Aquaculture: the solution to feed 9 billion people?

Last week, BioScience published an article based on the research of a group of researchers from the CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas), the Spanish High Council for Scientific Research.

They present their views on the potential of marine aquaculture to provide enough food for the growing world population. The authors of the report do not see fisheries as a significant option anymore, as the wild fish stocks are depleted, and the amount of time to replenish the stocks will be too long for fisheries to be able to meet the needs of the population. Aquaculture has gradually compensated the demand for fish that fisheries were not able to supply, and half of the seafood consumed today already originate from aquaculture. It is the fastest growing food supply activity and the projections for future growth are very strong. The researchers think that marine aquaculture could multiply its production by a factor 20 by 2050 and thus would play a major role in providing the world population with animal protein.

They bring up some interesting facts about agriculture and land animal farming. For instance, it takes 10 times more water per calorie to produce meat than it does to produce grains. Further, animal meat products represent only 3.5% of food production, but they consume 45% of the water used in agriculture. Considering demand for meat is expected to increase by 21% between 2005 and 2015, and will keep on increasing, this will only exacerbate this situation.

Another point that this group raises is the global nitrogen-use efficiency in animal productions. According to their sources, it is slightly more than 10% for land animals (5% for beef and 15% for pork), which makes their production a major source of nitrogen inputs to the environment. In contrast, marine animals have much greater nitrogen-use efficiency, at about 20% for shrimp and 30% for fish. Therefore, marine aquaculture culture releases two to three times less nitrogen to the environment than livestock production does.

From an environmental point of view, the idea of shifting the production of animal protein from the land where it uses scarce resources such as land and water, to the ocean where space and water are no limitations anymore sounds very sensible. From a nutritional point of view, replacing meat and dairy by seafood that is rich in healthy components such as omega-3 fatty acids is quite attractive, too.

They also notice that the land available for agriculture is shrinking, due to soil degradation and urbanism. Further, there is a growing scarcity of fresh water and increased competition for water as well. Therefore, activities on land do not offer the potential to grow all that much more food to feed the growing population. Even freshwater aquaculture faces these limitations. Freshwater aquaculture currently 57% of total aquaculture, therefore there is an untapped potential with marine aquaculture, as it does not use fresh water.

Of course, the main challenge to execute such a development of marine aquaculture production is to find the proper quality and quantity of feed. The researchers do not see the use of fishmeal and fish oil as an option anymore as they predict that the species used to make these products will not be able in sufficient quantities. Replacement by protein and oils from agriculture crops is an option for the short-term, but as aquaculture volumes would increase, the competition for these ingredients with meat production will make them too expensive, and for the reasons explained above, depending on land agriculture to feed marine species will face crop production limitations. Therefore, they prefer to envision a total new approach of aquaculture feeds, and recommend developing a new feed chain based on aquatic ingredients, such planktons, microalgae and seaweed. This approach makes sense, but the time lines to develop such a supply source and the cost of production of such an “aquatic” feed still need to be investigated. Several “seaweed farms” in production in China show interesting results and they seem to promise a strong potential of production for feed.

Another development that they expect is offshore aquaculture. Aquaculture operations located in coastal areas, although they are easier to access and generally in quieter waters, are very often located in zones where there are local issues to deal with, such as interaction with wild fish or recreational activities. Moving offshore can reduce these issues.

As you can see, developing the future of aquaculture is not simply a matter of growing fish in pens, but it requires a broader thinking that includes not only the oceans but agriculture on land, too. The future of food will require from us the ability to manage the whole planet!

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Reducing waste works – The example of Hormel Foods

Hormel Foods issued a press release yesterday about their packaging waste reduction program, and the amount of packaging material that they saved is simply impressive. Reduction covers cartons, paper sleeves, thinner glass jars, plastic trays or shrink-wrap.

Not only this program has a direct effect on the packaging of Hormel products, but it indirectly also saves a lot of resources, such as a significant reduction of paper fiber, less trailers on the road using fuel and less petroleum for plastics of all sorts.

The only detail that do not mention in their press release is the money savings. You can be sure that they would not go through all this effort if it was not bringing significant savings.

Economy meets environment and vice-versa. This only proves that common sense and a clearly defined strategy deliver positive results.

Yes you can! You just need to want to!

Click here for the complete press release from Hormel Foods

“Let’s end the polarized debate on food” Holden urges

Glad to read this statement!

Hopefully what Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association is advocating in this article will come true.

It is high time for the partisan debate to end, for both sides to recognize that they do not know it all, and they both can learn a lot from each other; and for all of us to make the right changes. Yes industry, there will be changes, and some profound ones that will reshape your landscape. And yes environmentalists there will be changes and you will not have all that you want because eating is not an ideal, it is a necessity.

Goes along what I wrote in “Food production and environmentalists: time to co-operate

Who will be the farmers of the future?

