No shortage of action points for the future

The path to feeding the growing world population and to preserve agriculture’s ability to provide adequate volumes is paved with many challenges. Leaders will have to show how to resolve the many issues food production is facing or will face in the coming decades, and how to create a viable future.

As the population increases, the need for energy increases, too. Oil reserves are finite and new oilfields are becoming more and more difficult and expensive to exploit. It is only logical that oil will become more and more expensive in the future. This will call for more fuel-efficient equipment and vehicles. At the same time, oil that is more expensive also means that the relative price for alternative energy sources will become more competitive. In March 2011, an analyst from the bank HSBC published a report announcing that oil will no longer be available in 2060. In its future projections, the International Energy Agency (IEA) describes our energy sources as more diverse than they are now. They also mention that oil will not be the main source of energy anymore. Natural gas will take over. We should expect some significant changes in the way agriculture uses energy, the type of machinery that farmers will use and how future logistics will be organized.

The change of economics in energy will affect fertilizers, too. Especially, the production of nitrogen fertilizers uses large amounts of fossil fuel, essentially natural gas. On average, half of the nitrogen spread on fields is lost because of leaching. We can expect the focus to be on efficiency and on strategies of applications that are more efficient. This is already happening with precision agriculture techniques. Next to this, the focus of the fertilizer industry should be on developing nitrogen fertilizers that are less sensitive to leaching. Imagine a nitrogen fertilizer that may cost twice the price of the current ones, but for which there is no loss. Farmers would use only half the quantities that they currently do. The money to spend would be the same, but the use of fossil fuel to produce the fertilizer would be much less. There would be an environmental advantage to do so.

In the area of environmental issues, climate change needs to be addressed more effectively than it has been so far. Regardless whether people believe in it, or believe it is caused by human activity or it is only a natural phenomenon, the number of severe climatic events is reason to consider counter measures, just in case. The debate should not be about whether climate change is real or not. It is not about who may be responsible for it. True leaders take care of their people, and in this case, they should at least come with scenarios, contingency plans and emergency preparedness plans. That is the least we must expect from those in position of power and responsibility. In this case, the saying “the failure of the preparation is the preparation of failure” takes all its meaning.

Linked to climate to some extent, and a precious resource in all cases, water needs to be managed properly and carefully. For instance, all major river systems in Asia depend on Himalayan glaciers. If the glaciers were to disappear, which is a possibility, the source of water that sustains 2.5 billion people would be depleted, even if water used for agriculture also comes from other sources, the monsoon especially. The consequences would be catastrophic. Further, as agriculture uses 70% of all fresh water resources, growing food production will require more efficient water usage techniques. The focus must be on efficiency and on reduction of waste of water resources. Such objectives will require substantial financial resources and solid planning.

In the area of waste, food losses must be reduced as much and as diligently as possible. The moral issue of food being thrown away by the wealthy is obvious. The wealthy are not just in developed countries. In emerging countries, similar behavior is appearing. It is interesting to know that the Indian government is considering fines for those who discard edible food. It is even more interesting to notice that in Western countries where the percentage of food thrown away is the highest, governments are not investigating this possibility of fines. The other food waste scandal is the post-harvest losses. The food is produced. It is edible, but because of a lack of proper infrastructure, it is left to rot. What a waste of seeds, land, water, money, labor and all other necessary inputs. I have mentioned this problem in previous articles, as I have shown that the financial return to fix the problem is actually high and quick. There is plenty of work in this area for leaders. The first step to succeed in this is to recognize that no organization can fix this on its own. There is a need for collaborative leadership, because all the stakeholders in the food chains must participate, and they all will reap the financial benefits of fixing post-harvest problems.

Food production is not a hobby. It is of the utmost importance for the stability and the prosperity of societies. Well-fed and happy people do not riot. The need to improve infrastructure and logistics is obvious. Food must be brought to those who need it. A proper transportation infrastructure is necessary. The choice of transportation methods has consequences for the cost of food supply, and for the environmental cost as well. Road transport is relatively expensive and produces the highest amounts of greenhouse gases. Rail transport is already much better, and barge transport even better. The distance between production areas and consumption centers also needs to be looked at, together with the efficiency of logistics. Optimization will be the name of the game. Completing the cycle of food and organic matter will become even more important than today, as the world population is expected to concentrate further into urban centers. As humans are at the end of the food chain, many nutrients and organic matter accumulates where the human settlements are. These nutrients, as well as the organic matter, will have to be brought back to the land. This is essential if we want to maintain soil fertility. As phosphates mines are gradually running out, sewage and manure are going to play a pivotal role in soil fertility management. The concentration of the population in urban centers, together with the change of economics in energy, will require a very different look on economic zoning, and in urban planning in particular.

Special attention will be necessary to inform and educate consumers to eat better. Overconsumption, and the health problems that result from it, is already becoming a time bomb. Overweight is not only a Western problem. The same trend is appearing in many developing countries as well. Overweight is on the rise all over the world. The number of obesity cases in China, and even in some African countries, is increasing. The cost of fixing health is high, and it will be even more so in countries with an aging population, as age-related ailment add up to eating-habits-related problems. Healthy societies are more productive and cost less to maintain.

As the economy grows, and wealth increases in more and more countries, diets are changing. Consumers shift from carbohydrate-based meals to a higher consumption of animal products, as well as fruit and vegetables. The “meat question” will not go away. Since it takes more than one kg of feed to produce one kg of animal product, increasing animal production puts even more pressure to produce the adequate volumes of food. The question that will arise is how many animals can we -or should we- keep to produce animal protein, and what species should they be? Levels of production, and of demand, will result in price trends that will regulate production volumes to some extent, but government intervention to set production and consumption quotas cannot be excluded, either.

Similar questions will arise about biofuel production, especially the type of biofuel produced. There will be debates about moral, economic, social and practical aspects of biofuels. The consequences on the price of food and animal feed are not negligible. The function of subsidies in the production of biofuels adds to this debate and there are strongly divergent points of view between the various stakeholders.

One of the most important issues in the discussion about feeding the increasing world population is food affordability. Producing more, and producing enough, is not enough. The food produced must be affordable, too. When this is not the case, people cannot eat, and this is the main reason for malnourishment. To make food affordable, food production must be efficient. The costs of production need to be kept under control to avoid either food inflation and/or farmers bankruptcies.

