An example of profitable sustainable aquaculture

Here is an article (Sustainable Aquaculture: Net Profits) about a fish farm in Andalusia, Spain, which has a different angle than industrial intensive fish farms.

It refers to a number of arguments, such as feces contamination and lower densities, that I had mentioned in a previous article (The lessons of intensive animal husbandry to aquaculture). It also illustrates what I presented in Value chains are a great way to develop a niche, as they market their fish as the pata negra of sea bass at a premium price.

Of course, this farm is an example showing a very specific situation in a very specific environment, and providing seafood to the world population might require more intensive systems. Moreover, not everyone can afford to buy the pata negra category of food.

Canada’s meat, grain sectors eye EU trade

This is an interesting article, that shows that when you want to be market-driven, opportunities will come your way.

Here is the story of Canadian beef that might be sold in the EU, if the producers are willing to change their production system (by going hormone-free). While this means higher production cost, the sales price that they get makes them actually make a higher profit margin.

Story at http://www.nationalpost.com/related/topics/story.html?id=1658785

The consumer must be the focus point of value chains

The shopping cart: your ultimate target!Regardless which link in the value chain you represent, it is essential to always consider the “big picture”. In this picture, a key element is the end of the chain: the consumer.

As the final user, the consumer will always drive the activities and the profitability of the whole value chain. Although the interaction is left over to the retail sector, the consumer’s quality requirements will trickle down along all the links of the chain. If I take the example of meat for instance, what the consumer wants will have implications all the way back to genetics, and breeding companies know how critical it is for their survival to be able to anticipate these needs, as choices have to be made several years in advance. If you are a breeder, your end product is the consumer product, not just the animal that you produce. If you are a feed company, you do not simply produce feed for the farmer, you are an important element in the acceptance (or rejection) of your direct customer’s product. Your feed becomes eventually the consumer’s choice.

Understanding the consumer is what makes successful value chains, and there is very little acceptable concession from that statement. Many companies fail because they do not listen or understand the consumer market. Pretending to do so, with help from new product development, sleek communication or fancy marketing concepts may help for a while, but it will not stand the test of the consumer. This is why commodities always sell at market price: they do not represent anything to the consumer; therefore, the only differentiation with your competitor’s commodity is the price.

Your product will flow towards the consumer market, and your information must originate from there as well. When building a value chain, always spend time understanding the final link, because it is the strongest and most powerful link!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Animal feed: Innovation is the way to add value

Animal feed is one of the main costs in animal production. Therefore, any performance improvement that will come from the feed or from nutrition gives a competitive advantage.
Animal feedAs such, a feed mill is a rather simple process that feed producers know and master. To put it in simple terms, the recipe is prepared in a big kitchen blender. As a very standardized industrial process, the focus, for a given quality specification is to produce at the lowest cost possible. So, has feed become a commodity or are there ways of offering added value to farmers?
You can look at this at two levels: the feed itself and its usage.
Feed manufacturing itself can be incorporated in the production chain in different ways that will all have the same purpose: cutting cost. The feed company can be independent and market its own feed, or it can just produce as toll milling for a farmer or processing group, as this is already the case.
However, the true added value lies somewhere else: innovation. This plays already today and will increasingly be the strategic area of the future for feed companies. Innovation will continue to cover many areas, from biology, nutrition, to feed technology with the purposes of further improving feed efficiency, and provide raw materials that are more efficient.
In an age where availability of raw materials will become scarce, because of the competition between animal nutrition, human nutrition and possibly demand for biofuels, everything that will help saving and recycling resources will win. To achieve this, we will see new techniques to increase the digestibility of feed, to reduce the feed conversion ratio and create less manure, as well as improvement of the texture and other physical qualities of the feeds. We will see further innovations in the feed composition in order to have the animal use most of it, and for instance the use of enzymes will increase further. Other developments, such as a promising sesame seed extract that can help replicate omega-3 fatty acids in fish feed, can help reduce the dependence on scarce (and expensive) fish oil, and offer substitution possibilities with more types of vegetal oil. However, in this case fish would compete with other farm animals and humans for those oils, making them more expensive in the end. There is also the development of algae as a feedstuffs for farm animals. If successful will such algae be produced in ponds on in the sea, or will it  remain an incubator-based production? Who knows? But expect many new ideas to come to the market, as the fight for resources will become fiercer in the future.
Companies that will possess the latest scientific and technical knowledge, combined with a strong innovative capacity and the talent to locate and purchase the very best mix of raw materials will in fact own intellectual property. Nothing of the above is new, but the future changes will have more to do with the allocation of the different activities in the feed value chain itself. This intellectual property is what they might need to sell in the future, instead of a feed that customers do not always perceive as a differentiated product. Feed and nutrition might become two distinct products and maybe even distinct businesses. Could feed mills become franchises of nutrition and feed technology centers?

