The sockeye salmon returns with some lessons

September 3, 2010

This could have been the third example, after canola and vines, of what I called earlier “Science being taken hostage”, but this story actually goes beyond just the tactical use of selected science.

The Fraser River sockeye salmon is returning in record numbers to British Columbia (BC) in Canada, the highest numbers in a century. This good news comes at a time when discussions about the disappearance of sockeye were reaching a climax. Last year, the number of returning sockeye salmon was very low and considered by some as alarming. Scientists, and pseudo-scientists, were presenting their own conclusions and they were debating about how the future looked.

Those who are not familiar with the salmon issue in BC need to know that for 20+ years, a war between environmentalists and salmon farmers have been waging. Although all the participants in this debate claim to base their statements on science, Nature is just throwing facetiously some oil on the fire. Environmentalists have accused salmon farms of being the cause for the (apparent) depletion of wild salmon stocks. Much of the accusations rested on research carried out by a local environmentalist who linked her sea lice counting and mortality of juvenile pink salmon to fish farms. Until last year, she seemed to have something of a case, as returns of pink salmons into BC rivers were low. Last year, though, the pink salmon returned in large numbers, which contradicted her theory. For years, the fish farming industry did what it had to do. It always denied any responsibility in the decreasing numbers of pink salmon, using the selected relevant science to support its case.

Ironically, when the pink salmon returned massively last year, salmon farmers were cheering the good news, but environmentalists had been rather discrete to express what should have delighted them. Maybe good news is not always good news. To make things more twisted and controversial, last year’s returns of sockeye salmon, which is a different species of Pacific salmon, were quite low. Although environmentalists never addressed any concern about salmon farms and sockeye numbers, they suddenly saw a connection. The debate became so animated that the Canadian Prime Minister himself decided to set up an inquiry about the disappearing Fraser River sockeye salmon. An inquiry commission was set up with the objective of reviewing with all parties involved the situation, and then present some conclusion. Of course, science(once again) must be the basis for the investigation. I can give you the summary of what the conclusion of the commission would have been, and still might be. “The ecology of salmon is complex and it was not possible to identify any culprit for the disappearance of sockeye salmon with certainty. The commission recommends a number of actions to be taken by all stakeholders in their respective fields of activity. The commission recommends the set up of a monitor group to report and address any new development that can lead to a better understanding and management of the sockeye population”. Something of that nature. The thing is that the life cycle of salmon is quite complex and involves a vast array of environmental conditions in the mountains, in the lakes and rivers and in the ocean. It takes 4 to up to 6 years for a sockeye to return to its birthplace and many events can take place on their route. The high return depends on how many eggs were laid, how many hatched, how many juvenile salmon survived in fresh water and later in salt water. The survival rate can depend on how much food they had available on their trip, or on the population of their natural predators. And all this may be the result of human activity, but also of natural causes. Fact is very few people really know, and can really know what happened. Yet, most of the participants claim to have the knowledge that explains a drop in the sockeye population. There just seems to be less knowledge available about why the population increased.

The whole controversy is not so much about science as it is about politics. In the highly polarized political world of BC, looking for consensus is obviously not enough fun. Fighting is where the joy is, even if it means that everyone may lose in the end. Let’s face it; it does not take a genius to figure out how to have a harmonious cohabitation of fisheries and aquaculture. Unfortunately, there is little action in that direction. Once the problem is solved, there would be nothing left to criticize. Being a critic is a remunerated job.

With the high numbers of fish coming back, a new claim appears: salmon farms are not causing any problem at all, without presenting any science-based proof of that. Of course, this conclusion is already challenged. Remember what I said about polarization. The controversy will go on, as time goes by and future returns will probably show lower levels again. Salmon farmers are not off the hook.

And this brings me to what goes beyond the discussion about science in the salmon debate. It illustrates several topics that I address in my book Future Harvests: sustainability and market orientation. With the high numbers of sockeye, the word out there is to catch as much as they can. I was talking with a fish broker last week. He told me that there is so much fishing activity in the plans that there is a shortage of ice and of totes to hold the fish in processing plants. A few weeks ago, the BC environmentalists denounced the certification of Fraser River sockeye as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, claiming that the low return numbers of last year told a different story. Now, the numbers are so high that fishermen seem very eager to fish as much as possible and sustainability concerns have disappeared. It could be a good idea to take only what is possible to process and sell, and let the surplus of fish to swim back into the rivers and lay as many eggs as possible. This would help keeping high numbers for the return in 4-6 years from now. It would be rather sad to deplete the future stocks. Although fishermen have always criticized salmon farming companies for being driven by profit only, their attitude with the current situation follows pretty much that logic, though. With prices going down, I expect to hear soon some fishermen complain that there is too much sockeye. Question is who will get the blame this time?

