Organic foods not nutritionally superior. So what?

August 6, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Future approach of genetics in agriculture

July 30, 2009

Where we will decide of our future...

Genetic engineering, that we just mentioned, and traditional breeding and will be increasing intertwined in the future, as they will join their respective areas of expertise into combined genetic improvement programs. Actually, we can expect that these two disciplines will be merged into only one unified science of DNA. We can expect to see an increased number of joint ventures and mergers between genetic selection companies and biotech companies in the future.

So far, genetic engineering has been mostly known to the public opinion thanks to the development of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and this has been a very controversial area. Genetic engineering will move from a support activity to, for instance, herbicides, to address much more real problems and bring much more real solutions to the challenges of the agriculture of tomorrow. GMOs have served the sales of herbicides produced by the same companies quite well, but of course, this will plateau rather soon, and there will be a need for something else to impress the financial markets. It should not be a surprise to see these corporations specialize in biotech completely, and divest their chemicals “heritage” at some point in the future. The real problems to solve include a broad range of topics. They include technical performance and yields of plants and farm animals. Genetic engineering will help increase the efficiency in the conversion of nutrients and water. It will help plants and animals to have a stronger resistance to diseases, in order to avoid severe production losses. It will provide alternatives to antibiotics, to herbicides and pesticides. It will find ways for plants to absorb or fix the nitrogen of the air to reduce the use of mineral fertilizers. Another area of research will be influencing the quality of final agricultural products, in particular producing healthier foods, and have plants produce medicines.

To solve such problems, the people in charge of such programs will have a very heavy moral responsibility towards society, as the choices they will make will affect the longer term and our ability to survive. The success criteria will go much beyond the financial performance of these companies. This will be translated in the type of bonus packages that the executives will receive. One can wonder whether the correct structure for such companies is to be publicly traded, since stock markets tend to induce a very strong preference to the short-term financial performance. The reflection on such programs will need to go through a serious test of “what ifs”. As per now, money still is the main driver, especially in the arguments of the producing companies and countries. For instance, they reiterate that the decision of the European Union to limit the production and use of GMO will make food more expensive in these countries. Then let’s ask ourselves what if the EU is wrong in their decision? Well, production systems and agriculture would not change much; their food might indeed be more expensive than somewhere else. The people will buy smaller cars and travel less far for their vacation. This is not a very threatening situation if you ask me. What if the ones in favor of GMOs are wrong and the EU is right? The debate is indeed very emotional and political, but this is simply because we lack long term testing of the effects of GMOs to have certainty. This is why the GMO producers have such a hard time convincing their opponents.

More than one species, a whole ecosystem

A better understanding and predictability of long-term effects is paramount in agriculture and food production. Agriculture is not just about producing a particular crop, it is also about managing the total ecosystem that a field is. Actions in genetics need to guarantee the long-term balance of these ecosystems (in which weeds, although of no economic interest, are a part of), because once an ecosystem has been altered, it has been changed forever. Genetic improvement programs must ensure to preserve, in whichever form, genetic diversity and survival of vegetal and animal species, because once extinct, they are lost forever. Long-term fertility of soils is another highly critical part of the protection of our food supplies, because once sterile, the land is lost forever.

So, as you see, we are facing many challenges and genetics is a key element of our food systems. By shifting away of rather superfluous projects, even though they have been quite lucrative for the producers; and by focusing more on true improvement and sustainability of production systems thanks to technical breakthroughs, a combined breeding and genetic engineering will bring constructive solutions. All it will require from the stakeholders is vigilance.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Managing water is paramount for the future of food production

June 17, 2009

The key for our future food productionWith an increasing population that needs more food and more water to live, we can expect that water is going to become a highly strategic and needed resource. As climate changes, the current rain distribution and geographic availability of water is likely to change dramatically, too. This increasing competition between agricultural areas and urban areas will bring major changes on how we use water for both personal use and for food production. On the personal side, we certainly can expect that current bathroom systems to disappear, as they use too much water. Every time we flush a toilet tank, we actually waste the daily drinking water needs of a couple of people, and local water reserves are gradually depleted as well. Clearly, this has no future. Similarly, we can expect the legislation on water use for lawn sprinkling and car washing to change.

Food production will become more and more focused on water efficiency. The main themes will be about taking what we need, but no more, and about collecting, conserving and recycling water. This will bring us to rethink our crop production, the watering systems we use and develop systems aimed at collecting and conserving water.

Our choice of crops will get under review. Some plants have such high needs for water that their production systems will have to be altered, or maybe even we will have no other choice of limiting them to small selected areas. The use of combined crop productions on the same field is likely to gain some popularity back, as this is a way of saving water and protecting the plants and the soil from excessive evaporation. This, of course, will mean a different look on yields and on harvesting systems. IrrigationMore efficient irrigation systems will replace the old ones. Computerized systems are already in use in wine production, using sensors for humidity and temperature, to determine how much water the plants needs at the most optimal time of the day and deliver it at the exact spot. You can expect that such an optimization approach will prevail. The path that Monsanto follows with the production of genetically modified (GM) wheat that needs only a third of regular wheat varieties is quite interesting. The tricky part is the GM part, as on the contrary to natural “mutations”, such a process does not undergo natural selection, and therefore we do not know what possible side effects it might bring. Nonetheless, this is an attempt to deal with future water shortages. Hopefully, other less controversial solutions can be found that will deliver a similar result. Once again, we can shape our future through continuing innovation.

Food processing, such as slaughterhouses or washing stations for produce, uses large amounts of water. In these sectors, too, new more efficient systems will have to be designed to reduce water use, and they will have to guarantee to meet hygiene and food safety standards. Water treatment and recycling have already been in use for years and they will continue to gain market share.

Next to the above, which is mostly in the hands of individuals and companies, there is a need for political action to address water shortages and water quality issues that expand far beyond the local operations. A number of agricultural areas suffer from drought on a regular basis, such as Australia and some parts of Canada. Other areas have seen the flow of rivers drop dramatically, like for instance the Yang Tse River in China, which has more and more difficulties to reach the sea. In other areas, such in the Arabic Peninsula, the countries realize that traditional irrigation systems are meeting some serious limitations because of the competition between need for drinking water and need for irrigation. Some very interesting projects are in the works to offer alternatives. For example, there are studies to consider the use of floating islands covered with solar panels in order to produce on the spot the energy necessary to desalinize seawater, therefore providing these areas with water that does not originate from underground reserves.

These problems affect the availability, the quality of the water and strongly affect the environment. Failure to address and more importantly to solve such problems properly would have catastrophic consequences for large populations. A balanced plan to offer the availability to water for people, agriculture and industries is absolutely necessary.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

An example of profitable sustainable aquaculture

June 6, 2009

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

June 4, 2009

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

The consumer must be the focus point of value chains

May 27, 2009

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.

Innovation, as I said

May 27, 2009

the new chickenHere is a funny coincidence, as I wrote about innovation as the way forward for the animal feed industry, today I found this article about innovation in the chicken market in order to drive chicken consumption and improve profitability.

Here is the link: Canada: Developing new poultry meat products