And another COP passed by

After so many COP conferences, it was not particularly difficult to predict the outcomes, the process and the reactions before, during and after. Below, I embedded a thread of tweets about my take on what I expected to happen. I guess I was not too far off with my facetious messages.

But more seriously, I think the main reason why progress is so difficult and so slow is just that nobody tells us what the world after (the beautiful sustainable and livable future) is supposed to look like. The so-called fear of change has never been about change as much as it is about fear of loss. By focusing only on what must stop, and indeed many things need to be halted and replaced by better alternatives, the message that comes across is mostly a message of loss. That, of course, is the best recipe to trigger resistance and opposition at all levels, from individuals to businesses and governments.

So, how does the world after look like? Is it indeed better? Can the COP leadership sell us a vision that eliminates this fear of change, simply by bringing us hope instead of fear. Clearly, fear does not cut it. It has very little impact at this stage. So, please, leaders of the world, show us (not on metavers, although this might be the refuge of the future for many) what you think life will be if we accept the sacrifices you ask, and most of all show us a world that has appeal! If the goal is to save life and Nature, make it look natural and alive!

Copyright 2021 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

First speaking engagement with Turkey

I recently had the honour to be the keynote speaker at the 5th Aegean Economic Forum. Below you will find the video of the session dedicated to agriculture (my presentation starts at 23:45 and lasts until 26:00). This was the first time I had an assignment with a Turkish organization and I encourage you to watch the video if you have 2 hours available. It was an outstanding session and I was quite pleased to be involved with a group that focused on essential topics before focusing on first world problems and first world solutions, unlike it often is the case in North America or Europe. I have added the text of my presentation below the embedded video, and I have highlighted in bold letters my main messages.

Text of my presentation:

Tonight, I will quickly tell you what changes I see coming and what is needed to adapt to a different future.

We have gone a long way since the beginning of agriculture. For centuries, agriculture worked in local and closed systems at the level of a region. With the development of industrialization, we started to open the loops, and not just in agriculture. We actually created two problems, not just one. On the one hand we have depleted natural resources and on the other hand, we have created piles of waste. We went from a circular to a linear system.

To make it worse, we never looked at the long-term effects and costs of this linear system. We never included these externalities in the production costs. So, waste became an accepted part of consumption society. And we waste lots. In the case of agriculture, the number that comes back regularly is that 30 to 40% of the food produced never gets eaten.

The issue of food waste is twofold. In developed countries, it is a behavioural and organizational problem at consumer, retailer and restaurant level. In developing countries, the main cause is post-harvest, either rotting on the field or because of poor storage and logistics. It is an infrastructure and money problem.

Regardless of the causes, food waste is not just about food, it is about all the water, the energy, the money and the land used to produce, transport, process and sell it. 

For consumers, it is about throwing away a third of their food budget. For a household spending 12% of its budget on food, it means that they voluntarily throw 4% of their budget in the garbage bin. That is rather silly, isn’t it? The total price tag of the wasted food alone amounts to about one trillion US Dollars worldwide. But beyond the money, let’s just think about what a third means.

A third of the world agricultural land is about 10 million km2 wasted (Added note: world arable land is about 14 million km2 and grasslands twice as much, so 10 million km2 is a conservative number, out of caution). This is 60% the area of Russia; it is the area of Canada or the Sahara; it is slightly bigger than the USA or China or Brazil; it is 2.5 times the size of the EU and 3 times the size of India. Because of waste, we need to put more land in production. So, indirectly, food waste is a significant source of deforestation.

Now, if we look at a third of the world population, we are talking about 2.6 billion people. It is almost the combined population of China and India, and more than twice the population of Africa.

Where else than by solving food waste, do we have 33% room for improvement in food and agriculture? It is only a behavioural, an organizational and an infrastructure investment issue. It is not rocket science. All it takes is money and discipline.

Right now, people are gathered at COP26. Unlike what they claim, what is at stake is not the planet, it is the biosphere, which is soil, water, organic matter, climate and of course life.

There is not only one food production system. There is a huge diversity of production systems and they do not pollute equally. There are huge differences between the different regions of the world. Even within one particular system, different farmers have different production and environment performances, and impacts. We need a targeted approach.

The proper way is to look at the different situations and through innovation and knowledge transfer level up the playing field and help producers improve. We must do more to help farmers succeed. They know the problems; they often know the solutions, but often lack the needed support. There is great potential in this field, especially with the introduction of new technologies.

Previous periods of modernization of agriculture were about adding muscle, first with animals, and then with machinery, it literally and figuratively was about adding horse power. The current transformation of food and agriculture is about adding a nervous system and synapses. Drones, satellite imaging, robotics, driverless vehicles, sensors, artificial intelligence and data collection are all extensions of the farmer’s senses and brain, but far beyond human capacities. The principle of precision agriculture is about taking the right action at the right time at the right place. This actually offers the best of all worlds. It helps producing the highest yields by using the very strict minimum of inputs. It helps reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides; it helps reduce the amount of energy, therefore reduce greenhouse gases and it helps reduce the use of water. These technologies go beyond production alone. They also can help monitor the environment and help detect possible impact on the environment immediately. The main issue with implementing new technologies is their cost.

New technologies and precision are the ideal tools to address waste, simply because waste and efficiency are two sides of the same coin. When we reduce waste, we are more efficient, as we need less input for the same output. It really comes down to producing more with less. 

In my opinion, there is no reason to sacrifice yields. Not everybody agrees. The USA think along the lines of increasing efficiency and producing more to meet future world demand. The EU, with its brand-new Farm to Fork policies seems to prefer to reduce production as the way to reduce greenhouse gases. Personally, I am surprised by the EU’s choice. The EU has a highly efficient agriculture, with some countries being the very top, and its carbon footprint is relatively low compared with many other regions of the world. Indeed, the EU, like all other regions, needs to reduce the use of inputs but in my opinion, the EU’s agriculture problem is not so much a carbon footprint one as it is a problem of distribution of productions, in particular a few areas having too high a density and concentration of intensive animal farms. They mostly need to rebalance animal farming and crops. The reason is, as I mentioned earlier, that loops that have been opened. 

The future will be about repairing the damage done. We will have to replace the consumption economy, which is about quantitative growth -about “always more”- by a maintenance economy, which focuses on qualitative growth, or on “always enough”.

Closing the loops is about the biosphere, with a financial element on the side. It is about preserving and regenerating soil, water, organic matter, while mitigating climate and by including the externalities. This means changing the economic equation. The economy is a combination of three components: resources, labour and capital. Next to this economic equation, markets determine prices through supply and demand. The math for both the economic equation and the markets are influenced by policies which set the rules of the game through rewards and penalties, and future choices of the reward/penalty system will strongly influence how agriculture will be organized and how it will perform, because producers will choose what returns them the highest income. A change I expect is the implementation of taxes on some product categories and production systems, mostly because governments need more money. To some extent, it will also influence consumers’ choices although consumers are subject to many more stimuli to make their choices. 

