of fibre-rich food, such as fruit and vegetables, is that they fill the stomach and contain relatively few calories per volume unit. This activates the mechanical nervous mechanism and limits our food intake much faster than foods with little fibre. Do not fool yourself! The little leaf of lettuce in your burger is not enough to protect you.

This brings me to talk about carbohydrates. There are two types of carbohydrates: the slow ones and the fast ones. The main representative of slow carbohydrate is starch. Starch is a long molecule that does not get into the blood stream as such. When we consume starch in bread, rice, pasta or potatoes, the starch gets cuts in a smaller component, called glycogen. The glycogen is stored in the liver where it waits for instructions from the brain to be released in the blood stream. This happens through a biochemical mechanism. The brain sensors detect a state of hypoglycaemia, and it orders the liver to release the glycogen. As long as our liver still has glycogen in store, we do not feel hungry. The system regulates itself smoothly. When we run out of glycogen, which is between 2 and 4 hours after the meal, we get into a hypoglycaemic state and we feel hungry. Usually it happens around 11.00 am and noon. That is why lunch exists! Same thing happens around 5.00 pm. Starch is good and necessary for us (as mentioned before, too much, on the other hand, is not).

The second group of carbohydrates, the fast ones, follows a different process. This group consists of what we call sugars, such as saccharose, fructose or glucose. When ingested, they do not get stored for later release, unlike starch. They flow into the bloodstream almost instantaneously and there are two possible scenarios. If our activity level is high enough when we consume them, they are burned to provide us with energy. If our activity level is too low for the amount we consume, our metabolism deals with the fast carbohydrates in only one manner: it transforms the sugars into fat that then get stored in the fat tissue. This is why drinking large amounts of pop or snacking on candy bars while sitting on your couch watching TV or playing video games will make you fat. There again, the rule is enough sugar to sustain yourself is good, too much consumption is bad.

About fat, I can tell a similar story. Within the amount necessary to allow all our functions to work properly, fats are fine. As their name indicates, essential fatty acids are indispensable. Even the dreaded cholesterol is an essential element for us. What is not good is to consume too much fat, and to consume too much of the less good ones. The length of the carbon chain, the level of saturation and the configuration of the molecules also affect your health. The excess of fat in your diet will end up as fat deposit in your body. This is why potato chips while watching TV will hurt you, too.

Protein is good, but with moderation as well. As for the other elements, too much protein can cause some problems, as protein stored in the intestine before release will not ferment, unlike fibre, but will undergo a rotting process, resulting in the production of harmful amines. The kidneys have also more work to do, and a long exposure to a diet too rich in protein may cause kidney problems.

So, what is the lesson from all of this? For me, it is that food one of the enjoyable things in life, as long as it is consumed with moderation (an incidental excess once in a while is fine, too; it means that you enjoy life) and it goes together with a healthy lifestyle. A person should have 7 hours of physical activity (the kind that makes you sweat) per week. Also, remember that the best is to not gain extra pounds in the first place, because the fat tissue is remarkably persistent.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consuting Ltd.


Educating the consumer – Nutritional information only is not enough

October 15, 2009

Last week a survey was published in the US about whether fast food customers were using nutritional information to make their choice. The result was that although they could read how many calories their meal would include, they did not choose for a healthier lower calorie meal.

Apparently, this was a shocker. It was not to me, and this for a couple of simple reasons. First, people do not go to a fast food restaurant to nibble on a knackebrod. Secondly, information disclosed is never enough to make people change their habits, especially if they have a craving for what they buy. Otherwise, why do some people still smoke when they can read in big letters on the pack that it will kill them?

Parents play a crucial role in getting good eating habits

Parents play a crucial role in getting good eating habits

If we want to make people change their eating habits, information is necessary, but by far not sufficient. When it comes to food, we are dealing with many complex issues that have to do with psychology and with taste and a behaviour that we have acquired at a very young and developed as we grow up in the environment that our parents have provided. Further, we all know how skillfully marketing has use these psychological “weaknesses”.

In the US, there is currently quite a debate on health care and obesity is one of the main issues. In many ways, our eating habits are a reflection of our life style and of our society, as I have mentioned in my article “If we are what we eat, what will we eat in the future?” Therefore, trying to induce a change in our eating habits can only succeed if we make broader changes in the way we live.

Next to information, what consumers need is education. Unless they have an understanding of what the data they get really means, how can we expect them to act upon it?

Teaching children about nutrition will help them eat properly

Teaching children about nutrition will help them eat properly

We need to teach children about the basics of nutrition and of metabolism as early as possible, and this education must include their parents, too. There is no big mystery behind what causes obesity, diabetes and other food excesses related ailments. It is quite easy to explain what functions the different food groups fill and how to compose healthy meals, as it is really just a matter of adding up and keeping the right proportions.

It would be highly useful to educate everyone about where food comes from and how it is produced. A program like “Know your food, know your farmer” introduced in the US is useful, but “Know your farming” is just as needed.

What parents also need to understand is that it is their duty to give their children a balanced diet, although it might mean that they, too, should have one, but most importantly, when it comes to decide what is on the table, the children do not dictate what they want simply based on what they like.

Education, though, goes much further than just parents and schools, and retailers, restaurants and the agribusiness need to co-operate more than they currently do, even though some are more active than others in this field. If we want to solve a society problem, the whole society must participate. It is rather interesting to see how the meat industry in the US is reacting to the proposal of a meat-free Monday in school cafeterias. I can understand the resistance to government intervention in telling how people should feed themselves, although when this leads to many health issues, one could argue that if the people cannot make the right choices, maybe someone else should set stricter rules to help them. I also can understand that such a meat-free Monday is a bit threatening to the meat industry, as it means (a tiny little) bit less business in the short-term and maybe quite a bit more if it meant that the next generation might cut on meat consumption. On the other hand, what the meat industry in developed countries needs to realize is that there are plenty of people in other countries who are longing for meat, and these new markets have more than the potential to replace the volumes lost in their domestic markets.

Another great source of information is consumers’ organizations, like the ones I know in Europe. They are independent and they provide many surveys and comparisons on consumer products. They have been very useful in helping consumers gain more awareness about what they consume. Unfortunately, such open and objective information is not directly available in all countries and this is a weakness in the fight for health.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Wal-Mart’s Yiannas promotes food safety culture

September 11, 2009

This article reports of Mr. Yiannas (VP Food Safety at Wal-Mart) speaking at the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Executive Conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., and his views on this topic.

It just shows that there is a new trend coming in the US, as I happened to describe in my article of yesterday (Health and environment as the drivers of food production). There are growing concerns from consumers and the retail will probably be the catalyst for change. Wal-Mart as the leading retailer is going to pave the way forward, just like it does on sustainability. This certainly is going to mean some deep changes in the way the suppliers will have to run their businesses.