Why we will change our eating habits, one way or the other

February 8, 2011

In the discussion about producing enough food for the 9 billion people the world will have by 2050, one of the sensitive issues, especially in the overfed world, is about what to eat and how much of it. There always is resistance to change, and changing eating habits may be even among the most difficult challenges we have. Eating habits are developed unconsciously since early childhood, and switching to conscious choices is not easy to achieve. It requires will power and self-discipline.

Most of the gloomy scenarios about the challenge of feeding the world are based on the assumption that the diet model would have to be the Western diet, and in particular the American diet. This is far from certain. Actually, do not expect this to be the case.

Changing eating habits will happen in two ways. One will be voluntary and the other will be a consequence of food prices.

There is a growing awareness of the health consequences due to overconsumption of food. All the stakeholders seem to blame each over for obesity, diabetes and other heart conditions, and try to convince the public that they are not the cause of the problem. Whose fault is it? Is it meat? Is it corn syrup? Is it fast food? Is it salt? Is it lifestyle? Is it the parents’ fault? Is it the schools with their vending machines offering snacks and soft drinks? We all have read such statements. Here is a scoop: overweight is caused by consuming more calories than are burnt through physical activity. Ailments are the results of rich and unbalanced diets. Eating (and drinking) too much, and too much of the wrong things is bad for you. There is a reason why gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins! Actually, our societies should have a close look at that list, because we might be in trouble.

In Western countries, we eat too much, and that should not be a surprise to anyone. Obesity and diabetes are becoming society problems in the USA, but other countries are following the same path. Europe and China have a rising percentage of obese people, especially young people. Even in Africa, there seems to be an increase of the number of overweight people. A recent study confirmed this (click here for the interactive chart). Awareness about health problems has already generated action. There are government campaigns. Food producers are reviewing their formulas and are working toward healthier products, in particular by lowering the content of salt and sugar of their foods. More and more consumers are also adjusting their eating habits, mostly by changing what they buy and where they buy it. The trend towards healthier and more natural food is growing and it will not stop. Only biotech companies seem to ignore this fact. This food trend is not just in Western countries but in China, too, the demand for natural and organic foods is increasing. After all, nobody really feels happy with being fat or unhealthy. If some people are taking action to improve their diets and its impact on the environment, this voluntary choice is still about a minority of the population, today. One of the reasons for this is that healthy diets seem more expensive than the junk fattening eating habits. I say seem, because those who can cook know that it is quite simple to make delicious balanced meal for less than the supersize combo deep fried so-called menu.

Money matters. That is a fact. This is why money is probably the best incentive for change. And the future will bring us plenty of incentive to change our diets. The current concerns about food prices, and the food riots of 2008, have created awareness about food supply. Although the price hike is more the result of investors, not necessarily speculators, looking for a safe haven for their US dollars through transactions in futures contract, the reality is that the commodity markets, even on paper, becomes the “official” market price. This enters the real economy and affects the price of food for households all over the world. The poorer countries are more sensitive to food price inflation, and this has the potential to cause very serious unrest.

Regardless of the current causes of food price increase, simple economics show that when demand increase, while supply has difficulties to keep up, prices increase. And this is exactly what will happen. In a previous article, I showed that the potential for meeting food demand, or I should say the demand for nutritional needs, of 9 billion was there. Quite easily. However, in this calculation, I indicated the road to success includes reducing food waste and a reduction of the quantity of meat in the diet. This means that we need to change our behaviour towards food.

If there is a sensitive topic about diet, this has to be meat. Opinions vary from one extreme to another. Some advocate a total rejection of meat and meat production, which would be the cause for most of hunger and environmental damage, even climate change. Others shout something that sounds like “don’t touch my meat!”, calling on some right that they might have to do as they please, or so they like to think. The truth, like most things in life, is in the middle. Meat is fine when consumed with moderation. Eating more than 100 kg per year will not make you healthier than if you eat only 30 kg. It might provide more pleasure for some, though. I should know. My father was a butcher and I grew up with lots of meat available. During the growth years as a teenager, I could gulp a pound of ground meat just like that. I eat a lot less nowadays. I choose quality before quantity.