Setting new rules require thinking carefully about how they change externalities and therefore what the long-term consequences will be. It also means looking at the bigger picture. Climate change will affect the food world map. Some regions will not be able to keep producing what they produce today. They will have to choose for different crops and combinations thereof. Other regions will be more suitable to take over. Water availability will be a crucial factor in the future food map. How long can regions that produce and export large volumes of water-rich products to far away markets, from which the water will never return can continue to do so? 

New strategies are required. It can be the adoption of new and better varieties that can resist drought. It can be the use of different production systems, such as the use of cover crops, the use of mulch and organic matter. It can be the development of plants that use fertilizers more efficiently or that have higher photosynthesis efficiency. It can be different irrigation systems and move to a crop-by-drop approach. It also can be production systems that reduce evapotranspiration, for instance by combining a low-level crop under a cover of trees. It also can be desalination of sea water for irrigation purposes. 

The list of solutions is long but the redistribution of the world food map will have consequences far beyond the field. It will redefine geopolitics. All countries will have to rethink both old and new alliances. Feuds and partnerships combined with new natural conditions, and therefore trade, will affect food security.

It is also important to realize that food security, food sovereignty and self-sufficiency are different concepts. It is impossible for all countries to produce everything, simply because of different natural conditions. With more extreme climatic conditions, choices will have to be made. This is why I think that trade will be essential not only for food security, but also to mitigate the effect of climate change. 

Until now, the economic model has been “to produce where it is cheapest to produce”. As such not a bad idea, except that it opened the loops and did not include externalities. True sustainability means closing the loops and including these externalities. In the future, the concept must evolve to “producing where it is the cheapest to produce sustainably”. And this word, sustainably, is going to make all the difference. It will affect availability; it will affect costs and it will affect prices. And as always when prices increase, it offers opportunities for alternatives and also for resourcefulness.

An example is urban farming and there are all sorts of projects. It is estimated that 20% of all food produced in the world is produced in urban areas. Next to food production, it also has a social function and can help mitigate some of the effects of climate change. The question is often to figure out how to organize urban farming. There can be community gardens, people can also use their balconies to grow food, or old buildings can be transformed into farms. In cities, the roof surface is huge and roofs can be an ideal location to set a garden. Actually, some supermarkets are already growing perishables such as tomatoes, lettuce and strawberries on their roofs and sell them day-fresh to the consumers visiting their stores.

On the consumer end, there is plenty of activity, too. Suppliers offer products with green claims, true or not by the way. There are campaigns of information as well as disinformation about the impact of various food groups. Protein is one of these areas, and the fight to meet the need for protein is on between animal farming and alternatives.

But what do consumers want? They want food to be available, affordable and safe. There is also strong demand for natural, although natural is a rather unclear term, and most of the time, it means “not artificial”. They want healthy foods, and the rise of obesity and diabetes reinforces this demand. Because of climate change, consumers have become more discerning or at least try to be about which products they consider responsible or which ones they see as harmful for the environment. Production methods will matter more and more and a good example of this is the growing concern for animal welfare. Another strong trend is authenticity, which is also an unclear term rooted in some nostalgia and often means that it must not be “industrial”, or at least not be perceived as such.

Other areas that consumers look for are value and values. Value is not new but it becomes more complex. It is rooted in perception and psychology, not to say ego and status. Values have become increasingly relevant with the presence of social media. Consumers buy from suppliers that are aligned with their values. They are keen on knowing the food producers’ views on their role in society and environment. For a food producer, this can be tricky, as often it will take only one word or message that goes against the consumer’s values and they decide to stop buying. Social media have made people extra sensitive and touchy and bad publicity spreads like fire on social media platforms. This is a new dimension that food producers need to consider very carefully. Social media can make you and can break you in a heartbeat.

Transparency is important. Most suppliers see it has providing consumers with every bit of information but this is a herculean task and one can wonder if this is the right approach. Let’s face it, only very few consumers want to know everything from beginning to end about the history of the product they buy. Transparency is not so much about information as it is about trust. They want to know enough about the producer to feel confident buying the product. They want to have the assurance that the producer has nothing to hide and will answer honestly all questions. The food producer’s business needs to be on display as if it were behind a clear –transparent- window where consumers can look at anything they want in complete freedom.

Traceability is a cousin to transparency. It is essential to trace the source of a problem, should one arise, but it must be much more than that. It must be a proactive tool. Knowing why something went wrong is nice but it is after the facts. A good traceable quality assurance system is what producers need. This is where new technologies – “the nervous system”- can be useful by allowing a full online in real time quality control that has the ability to flag any deviation and stop the production line immediately. Having a proactive system that will prevent quality issues to be sent to the customer will spare many frustrations and save lots of money.

But next to better production methods and new technologies, one area that needs to improve in the future is to help people eat better. It should be the moral duty of food producers to take good care of their customers. In this area, we are still in an era of marketing-driven business, which is about having consumers buy more. It will have to change from quantity to quality, and the promise will have to be kept, indeed. An advantage of social media is that it will expose those who make false claims and false promises. Consumer information is going to be another front for suppliers. A system like NutriScore is drawing more and more criticism. It seems to have become a marketing tool and is no longer a true nutrition tool. If it does not get fixed, it will lose all credibility and in fact reinforce the feeling that the industry is always trying to deceive consumers.

So, what segments can be the winners of the future?

The points I have presented before, such as quality, clean, healthy, authentic will do very well. Foods and recipes that are rooted in nostalgia and tradition have great potential. This is especially true in mature markets that I see evolve into a mosaic of niche quality specialties. Of course, because not everybody is wealthy, there still will be a large market for low-cost staple foods sharply priced, but with increased standards about health, environment and ethics.

Over the last few years, perhaps the most disputed battlefield has been protein. Animal farming is being challenged. A lot of investor money flocks to tech protein alternatives. Plant-based imitation meat and seafood has received a lot of publicity. Many claims have been made about their potential. So far, they come short of those claims. The segment has room to grow but it will not replace animal farming. Performance on the stock markets is poor and the investors’ money is now moving somewhere else. I see better potential for smaller private producers with a low profile, catering to the need of consumers with wholesome products instead of high-tech meat imitations. If the stigma is currently on meat, the next category to be demonized will be ultra processed foods. Investors have also moved into what used to be called lab meat, a product that still struggles to find its name. Although they make regular claims about readiness to deliver large market quantities and being price competitive, it is still not really clear whether it will happen on a large scale. Other alternative protein sectors include the use of bacteria to produce specific protein. Perhaps, it will have some potential for animal feed, but more surely in the medical field. And of course, there are insects. There has been a lot of publicity but success is slow to materialize. One problem is the price. Just like all the other alternative proteins, they are not price-competitive with animal products. Producers of insects try to push it in Western countries’ markets but this is not the right place. There, people do not want to eat bugs. Westerners like soft and meaty. That is why lobster and shrimp are in demand. They are large aquatic insects really, but their look does not matter because they contain lots of flesh. Crickets don’t. It is that simple. I see insects having more potential for animal feed, if it can be price competitive.

