Screening out the noise

Traders among you will know how difficult it is to identify fundamental price trends, and to separate them out from market noise. The same applies to consumer trends: how can you differentiate a genuine trend from background noise?

This past week has been a particularly noisy one in terms of consumer food trends.

Back in October 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—the cancer agency of the World Health Organization—classified processed meat as a carcinogen and red meat as a probable carcinogen. Their conclusion was based on a review of more than 800 studies. After an initial flurry of headlines, the media largely discounted the warnings, arguing that eating processed meat only raises the average lifetime risk of developing colon cancer from 5% to 6%.

However, the story is back. The Guardian this week published a long read entitled “Yes, bacon really is killing us”, arguing that the nitrates in processed meats are giving us colon cancer. A French MEP has taken up the cause and launched a campaign demanding a ban of nitrites in all meat products across Europe.

The Guardian also published an opinion piece this week entitled, “Why what we eat is crucial to the climate change question”, arguing that “our food – from what we eat to how it is grown – accounts for more carbon emissions than transport…and roughly the same as the production of electricity and heat”.

Greenpeace meanwhile has gone on a campaign against meat consumption with a report titled Less is More: Reducing Meat and Dairy for a Healthier Life and Planet. The organisation wants to reduce global meat and dairy consumption by 50 percent by the year 2050. They argue that reducing meat and dairy consumption:

  • Fights climate change: a 50 percent reduction in consumption of animal products “will lead to a 64 percent reduction in greenhouse gases relative to a 2050 world that follows current trajectories”.
  • Means less deforestation: by eating less meat — particularly beef, which requires 28 times more land to produce than dairy, pork, poultry, and eggs combined — there is less incentive to clear cut forests for grazing and growing animal feed.
  • Protects endangered species: animals and the mono-crops required to feed them destroy the habitat for local wild species, particularly for large herbivores. Since 1970, the Earth has lost half of its wildlife but tripled its livestock population.
  • Protects water sources: studies suggest “if industrialised countries moved towards a vegetarian diet, the food-related water footprint of humanity could be reduced by around 36 percent.”
  • Makes us healthier humans: Greenpeace cites studies linking consumption of animal products to cancer, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and more.

And as if meat wasn’t in enough trouble last week, South Africa has been hit by what has been called the world’s worst listeria outbreak; so far it has killed 180 people and affected hundreds of others. The country’s health ministry says the outbreak originates from a Tiger Brands processed meat factory in the northern city of Polokwane, something that the CEO of Tiger Brands denies.

The anti-meat movement is gaining such momentum that even Donald Trump is reported to be swapping his beloved beef burgers for salads.

However, if you are thinking of doing the same and ditching meat for a vegiburger, French media (France 5) broadcast a documentary last week on soybeans and how bad they are bad both for your health and for the environment (in terms of deforestation and agricultural expansion).

Soy products apparently contain oestrogen-like compounds that your body processes much like its own oestrogen. Women who ingest high levels of soy are reported to find changes in their hormone cycles, as soy can suppress hormones associated with ovulation.

But it is not just women that can be affected; soybeans have also been accused of reducing fertility in men. Soy-consuming men were found in one study to have only 65 million sperm in their semen, compared to non-soy-eating participants who averaged 120 million sperm per sample. However, the UK’s Nation Health Service warns that the study behind this has limitations: it was small, and mainly looked at overweight or obese men who had presented to a fertility clinic.

Rather confusingly, the French documentary went on to argue that soy not only has negative effects on human health, it is also bad for animals. This time the problem had nothing to do with hormones, but with the herbicide glyhosate that is sprayed on soybeans. Some argue that the herbicide works its way along the food chain via meat and dairy products, and causes cancer in humans. The documentary tested various dairy products sold in France and found trace elements of glyhosate in all of them, even the organic ones.

If you are getting the stage where you no longer know who to believe or what to eat, New Food Economy last week followed up on an earlier opinion piece arguing that pretty much all nutrition studies are flawed. They argue that food studies tend to be small and speculative; the effects of any given food or food component tend to be small; research designs are often faulty; and researcher bias is somewhere between rife and universal.

There is also a problem with the data. Most studies are conducted by asking people what they eat—and most people lie. All this presents a problem for health professionals looking to reduce obesity and its associated costs.

This is particularly relevant as Public health officials in the UK called last week on food sellers and manufacturers to cut calories in their products by 20% by 2024. Public Health England suggests that food producers have a number of options for meeting the target, including reformulating products, promoting healthy options and reducing portion sizes.

The report notes that children are overeating: obese boys consume up to 500 excess calories a day while girls who are overweight or obese consume up to 290 excess calories a day. On average, adults were found to consume about 200 calories beyond what is necessary in a day.

All that is a lot of noise for just one week. But can we discern any trends through the noise?

  • The way food is produced and consumed has moved to centre stage in terms of public concern and media focus. This is likely to continue: anyone involved in agriculture and the agriculture supply chain will remain in the spotlight (so get used to it!)
  • The anti-meat lobby is strengthening; plant-based protein looks as if it has much further to run. But having said that we are already seeing some push back with vegetarian (particularly soy-based) diets coming under attack.
  • One trend that may be fading is the willingness to blame particular foodstuffs for obesity or other health issues. Consumers are beginning to distrust the studies; there are simply too many of them pushing in too many directions.

But what would a trader do in such a situation? He would endeavour to screen out the daily volatility and look instead at the fundamentals.

The fundamental reality is that people are eating too much and moving too little. The market is slowly making its way in that direction.


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