The future evolution of the price of food is going to have several effects. The first one is the most direct. As food becomes more expensive, consumers look for the more affordable alternative first. If their budget is tight, they buy slightly smaller portions. People will slightly reduce their food intake. Those who were over consuming might actually benefit from a positive impact on their health. For those who already were struggling, this will be more difficult to deal with. From all the food sorts, animal protein will be the most affected by an increase of the price of food commodities. Already today, there are clear signs from the meat and poultry companies that the price of feed is seriously squeezing their margins. As usual, passing the price increase to consumers will take time, as retailers will resist. If the price of agricultural commodities is to stay high, consumers will inevitably have to accept price increases for food in general, and for meat and other animal products in particular. The price of meat is going to be affected by other factors than just feed prices. The need for more control on food safety issues, the stricter environmental regulations that will come for animal husbandry, on the land and in the sea, a change in animal husbandry practices, especially a lower use of antibiotics and farms with lower densities of animal will all contribute to an increase in costs. Energy will become more expensive, too. A whole system based on cheap commodities is about to change, simply because there will not be any cheap commodity anymore. These are all adjustments to rebalance our consumption behaviour from the unbridled overconsumption of the past decades, when consumers were not thinking about the consequences of their actions. The industry will figure out how to increase efficiency to contain some of the cost increases, but the change of farming practices will make meat significantly more expensive than it is today. The price of ad-lib cheap meat is ending. The future dynamics of food prices as presented here will be ongoing. A long as we will not have adjusted our diets to a new equilibrium, meat will keep increasing faster than other basic food staples, until meat consumption, and therefore meat production, will reset to different levels. Do not expect this to happen overnight. It will be a gradual process. There will not be any meat or fish riots. If food riots happen, they will be about the basic food staples, simply because the first ones to riot will be the poorer among us, and their diet is composed mostly from rice, wheat, corn, cassava or potatoes. Should the situation become dire, governments will intervene to ensure food for the poorest. Such price systems are already in place in many developing countries, and they are likely to be maintained, and even strengthened.

The same critical factors to keep food prices in check are very much the same as the ones that I presented in the previous article that I mentioned earlier: food waste reduction, moderate meat consumption per capita; and economic development, especially in Africa.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Future Harvests – The book is coming soon!

April 9, 2010


The editing of my book “Future Harvests – The next agricultural revolution” is about completed. All that is left to do is developing the cover and start the publishing.

I have already received orders, even before the book is out. That is quite a good sign. And a great surprise for me.

If you wish to be updated automatically when the book is published, just subscribe in the sidebar window on the right.

To describe the topics addressed, I have posted three short promotional videos on YouTube. In previous articles (The fun of writing this book and The next agricultural revolution), I had already given an idea about the content of the book.

Video #1: The Fundamentals (duration 2:37) – Introduction to the background and fundamental principles mentioned in the book “Future Harvests – The next agricultural revolution” to achieve food security for 9 billion people in 2050. Topics such as demographics, the shift in economic power, the control of food  and food security strategies are reviewed. Sustainability, innovation, efficient market driven food production and strong leadership are required.

or click here if video does not appear

Video #2: The Actions (duration 2:12) – A short review of some of the actions mentioned in the book to achieve the objectives. Solving the water challenge, finding new land for production, urban farming, hydroponics, farming the desert, rebuilding fisheries and developing aquaculture further are all possibilities.

or click here if video does not appear

Video #3: The Questions (duration 3:08) – A sample of some of the questions raised in the book. They cover technology, land deals in Africa, improving yields, restoring soil fertility, change in consumer needs, organic farming, risks of conflicts, biofuels or meat are some of the topics presented.

or click here if video does not appear

If you know someone who could be interested by the topics on this page, please pass it on!

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

November 18, 2009

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

Health and environment as growing drivers of food production

September 10, 2009

Health concerns will gain more importance in the future in the decision process of consumers when they buy their food.
More and more, we can hear and read about concerns and even rejection of the current production systems. Although this bad publicity is not always based on the most objective facts, it has been able to find a growing audience.