The protein fight is useful. It has put animal farming on the spot and forced producers to find solutions to reduce their environmental impact, and it works. The sector has already come with innovations to reduce its methane emissions, and although there still is a lot of work ahead, the improvements are getting noticed. This is the beauty of the fight between industry and environmentalists. As long as the industry does not feel threatened, the initial reaction is always : “no, it costs too much”, but when the industry sees that it will lose business and it will cost them dearly, they are actually amazingly innovative, fast and cost efficient. 

Perhaps anecdotal is the fact that Bill Gates, who has been an investor in alternative protein and a man behind the claim that it would replace animal farming in a decade, which is not going to happen, has now invested in a cow milk producer (Note: the company’s name is “Neutral”) that gets the milk from farms where new technologies are being used to reduce methane emissions. He is pragmatic and he is moving on. Others will follow him. 

As animal products are concerned, all the forecasts for the long term show a further increase of consumption. In particular, poultry is by far the biggest winner. Aquaculture could do very well, too, if consumer prices become more affordable. You are in an area with great potential for the production of fish, shellfish, crustaceans and seaweed.

To conclude,

Feeding a population of 10 billion individuals is a huge challenge. It will require changes in the way we produce and in the way we consume. 

My main concern is that the conversation has become more and more polarized and intolerant. Instead of opposing systems and points of views, we need to listen and think carefully. Nothing is black and white and there is no one-fit-all solution. There is no silver bullet that will solve the problems so that we do not have to change. Instead, we will solve the problems through a combination of many solutions. Some will be of a technical nature but technology is only as good as how we use it. Technology is not only about high-tech, and innovation is not only about technology. The key is the way we think, and we need to be flexible with thoughts and ideas. 

Pragmatism will be essential. Whatever works is good, even if it is sometimes goes against our prejudices. Remember what Deng Xiao Ping said when he changed the course of China 40 years ago. “It does not matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice”. 

Our attitude will make all the difference. I expect that we are going to rediscover old wisdom and that many solutions will come from the past but in a modern jacket, as it is already happening. Money will make a difference, too. There is plenty of it around. All it will take is some effort. 

Succeeding will also require humility and cooperation. Nobody knows everything and nobody can solve all the problems on their own. Engaging in a positive and constructive dialogue is what will shift the conversation from a sterile win-lose debate into a win-win vision.

You can read more about my thoughts and views about the future of food and farming on my website blog and my books. 

I thank you for your attention and I wish you a fruitful session.

Copyright 2021 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

My poetry book is published

My poetry book about food and farming is published and now available on all Amazon online stores. The easiest way to find the book is by typing Christophe Pelletier in the Amazon website search bar.

There is an English version, “Down to Earth” and a French version, “Vers de Terre”. Since my last update, the content has changed somehow. I modified some of the poems and added a few more. There now is a total of 99 of them. The cover also underwent a makeover. I have created a page on this website for the book. To find more information and details about the content, please click click here Continue reading

Ecological accounting vs. financial

When it comes to sustainability, the debate always shifts to the respective weights of money, people and environment. As we all know, these three areas are always tricky to reconcile. Here, I am going to give my views on why that is. In fact, it is not that difficult to understand. It comes down to the concept of externalities that I have addressed many times in previous posts. You can see the list of all these posts at this link I am really amazed how absent this term of externalities is from conversations about sustainability and about the future, because externalities are the very cornerstones that will determine our future. Talking about sustainability without mentioning and digging into externalities is purely and simply a useless exercise. Externalities being the long-term effects of human activities, it really raises the issue of the me/here/now vs. the others/somewhere else/later. This simple statement sums up the dilemma about both future and sustainability. In my opinion, not talking about externalities when addressing sustainability and future comes down to not taking the topic very seriously. Another area of discussion that I do not hear enough is the idea of closing the loops. Our materialistic consumption society based on always more has grown by opening the loops and ignoring externalities. To have a future we must close the loops again. The discrepancy between the me/here/now and the others/somewhere else/later is another expression of that.

To clarify, just have a look at the picture below. I compare Nature’s accounting with man-made financial accounting. I believe it makes everything much clearer. The way humans have organized their financial accounting is about having a snapshot of the financial situation of an organization or of an individual. Since it is a snapshot it is limited in time. We look at the financial situation over a defined period (week, month, quarter or year). As it is a snapshot, it is frozen at a particular moment. A few minutes later, another snapshot would show a different financial situation. Everyone who has had to do some accounting knows that. We allocate things in certain ways, most of which are arbitrary and dealt with just to make sure the snapshot looks good. It is just like having a portrait taken. Accounting makes sure that the subject is showing its best profile and under the nicest light possible. But because of this moment frozen in time, man-made financial accounting is of a linear nature, which also fits very well, or at least accommodates itself quite well with a system in which the loops have been broken open. Financial accounting, as its names tells, is about money and money only. The social and human balance-sheet does not appear in there, and neither does the impact on the environment. They are externalities. They are matters that are neither limited in time, nor linear and which are way beyond money only. Just imagine how things would look different if instead of our current currencies, we all shared one same currency, which would be CO2. Just think what it might do for the way we internalize the environmental externalities.

That is what Nature kind of does. Our little accountant bee from the picture could tell us more about that. Nature’s accounting is not based on a snapshot, it is an ongoing process. It is not a photograph, but it is a movie! And a very long one that has no beginning and no end. What can be more circular than that? And to be this circular is must have closed loops all interacting with each other. That is how Nature works. Humans, on the contrary, look at accounting of organizations as independent units from each other. The interactions are not factored in. There is no comprehensive accounting for the entire system, which makes each organization focus only on itself and leaves the others deal with their own. Human accounting limits co-responsibility and collaboration on our long-term impacts.

Instead of practicing creative accounting, Nature’s loops just constantly rebalance themselves. Nature works according to the most fundamental market liberalism there is. If something is out of balance, it readjusts itself. If that means that some populations see their numbers being decimated, so be it. That is the price of rebalancing life with resources. It is brutal but it is highly sustainable. Nature’s does not print money, does not maintain an imbalance for the sake of not affecting populations. Nature does not play musical chairs with its economy, as we do. For example, in financial accounting, there is always the game of improving the working capital for the closing date of the fiscal year, one part of this being to postpone payments to suppliers for just after the end of the fiscal year, but try to get the customers to pay their bills before the end of that fiscal year. That way, the working capital is lower and the numbers look better. That is the beautiful portrait snapshot approach I mentioned earlier. What we do with working capital, we do with externalities, too. We try to pass the inconvenient hot potato to others. In man-made economy, we also fight “natural’ market forces as much as we can. And even liberal capitalistic countries who champion free-market economy do this. Just see how much money has been printed pumped and into the economy after the subprime crash of 2007-2008. Just see how much money has been printed and pumped into the economy to deal with Covid-19, just to try to keep the economy (herewith I mean the GDP) afloat as much as possible. Just also look at all the subsidies of all sorts to keep systems running while they have no future, and the food and agriculture sector is no stranger to that. In our consumption society system, we have done nothing else than subsidize activities that produce negative externalities, and we can read “subsidizing” as actually “rewarding”. While Nature rebalances to function at the lowest energy level possible, we fight the rebalancing with the highest energy level possible. Should we really be surprised that this cannot go on?

