Food security in Paradise

June 20, 2011

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.

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Food, Inc. or just the description of America?

January 22, 2011

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

December 20, 2010

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.


The locavore’s dilemma

December 1, 2010

There is a growing trend, or at least a growing noise in favour of eating locally produced food. The “locavores” as they are called, claim that 100-mile food is the way to a more sustainable agriculture and consumption. Is this approach realistic and could it be the model for the future?

This movement is rather popular here in Vancouver, British Columbia. The laid-back residents who support the local food paradigm certainly love their cup of coffee and their beer. Wait a minute! There is no coffee plantation anywhere around here. There is not much barley produced around Vancouver, either. Life should be possible without these two beverages, should not it? The disappearance of coffee –and tea- from our households will make the lack of sugar beets less painful. This is good because sugar beets are not produced in the region. At least, there is no shortage of water.

But this is not all. There is no cocoa plantation around here, and believe me, there are many people who are addicted to chocolate. British Columbia does not produce citrus or other warm climate fruit. If we are to become locavores, we must say goodbye to orange juice, to lemons, to bananas. Even the so popular sushi must disappear because of the lack of rice. There are no rice fields in this area, and neither are there wheat fields. The Asian population certainly would have a hard time eliminating rice from their diet. The lack of wheat means no flour; and no flour means no bread, no pastries, and no cookies. The carbohydrate supply is going to be tough. If we must consume local, our lifestyle is going to change dramatically. Potatoes and cabbage is the way of the future. But before going all local food, the local locavores must realize that British Columbia produces only 48% of all the food its inhabitants consume. One out of two locavores would have to starve. Going exclusively local would also affect deeply the source of animal protein. Most of the animal feed is made of ingredients that come for much farther than 100 miles. The chickens and eggs would become less available. Farmed salmon, BC’s largest agricultural export could not use the type of feed they currently use, as fishmeal and fish oil come from Peru and vegetal oil comes from farms located far away. There would go many jobs with very little alternatives. If we look beyond food, other agricultural products such as cotton and wool would not be an option anymore. Cars would disappear, because the main component of tires, rubber, is not produced under this climate. The 100-mile rule will solve traffic problems. If local consumption is the rule for food, should not it be the rule for everything as well? China would probably have different views about this. Not only would their manufacturing collapse, but also if they have to produce food within 100 miles of the consumer, they would have to give up importing agricultural commodities. For them, a true locavore system would mean famine. The same would be true here in British Columbia. When people are hungry, they are not so picky about the distance from the producing farm.

The problem with concepts such as local consumption is that the basic idea has some value, but the idea quickly evolves into an ideology, and ideologies tend to make their followers stop thinking pragmatically. Today, the idea of eating locally in a place like Vancouver is possible because supply easily meets demand, thanks to the 3,000-mile foods. This is ironical. If the distance to market has to be within 100 miles, farmers in low population density areas, such as many regions of North America, South America and Central Europe, would have a different type of problem. They would produce an abundance of food, but because there are not enough people to consume it locally, the law of supply and demand tells us that the price of agricultural commodities would plummet, food would stay in storage and farmers would go out of business, while people in China, and in British Columbia, would suffer hunger. Clearly, the 100-mile diet needs some amendments.

Intuitively, it sounds logical that locally produced food has a lower carbon footprint than food that comes from 2,000 to 10,000 miles away. However, this is only partly true. The mean of transportation affects the carbon footprint. The environmental impact of transport is much higher for road transport than it is for rail transport, which is also higher than water transport. The type of transport also depends on the type of commodity brought to market. Perishables need to reach consumers as quickly as possible for shelf life reasons, while dry goods, such as for instance grains and oilseeds do not face the same kind of deadline. The quality of the logistics is also crucial to reduce the carbon footprint. A fully loaded truck is much more efficient than a local truck dropping small quantities in many places, thus driving around most of the time with empty space in the trailer.

The emphasis should not be so much on local as it should be about the search for efficient and low environmental impact. More than the distance from the farm to the consumer, it would be more useful to provide consumers with information about the actual carbon footprint of the products they buy. They would have the possibility to make the right choices. Retailers, too, would be able to make decisions about their sourcing strategies. Clean products and clean producers need to be rewarded for doing a good job. Here in Vancouver, local food products are more expensive than similar offerings from California, Mexico, Ecuador or Chile. How do you convince families with a tight budget to spend more for local products that look pretty much the same? This problem needs to be addressed. Currently, farmers markets are much about marketing. They sell the experience as much as their production methods. Only a wealthy minority can afford to buy on these markets. The prices are not based on production costs plus farmers income. They are as high as possible, because the farmers can ask these prices. The wealthy city dwellers are willing to pay a substantial premium above what they can buy from the local supermarket. In this relation farmer-consumer, the price bargaining does not take place. If these farmers were to try to sell to a grocery retail chain, they would never get the prices they get from the consumers who will not haggle about the price. This is why more farmers try to sell directly to consumers: they make more money that way. However, this might change in the future. A number of retailers are working towards offering “farmers market” products into their store. This already makes market farmers nervous.