While most of the discussions about the future of agriculture and food tend to focus about how to feed 9 billion people, and about whether it should be organic or industrial, one question seems to be left aside, though it is a very important one: who will be the farmers.

If the forecast of the UN is correct and by 2050 when we are 9 billion, 70% of the people will live in cities, while today this number  is only 47%, this means that in fact the rural population will decrease by about 25% from the current numbers (2.7 billion vs. 3.6 billion today). This means that there will be a lot less farmers in the future.

Farmer of the futureSo, who will they be and where will they be?

A lot of the good agricultural land is in the Northern hemisphere, and in areas where not only the population numbers  are stagnating, but these are regions where the average age of the population is increasing from an already rather high level of about 50% of the population older than 37. These regions, North America, Western Europe and Eastern Europe are not likely the countries where we can expect a surge in urban population. This will happen mostly in Africa, Asia and Arab countries.

These Northern hemisphere countries already have large commercial farming structures and, unless they train many new farmers, the concentration trend is likely to continue, meaning even less farms, and larger farms than today.

In countries where the agriculture infrastructure is more fragmented and farms are smaller, which are the countries where the urban population is going to increase the most, there clearly is a need to rationalize production and increase yields to feed this new population that will have very little possibilities to grow food where they live. This means a “revolution” in the way agriculture will have to be organized and structured. Asia and South America have already engaged in this process for a few decades, yet depending on the countries they will face different challenges, mostly about access to water and ensuring the sustainability of their environment.

The continent where agriculture has stayed the most traditional is Africa, where a large share of the land is used for subsistence. Many African countries have struggled for years with poor policies and a lack of investment to help a proper development. This has resulted in lower yields over time. As such, this also means that Africa is the continent with the highest potential for improvement, although this would have to be managed very carefully, as climatic and socio-cultural conditions are very sensitive.

Therefore, we can conclude that in the future, not only will we have fewer farmers, meaning fewer farms, but also in the same time, we will need to increase production and train a new generation. All of this will require a fair amount of capital that many farmers alone cannot afford, especially considering how their income situation usually is.

This will be no surprise to see more capital coming from large corporations, investors and governments. This is already happening in Africa with the land purchases and leases, and we can expect his to happen. There is a huge (rather captive) market where demand probably is going to outpace supply, and there is a lot of capital waiting to enter markets where money can be made in trade activities.

Farmers wanted!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Consulting Group Ltd.

The vertical farm

Here is a think-out-of-the-box article about the “vertical farm”.

It is an interesting vision of a replacement of agricultural land, by indoor robot-tended hydroponic agriculture. They also envision the possibility of raising farm animals and developing aquaculture in the water used to grow the plants; and the fish waste would be used as fertilizer.

All of this would be grown in a 30-floor skyscraper located in the city, powered by the energy coming from city sewage, and the ground floor would be a food supermarket that would provide food for 50,000 people.

Such projects are under review in Abu Dhabi, South Korea, Seattle, WA and Las Vegas, NV.

It looks like science-fiction, yet there are some really interesting arguments in favor of such a development.

Humans and robots will work closely together in meat and poultry plants

The level of automation in processing plants have increased continuously over the years and the statement made above makes some sense.
This article from reports of an interview with Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotics Industries Association. Although there is no specific details of things, if any, that may come, other examples in other food industry can be an indicator of future possibilities.
Something to follow on.

Sustainability and modernity are compatible, let’s not oppose them!

From all economic activities, agriculture seems to have a different status. While most of the polluting industries with unsustainable processes or products seem to look to a cleaner future through new technology, it sounds as if agriculture can have a future only by downsizing. Everyone seems to support and praise the move to green new technology in all industrial sectors, but when it comes to agriculture, the most vocal proponents of sustainability seem to reduce the possibilities to only organic and small scale farming. This in my view is very simplistic, and may fit in the North American city baby boomer nostalgia of things that never were, but it is not the solution for the future when we look at it from a global perspective. However, it is quite clear that food is loaded with emotional and psychological symbolism.

Of course, I am not the cross-industry sustainability guru, but I do not seem to hear the requirement for most other industries to go small scale. Where are the voices to demand that we get rid of large factories, and go back to small local workshops? Yet, for instance, that would hurt the toy industry in China for sure, although it could make sense as most of the production is bought in the West.