Actually, human economy and its financial accounting do not work in parallel with its ecological counterpart. All the money we print to support our gigantic consumption levels is nothing but a loan that we take at Nature’s bank. All that printed money is used to use (well deplete and burn mostly) natural resources, while we have not earned that money, which is actually the right to use these resources. On top of that (literally), with broken-open loops, we pile up mountains of waste with the resources we deplete. Breaking the loops is not one problem, but it consists of two problems. One is running out of useful resources, the other is accumulating waste that kills us. We do this for the “me, here and now” and just like we play with working capital, we play the exact same game between generations. The generations that have benefited from this world of abundance are playing musical chairs with the following generations. The former do not want to factor the externalities in their lifestyle and just pass them on to their children and grand children. This is why, in terms of environmental impact, we are using resources much faster than we should. The problem is that Nature’s patience is not unlimited (here, read “resilience” for “patience”). It is a matter of time before Nature’s is going to ask us to pay the interest. The boomers won’t pay the interest. They leave it to their offspring. Nobody wants to take ownership of the externalities. It has become part of our culture. It is only fair for the young ones to push back now. They have started realizing that they are going to be left with the bill to pay, possibly in a system where Nature’s approach to economy will be stronger than the man-made system.

My purpose is not to depress you, although we all know that we are running out of time and climatic events certainly are cause for perplexity, to put it mildly. There are not many ways to rebalance our environmental impact. The most important is to reduce waste, which means reducing consumption volumes, From the 3 Rs (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle), Reduce is not popular because it means lower GDP and our politicians and economists freak out at that thought. At least, reuse and recycle leave some hope for GDP. Even the word Recession is unbearable. It is now called the R-word instead. As a society leader, if you cannot say the word recession and accept that it happens once in a while, because recessions are good, they are like slimming down after the excesses of Thanksgiving and Christmas, to get back in better shape, you have no place as a leader. Actually, you are a liability to society.

We are seeing more and more attempts to internalize the externalities. Unfortunately, they are always referred as taxes, which is another word that nobody wants to hear. So much for the quote “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society”. Perhaps, it is no wonder that we see an increase in incivility. To make our world sustainable, which means having a future, we cannot keep the same economics as now. Then, we must change the economics. We must change the way profit is built up. We must change the way we organize taxes. Money always talks and people will always welcome change if they make more money. Considering the amount of money printed, as I mentioned above, we clearly have the ability to put money at work to solve the challenges that we are facing. Yet, everybody seems to wish that when the Covid-19 problem is behind us we can revert to where it was before the virus hit us. Why on earth should we revert to a system we know leads to disaster? There was a great opportunity for our leaders to organize a shift of economics for before and after the pandemic, by putting money at work to create a healthier economy. No, most of that money has gone to the stock markets instead. We are missing an opportunity to change economics. We are missing an opportunity to reward good behaviour while penalizing damaging activities. Money talks and rewards are even more important than penalties to get acceptance for change. People always manage to dodge penalties and they do not cooperate. Opposite to that, people love rewards and cannot get enough of them. Not only do not they dodge rewards, they actively look for more. Here is a sadly underused potential: more rewards for good behaviour! As we can see, the solution lies in our behaviour and how we want to deal with adversity. This is quite important to underline. Technology alone will not deliver much if we do not want to change. Those who say otherwise are just salespeople trying to make some bucks. If we think that technology will do the work for us, while we do not make efforts to succeed, like spoiled lazy brats waiting for their parents to clean up their bedrooms, we just as well can cut the charade right now and accept the fact that Nature will go on but without us. The planet will be fine, no need to feel self-important by claiming to save it. What we need to save it humanity and life.

Copyright 2021 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Tomorrow’s grocery shopping

Grocery shopping has undergone deep changes over the last 100 years and, like anything else, it will do the same in the future. The current Covid-19 pandemic is contributing to this evolution. Regardless of whether it will be over soon or not, one thing is sure: it has forced us to make adjustments and in a way, the virus has just accelerated changes that were already in the works. Here is how I see what to expect.

First of all, Covid-19 has changed how we live, and therefore how we shop. Online retail was growing but then it became almost a necessity for grocery stores to jump on board and engage in online sales. It was not always smooth. It took time for many outlets to organize taking orders, preparing them and get the orders ready for pick-up or for delivery. There was a lack of staff. The staff was not trained properly and there were all sorts of logistics issues to fix. Without getting in details, stores have been able to get a better presence online and ensured a better and smoother service over time, and rightly so, because many people have discovered the convenience of shopping at the time of their choice, not having to drive to the store, not having to be in the herd, which was already a pain in the neck before the pandemic, and not having to wait in line to check out. It saves them time and stress. These are the main reasons why I expect online grocery sales to stay and grow further. The offering and the navigability of online stores will have to improve as for now, it is still a tedious experience. The execution of orders is still a challenging area. More staff is needed and at the moment, this part of the business is the busiest and currently the largest employment opportunity at Wal-Mart. Amazon has also hired large numbers of new staff. Yes, it takes time and manpower to fill orders. It is nothing new. I used to do that part at my parents butcher’s shop. I used to prepare orders and deliver them to the customers who required it. Of course, my parents’ store was a relatively small operation and our phone and my brain (and my legs and arms, too) were all it took to get things done. The volume of business of modern grocery store is such that it could just be a family thing. My point is that preparing orders and executing them is nothing new and actually not all that complicated, and it is a pillar of good customer care.

Here is where I see more changes in the future. Having to manage so many new people to fill order –or to be personal shoppers to put it in fancier words- is a complex task. Such staff is usually paid little, not particularly motivated and always looking for better job opportunities, not to mention they can get sick or absent. Of course, the numbers and he economics will have to adapt, but I believe that in the future, order filling staff will be replaced by robots, connected to order software. The robots will manage orders, prepare and pack them. There are already robot waiters in some restaurants, so it is not so far-fetched. The robots also will be connected with the warehouse and the inventory management software. They will re-order for the warehouse, ensure first in first out, eliminate loss and waste and know exactly where to pick what and complete the entire job much more efficiently than humans and that on a 24/7 basis, and not require being unionized. I believe that corporations will like that.

Another area where I see potential for change is the sharing of online platforms. French retailer Carrefour offered that possibility to small retailers who had to close because of the Covid -19 lockdown in France. Thus, small stores did not have to venture and spend on developing their own online presence, which could have been challenging, not to mention stressful considering the circumstances. Further, cashing in fees for a online platform can be a business, too. What Carrefour offered is in fact the same as large online retailers like Amazon and Alibaba have done for independent sellers for years now. It is also not all that different from an EBay type of concept. Sharing of online platform will be a way of making the jump for small stores and from, there they will decide whether to keep using such platforms or build their own.