Is local production for local markets the way of the future? My answer is that it partly will be and it partly will not. I do expect a shift of the location of production for perishables. Consumer habits will change, too. In the West, consumers have been spoiled. They can eat anything from anywhere at any time of the year. This luxury probably will not be affordable for long anymore. The superfluous will naturally be eliminated.

As the economics of energy, and therefore of food, will change, producers will increasingly locate their operations closer to cities; and even inside cities. Urban farming is a growing activity. Although it started mostly in poor neighbourhoods as a way of having a small patch of land for personal consumption, more sophisticated and efficient systems are being developed. My expectation is that production, and consumption, of vegetables and fragile fruit (for instance strawberries) will gradually become more integrated in the urban landscape than they are now. I also think that we will see animal productions, such as fresh dairy, poultry meat and eggs relocate closer to consumer markets. An interesting development is aquaponics, the combination of greenhouse produce with fish production in tanks. The production of non-perishables will not relocate. It does not have to. What will probably change is the transportation infrastructure in many areas where these commodities are produced.  This is good news for coffee drinkers and chocolate addicts. After all, transport of commodities over long distance is not just the result of cheap oil. The Silk Road and the spice trade by the Dutch took place before mankind even knew about oil. Trade has always been a force of progress for humanity. It helps an increasing number of people to have access to goods that make their lives better. The rules of trade may not always be fair, but like all human activities, it is a work in progress. Limiting our food supply to 100 miles would be a regression. Subsistence agriculture has not demonstrated that it could feed the world. Most of the people suffering of hunger live in subsistence agriculture areas.

(This topic is one of the many that are presented and discussed in my second book, We Will reap What We Sow)

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The danger of a weakening US dollar

November 1, 2010

The global economic situation is still fragile, and one of the symptoms is the nervousness about currencies. All it takes is a rumor to see a particular currency drop within minutes. The actions taken by central banks during the financial crisis have consequences. The amount of debt and the ability, or inability, of individual countries to manage the situation will influence the relative strengths of all currencies.

One currency has a special status. Because of the economic and political influence of the USA since World War II, the US dollar is the currency for most commodities. This special status also influences the actions of financial markets. Since the stock market plunge of October 2008, investors have become cautious. The value of stocks and commodities does not follow fundamentals anymore. A lot of cash has left the markets and, more than before, the active players in the market place their bets for short-term returns. Most transactions are computer-generated. Software programmers have developed algorithms that allow computers to make transactions based on technical analysis within a millisecond. This maybe a technological beauty, but such programs do not analyze data. They act mechanically, in a very sophisticated manner of course, but mechanically nonetheless. When it would have taken half an hour for traders to panic, the computer can now deliver the same result in less time than it takes to blink. When you add to this that investors, and especially speculators, borrow large sums of money to play with derivatives instead of doing so with the actual assets, the consequences for the real economy may be rather high.

Considering the amount of debt that the Federal Reserve Bank has issued, also known as the amount of money they printed, the burden for both taxpayers and the American economy is heavy, and will remain that way for a long time. The bank crisis is not over. Unpaid mortgages and foreclosures will keep on weighing on the health of the financial sector for quite some time.

The low interest rate may help the American economy to some extent, but the key for a true economic recovery will be job creation. So far, the unemployment situation does not seem to present much improvement anytime soon. To consume, Americans need to make money. With the tightening of credit conditions, they now have started to save money again, instead of spending it at the mall. Before the crisis, on average, Americans were spending 105% of their income, thanks to credit cards and loans based on their theoretical home equity, which supposedly would only go up. Retail accounted for 70% of the GDP. Clearly, this model will not come back. All of the above explains why the US dollar will weaken over the long-term. To alleviate this trend, the USA should increase interest rates, but in the current situation this probably would stop the recovery. The USA are somehow stuck.