In agriculture, just like in any other human activity, money always talks. Money is a powerful incentive, and when used properly, it is a powerful driver for improvement. Strategic use of financial incentive is part of policies. To meet the future challenges, leaders will have to develop the right kind of incentives. The focus will have to be on efficiency, on long-term continuity of production potential as well as on short-term performance. The financial incentives can be subsidies. Although the debates tend to make believe subsidies are all bad, there are good and useful subsidies. Another area of incentives to think about is the type of bonuses paid to executives. Just imagine what would happen if, instead of just profit, the carbon footprint per $1000 of sales was factored in the bonus? Gas emissions would be high on the priority of management teams.

If the way executives are paid matters, the type of financial structure of businesses could influence the way they operate, too. Now, it may sound surprising, but in the future, expect the question whether food companies should be listed on the stock exchange to arise. Short-term focus on the share price can be quite distracting from the long-term necessities. If we find that elected officials are short-term-oriented because elections take place every four or five years, how short-term quarterly financial results to the stock markets influence CEOs? The pressure by investors on companies’ Executive Boards to deliver value is high. They expect some results within a relatively short period, while what happens to the companies, their employees and long-term effect on the environment after they took their profits is irrelevant to them. This brings the question of the functioning of financial markets as a whole. What derivatives are acceptable? Who should be allowed to have access to which ones? What quantity could they be allowed to buy and sell? Many questions will arise more and more loudly every time food prices will jump up again the future, and as social unrest may result from it.

To prepare the future, it is important to prepare the generations of the future. Education will play a critical role in the success of societies. Only by helping future generations to have access to knowledge, to develop skills and to train to fill in the jobs of the future, will countries develop a strong middle class. Thanks to education, people can get better paying jobs. This allows them to buy adequate quantities of food for themselves and their families. Education is an investment to fight poverty and hunger. In the agricultural sector, it will be important to attract more young people to work in the food and agricultural sector. In many countries, farmers are getting old and replacement is scarce.

These are just a few of the issues that the current and future leadership will have to solve, if we want the feed and preserve the world. There will be many discussions about which systems are the best suited to ensure prosperity and stability. The respective roles of governments, businesses, non-profits and of the people will certainly be reviewed with scrutiny.

During the writing of Future Harvests, it became obvious to me how crucial the role of leadership is for our chances of success. In the course of a number of assignments with my company, this observation has grown even stronger.

For these reasons, I have decided to start writing another book focused on the role of leadership to develop long-term development of food production and food supply. It will be a reflection about the tough calls that leaders need to make. The final objective is to ensure viable food production systems and proper infrastructure, while ensuring the continuity of food supply in the long-term, through a successful interaction between all stakeholders.

Tentatively, the publication date is fixed for the summer or the fall of 2012.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Believing in the future

The recent economic crisis gives an example of how the perception of the future can change, and how the level of economic security affects our behavior.

While before the economic crisis, many people preferred to spend rather than save, since the economic perspectives have changed, so has the behavior. A similar behavior, but at business level, is the reluctance of companies to hire when the economic outlook is uncertain.

Readiness to act to build the future depends greatly on people’s perception of what that very word means to them. Some have such comfortable lives that they actually do not think much about the future. They consider it a given, and take the current situation for granted. They have not much incentive to change. They might be in for a surprise someday, though. On the opposite end of this, there are those who have no expectation of the future. For them, life is so insecure because of famine, disease or violence, that all that matters is the here and now. Thinking ahead is almost impossible, and all that matters is the immediate. The future is irrelevant.

For those who live between these two extremes, the goal is to see life conditions improve. However, how this can be achieved, and whether it seems realistic depends greatly on the resources available.

Although many areas of the food and agriculture value chain need to be improved and can be improved, it is important to notice how much resistance many food security plans are facing during their execution. Obviously not all participants agree on the objectives and on the steps to follow. This is especially important in developing countries where  many problems affect food security, such as limited financial resources, limited water availability, post-harvest losses or difficult access to market to name a few.

To get people to believe in “the” future, the first step is to connect to their sense of how far the future is. When you are 20 in a country where the life expectancy is 80, thinking about the future is quite normal, and the life expectancy gives an indication of the period that the privileged ones have in mind. In regions where life prospects are dire, thinking even a couple of years ahead will probably be irrelevant to many. When presenting a vision of the future, one must consider this way of thinking. The acceptance and the commitment to implement actions will depend largely on whether the timeline is perceived as reasonable. People are more inclined to participate when they think that they will be able to see the results in their lifetime.

On the way to the future, actions are always more convincing than words. Positive results need to appear soon. Otherwise, the momentum in favor of the promised changes might slow down. This is why a good strategy is to start with the simplest and the easiest projects. They will deliver results faster. As success breeds success, they will generate more enthusiasm for the more difficult projects that require more time and more resources to be completed. This approach is a good way to build credibility and defuse criticism. Another advantage is that the participants will become more aware of what they can achieve as they achieve success. This gain in confidence will boost the morale to pursue with the further improvements. Often, this creates very healthy bottom-up dynamics that generates newer ideas on how to achieve the goals better and faster, or even exceed them.

Clearly, increasing confidence requires actions at many different levels. In the case of food security, the scope needs to go beyond agricultural development alone. Producing more food will not feed people if the hungry ones still do not make enough money to pay for food. Agriculture is only one of the economic sectors, and it will not produce miracles if it is not included in a more ambitious and broader goal.

Of all activities carried out to improve food security, I find the Chinese policies rather interesting. They are a long-term oriented culture. They are very patient and persistent, as many episodes of their history demonstrate. Their development activities in Africa are comprehensive. Next to all their work to develop agricultural production, they also invest heavily in the development of small businesses. They are working to develop the local economy beyond simply food production. Possibly, they experience of the last 30 years in developing the economy in China explains their approach. They know that social stability depends on people having at least the bare necessities. In the 1990s, I remember when we, in Europe, started to realize that China’s goal was to feed its people first. Imports of agricultural commodities into China started to increase. In particular, their demand for wheat and for what Europeans considered animal by-products was strongly on the rise. They seem to have a similar approach with Africa. They understand that their food supply will be more secure if the countries where they invest are economically and socially stable. It is worth noting that China invests more money in Africa than all G8 countries together do. It would appear that, to follow through with these policies, not having elections every few years allows them to execute a long-term vision without having to sacrifice it through short-term distraction.