Order pick-up will certainly be a solution of choice for quite some time. Home delivery will have to evolve further, simply because it can be costly, except for outlets that can offer free deliveries for a minimum purchase amount, which is already the case. Deliveries might also be carried out by driverless vehicles in the future, such as Kroger has been testing for some time. Of course, there is always the possibility for restaurant delivery organizations to make the move to help retailers. After all, many of them want to be listed on the stock market and that will mean the necessity for them to keep growing always more and that will mean going beyond restaurants as per today. Here, the key will be to drop their fees. What these organizations charge for meal deliveries is rather brutal for pop-and mom restaurants and volume will have to take over fee based on bill percentage.

Retail will evolve further and there is no shortage of possibilities. Although everyone claims to collect data and know their customers, I think that it is more something in the realm of talk than actual effective execution. I have loyalty cards but I never get any shopping advice. My shopping news is either through the generic flyer that I find in my mail box like all other shoppers. And if I take a look online to see what is attractive, I have the exact same online flyer, as the paper one, with absolutely nothing specific or special about my own particular needs. I thought they would know what I buy and don’t buy and help me accordingly, but no, none of that ever happens and I do not have the feeling that is in the works. Hello, retailers! One the most daunting thing that shoppers go through is to make the bloody weekly shopping list. What do we need? What are we going to eat? What do they have on ad for us? Should we buy at retailer A or retailer B? No answer to any of that ever comes my way. If your retailer sends you personal shopping lists and tips, specific nutrition and menu tips you are lucky, and I am not. But I doubt it because I have never met anyone who did get of shopping tips. Retailers like Amazon do give some shopping tips and online ads also appear when I browse on Internet, but as far as I am concerned, they tend to miss the mark about every time. Perhaps, my being a frugal person makes me one of those difficult individuals to influence and to get to buy stuff but I really think that shopping tips should be a lot more on target than they are. I also believe that to improve this situation, it would be much better to have a voluntary and active participation from the shoppers themselves by having them giving more inputs about their needs and wants, although this of course enters the slippery area of online privacy, but you aill have to admit that it is a lot easier to serve customers well when they are in a position of telling you what they are exactly looking for. And in these times of “Internet of Things” why not combine store information with producer information and process it in a virtual production information and shopping advice system where people can make choices based on their values, their needs and all relevant information they need to make their decision, in a totally transparent manner? With such a system, why not even include a virtual tour of farms and packing facilities and show people where their food comes from and how it is produced and by whom? It could be accessible at home, could make use of VR helmet and could be consulted at a convenient time, not in the stressful rush of the in-store shopping with others breathing in their necks, especially if shoppers do not wish to go inside the store again.

Yet, as I show in this picture below, data servers and supermarket aisles look surprisingly similar. Every purchase and consumption is a transaction that goes way beyond money and product. It is a transaction between data – and therefore lifestyle choice, personal choices and values – versus the price shoppers pay. Why not include it in the shipping experience, then? I believe the answer is in the area of business thinking. In spite of the many claims, it is still a primarily production-driven, volume-driven cost-obsessed model, and not enough of a service-minded customer-oriented value-obsessed model. Of course, there is no reason why this would not change and anyway, the former model I mention is pushing for some positive innovations, such as cashierless stores where you can come in buy and leave without going through the tedious checkout lines or the even so much more fun do-it-yourself checkout where half the people I see seem helplessly stuck unable to figure out which button to press.

With what I just described, one could easily wonder why to have large supermarkets anymore. Why should the corporation spend all that money in prime –therefore expensive- locations, with fancy stores with light and all sorts of amenities, while in the future, most of the shopping might actually be just a warehouse order filling activity. This is an even more relevant question for staple foods and undifferentiated commodities? Since commodities are really mostly about low cost, then retailers keep your costs down and focus on specialties and value for the store experience. I see several areas for which this would make sense. Non-perishables should be in the warehouse and not take much space in the shopping area real estate. But perishables are another game. First, they are perishable products and they have to receive special care to avoid loss and waste. Second, people like to use their senses to purchase perishables. They like to touch them, to see them and inspect them, and to smell them. Perishable shopping is still a highly sensory activity, and it quite personal. Some people like their meat lean and others prefer a marbled one. People like to take a look at the produce to make sure it is not damaged, bruised or blemished or that it is ripe. They like to make sure it is fresh. Some people like baked goods to be well-baked and others prefer when it is on the paler side. Color is an important factor. For all these reasons, leaving the choice to underpaid staff who do not know the customers and do not care overly for them is quite a bit risky in terms of customer satisfaction, and I am not even talking about cases of mistakes such as delivering bacon instead of the ordered pork tenderloin I heard of at the beginning of the pandemic and the early times of packing orders for curbside pick-up. No, perishables will require special attention and my guess is that personal service will be high on the list.

When it comes to produce, I expect another evolution. Produce is delicate and with too high waste along the supply chain and in the store. Local production may have its advantages in term of sustainability, in particular when it involves truck road transport, but it makes a lot of sense about freshness and waste reduction. Just like the fruit and veggies that I get from my garden, picking fresh ripe produce just on time makes a world of difference. Just ask my wife about how it tastes compared with what we used to buy from thousands of kilometers away. In such a quality approach of perishable retail, why not get them locally. Urbanisation push produce farmers further way and yet, there is an amazing acreage that can be used to grow produce in cities, and interestingly enough a lot of that acreage is on top of supermarket, malls and warehouses. So why not build greenhouses on top of the store and sell the produce superfresh downstairs?

If you have to point of sale, it is much easier than being an urban farmer looking for customers. The store is there, people come to buy all sorts of things, just add the produce from the roof farm. Actually that is what a number of retailers have already started. France’s Carrefour, again, is one of them, but Benelux’s Ahold Delhaize has been working on the same thing and I am sure other will come and offer freshly picked local (roof) lettuce, leafy greens and tomatoes and strawberries.

Quality of products and quality of service will be the top demands and the old concept of small butcher, baker, greengrocer store will be the answer, although with a modern touch and with help of technology. I expect future supermarkets to be just that. They will be markets, like in the old days and they will be super, as they will wow their customers with prime shopping environment, prime products and prime personal service. A side advantage of this will also be that it reduces the use of packaging and has the potential to require no plastic whatsoever. After all, the purpose of plastic packaging has been to replace human labour by allowing self-service.

Copyright 2021 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Update on my poetry book

I am almost finished with the book, which will have Down to Earth as its title. I am going to make a French version as well, the title of which will be Vers de Terre.

The book contains 90 poems about food and farming. As a strong believer in the benefits of using both brain hemispheres, I composed poems that range to more “classic” themes to themes dealing with new technologies in food and agriculture. There is something for everyone in these poems.