Lately, it looks like most of the trends in stocks and commodities prices are linked to the relative strength or weakness of the US dollar. Commodities have become currencies. When the US dollar drops, the price of stocks and commodities goes up, and vice-versa when the currency drops. The logic behind this is simple. Investors are interested in protecting the value of their capital. Instead of owning actual dollars, they prefer to own assets. This is why the demand for materials, oil and agricultural commodities is firm. By switching from cash to finite resources, investors want to ensure that they will, at the very least, be protected from the erosion of the currency. Most of the demand is not for the real commodities, though, but for futures contracts. By borrowing money, they can buy even more of such investment vehicles than they normally would, or should. The higher demand for commodities results in an increasing price, in US dollars that is. Since they buy as the US dollar weakens, they will get more dollars back when they sell, although with the potential depreciation, this might not be an actual profit, but at least it is not a loss.

What may be the consequences for food prices? We have had a flavor of what a run on commodities can do in 2008. This time, the level of leverage will be lower than by then, because investors will not be able to access loans as much and as easily as they could prior to the financial crisis. Nonetheless, increased demand for oil futures contracts together with an increased demand for agricultural commodities futures contracts will result in food inflation. Ironically, the most vulnerable country for this are the USA themselves, because the price inflation will be in US dollars, and that is the only currency that they have. Food inflation will put more stress on the income of Americans, and depending on the level of inflation, this can bring the country back into a recession. Considering the importance of the US economy, the whole world would suffer the consequences.

Food inflation will hit globally, because the demand on paper will be higher than the physical demand, and because, the focus will be in the price expressed in US dollars only. The exchange rate between other currencies with the US dollar will not be taken into account immediately. This will happen when consumers start to offer enough resistance. The resistance can be less consumption of consumer goods in rich countries, but it can be riots and violence in poor countries. Although food inflation has not hit consumers too much, yet, the high price of animal feed ingredients is already a concern for companies involved in animal productions. Processors will face a dilemma between a decrease of margins and the need to fill their plants at full capacity to keep costs down. Their margins and the farmers’ margins will be under pressure, because the retailers will resist price increases as long as they can. Another area of margin pressure for farmers will come from the price of inputs, fertilizers in particular. If the rumor, based on paper contracts, turns into the idea that demand for agricultural production is really increasing sharply, suppliers will hike their prices as soon as they can. If farmers get higher prices for their products, they also will pay much more for their inputs.

Reactions to food inflation will be the strongest in Asia. The situation is already sensitive, and the share of food in the household budgets is still relatively high, especially compared with Western countries. For many people, food is already difficult to afford. The situation is such that the Indian government is considering offering subsidized grains to 75% of the population. This represents about 800 million people. This is roughly the combined population of the EU, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand together!

What happens with currencies, stocks and commodities exchange markets will have direct as well as indirect consequences. We all need to follow the developments, because we all will feel the consequences in our wallets, eventually.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The quiet revolution of food retailers

October 28, 2010

While many debates continue in the political and “parapolitical” world about many aspects of food production systems and the impact of human activity on the environment, retailers lead a quiet revolution. Without making the headlines, they gradually change the way their suppliers will do business in the years to come.

Such an evolution is certainly welcome, especially in a time where important decisions need to be made. Political leaders seem unable to reach any agreement on environmental issues, as the world could see at the late Climate Summit of Copenhagen. In the food sector, there are many discussions going on about sustainability and genetic engineering, to name the two hottest items, but the political class does not seem to generate clear and concrete action plans.

Just like what happened in the 1990s about food safety in Europe, retailers are taking the initiative to create momentum on the current issues. The problems that plagued the food industry in Europe, such as salmonella in poultry, the mad cow disease, or the dioxin in Belgian fat for chicken feed showed a number of weaknesses that needed to be addressed. In the case of BSE, UK retailers did not wait for British or European legislation to demand meat and bone meal-free feed for farm animals. As I was working for a company supplying the UK market with chicken meat, I can testify that these were dramatic times. Tough decisions had to be made on a very short notice that had serious financial consequences. By then, a couple of reasons made the retailers took the lead. First, the inability of the government to prevent and tackle the issues was creating a bit of a vacuum on leadership. Consumer confidence in their institutions was fading, and retailers were the only ones, true or not, perceived to take the proper actions to protect the public. The second reason was the fact that many retailers had their own private labels. In this case, the problem was not the supplier’s problem anymore because the supermarket chain could have risked serious PR damage if a food safety issues would have been associated with their brand.

This time, retailers are again in the position where they can present themselves as the consumers’ champions. Legislation is slow to move and make significant decisions. The involvement of interest groups adds to the infighting and delays decision-making.