On the other end of the spectrum, in terms of making people lose faith in the future, I could mention Libyan land purchases in Mali. The farmers, who had been working the land for themselves, although the land did not belong to them, have received notice that they will have to leave at the end of this year. This is exactly the kind of practice that could lead a country into civil war.

Businesses and non-profits that are active to develop food production need to take into account the same aspects that increase confidence in the execution of their plans. The owners, shareholders and fund providers must take a long-term approach to succeed. In such projects, the day-to-day share price on the stock exchange is not relevant. Such projects are long-term investments that will deliver a return only after many years. Among the most important investments, I would give a special mention to health and education. Without them, people can simply not get any fulfilling occupation, and economic development will be stuck in low gear.

At my modest level, I once inherited a project to get a fish processing plant operational. This project was a taking place in one of British Columbia’s Central Coast First Nations communities, which was plagued by a staggering 80% unemployment rate. Apart from the fact that there had been no budget allocated, I faced another problem. The local Economic Development Corporation in charge of their end of the project was never carrying out what they were supposed to do. Being my old little me, I never accepted this situation as a reality, and I made sure that all parties would do what they agreed to do. Only after a couple of years did I get the explanation for their dragging their feet. Many projects had taken place in this community before, but they all failed. The locals had concluded that no project would ever succeed, and they were not adamant to invest much in the future. The initial agreement had been signed between the salmon farming company and the leaders of the community, but time was necessary to get the lower levels of the village to be convinced. At some point in time, I was told that if it had not been for my indestructible faith in the project’s success, my persistence and my sometimes quasi-obnoxious insistence, this project would have had the same fate as the other previous ones. I had to deal with many heated discussions, a small social upheaval and death threats, but I quite alive to say proudly that, 11 years after I started it, the plant still is operational today, for the benefit of the community and its residents!

Long-term vision, empathy, sharing the value, strong leadership (even some dose of benevolent dictatorship) are all critical elements to make developing nations believe in the future.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Food security in Paradise

Many Hawaiian residents express their concern about their dependence on food that comes from far away. Actually, there are more and more conferences and workshops about the topic of food security for Hawaii. With this in mind, I went to the Big Island of Hawaii for a vacation last April. I certainly would recommend to everyone to do the same if they ever have the chance.

Since Hawaii is part of the USA, food security will be guaranteed from the mainland. However, looking at the situation as if Hawaii was an independent country makes the debate about food dependence from other
regions quite interesting. The Islands of the State of Hawaii are isolated, as they lay in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away from any significant continental mass.

During my stay, I was reminded about food security and environmental issues in several occasions. On Earth Day, I came across an event that was interesting in many regards. Apart from the more militant speeches about mostly the big bad oil, and the fact that “Lady Green” touched me with a sunflower, I spent some time engaging in conversations with a number of exhibitors, from government organizations to renewable energy systems (solar makes a lot of sense in Hawaii to me). One booth where I spent more time was
the one of the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Aquaculture& Coastal Resources Center. There, I had a good conversation with PACRC’s Director Kevin Hopkins, a very knowledgeable man with extensive experience in aquaculture, not only in the USA, but also in Asian and African countries. Thanks to him, I got a better idea of the challenge to integrate a sustainable aquaculture in the Hawaiian environment. Living in Vancouver, BC, and having worked in the salmon farming industry, this is not a new topic for me. Aquaculture faces similar concerns in both places.

Click on picture to enlarge

With this in mind, I continued my vacation. At the Kaloko-Honokohau Historic Park, I found a sign showing a comparison of food security between today and 300 years ago. By then, there were 150,000 inhabitants on the Big Island of Hawaii, 100% of the food was produced on the island, 0% was imported, and they were producing 300,000-500,000 lbs. of fish in stone fishponds. Today, for a similar population, only 18% of the food is produced locally, and the Kaloko fishponds do not produce any fish at all (see picture). Of course, these numbers do not take the number of tourists to feed into account. Moreover, the current food consumption per capita is probably substantially richer in calories than 300 years ago, too. However, this history could be a good basis for more constructive discussions about aquaculture. Clearly, aquaculture was a traditional way of improving food security for ancient Hawaiians. The old fishponds were made of walls built with the volcanic rocks, and the fish was passing though a gate made of vertical bars. The small fish could enter, but as they grew bigger, they were unable to pass the gates and leave. This system made me think of a hybrid form of closed containment. In BC, where many discussions are about producing salmon on land, the Hawaiian fishponds are actually a quasi-closed containment on the seabed. It does not require all the land-based infrastructure and equipment, as is the case for land-based closed containment systems. What I saw at this park tells me that the useful could meet the historical, cultural and the modern just to help develop a responsible and productive aquaculture to increase food self-sufficiency for Hawaii. In a region where the ocean space available is as vast as this is the case around Hawaii, I am convinced that there have to be plenty of locations where aquaculture can be conducted without harming the environment, and there have to be more than enough adequate production techniques to do it right.

In the same park, there were remnants of pits in which rocks were set up in many individual planters. In these planters, called mala’ai, the ancient Hawaiians used to grow food plants. This is an ingenious system, because in that area, the fields are covered by lava. There is no soil to be used for open field crops, such as wheat, for instance. On the other hand, there would be plenty of acreage to set up such planters. This would be labor intensive, though.

At the Kaimu-Kalapana black sand beach, I read on a sign that ancient Hawaiians used to harvest seaweed and that apparently, their methods were sustainable. It is only after commercial harvesting by European settlers started that the seaweed quantities plummeted because of excessive harvest volumes. Just like for fish production, researchers from all sides should work on restoring such a seaweed production in a sustainable manner. This example, like all other examples of unsustainable human practices, simply demonstrates that we must produce or harvest what we can, instead of trying to produce or harvest always more while ignoring the signals that we are passing a breaking point.

I spent time only on the Big Island, and I did not visit the other islands. Probably, I do not have the whole picture, especially considering that more than two-thirds of Hawaii’s population lives in the State capital, Honolulu. According to the latest US population census, Hawaii’s total population is of about 1.3 million people, out of which more than 900,000 live in Honolulu. To get a more accurate picture of how much food needs to be produced to meet demand, it is necessary to add the visitors. Per year, the number of visitors is about 7.4 million people, who stay on average 9.15 days. This number expressed in average outside visitors staying in Hawaii per year is 7.4 x 9.15 / 365 = 186,000 people. To simplify, I will estimate the number of mouths to feed at 1.5 million.