It must be true, it was in the newspaper

It must be true, it was in the newspaper

Since most consumers have little or no knowledge of agriculture and food, their only source of information is in the popular media. On the other side of the discussion, the agri-food industry is not getting through, because its message tends to be too defensive and too technical. Unfortunately for the industry, errors from the past (for example, the use of DDT) or cases from other industries (for example, tobacco) contribute to cast a shadow on its credibility. As I wrote my previous article “Less controversy thanks to transparency”, the agribusiness will achieve much more by opening up and having consumers visit their premises so that they can tell what they saw. They must organize more Open House days.

Therefore, for now, consumers have a certain perception of how food is produced, and it is not so relevant to argue whether this perception is correct or not. Perception simply is reality, and consumers act according to what they believe is true.
A little bit of this...There is a growing concern about environmental and health aspects of food production. About the environment, you can list very diverse things such as the depletion of wild fish stocks in the oceans, the interaction between aquaculture and wild fish stocks, manure and smell of intensive animal husbandry and impact of manure on soils and drinking water, deforestation of rainforest for ranching of beef or about growing GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). On the health side, consumers worry about food poisoning due to bacteria, such as E. Coli, listeria, campylobacter and salmonella, but also about residues of pesticides or antibiotics, as well as they worry about the use of hormones in animal productions. As the discussions get more animated in the US about the reform of health care and the cost of obesity, more and more people are wondering about whether the fast food diet is a proper one. Next to this, animal welfare is a growing concern by more and more consumers.
The answer to many of these worries has started to appear in the last few years with the growth of the organic market segment. When we see the growth and the performance of a retailer such as Whole Foods, there is no doubt that organic foods have a growing audience.

The concerns about the environment are forcing retailers, food service and businesses involved in the production chain of food to make changes. Some of the actions they have taken can be seen as marketing or PR, but they also have become mainstream. Just a look at how many restaurant and supermarket chains have already implemented sustainable seafood programs indicates how serious this change in consumer attitude is. Fast food chains are also actively working on reducing their environmental impact and set standards on where they source their meat, based on environmental concerns, such as no beef from ranches deforesting the Brazilian rainforest.
In the past, we have seen some examples of production methods that had to be abandoned, simply because no solution to cope with environmental problems could be found. This has been the case in The Netherlands where the level of intensification caused such manure surpluses and risks of animal disease to such a point that after many years of looking for viable technical solutions in vain, the government decided that the size of the national herds had to be reduced.
Similarly to what happened in Europe over the last decade, we can expect that much stricter rules in the use of antibiotics will be applied, and I expect a similar trend to a progressive elimination of the use of hormones in animal husbandry. About animal welfare, there should not be any surprise the day that only husbandry systems that allow enough “recreation” area for animals will be allowed. All of the above is going to have an impact on how and where food is produced. Systems will become less intensive, and progressively we will see more techniques to improve efficiency to compensate.

Past Food?

Past Food?

As I also had mentioned in another article (Future price of fish and meat: up), it is simple logic that with more people to feed, food is going to become more expensive. However, the relative prices of various food products also need to go along their relative health benefits. Today, it looks like only wealthy people can afford a healthy diet, as the price of “good” food is substantially higher than the price of what makes a nutritionally unbalanced meal. This clearly does not work in the direction of a healthier population at large.

The way consumers think will define the way we eat and produce our food. Many changes in consumption patterns, in production systems and in product offering are under way. I will get back later with more details on what my views are on this.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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

September 3, 2009

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.

Organic foods not nutritionally superior. So what?

August 6, 2009

A bit of emotion, a bit of reasonA recent study from the UK concluded that organic foods are not nutritionally superior to “regular” foods. Of course, it did not take long for reactions to be published. The pro organics reject the protocol used and therefore the conclusions. The pro “industry” reacted satisfied. All of this is not surprising, and for a simple reason: people choose their foods greatly based on psychological reasons. Let’s face it the debate around organic food is largely about lifestyle and choices.

However, is the result of this survey a surprise? Not really, because in terms of nutritional value, the differences in production systems are not that different. When it comes to food safety, especially residues of chemicals, then it probably is a very different story.

What can affect the nutritional value of foods are the growth period and the timing of the harvest. Produce that grows fast and that is harvested before full ripeness contains relatively more water and therefore there can be a dilution of nutrients per kg of product. This is also true for meat products.