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The lessons of intensive animal husbandry to aquaculture

egyptian farmingThe domestication of animals for food production started thousands of years ago, and has gone through a slow evolution since then. In the last 50 years, we have intensified productions systems to a very high degree. Aquaculture, although not unusual in ancient times, has really experienced an economic boom only rather recently, and future growth predictions are quite optimistic.

The development of intensive animal husbandry has helped provide people with high nutritional value  products, and it also offered the possibilities to farmers to have a reasonable source of income. On the other side, it has brought a number of problems, many of which have not been solved and this has resulted in pressure to reduce the level of intensification.

chicken farmWith high densities of animal in some regions, animal husbandry has had to deal with a number of health issues, such as not long ago avian flu and swine fever. The presence of large number of animals in limited areas has increased the “disease pressure” on farms and regions, making epizooties quite devastating, considering the amount of culling that health prevention measures require. This always takes a heavy economic toll, and not only on farmers. This has forced many countries to review their policies about intensive animal husbandry and downsized the sector.

To prevent diseases and mortality, intensive animal husbandry has made a widespread use of antibiotics, which also appeared to promote animal growth. Unfortunately, over time it has appeared that these antibiotics found their way into our bodies and ultimately into our drinking water reserves. The main threat that has arisen from the massive use of antibiotics is the emergence of bacteria resistance to these antibiotics, with the potential risk of making them ineffective, should bacteria become resistant to all of them. The result of this would be to bring us back to the pre-penicillin era with all the consequences that we know. Many countries have now addressed the problems surrounding the use of antibiotics and restricted their use to curative purposes.

Another strong impact on the environment has been the manure surpluses in intensive regions. Next to the odor problem, the excessive manure production has resulted in heavy pollution of the soil and of water reserves. Phosphates and heavy metals coming from the animal feed endangered the fertility of the soil. More mobile minerals, such as nitrates, have entered our drinking water, making it in many areas unsuitable for pregnant women and infants. Sadly, the intensive regions get in trouble because of a surplus of minerals that originate from raw materials produced in other parts of the world, while on the farms producing the feedstuffs, the minerals are not brought back. They have to be replaced by chemical fertilizers instead of the manure that would originate from the animals, such as in a closed system mixed farm.

Husbandry systems have evolved, too. After years of high degree of confinement, regulations have changed and are still changing to take animal welfare more into account. As examples, I could give the stop on tethering of sows and hen cage ban. I have no doubt that animal welfare will become a growing issue in aquaculture, too.

The use of feed and its constant quest to reduce production costs has brought the industry to use some raw materials that can be questionable. An example of this was meat and bone meal use, after the mad cow disease hit Britain in the mid 1990’s. Next to the possible transmission risks to humans, it has also raised some questions about whether herbivores should consume meat derivates.

Intensive animal husbandry has made meat, dairy and poultry very affordable to most consumers, at least in the Western countries. This has led to a shift in the diet from mainly starch to a much higher proportion of protein and fat. Unfortunately, this shift has had some negative effect on health. Animal products are high value sources of protein and fat, but excessive consumption has negative effects. While an annual consumption of 30 kg of meat per capita would do just fine, most Western countries have passed the level of 100kg. Of course, there are many discussions between the different parties involved about where the truth lies, but there are good indication that a good diet should include more fiber, more produce and less animal protein and fat.