For the Hawaiians concerned by the food security or, better said, the low food self-sufficiency of their state (less than 15 %!), what are the possibilities?

Just like in most of the rest of the USA, the local food movement is growing. More and more people are trying to grow some food on their balconies. Of course, this will not be enough to reverse the situation, but it will contribute. Farmers’ markets are gaining in popularity, and I have to say rightly so. Unlike what I am used to in my neighborhood, the food sold on the farmers markets that I came across on the Big Island offer many affordable and actually cheaper foods than in the large supermarket chains. At the farmers markets, I could notice that many more generic vegetables such as onions, tomatoes or bell peppers were shipped from the West Coast of continental US, mainly Washington State. On the other hand, I found quite interesting to notice that the big retailers are also trying to source local products. I only visited a Wal-Mart and a Safeway. From what I have been told, the selling of local products at their outlets is a recent change.

This is interesting, because these retailers will try to be able to source larger volumes, and they actually maybe in a position to stimulate more local food, agriculture and aquaculture production.

The quality of the local food is quite good, although when on vacation everything tends to taste better for some reason. Although I am not much of a beef eater, I was tempted by a “Hawaiian” local grass-fed beef burger recipe, and I have to admit this was the best burger that I ever tasted. It was so good that we went back to the same pub the next evening and I had another burger, while my spouse had a steak. Her steak was simply stunning. And the price was actually cheaper than similar generic beef dishes here in Vancouver.

When it comes to justifying more local food production, I have seen very interesting numbers about the amount of money that Hawaiians spend on food, and therefore to producers outside of their state. According to the same studies, local production would also result in more local jobs. However, I would not develop a plan based on such numbers, not because I doubt them, but because the business must be financially viable as well. I find all the reports that I have read too general or too academic for my liking. Moreover, I am not convinced that the politicians are committed to take the necessary steps to increase food self-sufficiency in Hawaii. They give it quite some lip service, but I miss signs that this topic might be on top of their priority list.

Personally, my first step to see what needs to be done would be to look at how many farms are required to produce what is needed: how many eggs, how much milk, how many chickens, how many pigs, how much fish, how many fruit and vegetables, how much wheat, rice, potatoes, and so on. Once I would have identified the size of the local market for all the food items, I would calculate how many farms are needed to meet that demand. After all, there cannot be food security if there are not enough farms.

For instance, every 10 kg consumption per capita of chicken meat means a production volume of 1.5 million x 10 kg = 15 million kg of chicken. As a chicken weighs about 2 kg, this would correspond to 7.5 million chickens per year. With an average of six flocks per year in a chicken house, this would mean a production capacity of 1.250 million places. This represents about 60 chicken houses. Depending on the size of the farm, my guess would be that 10 to 20 farms are necessary to cover a consumption of 10 kg per capita per year. If consumption were 40 kg per capita per year, Hawaii would potentially need up to 80 farms. Do they have the farmers and the locations for all of them? That is what I would like to determine.

Similarly, in the case of marine fish farms, every 10 kg consumption per capita per year of fish requires 15 million kg of fish, or close to 30,000 tons of live fish. If we were to imagine the containment system from Hawaii Oceanic Technology that I mentioned in “High-tech fish farm”, it almost could be produced on one farm. Of course, it would not be wise to put all the eggs in the same basket. If production volumes were comparable to a salmon farm, the 30,000 tons could require 10 farming sites. This is just theoretic in order to give an idea of the production space needed. There would be different species produced, but the calculation method remains the same for each of them.

With such an approach, for all the relevant food products, it can appear very quickly if being self-sufficient for the various food items is realistic or desirable.

The final exercise, which is also the most important, is the business plan per farm, to assess the viability of the individual projects. Even local, food production must be competitive. The example of Hawaiian sugar cane shows that this is not necessarily the case.

Next to farmers, food producers and market outlets, the Hawaiian government can stimulate more local production if it wishes to do so by setting the appropriate policies. Developing such a thorough review of how to reduce food dependency on outside sources in a market-driven and viable manner for the long term would be quite enjoyable to carry out in paradise!

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The fertilizer of the future?

Among the many challenges that the agriculture of the future faces, soil fertility ranks high on the list of priorities.

Originally, most farms were mixed. They had land to grow crops and they had animals for milk, eggs and meat. Markets were mostly local, and food was consumed in the villages and towns near the farms. Food waste was fed to farm animals; the manure produced was mixed with straw and returned to the fields where the crops had been grown. Over time, farming has evolved. Agriculture has become much larger scale, global and specialized. This evolution has been driven by the use of oil, mechanization, and by the development of mineral fertilizers.

That model, which has been greatly based on cheap energy and resources, needs to be looked at critically as the economic environment changes. Energy is no longer cheap and, like oil, the resources used for the production of fertilizers have been depleted. New solutions are required to be able to produce optimally.

The production of nitrogen fertilizers requires a lot of energy. According to estimates, it uses 5% of the world’s natural gas production, and half the fossil fuels used in agriculture. Because nitrogen is quite mobile when dissolved, as this happens when it rains, a large amount of these high-energy-consumption compounds are lost. An estimated 50% of the nitrogen spread on crops leaches through the soil. It ends up in the water system. The reserves of phosphates, another important mineral fertilizer, are facing depletion. This might happen in 20 years from now. With the development of precision agriculture, the waste of minerals can be reduced. With the development of satellite imaging indicating the mineral status of a field, and the local variations within the field, it has become possible for farmers to bring just the right amount of the right mineral at the right time and at the right place. This follows somehow a similar thinking as fertilizing plants in hydroponics operations where crops are produced without soil and fed a mineral solution drop by drop.

A consequence of the specialization between crop farms and intensive animal farms is the rupture of the organic matter cycle. Large monoculture farms have suffered soil erosion because of a lack of organic matter, among other reasons. In soils, the presence of organic matter increases moisture retention, increases minerals retention and enhances the multiplication of microorganisms. All these characteristics disappear when the quantity of organic matter decreases. A solution to alleviate this problem is the practice of no-tillage together with leaving vegetal debris turn into organic matter to enrich the soil. This has helped restore the content of organic matter in the soil, although one can wonder if this practice has only positive effects. Tillage helps eliminating weeds. It also helps break the superficial structure of the soil, which can develop a hard crust, depending on the precipitations and the clay content of the soil. Possibly, in the future the use of superficial tillage could become the norm. Deep tillage, as it has been carried out when agriculture became mechanized, has the disadvantage of diluting the thin layer of organic matter in a much deepen layer of soil. This dilution seriously reduces the moisture and mineral retention capacity of soils, thus contributing to erosion as well, even in organic matter-rich soils.

