Some unconventional thoughts about food security

When you attend the big guys meetings: Davos, UN entities, World Bank, very large NGOs and foundations gatherings, etc., the common question is: "how are we going to feed them?"

Let's start from a different angle: "how are they going to feed themselves?"

Our confidence in human ability to create a vision and shape it for our future has led us to believe that the more we put our scientific, rational skills at work to do it and organize ourselves and change our environment, the more likely we are to succeed. I will call this our “engineering bias”: we think we can engineer the world in which we live, and as consequence, the life we live.

Well, this may be debated in many areas. One in which it does not seem to be much debated is food security. There will be 9 billion human beings on this planet in a few decades.

When you attend the big guys meetings: Davos, UN entities, World Bank, very large NGOs and foundations gatherings, etc, the common question is: “how are we going to feed them?”. Let’s start from a different angle: “how are they going to feed themselves?”

We, the business leaders are seeing this whole field as the combination of agriculture and the food industry, and we see our ability to master both as being the answer to the question. Each of us we see ourself as part of the “food chain”. Let’s discuss about this.

For decades, as soon as we stopped growing in our fields what our communities ate, for an increasing proportion of our diet, we turned to exchanged and then manufactured food, and gradually, mentally guided by our engineering bias, we became “consumers” and havelooked at what we bought from the shelf as a product.

Since a few years, there is a growing awareness that our food stuff in the supermarket trolley is not only a product, but that it is part of a chain, the "food chain."

If you asked consumers today, most of them would answer that this chain starts with the agricultural product, vegetable, fruit, meat. The truth is that these potatoes, tomatoes, eggs, etc, in turn are actually the result of an upstream chain. And if we had a much longer period to look at, one could see that the food chain looks more like a circular process, where the remains of the predators chain, ends back to the only place where it can: the ground, to the point where it actually becomes the ground itself. This is stating the obvious, and we can assume that, with the outburst of food safety issues in our “developed” economies, and the overall growing awareness of the role of carbon in the soil’s ability to nurture life reproduction at the surface of the planet, this circular awareness will spread among our societies.

Yet, as we measured mostly the efficiency of our food chain by the dollar, we missed some major aspects of its development.

Economies of scale have been sought to deploy capital more efficiently, and focus to improve at each step led to specialization. A very basic example: two centuries (a long time) ago, farmers were selling their production directly to consumers on the village market place. As some of the farms gradually grew to be able to get a return on the mechanic tools they were buying (not all: still today, there are only 20 million tractors for more than 2bn farmers in the world), and as the opportunity arose to integrate value-added by transforming their products into ready to consume or use food ingredients or items, larger processing entities started to blossom. This larger scale meant they had to find a bigger market than the local market. And as a result, there was no way that the operators of these farms or basic factories, would travel themselves to serve all their customers.

Distance changed the game. Wholesalers and retailers appeared. Urbanization brought the whole thing to another level.

Two centuries later in our “modern” countries, the result is that the food chain is now organized by vertical silos: farms have sometimes regrouped into huge cooperatives. They ship their production via large transportation intermediaries (companies operating ships, fleets of trucks, railroad companies) to huge semi-finished or finished food processing operations (the food companies), who then use sophisticated third party logistics service providers to deliver and serve very large retail food chains (the supermarkets), who are in turn, visited everyday by  a crowd of millions of consumers.

In the food chain, every actor became a specialist of making the biggest buck out of a given step of the process. To gain even further efficiency, they have grown, regrouped, merged, consolidated to form a small number of extremely large corporations that fundamentally set the trends, the standards, and the policies of their specialist process in the food chain. There are only a handful of meat or dairy companies in the USA, while Americans have never eaten more meat than today. The same applies in most of the food space.