Why don’t we hear many voices to encourage the search of better practices that fit with modern and efficient techniques? We have reached a level of scientific and technical knowledge that we never have before. This can help us having the best of both worlds by combining old empirical techniques with new high-tech ones. We can be so precise and efficient in the use of water and fertilizer to feed the plants with exactly the right amount of what they need when they need it. By combining the old and new, we can protect and improve the fertility of the soils, we can reduce the amounts of pesticides and herbicides, and we can reduce the amount of antibiotics. We can do all the things that the small scale organic farmers currently do, just on a bigger scale, because, as I have mentioned in previous articles on this website, like it or not, feeding an increasing world population will require large scale agriculture, too. The main challenge that we are facing is to figure out the right economic model. A large-scale sustainable agriculture requires a shift in how we distribute the land, the capital and the labor. The only reason why manufacturing production units moved to other countries over time is purely because of lower labor costs. It has very little to do with proximity of markets, with location of raw materials, environmental or social reasons, or any other common sense thinking. The only reason is to maximize profits.

What we lack to make the move to the future is a plan. We tend to stick to the present, and to some extent to the past, too. We need people who, like me, will ignore the emotional baggage and figure out what are solid and successful models taking into account the local situations, and consider without prejudice the best possibilities that the knowledge that we have acquired through the millennia has to offer.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

USDA launches nutritional web tools

This news is a beautiful confirmation of what I am announcing for the future (see my remarks in “Nutrition basics should be taught in school” and “The dining of the future“) about the need and the coming tools that will help people know more about agriculture, food and health, not only the educational tools, but also the software and/or website that will allow them to set up their own diet and make their own “educated” dining choices.

The article from Food Business News also mention what I have been telling all around and a number of comments that I have left on blogs from food organization and media such as Meatingplace that city people know very little about how food is produced and about their lack of understanding beyond the supermarket counter (read my comments in “Less controversy thanks to transparency” and in “Health and environment as growing drivers of food production“).

How much can the rule of 80-20 tell us about the future?

We all have heard about this rule across all industries, including agriculture and food. Eighty percent of the food would be produced on 20% of the farms and vice-versa. If it still applies in the future, it can indicate us how our food production and supplies will look like in the future. Of course, this is always a theoretical exercise, but it is quite convenient to elaborate on our thoughts.

As the population is expected to grow quite strongly in the coming decades, especially in urban areas, this could indicate two dominant trends:
• Further size increase of the largest farms and further industrialization of agriculture and food for global markets, although the number of farms in this segment would not increase strongly.
• Strong increase of the number of small farms involved in specific value chains and strongly linked with their local economy.

Industrial agriculture
Producing more, yet in a sustainable way. That is the challenge!This group will continue to be involved in mass production of commodities for global supplies, like this is the case today.
Yet, they will face an increased pressure to adapt to the requirements of sustainability, which technically is quite possible. New systems and more efficient technologies will be the pillars of its growth and development. They will have to find ways of reducing the amount of chemicals in crops and the amount of pharmaceuticals in animal productions
The requirements for capital will be quite high and the sector will be led by increasing larger corporations, by an increasing level of capital by large private investors and, last but not least, by some governments. This agriculture will innovate further and will be developed thanks to this capital. It will use automation and mechanization to reduce the dependence on labor. Mergers & acquisitions will continue in the agricultural sector and a few large blocks will remain, dominating their sectors.
Their mandate will be about more control the natural conditions of production and about reducing to a minimum their impact on air, water and soil, by using less polluting transport methods, water preservation, effluent treatment and soil preservation. They also will have to engage in maintenance of their environment.
The role of this type of agriculture will be to bring to market large amounts of affordable food for the masses, and should play an important role in strategies around food security, which is where corporations and government will interact on a regular basis.

Local food value chains
Closer to natureThis sector should undergo a strong growth and be build in a market-driven approach. These are the farmers that produce specialty products aimed at serving either a very specific segment of the retail or foodservice market.
This trend, which has been already initiated around concepts such as organic or authentic, will evolve into a more integrated local economy, and the initial concepts will probably become less differentiated as food production in general, be it industrial or traditional, will use more sustainable techniques.
Contrarily to the common belief, this agriculture will be developed thanks to very efficient techniques, but will be centered relatively more about labor and relatively less about capital. In this case, efficiency does not necessarily mean intensification.
We must not underestimate the significance of this part of the food production, as it will play an important role. However, we must not expect this type of agriculture to be the solution to feed the world, and this is not the purpose of the farmers involved in such food production chains.

This type of farming will grow in two different environments:

  •  In “developed” countries to serve a increasing, but aging, population more demanding about the origin and the production methods, and who is ready to pay a premium for the perceived better quality. The angle will be about quality, transparency, sustainability, traceability and as close to zero a use of chemicals and pharmaceuticals. In some areas, it could help strengthening a local economy and local communities.
  • Developing a local economy thanks to agriculture (Picture: FAO) In emerging countries, the development of a local agriculture, and aquaculture, will be a key driver of economic development for under industrialized and/or under urbanized regions. It also will be a way of slowing down the migration of population to urban centers and limit social problems, by creating satisfying economic conditions and by securing food supplies locally. This farming will be about basic needs, before marketing.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.