The removal of farm animals from specialized crop farms requires the systematic use of mineral fertilizers because farmers do not have access to manure and the minerals it contains, even though most of these minerals originate from the crops farms.

At the other end of this interrupted cycle of manure, intensive animal farms do not suffer a lack of organic matter and minerals. They have the opposite problem. They have too much of it, and not enough acreage, if any, where to spread it. This leads to accumulation of manure and other related problems, such as stench, high concentrations of minerals in the soil and eventually in the waterways and drinking water reserves.

Since nothing is lost, what has happened to the minerals from fields and from fertilizers? They have been transferred to other places via the global trade of agricultural commodities. Many of these commodities are used to produce animal feed. Phosphate in European pig manure may come from Asian manioc farms. Therefore, the best way to find out where the minerals are is to look at where intensive animal husbandry farms are. As mentioned earlier, nitrogen is washed away into the water system because of its mobility. Unlike nitrogen, phosphates are not mobile in the soil. They will accumulate, which also leads to a loss of soil fertility, eventually. The other area of concentrations of these minerals is in city sewers, and in the soil of slums. Since the purpose of agriculture is to produce food, and since consumers are increasingly concentrated in urban centers, the exportation of minerals is actually gathering momentum out of rural areas.

In the future, we are going to see a new look at fertilization. The economics of agriculture will change. This is inevitable, because the cost of inputs will increase. This will be a direct consequence of the increase of the price of oil, and of the depletion of phosphates reserves. This change of economics will drive renewed interest for manure, and for sewage. These sources will become attractive and competitive, as they contain large amounts of minerals directly available. Because of their nature, they have a high content of organic matter. One of the most efficient ways to remove nitrates from water is to grow plants with it. One of the main sources of phosphates will be manure.

There is little indication that the human population will return to the land, but animal farms can be moved rather easily. After all, they already are segregated from vegetal production. The increased need for manure will call for a relocation of animal productions. In an expensive-energy economy, having the “fertilizer factory” on site, or at least much closer than today makes a lot of sense. This is especially true because manure contains a lot of water, although there are substantial differences between productions. Transporting water is expensive. Mixing crops and animal productions again on farms will also allow the inclusion of vegetal debris together again with the feces and urine, producing a higher dry matter content, with limited transport costs between the field and the “fertilizer factory”. Regardless of the size of the farms, I expect to see a relocation of animal production units on agricultural land. They will be spread more evenly in the landscape than today. This will decrease the density of farm animals in currently high-density areas to levels that will allow a better control of environmental issues, as well as reduce partly the risks of transmission of animal diseases. Animal production units will reappear in areas where they had disappeared because of the fertilizer that they will provide.

This evolution will also come together with a new approach of manure storage and treatment. Open-air lagoons like those that we know today will simply cease to exist. The changed economics of energy will make the capture of gases financially attractive. Manure storage units will be covered; the biogas will be collected to be used for energy purpose, for the farm and the local communities. The solid and the liquid fractions of the manure will be processed and transformed to provide organic matter and the fertilizing minerals necessary for crop production. The location of the “manure units” will be influenced by the type of animal production, and therefore by the physical quality of the manure. There will be a logistic optimization of manure collection to the crop farms. It will be based on efficiency and optimization of resources. Therefore, the new farm structure will be efficient, as much financially as environmentally. Similarly, open-ocean fish farms that currently do not collect the feces will see the financial value in recuperating the fish waste and sell it. In cities, there will be an increasing interest to recycle the sewage. The purpose will be to recuperate the organic matter and the minerals it contains. A similar approach for human waste will apply as for animal production units as I described above. This will also be integrated in the future approach of urban farming, as it will provide the necessary nutrients for an efficient urban food production. It will be a source of revenue to the cities.

In rural areas and in urban areas, organic matter and fertilizing minerals will become strategic activities. They will serve the purpose of feeding sustainably the world population.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

An Interview with The Food Futurist: 100 Answers about the Future of Agriculture

Following up on the recent publication of the report “100 Questions of Importance for the Future of Global Agriculture” by a group of experts from all over the world under the lead of Jules Pretty of the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, I wanted to react candidly and spontaneously on every of these 100 questions.

Since giving extensive answers would represent several months, if not years, of work for a single individual, I chose for the interview format. I gave myself just a couple of minutes to say what came to my mind.

The result is this document: 100 Answers – An interview with the Food Futurist

I hope it will be as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to write. I hope that it will trigger reactions, as this is more a first attempt to initiate a forum discussion.

The questions were quite interesting. However, I missed a few elements tat I believe to be quite important in the challenge of feeding a population of nine billion by 2050. The initial report did not raise enough questions about the issue of water. Water is essential to agriculture, and the challenge of accessing enough water is even more urgent and more critical than improving food availability. Similarly, the initial report did not reflect much on urban farming. Estimates of today’s urban food production are of 15-20% of the total world food production. Considering that about 50% of the population lives in cities, this means that 30-40% of all the food consumed in cities is produced in urban centers. This is far from negligible. As the urban population is expected to double by 2050, urban farming will be an essential part of our food supply. I had also expected more attention to aquaculture, which is the fastest growing food production.

The initial report focuses more on production aspects and systems than it does focus on the human factor. Population increase, distribution and especially the quality of leadership will be crucial for the way food security strategies can be set up. As I mention in one of my answers, our future will be as bright as our leaders.

Writing this document, and reacting to questions asked by highly qualified experts, was a good way of assessing the book “Future Harvests” that I published in August 2010. I was quite happy to see that the book addresses all the concerns of the thinkers and policymakers.

I wish you happy reading.

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

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.

For more on similar topics, please visit my other website The Sensible Gourmet

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Of food riots and economic hardship

The riots in North Africa are getting a lot of coverage. This is good, because the problems in this region have been ignored for a long time. In 1987, I had bought a book “L’Europe Submergée – Sud-Nord dans 30 ans” by the late French economist Alfred Sauvy, the man who created the term Third World. His book was a description of the demographic differences between Europe and the nations from the South, and of the likely consequences. His prediction was by then that within 30 to 40 years, Europe would see a flow of immigration from the other side of the Mediterranean Sea that would replace the original European population. He also saw in this migration a great opportunity in terms of economic renewal for Europe. He certainly would have deserved the title of futurist!