This rush to catch that many fish illustrates the lack of market-oriented thinking. In fact, it could hardly be any more production driven. Fish brokers wonder where to sell all that fish. Simple economics tell that the price for salmon will fall. This has already started, and is likely to continue. Maybe saving more salmon to go reproduce in the rivers would have contributed to get better prices, too. In economics, this behaviour is known as the “preference of the present”. For instance, when you have a limited amount of water to cross the desert, you will choose to drink it up to satisfy your thirst, instead of rationing it and keep some for tomorrow.

Tonight, I will go for sushi!

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Future Harvests – A preview of the book

July 24, 2010

My book, Future Harvests, is expected to be published before the end of August.

Here is a preview to give you a flavor of the content.

For a full view, please click on the thumbnails.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a sample containing the table of contents and the preface of the book:

 

For the video trailers, please visit my YouTube channel.


Future Harvests – The book is coming soon!

April 9, 2010

 

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

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

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

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

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

or click here if video does not appear

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

or click here if video does not appear

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

or click here if video does not appear

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


Aquaculture: the solution to feed 9 billion people?

December 8, 2009

Last week, BioScience published an article based on the research of a group of researchers from the CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas), the Spanish High Council for Scientific Research.

They present their views on the potential of marine aquaculture to provide enough food for the growing world population. The authors of the report do not see fisheries as a significant option anymore, as the wild fish stocks are depleted, and the amount of time to replenish the stocks will be too long for fisheries to be able to meet the needs of the population. Aquaculture has gradually compensated the demand for fish that fisheries were not able to supply, and half of the seafood consumed today already originate from aquaculture. It is the fastest growing food supply activity and the projections for future growth are very strong. The researchers think that marine aquaculture could multiply its production by a factor 20 by 2050 and thus would play a major role in providing the world population with animal protein.

They bring up some interesting facts about agriculture and land animal farming. For instance, it takes 10 times more water per calorie to produce meat than it does to produce grains. Further, animal meat products represent only 3.5% of food production, but they consume 45% of the water used in agriculture. Considering demand for meat is expected to increase by 21% between 2005 and 2015, and will keep on increasing, this will only exacerbate this situation.

Another point that this group raises is the global nitrogen-use efficiency in animal productions. According to their sources, it is slightly more than 10% for land animals (5% for beef and 15% for pork), which makes their production a major source of nitrogen inputs to the environment. In contrast, marine animals have much greater nitrogen-use efficiency, at about 20% for shrimp and 30% for fish. Therefore, marine aquaculture culture releases two to three times less nitrogen to the environment than livestock production does.

From an environmental point of view, the idea of shifting the production of animal protein from the land where it uses scarce resources such as land and water, to the ocean where space and water are no limitations anymore sounds very sensible. From a nutritional point of view, replacing meat and dairy by seafood that is rich in healthy components such as omega-3 fatty acids is quite attractive, too.

They also notice that the land available for agriculture is shrinking, due to soil degradation and urbanism. Further, there is a growing scarcity of fresh water and increased competition for water as well. Therefore, activities on land do not offer the potential to grow all that much more food to feed the growing population. Even freshwater aquaculture faces these limitations. Freshwater aquaculture currently 57% of total aquaculture, therefore there is an untapped potential with marine aquaculture, as it does not use fresh water.

Of course, the main challenge to execute such a development of marine aquaculture production is to find the proper quality and quantity of feed. The researchers do not see the use of fishmeal and fish oil as an option anymore as they predict that the species used to make these products will not be able in sufficient quantities. Replacement by protein and oils from agriculture crops is an option for the short-term, but as aquaculture volumes would increase, the competition for these ingredients with meat production will make them too expensive, and for the reasons explained above, depending on land agriculture to feed marine species will face crop production limitations. Therefore, they prefer to envision a total new approach of aquaculture feeds, and recommend developing a new feed chain based on aquatic ingredients, such planktons, microalgae and seaweed. This approach makes sense, but the time lines to develop such a supply source and the cost of production of such an “aquatic” feed still need to be investigated. Several “seaweed farms” in production in China show interesting results and they seem to promise a strong potential of production for feed.

Another development that they expect is offshore aquaculture. Aquaculture operations located in coastal areas, although they are easier to access and generally in quieter waters, are very often located in zones where there are local issues to deal with, such as interaction with wild fish or recreational activities. Moving offshore can reduce these issues.