It is quite easy to imagine that none of the steps in the food chain have the same biorythm. Consumers are supposed to make immediate, impulse purchase choices, and find whatever they want. Downstream supply chain and logistics processes are accountable on the hour or minute to respond. Food processors are working on optimizing their own processes by the second on individual operations. While farmers have to wait for months before their crop rise every spring. And the soil that they are using has even longer term, year or decades cycles.

These very diverse biorhythms are creating a huge stress on the whole system, and as a result the food chain has been essentially desynchronized.

And we only have weak signals of the stress that this desynchronization imposes on our ecosystems through the alerts on food safety, water scarcity, soil depletion, carbon footprint, biodiversity, nutritional value for money of our food and ultimately human health.

Food safety concerns forced the key players of each of the steps of the chain to talk more to each other upstream and downstream, in order finally to ensure common quality standards. This has brought tremendous progress to food safety, but the result has been an even greater focus on only a few, hopefully well-controlled ingredients and processes. There were more than 3,000 species of potatoes in Peru before the arrival of other nations in the country a few centuries back. Now, there are basically only 3 that are grown, mostly for export, serving large multinational makers of chips. Generations of women and communities have lost their know-how on growing these thousands of varieties, with their specific nutritional and medicinal benefits, and biodiversity losses are beyond imagination.

As a whole, less than only 15 vegetal species provide more than three quarters of all human food needs. It is hard to believe that the ability for 9 instead of 6 bn persons to feed themselves appropriately will rely on a system that would mean going further down this road.

Resynchronizing the food chain is probably the biggest challenge that we have, as it means breaking well established mental barriers and ways.

First of all, we should stop thinking about our food as being the result, or part of a food chain. This is a gross over-simplification, which derives directly from the silo approach, since food is actually part of a food-web, and not only a food chain.

Let’s take a step back. Back to the trees! I found the following example on internet (note that I could have gone into my garden to check, but for the biorythm reasons mentioned above, I would not be writing about it by the time being) : a food chain works like this : the sun provides food for grass. The grass is eaten by a grasshopper. The grasshopper is eaten by a frog. The frog is eaten by a snake. The snake is eaten by a hawk. A food web works like this: the trees produce acorns which act as food for many mice, and insects. Because there are many mice, weasels and snakes have food. The insects and the acorns also attract birds, skunks and oppossums. With the skunks, oppossums, weasels and mice around, hawks, foxes, and owls can find food. They are all connected.

As they are all connected, like a spider’s web, if one part is removed, it can affect the whole web. That is the fundamental difference. So if in our so called “food chains” we work solely looking upstream and downstream at what happens for our product or ingredient, we are missing the bigger, weaker signal part, yet essential. In India, after decades of green revolution, it appears that the macro-nutrition indicators (quantity of calories) have made progress thanks to the spreading of white rice and wheat crops in rural areas, but there are places where there are now growing micro-nutriments deficiencies (quality), as for instance, white rice contains thirty times less calcium, or 2 times less iron than ragi, a popular, traditional local cereal.

Looking at our food system as a food web would actually allow us to resynchronize it in a multi dimensional manner.

The irony about synchrony is that from a scientific standpoint, there are evidences that the natural food ecosystems, where the predation level brings a balanced population of species, are the ones in which there is no synchrony. Empirical studies and their complex mathematical models (lots of differential equations) show that when there is a synchronization of events in the demographics or the environment of an ecosystem, there is an immediate stress on the equilibrium, and the predation systems start diverging, to a point where the overall ecosystem can disappear.

The "engineering bias" of human beings has definitely created the biggest synchrony that occurred since (at least) thousands of years. The human population to 9 billion is a mere result of this.

Looking at these empirical studies on complex natural food-web systems, we should be learning how to look beyond our engineering bias and use our ability to meta-analyse, in order to regulate the level of stress that the synchrony of our development model is putting on our ecosystem.

We have only one Earth. It is not too late, and by looking at reality from a completely different angle, we may come up with solutions that are nowhere in the to-do list of big business and multilateral organizations.

Who wants to try ?

This article was originally published on July 19th, 2011.