I divided the content into six sections (click here to see the table of contents):

  • Fields: poems about plants and agriculture
  • Pastorale: poems about animals and animal husbandry
  • Characters: poems about people from food and agriculture
  • Edibles: poems about food
  • Destinations: poems about countries and their foods
  • Gravitas: poems about serious subjects

I also mixed many poem formats:

  • Sonnet, because of its elegance and structure
  • Haiku, for its powerful and concise impact
  • Villanelle, because it is so musical and light
  • Limerick, just to try to be funny
  • Rondeau, for classicism
  • Cinquain,  for modernity and concision
  • Free style, to let my mind wander without the rigidity of predetermined format, which I did mostly in rhymes but sometimes without rhymes but for a feel of rhythm and visual or sensory impressions

Next to the simple pleasure of poetry, I wrote these poems in a way that can be conducive to read and discuss them with an educational function in mind.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Some lessons from an unusual year

Well, 2020 will probably remain in our memories as something rather different. Unlike most commentators, I would not refer to it as “unprecedented”. It is a great word, though. It makes one sound like an expert. Since nobody can know everything on any particular subject, I do not know what an expert is, really. Although there have been many inconveniences during this year, I believe that previous events such  the Black Death, the Spanish flu, both world wars and, any war really, have been much worse than this. So, there have been precedents. For all the crises and drama that has occurred, there is always something to learn from it. Here follow some of what struck me the most.

Since my primary focus is on food and agriculture, the first reaction I noticed was that even in countries of plenty, people felt food insecure as all the panic buying and hoarding showed. They were afraid of shortages, while there was absolutely no reason to think that way. At no point in time, was there any food shortage. Empty shelves in stores were the result of the hoarding that messed the normal smooth supply chain planning. Of course, these unexpected disruptions sent shock waves through the system and it needed some time to adjust, and it eventually did. The system adapted and the disaster scenarios did not happen, simply because they had no reason to occur.

Colorful 2020 - 3D rendering

Creator: carlotoffolo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The ability to adapt is another lesson from this year. Adapting is not new. It has been our way of life and an absolute necessity since the beginning. What I noticed is that many small businesses were much more agile and much faster to adapt than the heavier multi-layer organizations. In particular, food retailers have been lagging and still are. In particular, I think that it would only make sense for online sales, pick-up and home delivery to stay and grow further. They have some work to do in that area. They could reshape their activities in such better ways than today’s model but I think their problem is that they do not think like consumers, which is rather ironic for retailers. If businesses adapted rather quickly and in a rather disciplined manner, I cannot quite say the same about consumers who seemed to have a hard time to accept rather soft disruptions and making slight sacrifices. What I also found remarkable was the lack of structured strategy from about all levels of society. The main theme seems to have been knee-jerking, and that is for those who really had a strategy at all. My area of business also adapted. Conferences and speaking engagements moved to a virtual format. I thought that was gone but 2020 turned out in line with previous years in that area.

At the beginning of this post, I was mentioning experts. Everyone seems to have become a Covid expert. I have read and watched so many opinions about the future after Covid-19. It is amazing how quickly we get to have all sorts of extrapolations about something we know almost nothing. The future of work and the total reshuffle of food systems seem to have been rather popular. Yes, people have worked remotely and organizations have accommodated that because there was not much choice. But is that really a trend? What I see is that many organizations would like to have their staff come back to the office, with perhaps a mix of office presence and remote work, but claiming that remote working is the future is quite a step I will not make. What I see is that a lot of urban professionals would love to work remotely and live on the countryside, in theory. If executives from high-wage countries can perform their jobs remotely, what would be the reason not to move these jobs to people from lower-wage countries. There are many capable and very well-educated people in these countries who could do the work. If remote becomes the standard, those who dream of having the best of both worlds between urban life with high pay and the lifestyle of retirees might end up being just retired and unemployed. Be careful what you wish for. As for a total redesign of food supply chains, if there has been some talk about it, although that has faded as food producers made the proper adjustments, I do not see any significant action. There is some very locally, often for PR and marketing purposes but it does not go far. There is a simple reason for that: the farms and the farmers are just not there anymore near large consumption centres. The arable land has been paved and the land is too expensive. Dreaming is nice but we do not live in village scale anymore and we are talking about serious volumes that have to be produced. Further, about the topic of change, what clearly shows is that a lot of people just want to go back to where things were before the pandemic, with perhaps some minor adjustment, but priority number one seems to be leisure and breakaways with friends.

Crises always get the best and the worst out of people and the Covid-19 crisis is no exception. There has been lots of mutual support between individuals, but also some serious examples of selfishness. We have heard a lot about rights and freedom from the crowds, much less so on their duties and responsibilities. In my second book, I had a passage about humans looking at themselves more as legal entities than as biological entities. There have been many examples of this. Covid-19 is a biological event, and the legal decorum has no grip on any virus. The crowds were angry. Of course, there is always anger when there is change because when there is change, there is loss, but some really got over the top. For example here in British Columbia, there have been quite a few cases of customers insulting store staff and health care workers as well. People spat on store clerks because they were asked to put a mask on, or even assaulting and beating up staff for the same reason as it happened in a Wal-Mart store. Racial prejudice also came to the surface really quickly. Civilization is only skin-deep, and there are quite a few folks out there with a really thin skin. Of course, when some leaders enable this kind of moronic behavior, it should not be a surprise that followers follow.

Generosity, as usual, has not always been the come from the wealthiest. Since I am talking about money, one has to agree that all of a sudden, there has been plenty of money made available, as if it actually grew on trees. I am not too sure where it came from, how we will repay it and if the proper amounts have been distributed to the proper recipients. Money that before this crisis was lacking, as many programs could not be funded or worse had been cancelled. It is tempting to conclude that the reason why poverty has not been eradicated is simply because we have not had the resolve to get it done. People have been generous, as usual. Yet, the so-called philanthropists (cute euphemism for the Scrooge McDucks) with their billions, not so much. It is surprising considering how much their net worth shot up this year thanks to the solid stock markets, another sign that this crisis has not been all that disastrous. Regarding the wealthy, generosity came mostly from show business and sports personalities. Another example of disturbing priorities is this large Canadian retailer which temporarily had paid their staff a bonus for working in the front line at the beginning of the Covid-19, but ended it as the summer came and restrictions were loosened. Well, they decided not to reinstate this bonus as the virus flared up again since the fall, but in almost the same sentence as they were announcing their refusal to reinstate the bonus, they were also announcing a dividend increase to the shareholders. Very moral. Not.

Technology has been on everybody’s mind as being the solution for all of our problems. Well, technology certainly has helped a great deal during this crisis. It has helped many businesses to survive by bringing in remote working and virtual interaction. Also, it is a great help in speeding up substantially the possibilities to find a vaccine. Just think of the same problem 20 years ago. Things would have been much more difficult by then. Technology is a big part of our future for a better world, but technology alone will not be enough. We also have to rethink our behaviour in many areas if we want to succeed. If we do not make this inner change, technology will not solve much. And there is a lot to think about our behaviour and attitude. Just think at how extreme polarization and division have become, about how the most twisted and idiotic conspiracy theories and alternate reality take root and gain ground. Supposedly, we are the intelligent species, but that means that we must keep this ability to reason and reject nonsense. Responsibility is the ability to respond. Here, I would make the same remark about some leader and the followers I already made above.