When I wrote Future Harvests, I dedicated a chapter on the changing demographics. It clearly appeared to me that he was right, and that the evolution of the population numbers between the different regions of the world will influence decisions about food production, food supply, and economies altogether. In Future Harvests, I indicate in which regions I think tensions would arise. The Arab world was number one on my list. Here is the map of the median age per country. The median age of a country is the age of half its population. Most of Arab countries have half their populations under 25. And what to think of Sub-Saharan Africa where that age is lower than 20? This is in sharp contrast with Western countries where almost half the population is older than 40. It was really striking to see the pictures of Tunisian rioters: there were teenagers. With a chronic unemployment, especially with the youth, reaching levels of 25%, and many people living on a pittance, riots erupting and governments being toppled are no surprises. This situation has been going on for a few decades. A new generation of people who see little hope and future is simply sending a message. Change must come or change will come.

In the news, everything is mixed together and it may appear a little difficult to understand what causes Arab countries to flare up like this. Everyone speculates which country will be next. Of course, food is mentioned as one of the many causes, and I can read all sorts of opinions about that. From what I understand, the riots in Tunisia were caused by the arrest of a food street vendor for not having the proper license, which immediately cut his meagre source of income. After the success of the Tunisian upheaval, it is not surprising to see neighbouring  countries with a similar demographic and similar dire economic situation following a similar path. Does this mean that there will be riots over the entire Arab world? Probably not all at once. It might not be successful everywhere, either. Other rulers in the region will make some moves, even symbolic ones, to defuse potential tensions. Both the Tunisian and Egyptian rulers are doing their best to defuse the tensions, and by resigning if this is what it will take to avoid complete chaos. The lesson is hard for Arab countries and they are now more aware than ever of the dangerous situation they are in. This is also a loud warning to the rich nations. However, at the Davos conference, the elite were not even aware of what was going on. Eventually, they heard it, and paid attention. Stock markets dropped for one day only as unrest was spreading in Egypt. Interestingly enough, markets were up on the days that a bomb exploded in Moscow’s airport and when Japan’s economic rating was downgraded by S&P. Certain things matter more than others. Europe must now realize that unless it helps its southern neighbours solve the problem, they are going to become a part of it. Yet, European countries seem to have trouble taking some clear position on the events. North Africa, just like the rest of Africa needs economic development. The people of these countries need to regain hope in the future. The generation that comes of age to leave the parents’ home and start, and support, their own families must see reasons why it will be possible for them. At this juncture, they doubt that they will be able to do so.

In Future Harvests, I mention two regions with a demographic time bomb waiting for a food security problem to explode. One is the area between Russia and the former Central Asian Soviet republics, extended to Iran and Pakistan. The other one is the border between Mexico and the USA. Mexico is disintegrating and law and order are fading away. Both these regions are going to have to work together to find strategies to ensure stability. This probably will not happen without serious clashes.

Many of the countries where booming demographics, poor economic situation and precarious food security are the normal state of affairs need a 21st century Marshall Plan. As I have presented in previous articles, the potential for feeding the world population is there, but the main cause of hunger is the lack of affordability of food. In 2008, there were food riots, but there was no real food shortage. The main problem was that the populations could not pay for it because the price had skyrocketed, especially the price of basic food staples such as rice, wheat and corn. This time, although according to the FAO, food prices are even higher than in 2008, we have not seen the same kind of riots. A reason for this difference may have been the fact that retail prices of food staples remained contained. So far.

Some sort of Marshall Plan is a necessity. Development and stability is in the interest of rich countries, just as much as it is for developing countries. Europe, Russia and the USA cannot thrive with countries on the verge of complete collapse at their borders. If there has ever been a good investment, this would be it. It is interesting to look at the example of China. This hard-core communist country was on the verge of economic disaster and famine, until they decided to put the doctrine on the side, and open their doors to foreign investments. From the moment that China decided to feed its people, things changed. For the communist government, this was the only way to stay in power. A billion hungry, and angry, people are impossible to keep under control. For the capitalist “Satan”, it was convenient to present the Chinese “opening” as a victory of the aspiring capitalism, but mostly it was the greatest opportunity ever to reduce labour costs of consumer goods and boost corporate profits. Investing in China was not exactly like the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe, but the amount of money that flowed into the country helped turn around a bad situation into what soon will be the world’s first economy. While the middle class in Europe is stagnating at best, if not actually disappearing, China has grown its middle class to 300 million people (the whole US population) and it aims at increasing the number to 850 million by 2030. China is still (officially) a communist country with no elections, but that does not seem to bother too many people. Developing nations need money to flow into their economies to create jobs.

Many people are asking whether we will see food riots again. Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Although there is much political talk about food prices and risks of riots, nothing is really done to prevent it from happening. It does not look like there is much political will to make the necessary reform to prevent extreme tensions. Most world forums of all sorts seem to be more of an opportunity for the wealthy and powerful to hobnob than a place where actual decisions are made. The WTO Doha Round, which if well completed can bring many solutions, takes for ever to come to a conclusion. It looks like reason and leadership are not prevailing much right now. It is highly likely that the world, and mostly the rich nations, will understand the message and act only when they will feel that their position is in danger, too. Food riots will come as soon as food affordability drops under an acceptable level of suffering. Of course, Asia, Latin America and Arab countries are the most likely candidates for such unrest, but rich countries are not immune to that, either. Especially the USA is more vulnerable that many may think. In 2009, the USDA estimate of households that do not have enough money to feed themselves was of 14.6%. Although the economy seems to have stabilized, it has not recovered yet. Moreover, the housing situation in the US is far from stabilized. Many Americans have been able to keep consuming somehow because they simply stopped paying their mortgages and could stay in their homes. The number of mortgage delinquencies is so high that banks cannot handle all the cases. Actually, most cases have been postponed, but one day some decisions will have to be made. If the banks played by the book and foreclosed all houses, the owners of which cannot pay the mortgages, it would result in an incredibly high number of homeless broke people. The banks would have to report serious losses. Today a report indicated that 11% of all American homes are empty. More foreclosures will increase this number further. How will these people manage to eat by then? Banks can decide to settle according to individual situations. There will be less broke homeless coming on the streets and the banks will have fewer losses. In a previous article, I had mentioned the risk of a decreasing dollar, especially the risk of inflation as financial markets play the commodities only to hedge against the loss of value of the dollar. Inflation in an economy that is stagnating will reduce the affordability of food for the less wealthy. Unemployment is staying rather high and I have not seen any report from anyone presenting a situation in which employment would increase in significant numbers any time soon. In 2008, Gerald Celente, a trend forecaster who predicted the 1987 stock market crash and the fall of the former Soviet Union, told that by 2012, America would have food riots, a tax rebellion, and even a revolution. At first, I was sceptical, but I am starting to wonder if he might be right. After all, during the food price hike of 2008, Americans were hoarding goods from the supermarkets.