To prepare for the future, they already have come out with plans and communication on how and where they want the food they sell to be produced, and they try to offer a choice to consumers. By doing so, the most active among them are setting new standards, and forcing the whole production and supply chain to think about the things to come.

In previous blog posts, I have mentioned some of such initiatives, and in Future Harvests, I described the increasing leadership role of food retail in agricultural practices.

In particular, I mentioned the carbon footprint labelling on dairy products by Tesco, Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index questionnaire to suppliers, and the seafood sustainability programs of many retailers. Marks & Spencer started their Plan A in 2007 with the objective of making their business more sustainable. To achieve this, they are involving their suppliers and the farmers producing for them to carry out the changes that M&S finds necessary for a better future.

More recently, new initiatives indicate that retailers are pursuing further on such initiatives. Wal-Mart came last week with their plan for sustainable agriculture. In the UK, Sainsbury let know last week that they were committing GBP40 million to invest in farming. Earlier this week, Carrefour unveiled their “Reared without GMO” program. In their stores in France, they will sell 300 food items labelled as being GMO-free, to offer consumer a choice based on transparent information. If Carrefour ventures into this, one can be sure that they do so because they already know that this will be good for their business. By gaining market share, it is very likely that their competitors will soon react by issuing similar programs. The EU Commission may be struggling to figure out how to deal with GMOs, but Carrefour says “Let the consumers tell us!” Vox populi, vox dei!

Of course, such initiatives do not please everyone. Today, I could read in a blog for a US magazine backed by the meat industry some interesting reactions about Carrefour’s new plan. Some readers were bringing up the typical arguments. Meat would be so expensive in Europe. Well, meat is quite affordable in France, even without GMOs, so think again! The other argument was about freedom of choice: people should be able to eat what they want. By labelling its food item, Carrefour does just that. French consumers are free to buy at Carrefour or somewhere else, and they have the right to choose what label they prefer. The freedom of choice is ironic coming from the US meat lobby, since American consumers do not have that freedom. Reared with GMOs is pretty much the only choice in the US. For now, that is. However, it is interesting to see on Carrefour’s press release that the pictures of fish, chicken and pork chops are exactly the same, regardless of whether they would be grown with or without GMOs.

In the 1990s, British and European consumers, and retailers, were challenging food industry practices because they were worried about their health and about the lack of transparency about food. Nowadays, in the USA, consumers are increasingly suspicious of their agribusiness, because they are worried about their health and the lack of transparency of the industry. Beef recalls because of E. coli, egg recalls because  of salmonella, spinach contaminated with manure are in the news on a (too) regular basis. They are also increasingly aware, and suspicious, of the relations between interest groups and their government agencies, and how this influences decisions on what they eat.

Retailers are now saying that they are not waiting for politicians to make decisions. They have defined their vision, they know what they want, and they are passing the message on to the suppliers. What would happen in agribusiness USA if Wal-Mart took a similar approach as Carrefour?

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Consumers shape food production systems

October 21, 2010

Although it is tempting to think that food production systems are created by agribusiness, they depend greatly on the choices and the attitude of consumers and society. For humans, food is not just about nutrition, but it is loaded with a high emotional content.

Consumer choices are highly irrational. To demonstrate this, here are some examples.

When the mad cow disease, or BSE, hit the UK in 1996, beef consumption dropped, but the behavior of consumers was odd. A leading retailer put British beef on sale at 50% off the normal price. They had their best weekend sales ever by then. When asked why they had bought beef, while there were concerns about health risks, some consumers gave answers such as “At that price it is worth taking the risk” or, even better, “ I will freeze it and eat it once the mad cow crisis is over”! At the same time, customers’ visits to the leading fast food chain drop sharply and beef burgers were not in demand, although their beef was from the Netherlands, a country free of BSE by then.

In Europe, mostly in France, consumers used to demand veal to be white. Not slightly pink, just plain white. To achieve this, calves were fed a milk powder diet, which kept them anemic. Yet, at some point, consumers denounced this technique as being against proper treatment of animals. The demand of white meat with a normal diet could not be reconciled. It took years before consumers finally understood that veal was supposed to be pink.

For most customers, white eggs are perceived as being from intensive cage production, while brown eggs are perceived as being more “natural”. Everyone with knowledge of the industry knows that the color of the shell has nothing to do with the nutritional quality of the egg. The belief that the egg color indicates a difference persists, though.