Speaking of this leadership, the world moved on and found new directions for the future around the special case of the US. In the agriculture sector, China reoriented its sourcing of commodities to Brazil and Argentina, US farmers needed to get compensated with billions to keep afloat (that’s kind of socialism to rescue people who overwhelmingly vote republican,  bit ironic). The Chinese are quite astute people. I am quite baffled by how this country is still looked down by some Western countries that do not seem to realize how much China has changed. It is the same attitude as with Japan in the 1960s and 70s, which saw having these same Western countries being outcompeted in markets, cars in particular, and had to end up learning quality systems from the Japanese. Asian countries and Australia and New Zealand finalize a trade agreement, which is a reworked version of the TPP that the US shot down (or better said, one single American did). These countries no longer consider getting the US, which has a long coast on the Pacific, as being an indispensable partner. The world is moving on, the boat is sailing. Too bad for those who missed it. A cherry on the cake of the poor display we had to witness of the last couple of months. For as much as I love the US, and I really do, I must admit that my head has been hurting lately.

Since, I did not want to write a book on the topic, I will end it here. We have seen human nature express itself perhaps more clearly this year. We have seen the best and the worst. It is nothing new, but adversity always makes the contrast appear more clearly. Even though, Covid-19 has been quite disruptive, for most of us it was manageable with discipline and modest sacrifices. As I wrote in my introduction, I do not see this crisis as “unprecedented”, but I am pretty sure that we will face much worse ones. In particular, if we do not decisively take action to curb the effects of climate change, 2020 will look like a year in heaven in comparison. For those who had a hard time to accept wearing mask or just keeping distance, I believe that they will lose it completely when the serious problems take place. Just look at 2020 as being a gentle signal from Mother Nature. It was just a dry run to see how prepared we were to face much tougher challenges. I guess it has been pretty obvious that we are not prepared one bit. In my second book (We Will Reap What We Sow) that I mentioned earlier, I also had a passage in which I warned that Nature does not do politics, does not do PR and does not care if we are part of it or not. The dinosaurs went extinct, but the universe did not freeze because of that. Actually it processed the dead reptiles into fossil fuels, which we use to possibly repeat history. Since the time I published the book, some new concepts have developed and I should add that Nature does not do conspiracy theories, does not function in an alternative physics, either. The choice of our future is ours. We can succeed or we can fail. It truly is a case of We Will Reap What We Sow.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Positively setting the stage in my office

A substantial part of my work consists of speaking engagements, in particular keynote presentations to conferences. Of course, Covid-19 has been a bit of a disruptor. Yet, many events organizers have adjusted to the new situation and virtual conferences have now become a new format. If I felt at first like I was going to have lots of time on my hands, I have been rather surprised by the ongoing interest for the future of food and farming, and by the many requests for virtual speaking engagements that I have received. I am as busy as ever. In a way, there is some irony –or maybe just a sign that I saw certain things before others- because virtual meetings have been on my list of services for a decade. Few had used that possibility until Covid-19 raised its ugly head. Virtual meeting are now happening.

At first, it was a matter of simply accommodating, getting on Skype or Zoom, just like everybody else. I can understand that lockdowns took everybody by surprise and it is a matter of first things first. I just want to go the next level. Zoom meetings are nice but, and I do not know if you will agree with me, there is a bit of a depressed atmosphere about it. People do not dress as they would for business in the “real” world and everybody looks a little subdued and droopy. It feels a little soft. Often, it has more to do with not setting the camera in the right spot but nonetheless, I want virtual meetings and conferences to feel as dynamic, energetic and upbeat as the “real” ones. We are not going to let the virus get us down, are we? It is a matter of mindset, really.

Virtual meetings will stay, even after we have defeated the virus. The old in-person conferences will return but many people and event organizers will have discovered the value and the benefit of virtual events as well. This why I have organized my home office as a stage, where I can stand and look at the audience right in the eyes (although through the lens of a camera). Every time, I am just trying to replicate the feeling of an in-person meeting. A positive mindset is always contagious, hopefully more so than Covid-19. I have a whole array of tech gizmos to be able to do presentations, as I mention in the video. In a number of occasions, I needed to get in touch with my inner MacGyver.

I just want to let you know that virtual meetings and conferences are on my list of services. I hope that it is something that appeals to you and if you are interested, let’s get in touch and see what we can organize.

Christophe Pelletier

How to be a food futurist?

Probably, the question that I have been asked the most in all my years as a food futurist has been “What does a food futurist do and how and you do it?” Of course, being a food futurist is just like any other business. There is no one-fit-all approach. Different people and organizations have different needs and different expectations. As a food futurist, I have had to define my niche. That said, the term futurist is used in many ways and can cover very different activities. In the food and agriculture sector, the theme of the future of food and farming has actually shifted more and more as a marketing gimmick for many organizations. It has lost its role of foresight to just be another term for what used to be new product development. Personally, I do not use the word futurist to be a consultant under a sexier and trendier name. I focus on the future in a way that I described in my article What future do you want? Although the futurism market is segmented, just as any other market, I see a number of characteristics that make a futurist truly add value.

Accurate predictions

In my opinion, this is the number one key performance indicator of a futurist. Since the job is about what is not here yet, what the futurist says as to be a prediction, in the true sense of the word, with the prefix pre, meaning before, and diction being what s/he tells. A good futurist is someone who tells the future accurately before it happens and before everyone else. Accuracy is of course essential to spot a good futurist. Someone who consistently predicts accurately is of course highly valuable. If the futurist makes predictions with a low rate of accuracy, someone’s time is being wasted. As far as I am concerned, in my career. Often, I met skepticism or disbelief but generally speaking, my predictions came true some time later. The same thing happened with business strategies. In particular, since I started this blog, I made many predictions in my articles and in my books. I also made many for my customers. Most of them are out there and I leave it to you to decide whether you think my predictions have been accurate. I have my own opinion on the subject. As a teaser, I have compiled a number of them in my page Some of my past predictions.

An actual futurist

As I said earlier, there are many ways to be a futurist. The way I look at it, a futurist must present the future before it happens. It is the result of research and analysis, and the vision that comes out has to be substantiated with strong arguments. Since it is about the future, it cannot be about what already exists. Writing the present in the future tense does not make it a prediction. Many futurists, especially those who like to focus on technology tend to stick too much on presenting catalogues of what is already in the works. To me, this is not a foresight job. It is a journalist, a story teller and/or a student’s job. Similarly, presenting the future as a way to sell particular products categories or advocate for some production systems, whichever they might be is not a futurist’s job, they are sales rep’s, advocate’s, activist’s or a lobbyist’s jobs. Personally, I never advocate anything. I do not let my feelings or opinions stay in the way, either. I just present arguments to weigh in favour or against, so that my customers can decide for themselves. Actually, this way of working sometimes made me change the way I looked at the future myself.