Fish farmTherefore, above, I have tried to sum up the most noticeable results of intensification of land animal production. Clearly, there are lessons to be learned for the “new” aquaculture industry, and by this, I mean the intensive, high investment aquaculture. Most companies involved in this business have been inspired mainly by the evolution-and the success- in the chicken industry. They try to copy and adapt a similar model. Therefore, it is rather predicable that they will have to deal eventually with similar consequences.

Fish farms have very high densities of animals. Even if the area at the sea level is rather limited, each farm goes quite deep, and the biomass they contain would make many chicken farms look like “small” operations. If you add to this that they are very exposed to the natural environment, as the pens are open nets, there is no wonder that they are very exposed to disease and disease spreading. The current situation in the Chilean salmon farming sector facing ISA just shows how sensitive these farms can be to diseases. My expectations is that aquaculture will be confronted to situations as bad as swine fever and avian flu, and they will have to revise their level of intensification, their location (including possible rotation of site with fallowing as a standard procedure). Further, navigation rules will be strengthened to reduce the possibility of cross-contamination from a marine zone to another.

Very likely, the sector will also further sharpen its veterinary procedures and increase their control on prevention and on medication.  About this part, it may seem that feces simply get flushed into the ocean, but that is not that certain. Feces always contain residues of medicines. The volume of feces produced is quite significant on such intensive fish farms and you can be sure that at some point, simply letting them go into the sea will not be allowed anymore. I foresee that fish pens will have feces collection systems in the future and the “manure” will have to find some use.

The feed industry is now diversifying it sources of raw materials to cope with the rising price of fish oil and fish meal, which is the result of higher demand from the fast growing aquaculture. They carry out lots of research to find the right profiles of oil to meet the fish flesh quality requirements (especially omega3) by using vegetal oil, but one can wonder whether this will be a sustainable approach in the long run. Maybe there will be a completely new industry to produce “farmed” fish oil and fish meal to meet the feed industry needs.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Value chains are a great way to develop a niche

In the food production world, just like in other business sectors, there are been two major successful strategies.
One is to produce a non-differentiated commodity at the lowest cost possible. The number of units compensates what is lost in margin per unit.
The other is to produce a limited and controlled volume, and to market it to people who will pay a premium for it as they see an added value in the product.
So far, nothing too revolutionary here.
Generally, other strategies seem to have failed, either because the niche started to expand too much and was losing its specificity. The product becomes something of a better commodity, but not a specialty anymore. More players start to enter the niche and very quickly, the margin per unit drops and so does profitability. The deathblow generally comes when people start to try to counter this decreasing margin by cutting costs in the wrong places, quality being the most obvious.
The mass commodity producers, who try to create an artificial differentiation, by creating an illusion of specialty, cause another type of failure. This marketing tactics usually fails because the difference is mostly an illusion and the customers realize that quickly.

Value chains are very useful for smaller producers who want to market a good superior product.
Often, they are local producers with limited resources. They know how to produce well, but they miss the marketing arm or the industrial arm of the value chain that they are in.
On the other hand, also at the local level, there are other businesses that have the other links of the chain, but that have no production of their own.
When these players join forces and truly collaborate to offer to the right type of customers the type of product that is right for them, the value chain can become very successful. In a previous article, there is a presentation of the Angus Beef story, which also started in such a way.
In order to be successful, a value chain needs a number of basic elements.
The product must indeed differentiate itself by recognizable and superior physical characteristics. Over time the mystique will be created, but do not expect to sell hot air for very long.
The partners need to indeed be partners and play together. This is a critical part of such a joint venture. The worst thing that can happen is a lack of commitment, or worse one of the partners trying to force his own agenda before the common interest. The most successful partnerships come from a balance of power between the parties involved, and also by the necessity of interdependence, as they all should miss – and not be able to easily replace – the other parts of the puzzle.
Another key element is the will to pursue, as very often, and mostly in the early stages, the progress will meet many setbacks. This discipline needs to be applied and someone must fill this role, to constantly enforce the quality specifications and all agreements that are need and made to make the value chain succeed.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.