Some blind tests carried out between “industrial” and free-range chicken meat carried out in the Netherlands in the 1980s showed interesting results. When consumers were not told which was which, they could not clearly taste a difference, while when they knew which meat was from which production system, they overwhelmingly gave the preference to the free-range chicken.

Here, in Vancouver, there is a strong trend towards organic foods produced locally. Farmers markets flourish and the environmentally conscious consumers choose to buy their “natural” food on these markets. Ironically, many of them drive in their gas-guzzling SUVs to go there. So much for caring for the environment.

Who, with a rational mind, would choose to eat junk? Yet, junk food is quite a popular item in North America, and it has been a growing trend in many European and emerging countries as well.

In the case of tobacco, not a food, but an agricultural product nonetheless, the warning on the package is quite clear. Yet, some people decide to smoke.

The list could continue and I am sure that everyone has more examples of irrational behavior. Consumer demand (both the rational kind as the irrational one) determines what farmers and food companies produce and sell. In this regard, consumers also share a responsibility in what is produced, how it is produced, where it is produced and how it is distributed to them. Blaming retail or the agribusiness alone for the kind food systems that are in place is unfair.

Of course, it would be interesting to imagine what people would eat if they were rational, and what impact on our food production this would have. A rational diet would follow proper nutritional recommendation, and to this extent would follow the same principles as those used in animal nutrition. However, this would not have to be as boring a diet as what animals are fed. A rational diet does not need to be a ration. After, the human genius that is cooking would help prepare delicious rational meals. It would be like having the best of both worlds. The emotional, social and hedonistic functions of food would remain. The key would be about balance and moderation. If people were eating rationally, there would not be any diet-related illnesses. There would not be obesity. There also would be a lot less food waste. This would improve the level of sustainability of agriculture.

Will consumers become more rational in the future? I do not think so, but I believe that they will become better informed and more critical over time. Especially with the rise of social media, information circulates much faster and trends can gather momentum faster than in the past. More programs for healthier eating are currently running and action is taking place at many levels. In particular, schools are a place where much can be achieved. One can wonder how long the “lunch money and self-service system” will last. Having schools placing vending machines selling items that are highly unbalanced foods and leaving the decision over to kids to decide what they want to eat was of course a disaster waiting to happen. I cannot believe that anyone would expect kids to consciously making the choice of spending their lunch money on broccoli and mineral water. Kids will choose what they like best, not what is best for their health. They need adults for guidance.

Attitude towards food is changing all over the world. Currently, I can see two major trends growing. One is taking place in North America and the other is happening in emerging countries.

In North America, consumers are waking up and starting to question the way their food is produced. This is a major change compared with their attitude until a few years ago. When I moved to this part of the world in 1999, I was amazed by how easy consumers, and retailers, were for the food industry. Consumers simply seemed to consume without trying to know about production methods. Hormones, antibiotics or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) seemed to be accepted. This was a sharp contrast with what I had known in Europe, where all of the above was meeting strong resistance from consumers and retailers. What I currently see happening currently in North America reminds me strongly of what I had seen happen in Europe 20 to 30 years ago. The similarities are almost disturbing. Consumers are losing trust in government agencies, and retailers seem to be the ones to champion food quality, traceability and production methods. This will have much more profound consequences in the way food is produced in the USA and in Canada than the agribusiness seem to realize, or is willing to admit. The population is aging, the generations are changing and the values about food are shifting. The current opposition is not a short-term fad. Consumers will make different choices. Some food producers see that and are already adapting, but many producers still seem to think that opposition will pass. I believe that they are in for a surprise. The expressed plan of Wal-Mart to buy more from small and mid-size farms, to reduce waste, and to develop sustainable sources of agricultural products is a very clear signal that business is changing!

In emerging countries, consumers are changing their eating habits, too, but for a different reason. They now have better wages and more disposable income. The previous “”subsistence” diet made of mostly grain, such as rice, wheat or corn, are now including more animal protein, as well as fruit and vegetables. In these countries, consumers are not overly critical of their food production and distribution systems, but issues that arose in developed countries affect the way food is produced, especially in the area of food safety. These consumers probably would like to experience the same level of food security and affordability of food as in the West over the past 5 decades, but the growing population, and the financial markets will temper this trend. Food prices will be firm at best and they are more likely to increase in the future on an ongoing basis.

There is no doubt in my mind that consumers and retailers are increasingly going to put the emphasis on sustainability, health, food safety and transparency. This may sometimes lead to conflicting objectives with the need to produce more food globally. This does not need to be a problem, but this is why the world needs strong leaders to show the way towards meeting both the objectives of better food and of more food.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.