The food riots to come will finally force government to intervene and do what they are supposed to do, which is to ensure the stability and the viability of the society by setting the proper rules for the game. Especially, proper regulation on commodities markets and corporate near-monopolies will become crucial for social stability. The only unknown is the cost of our procrastination.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Feeding nine billion is an exercise in leadership

In a previous article, “Hunger is about more than just food production”, I showed how much more potential we have to feed the world than we commonly think. However, having the potential to do so does not mean that we will do it. Human nature has the habit of fluctuating between its best and its worst. Therefore, whether we will actually feed nine billion is far from done. In this article, I am going to reflect to what it would take to be successful at making it happen.

In my book, Future Harvests, I present the six principles that are critical to meet future food demand successfully: Sustainability, Innovation, Market Orientation, Pragmatism, Leadership and Efficiency. I had regrouped these principles under the acronym SIMPLE. While I was writing the book, I always came back to the same observation: success or failure to feed nine billion simply depends on us all. Someone needs to set the course and create the conditions to take the proper actions. The world needs leaders that will make food production potential the reality by 2050.

The job description is, interestingly enough, rather reminiscent of food production and genetics. In order to express the full potential of its genes, an organism needs the proper environment. This is exactly the role of the future leaders. They must create the conditions that will allow farmers to produce efficiently, yet sustainably.

The starting point will be about making the right decisions for both the long term as for the short term. We must preserve the potential to produce for future generations, but we must not forget to provide for today as well. Proper leadership will need to take into account the interest of many different groups and manage a balanced approach between money, people and environment. For sure, future leadership will be a balancing act. This will be easier to achieve if the leaders can sell the world their plan, which means that they must have one.

Leaders come from all layers of society. They are in government, in industry, in non-profit organizations, they are independent farmers, or they come from non-food related occupations. Adequate food supply is the very fundament of societies. Where there is hunger, there is no prosperity. Without food, there is not life, and just as importantly, without water there is no food. Developing food security is not an option; it is probably the most important policy sector of any society. This is something that we must not take lightly, even in rich countries where we seem to take food for granted. Things may change.

What story do our leaders need to tell and execute? The points that I raised in the article mentioned at the very beginning are a good place to start. The scandal of food waste, because it really is a scandal, must be dealt with and fixed. In developing countries, this is caused by a lack of infrastructure. It is only a matter of money. If world leaders have the will to get that money at work, it will happen. For some reason, they do not do it. Maybe it is a sign that things are not that critical after all. Compared with the amounts of money thrown at financial bailouts and stimuli of all sorts, the cost of infrastructure development looks ridiculously insignificant. Such projects would actually create jobs and increase the wealth of the populations where it takes place. This would not be artificial GDP boosting, but actual poverty reduction and increased food availability. In rich countries, food waste happens at the consumer end. What leaders of these countries need to communicate is a sense of responsibility. Wasting food is simply immoral, just like any other waste. If we take the example of nitrogen, the waste by leaching is estimated at about half the nitrogen spread on crops. This is huge and very damaging for two reasons. One is that the nitrogen ends up in the drinking water making it harmful, especially for pregnant women and infants. The other is that the production of nitrogen fertilizers uses half the world’s agriculture natural gas consumption. Efficiency is not a luxury, but it is a necessity. When efficiency increases, the amount of waste decreases. This works towards a higher sustainability, too. Food waste is one thing, but food consumption excesses or unbalanced eating habits are another area of work for our leaders. Eating more food than one needs is not only detrimental for that person’s health, it is also food that is less available to others. This pushes food prices up, too.

The effectiveness of leaders depends on their ability to communicate and get the message over to their dependants. Changing habits and infusing a sense of solidarity and responsibility requires patience, communication and proper education programs. Defining vague objectives or using hollow populist slogans and expressions will have no effect. Only charismatic leaders with strong convictions about what ensures the future of their people, even if it means sacrifices, will be able to bring such a change. It is not easy to do when your country is not on the verge of a terrible crisis. An interesting example about unilateral leadership is the decision of the Chinese government to slow down the number of new car registrations. They consider that there are enough cars. Getting a licence plate will be difficult in the future. In 2008, they decided to ban the use of disposable plastic bags in supermarkets, thus saving an estimated 100 billion bags and the equivalent of 37 million barrels of oil per year. Similarly, China is now the world leader in renewable energies. What actions did the Western democracies take about new car sales and supermarket plastic bags? When children died because of tainted milk, the Chinese authorities arrested all the people involved, and even executed two persons. Of course, the use of melamine in the milk was intentional, making the case extreme. However, in the West, I do not recall anyone being arrested or considered personally liable after deaths by food poisoning. My point is not to demand imprisonment of CEOs as a standard operating procedure, but I am sure that if executives of food companies felt that they could be personally liable for food poisoning, the precautionary principle would apply much more systematically. Leaders need to make understand that doing something wrong comes with consequences. Although there is much to say about China’s political system, one must admit that not having to think in terms of elections every four years and not having political campaign funded by any industry of NGO of any sort can help politicians focus on the long-term, too. Maybe the fact that China is plagued with so much pollution in the air, in the water and in the soils also makes the issue more acute for the leaders to resolve.

If the stick is one option to make people do what is right, the carrot is, at the very least, as important. Nothing stimulates people more than being rewarded for doing a good job. People are at their best when they know that others appreciate what they do, and that what they do makes the world a better place. Then, they do not see their occupations as “have to” activities, but as “want to” ones. Subsidies, bonuses, tax credits are all motivating tools to make people do the better thing, but the key is to have incentives that meet the goals without having harmful side effects.

Leaders also need to be innovators. Considering how fast our world changes, and the quantity of new knowledge made available about on a daily basis, many new possibilities will be available to solve old problems. Innovation is the child of human genius and, to cope with future challenges, creativity and adaptability will be major assets. It is the leaders’ role to foster innovation, yet by keeping in mind all long-term implications.

