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.

Follow the water!

November 15, 2010

Without water, there is no agriculture, there is no food, and there is no life. It is obvious, and yet the water question is too often neglected. The quantity and the quality of water available are absolutely crucial for the future production of food. It will influence where and what type of food we can produce. It will define food security and world politics. Since 70% of fresh water use is for agricultural purposes, it is clear that water will soon be power.

The need to preserve water and use it efficiently is going to be one of the main challenges to overcome for the decades to come. This will stimulate innovation and the development of new technologies and new techniques.

Field sensors that measure the level of humidity in the air and in the soil connected with “crop per drop” irrigation systems can allow the distribution of the right amount of water at the right time, thus saving waste through evaporation and drainage. The selection of plant varieties will focus more and more on water efficiency. Drought-resistant plants that can thrive in arid conditions are in the works. For instance, a trial on wheat in Australia has delivered promising results, as the yield was 25% higher than non drought-resistant varieties. Researchers, through hybridization and genetic engineering, are working to develop varieties that can use less water and produce similar yields as per today. Although high tech may bring solutions, other methods deliver good results, too. Agro forestry, the production of crops under a cover of trees seems to help farmers achieve satisfying results in the Sahel region. The foliage of the trees helps reduce evaporation from the soil. Combined with proper techniques to apply organic matter and fertilizing elements, farmers can create better conditions for plants to grow.

Another field of research is the development of alternatives to traditional desalination, which is very demanding in energy. Transforming seawater into fresh water for the production of food is not simple, and it is expensive. The technology is here.  Israel has used it for decades. Currently in the United Arab Emirates, a project of floating islands covered with solar panels to provide the energy to desalinate seawater is being developed. This system has the advantage to produce both fresh water, which is precious in desert countries and clean energy at the same time. A project, called The Sahara Forest Project aiming at producing food in the desert is currently in the works. It combines solar energy, modern biomass production and a type of greenhouse, built by the Seawater Greenhouse company, that helps the humidity produce by the plants to condensate.

In many countries, the problem is not so much physical scarcity of water as it is a lack of proper infrastructure to collect, pump and irrigate efficiently. The population density contributes to the problem, because the more people, the less for each of them. In many countries, for instance in India, the equipment is old, inadequate and poorly maintained, because of a lack of finance of governments and farmers. The result is a waste of water resources, and a suboptimal production. Another area that has potential for improvement is the collection and the storage of rainwater. A large quantity of water runs off and is not available for food production because there are not enough containers, if any. Developing and improving storage infrastructure will definitely help farmers to produce more food.

If the availability of water is important, so is its quality. In China, the situation is a lack of both, because of the heavy pollution of many streams and rivers. In many areas, the water is there, but it cannot be used, as it is fit neither for human consumption nor for agricultural production.

The respective situation of countries about water availability will determine their ability to feed their own people or not. In Arab countries, irrigation has led to a high level of salinity and it has depleted drinking water reserves. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has now abandoned its policy of increasing food production to become be self-sufficient. Saudis are actively purchasing land in African and Asian countries to meet their food needs. China and India, that represent about 40% of the world population, are following a similar approach and invest heavily to help develop land in Africa. In countries where drinking water is scarce, there are discussions about the need of not exporting, as export of food is actually water export as well.

If a number of countries face a water shortage, others have a different situation. This is the case for large areas of North America and South America. Especially Brazil disposes of large water reserves. Together with a favourable climate, Brazil has many advantages to produce food, especially animal protein. According to Osler Desouzart of OD Consulting, the production of 1 kg of beef requires 16,000 litres of water, while it takes 6,000 litres for 1 kg of pork and only 2,800 litres for a kg of chicken. This shows why Brazil has been gaining market share in beef and poultry. It indicates that intensive animal production will be more challenging in countries where water is not as abundant. This also tends to show that poultry will be the most successful type of land animal production. The US and Canada have large water reserves, although there are also clear regional differences. The South West of the US becoming increasingly arid, and one can wonder if California, that currently produces most of the fruit and vegetables for the North American continent, will be able to keep its production levels. It is likely that fresh produce will be gradually produced closer, even inside, the large urban centers in the northeast as well. Considering the emphasis on water preservation, it is also interesting to note that before the housing crisis in the US, the most irrigated type of plant production were lawns, using three times as much water as US corn. Food recalls are another source of water waste, especially meat and eggs recalls. From the numbers presented above, it is easy to see how much water is lost when dozens of tons of animal products must be destroyed, not to mention the huge food waste that this represents.