A good futurist must be ahead of the pack, which can be lonely, and come up with an original angle. If it is not original, then it already exists and then the story is not a prediction anymore. In such a case the futurist is more of a follower than a leader. A good futurist anticipates. If there is a requirement to carry out a thorough rational and objective analysis, being a futurist requires a strong intuitive side and a strong sense of anticipation. People who have rational and analytical skills combined with intuition and a “sixth sense” are quite rare. Usually, most people are strong on one side only. Having both is a gift, for the futurist of course, but especially for the customers.

Independent and candid

Good futurists must be objective. They must be able to present a vision of the future that is not biased. This is where things can become difficult. Often, the futurist wants to please the customer and will emphasize the bits that make people happy and avoid the topics that are sensitive or even controversial. Yet, in my view, useful futurists will tell things the way they see them, regardless of whether the customers likes what they hear or not. Being candid allows telling the full story. I see resisting candour as actually short-changing the customer by holding some bits of the future. It might be tactically useful as customers who love everything might be more inclined to have repeat intervention for the futurist, but they might miss much other beneficial information. Sometimes, it is the other way round. The customer is the one who does not want to hear about certain topics.Then, I wondered why they would pay someone while applying what is a form of censorship. I have no interest in such assignments.The future has to be a bit shocking and disturbing; otherwise something is missing in the picture. The future should trigger resistance and requests for further explanations. After all, futurists are not oracles or gurus, although sometimes people seem to like seeing them that way. No, a futurist presents a vision and from there, a conversation must follow. Especially, it some bits of the vision strike a nerve, it is essential to go to the bottom of things and understand what substantiates the vision. This dialogue is critical to get the full value of a futurist. Otherwise, it is no more than a flat presentation, often quite entertaining, but with limited staying power. I guess I can say I have staying power since I have been doing this since April 2009. I have seen many others venturing as food and/or agriculture futurist but choosing the past of least resistance and they lasted a couple of years at the most. If I were to pinpoint a frustrating part of being a futurist, I would say that it would be the lack of this getting to the bottom of things. I find people are not curious and inquisitive enough, or perhaps they are too nice and do not want to engage in a passionate dialogue. They should because the vision is just the tip of the iceberg. The future encompasses much more that the vision and customers should dive deep to see the entire iceberg. At least, I wish they would. This why I always organize my schedule to have plenty of time available for my customers after my presentations. Often, informal after hours conversations are more conducive than formal stage time for good conversation.

Experience and specialization

There are futurists who will talk about the future of everything. It can be done but it depends for which purpose. Like anything else in life, there is a trade-off. I chose to focus on food and agriculture only. The reason is simple. I want to spend my time to deepen my expertise in this field. A person has only so much time and if I tried to do the same quality of work for all sectors of life, I would have to cut the time I can allocate to each of these sectors. It is the old joke of being a generalist vs. being a specialist, the generalist being someone who knows less and less about more and more things while the specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less. In a way, I have specialized in food and agriculture, but I see myself much more as a generalist, though. Of course, my personal and professional background help me, although my experience and using my critical mind through my education and professional experience also help me a great deal to know what works and what does not. I do not see my work as a food and agriculture futurist as a continuity from the past. On the contrary, I want to look at the sector with new eyes all the time. Otherwise, I would be like many futurists/consultants who are trying to recreate the old jobs they lost. I do not have any particular interest in this approach. Even though I have chosen to focus on food and agriculture, I do follow everything I can outside of food and agriculture. If I did not, I would not be good at what I do. I spend a lot of time following other sectors of activity and even economy, politics, history and philosophy to be able to understand all the interconnections that will shape the future. The future of food and agriculture will not originate from food and agriculture only. In a way, I probably could talk about many other sectors as well, but it would be at the cost of my in-depth analysis of all sectors. There, too, I would have a feeling of shortchanging the customer. Let’s say that I am a specialized generalist. I know less than specialists in their areas of specializations but I connect the dots and have the full 360 picture of the sector, and they cannot. I believe that this is a good approach, as my customers’ feedback tells me. But once again, the market is segmented.

Connecting the dots

The ability to get the big picture both within and outside the food and agriculture sector, together with the understanding of how all the interactions affect what can happen, where, when and how is a major asset in the work of a futurist. Nothing and nobody is on an isolated island. Just like my jiu-jitsu teacher used to say “it is all about action and reaction”. Even if certain things seem to have nothing directly with each other, I look at our world as a huge set of gears rotating together, or sometimes getting stuck. It is amazing how our world, present and future, is shaped by many events often far way and taking place at different times. It is better to keep your eyes and ears wide open. In particular, with food and farming, we are dealing with life, which is a nexus between the Earth, the air, the water and energy. Life is all about ecosystems and ecosystems evolve on equilibriums. This is what makes food and agriculture so interesting and so dynamic. The systems constantly have to maintain themselves and function in a delicate balance between many elements. The many levels for life to sustain itself make it powerful, yet vulnerable.

Critical thinking

Since the work of a futurist consists of a lot of research, it depends on the work of many others. Some are reliable and others less so. When browsing for information, it is essential to be able to sort out what is solid from what is not. To do this, it requires some serious critical thinking, as well as knowledge and experience. Not everything that is out there is true. It is important to know where reliable sources are and it is at least as important to know which sources are not. Personally, I do not care if what I read or watch -and I do a lot of that on a daily basis- comes from an expert, a Nobel prize, a high-rated university professor, an social media influencer (beware of those!), a billionaire or a celebrity. Even those who are considered in the know do not always say sensible things. The amount of useless stuff that I come across is quite impressive. In particular, the amount of myths, misinformation and fallacies that are carried around by people who either do not even read the stuff or do not have the knowledge to assess if something is true or false, or do not make the effort to do some critical thinking would really surprise you. Or maybe it would not. I am glad that I am naturally equipped with a seriously critical mind and I also am lucky that I have been in an education system with teachers that fostered this quality. Critical thinking is essential to a futurist. With a lack of it, the futurist can end up looking like a fool.

Open-mindedness

I mentioned the need for independence and objectivity earlier. It is also true that we all look at the world through a prism that we received from our parents, our culture, or teachers and our life experiences. I do not think that anyone can claim to be 100% objective and unbiased. This is where critical thinking helps a great deal, in particular by thinking critically about our own thinking (still following me?). It may sound a bit schizophrenic but with some practice it can be done without medication (just joking here). Without critical thinking, there cannot be any open-mindedness and without open-mindedness, there is no room for critical thinking. People who miss one of those or both, have no alternative than to fall in a binary world, the kind of binary world that the thought police and the political correctness brigades scourging social media try to impose. Let’s face it, people with an open mind and critical thinkers are dangerous, even subversive. They tend to scare the brigades I just mentioned. Especially, they escape their power. Yet, a good futurist must wade above that because anything that restricts our potential to develop a vision of a different world will ruffle some feathers, sometimes. Open-mindedness is essential to do this part of the work. Indeed, how can anyone think of a different world if they cannot accept for themselves first that it could be the way of the future?

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.