The ideal leader would have the qualities described by Plato in “The Republic”. Although it is an ideal, having committed leaders matching his description would increase our odds of success.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Food, Inc. or just the description of America?

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.

The rise of the non-profits and how they shape food production

In the years before the current economic crisis, the non-profit sector was already creating more jobs than the for-profit sector. Last year, the total of all operating budgets of non-profit organizations passed the US$1 trillion mark. This makes non-profits the eighth economy in the world. This amazing number seems to have been rather unnoticed, yet it has quite some significance for the way economy might evolve in the future. They are a force to be reckoned with.

They are perceived as independent, although this is not necessarily the case, and this tends to give them a higher moral status, especially compared with the for-profit sector. As I had written in a previous article, nobody has the monopoly of morals, but non-profits have a PR advantage in this area. A part of their strength comes from the loss of trust in government, science, industry and politics by the general public. In the food and agriculture sector, the influence of non-profit organizations is growing, and it challenges the way food is produced.

Just like in the for-profit sector, the size of non-profits as well as the quality of their message varies. Similarly to many corporations, the integrity of some non-profits is questioned. However, in order to motivate individuals and organizations to donate money, they need to have and to keep enough credibility. Competition exists in the non-profit sector, too. Only the ones that do the best job can survive. Nonetheless, non-profits have been instrumental for many changes in food production. It is also clear that change and improvement comes only from being challenged. In this article, I just want to name a few examples of the power of non-profits and their ability to cause visible change.

First, here is an example as recent as last week. The HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) came out with video footage of what they called inhumane treatment of pigs at a Smithfield Foods pig farm. For those who may be unaware of who these two organizations are, the HSUS is a non-profit organization strongly opposed to intensive animal husbandry. They want to end factory farms. Smithfield is the world’s largest pig processor. The HSUS and the US meat industry are no friends. They have opposite views on animal husbandry and meat production. They accuse each other of the usual shortcomings and lies, as is the case between industry and its opponents. What I found quite interesting in this case, though, was the communication of Smithfield about the “crisis” on Twitter. Here, I can only speak about my perception, which was that Smithfield was quite nervous about this matter. Obviously, the HSUS scares them, and not just a little bit. The pork company came with numerous tweets about the problem, and in my opinion too many messages. As long as the investigation is not completed, any communication is unnecessary, and potentially confusing. I got confused to the point that I even wondered how they actually implement the procedures about animal welfare that I believe they have. They even communicated that they would have emergency audits from authorities in the field of animal behaviour and animal handling, such as Temple Grandin and Jennifer Woods, from Alberta, Canada. The farm is in Virginia. That sounds rather drastic if all procedures are in place and followed. The end of the story, at this day, is the report of the Virginia State vet, who did not notice any violation during his visit. There is no way of knowing whether something bad actually happened. The vet’s reports also mentions that the farm will have to be monitored, which makes sense in the context. Smithfield also communicated to have fired three employees for violation of animal welfare procedures, which tends to confirm that the HSUS had put their fingers on something true. Of course, the background of the story is that the HSUS finds that Smithfield does not make the move to banning gestation crates for sows fast enough, as the company had announced a few years ago. They compare Smithfield with other US hog producers who have already implemented change of husbandry systems. Regardless of this specific case, the reaction of the world’s largest pig producer tells me that the HSUS is going to win its battle to reform substantially the US meat industry. It will not happen overnight, but it is just a matter of years.

Another example, still in the pig sector, comes from The Netherlands. The largest supermarket chain, Albert Heijn, part of Ahold, the fourth largest retailer in the world, will sell only pork produced in animal friendly conditions, according to a protocol set up together with Vion, The Netherlands’s largest pork producer and Dierenbescherming, a non-profit organization dedicated to humane animal treatment. I remember when I used to work in the pig industry in the late 1980s in The Netherlands; Dierenbescherming was considered a rather extremist organization that supposedly did not get the realities of meat production. How things can change in 20 years!

Greenpeace is one of the most active organizations that try to change how food is produced. The agriculture lobby is not too enthusiastic about their actions, but Greenpeace gets things changed. They addressed the issue of beef production in Brazil and its relation to deforestation. They achieve more than the Brazilian government by reaching agreements with beef producers in a region where the “law of the gun” tends to prevail, but also mostly with the beef producers’ customers. The main fast food companies (McDonald’s, Burger King, etc…) and retailers like Wal-Mart have pledged not to buy beef that would be produced at the expense of deforestation. Be assured that something like this has quite some leverage. A similar situation has happened about the production of palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia. Greenpeace’s action to save the orang-utans’ natural habitat has resulted in large users such as Nestle and Unilever to purchase only sustainable palm oil products. This has more impact than government action. I had mentioned a few weeks ago, the ranking for seafood sustainability by Greenpeace of retailers. Costco, which came last, first tried to contest the results. However, within a couple of weeks they reduced their seafood assortment from 15 to only seven, sustainable, species.

Another non-profit with influence on food production is World Wildlife Fund (WWF). They created in 1997, together with Unilever, the Marine Stewardship Council, which role is to set sustainability standards and conduct certification of fisheries. In 2009, the WWF created, together with the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which has a similar mandate as the MSC, but for aquaculture.

Another typical example came with the wish list of a prominent seafood industry representative for 2011. On that list, he chastises environmental organizations for their negative and critical picturing of the seafood industry. Especially Greenpeace and the WWF are on his “bad guys” list. That is not surprising, but the irony is when he expresses his wish for further development of clean energies to stop the risks of pollution by oil spills and other contaminants. When it comes to other industries than his, he sounds very much to me like a Greenpeace and WWF supporter.

These are just a few examples, but they show without any doubt that the message of non-profit organizations has an audience, and with environmental issues becoming common media material, their influence will only increase. It is also clear that, more and more, retailers, foodservice and, to a lesser extent, consumer goods manufacturers are joining them. The businesses with direct contact with the consumers (aka the public) are leading this change, as I had mentioned in “The quiet revolution of food retailers”.

The next step that I foresee to enforce more transparency is the development of WikiLeaks-like activities that will make public confidential internal memos and other information not destined to publication. This will bring deep changes in the way food is produced. Of course, where there is change, there is resistance, too. The food industry’s reaction is normal in this process. The winners of tomorrow will be the companies that understand where the business environment is heading, and that will see the opportunities to implement change faster and better than their competitors.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.