When it comes to food and water, aquaculture offers interesting possibilities for the efficient production of protein. Fish produced in the ocean do not consume freshwater. This saves large amounts that can be used for other purposes. However, one of the challenges for the fast-growing aquaculture industry will be to be able to source feed ingredients that do not directly compete with other farm animals and direct human consumption. Land-based aquaculture is developing the very interesting concept of aquaponics, which is a combination of fish production in tanks combined with the production of vegetables indoors. The system recycles the water used for the fish tank, and helps fertilize the plants with fish waste. This is a very water–efficient system that can help produce large amounts of food on a small area, making it fit for urban farming units.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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!

Bringing cities to the countryside: Infrastructure will help rural development

September 16, 2009

Although the title of this article many sound a contradiction in terms, agriculture (in which I include aquaculture as well) needs cities and vice-versa. Rural development is more than just agricultural activities; it is about creating and improving a cluster of many economic activities that are necessary for the proper functioning of a community.

As such, this should not be a surprise, because in the history of man, human settlements always have been linked to drinking water and sufficient food supplies. By developing agriculture, the very first “farmers” created the conditions for sedentarism, instead of continuous migrations. On these sedentary communities, other activities developed later to cover the needs of the locals. Maslow's pyramid of needs - Picture WikipediaThe hierarchy of the needs that we must fill can be easily identified according to the pyramid of Maslow: food and water, shelter and physical safety. Once this is achieved, adding other activities become more natural and simple.

This is why developing large urban centers is no guarantee of prosperity. Like all things in life, the key is about balance. Of course, over the last 150 years, the focus has been about growing the industrial capabilities and this has been the engine for a massive migration of population from the countryside to the cities. Although the conditions were far from stellar, many companies in the early industrial development were providing their employees with housing. Their ways may not always have been very social, but they were showing some level of social responsibility.

With the ups and downs of industries, cities have increasingly faced a problem of poverty, as the development did not include a sense of community anymore and company loyalty towards their employees disappeared as the workforce became expendable and factories could move to other countries.

This industrialization and urbanization have also affected the rural areas and the agricultural world. Many rural areas have faced and are still facing isolation and poverty. Although in many cases there have been many efforts made to improve this situation, the situation has not always improved.

Yet, we now see the challenges of feeding an ever-increasing population, we all recognize that we will need to cultivate more land and water, but this still does not seem to make things turn around.

In my view, the problem is that, too often, we restrict rural development to agricultural development, and by looking at this part in a separate way, instead of focusing on integrating agriculture in the development of the whole local economy, we just do not create strong enough chances of success. Having large urban centers with their problems on the one hand, and remote and depopulated rural areas with their problems on the other hand, should be the clear sign for all of us that our economic model is out of balance. There can be life outside a huge metropolis where everyone has become an anonymous person, resulting is a dislocated social fabric. What has made the success of our species has been our ability to act as groups. As isolated creatures, we probably would not have survived very long.

To rebuild the necessary social fabric in rural areas, we must create the conditions to have balanced and complementary activities. This is why, while some see the future of agriculture as urban farming, I believe that it has to be urbanizing the countryside, not with large impersonal cities, but with human size settlements where we can provide for all the needs.  Isolated farmers with no direct connection with their markets and not getting the value for their products to make a decent living will look for alternatives. If we want more people to produce food, we must understand that they must make enough money to want to keep producing food. By creating a proper infrastructure around agricultural areas, we can create a more local market that will drive production. A profitable market for the farmers’ products also means more money in their pockets, which in turn means more spending power to develop demand for other business, be it for products or services. This is how we will be able to grow local economies and communities. This is not about a romantic or idealistic back to nature movement, or creating local farmers markets purely for marketing purposes, but this is a thorough and integrated process embracing modernity. In the current rural areas and probably in other regions, the future will about bringing the economy to the people before bringing people to the economy.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.