I do not believe that the real debate between” organic” and “industrial” should be so much about nutritional value as it should be about food safety. As consumers get more educated and have more choice, they will give the preference to something more natural and harmless, simply because it is common sense and the safe thing to do. On the other hand of course, agriculture must be in a position to offer affordable products. Organic foods are more expensive and this is what limits its market share to mostly well-off city residents.

If organic foods want to become the standard to feed people, it will have to work on its production costs and price. Retailers are playing a very important role in this, as they more and more dictate to suppliers how food should be produced. This is currently very obvious with seafood and the requirement set by supermarkets to buy only sustainable seafood.

My expectation for the future is that retailers will get more involved in agriculture and will impose on suppliers more restrictions on what kind of products they may use for crop treatment, more restrictions for better animal welfare. The market standards of the future will become “sustainable”, “natural” and “traceable”; not for emotional reasons, but for rational reasons. There will be pain to accept for producers to meet these requirements, and in the end the commercial negotiations will decide what the market price of “natural” foods will be.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

If we are what we eat, what will we eat in the future?

June 9, 2009

The past 50 years have seen, at least in the Western world, the development of the consumption society. The emphasis has been on consuming always more, by having an apparently unlimited quantity of increasingly cheaper consumption goods available. This trend happened in the agriculture and food sectors just as well, and followed a rather simple patter, actually. Mass consumption has been coupled to mass production, thanks to intensification, technical and technological progress and, last but not least, marketing.

Junk foodTechnical progress improved yields and productivity, while marketing was aimed at creating more, and new, needs. Our food has become standardized, industrialized, and processed in a wide variety of forms. As the emphasis moved to lifestyle and convenience, which came along with the rise of mass distribution, cheap energy and suburbia, we lost the connection between ourselves, the origin of our food and nature. Food became just things you buy at the supermarket, already packed in plastic and cardboard.

Now, we have come to the realization that this high production of waste, be it packaging material, be it blemished product that do not look good anymore while still perfectly edible, be it the overproduction of manure and its minerals, or be it the massive use of antibiotics and pesticides is not sustainable. Of course, much progress has already done to reduce this waste and there is a growing trend towards organic and traceable, but at this stage it not clear yet whether this is a true change in our behavior or whether it has more to do with a social status and marketing issue.

However, what the current situation might be, the fact that we understand that we cannot keep on intensifying and wasting the way we did, will inevitably bring a more fundamental change in how we consume in the future.

Some people predict such changes as the astronaut diet made out of pills, the use of a computer to tell us what and how much of it we should eat based on our activity level, or the tissue culture to replace meat, and many other scenarios. Will any of those ever happen? Who knows?

Personally, I believe that food as a very strong psychological connotation. We associate food with experiences and, although there are differences between cultures, that emotional bond will stay.

Clearly, the consumption society with all its excesses is coming to its end, and maybe the current economic crisis, which also originated in the excess of having it all at any cost, could very well be the turning point.

The next evolution is probably going to be a balanced approach between consumption, which we need to some extent, and the necessity of preserving what keeps us alive. There will be different graduations of this balance between geographic regions, but sustainability is the only way forward, as I mentioned in my previous article (Sustainability: as natural as balance).

Intensification is showing its limitations, waste of manure and of packaging are also hitting a wall, energy is getting more expensive and makes the production and the transport of food more expensive, too. This will reshape how we want to consume our food, how and where it is produced, how it is presented to us.

Cattle feedlotWe still are in a society where some people get obese by eating lots of food as quickly as they can, while they have less physical activity than the previous generations, thanks to automation. That food is produced on intensive farms and feedlots where the animals grow and fatten as quickly as possible, as they eat lots of food, while not having much physical activity. Similarly, in our society meat producers use hormones to boost growth and carcass quality, while body builders and sport professionals use steroids and growth hormone to boost their performance. Interesting similarities, don’t you think? We are indeed what we eat.

So, in a conservation society, should we expect the farms to be led by the need to preserve? This almost sounds like the farms we had at the beginning of the twentieth century. I think that there will be some of it, but the efficiency of production as well as the efficiency of preserving the environment will be much better, thanks to new technologies. We will have high yields, and at the same time, we will have highly efficient systems to use water, to recycle waste and preserve the fertility of our soils and the balance of our oceans.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.