As you can see, developing the future of aquaculture is not simply a matter of growing fish in pens, but it requires a broader thinking that includes not only the oceans but agriculture on land, too. The future of food will require from us the ability to manage the whole planet!

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


How sustainable is “sustainable”?

October 2, 2009

The more as read about new certified sustainable foods sources, the more I start to wonder about how really sustainable they are. As I have mentioned before, I believe that sustainability is the only way forward because, per definition, what is not sustainable has no future, but I am beginning to have doubts about the credibility of some certification schemes.

There are two things bothering me:

  1. I thought that I had heard something about fisheries collapsing all over the world, but it sounds like more and more seafood is sustainable, and in such quantities that large retailers can offer it. Almost every week there is at least one new certified fishery and many more to come from what I hear. Does this really add up?
  2. Sustainable foods seem to follow the same logic as the consumption society that has brought us in such trouble already. The message seems to be: consume more of it because it is sustainable! I just miss the “consume with moderation” message.

Clearly, certifying sustainable food is a business, and definitely a big business growing further. Moreover, the more food programs certified, the more captive audit customers, therefore the more revenue, it produces.

In addition, it is very clear that there is a lot more “green” talk in business and marketing than actual improvement, at this stage.

Sustainability is a very serious matter, and therefore it is of the utmost importance that certification standards are above any suspicion. Only their credibility will allow us to make the proper progress towards a better future.

Funding and accountability to consumers are two important tools to guarantee such high standards and integrity. I like France’s Label Rouge model, because certification is carried out and supervised by the Ministry of Agriculture, therefore funded and accountable to the French people, their consumers.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Health and environment as growing drivers of food production

September 10, 2009

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

It must be true, it was in the newspaper

It must be true, it was in the newspaper

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

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

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

Past Food?

Past Food?

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

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

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Retailers take the lead in sustainability

August 23, 2009

Sustainability is a bit like quality: everyone talks about it but few give a clear definition when it comes to practical and concrete specifications. Just as importantly, leadership is badly needed to transform the talking into effective action.

The future is in our handsAs long as the lawmakers remain slow to bring up the change and the clarity to give clear directions, we will need the leadership of some of the most influential players in consumer markets to get things moving.

Even environmental organizations and sustainability bodies have some difficulties to agree with each other. For example Greenpeace does not seem to think that the guidelines from the Marine Stewardship Council offer solid enough guarantees that products brought to market according to these guidelines truly are sustainable. Clearly, this is an area in continuous evolution and the ideal concept is still in the making.

The consumer themselves are both still under informed as well as overwhelmed by all sorts of contradictory messages to know clearly which choices to make, therefore some decide of what to buy either based on philosophical or on financial reasons.

Similarly, many businesses are trying to find their green way as they can, but there again the lack of a strong regulatory frame and the uncertainty of the return on the green investment do not help them. The result is that, although the awareness about sustainability among businesses has grown substantially over the last few years, many companies have taken rather timid steps so far, limiting their actions to the least costly possible and the most PR and marketing-driven. They claim to go green, they communicate a lot about it, but the progress is slow.

Yet, some companies take more initiative, show leadership and push to make the whole supply chain evolve to sustainable production systems. A very active sector in this area is the retail. Retailers in the UK such as Tesco or Waitrose, in Canada with Loblaw’s and Overwaitea Food Group, and of course especially Wal-Mart in the USA have definitely made their choice. They clearly understand that the future cannot be anything but sustainable and they are demanding that their suppliers now come with products that meet the requirements of tomorrow. Last month Wal-Mart demanded from all their suppliers to “develop comprehensive programs to promote sustainability and transparency – or else contemplate a future without Wal-Mart as a customer” (read article).

Tesco is now indicating the carbon footprint of milk products on the labels (see article “Environmental performance on food labels”); Waitrose, Loblaw’s and Overwaitea are going for sustainable fish products, adopting for example the SeaChoice specifications as their guideline. Wal-Mart stores have already implemented a number of measures to reduce their carbon footprint by reducing the energy consumption, and they have already have made some of their suppliers introduce different product presentation. For example, they were the first to demand laundry detergent to be more concentrated and packed in smaller containers. This saved water, it saved energy used to transport useless water, and it saved plastic used for the jugs and for the pallets on which the product was transported. Today, concentrated laundry detergent in smaller jugs is the standard. Without Wal-Mart pushing for the change, we probably still would use the old product in the old packaging.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.