Curiosity: it’s where the future starts

August 17, 2016

The challenges ahead are bigger than ever before, and be assured that they will bigger in the future. The good news is that progress and new developments in science and technology are bigger and faster than ever, too. From a technical point of view, I would dare to say that the solutions to the challenges already exist or are very close. Often, the problem is that these solutions are not immediately economically viable. In such a fast-changing world, curiosity is undoubtedly one of the most desirable qualities to adapt timely and find new ways of running the business.

Perhaps, it is because a lot of my work is about finding as much information and gathering as much knowledge as possible about all sorts of technologies, facts, systems, science and experiences that I find curiosity quite natural. Perhaps it is also because I have a curious nature. In my daily activities, I find that people are relatively not curious enough. I also can see that the ones who have that quality are always ahead of the pack. What is really amazing is how much is already out there. The trick is to find it and to know about it. Often, the information originates from very different business sectors or comes from other parts of the world or is available in a different language. I can see regularly a lot of organizations busy reinventing the wheel, going through the pain of setting up research and spending vast amounts of time, money and resources to find out results that are already available and that they could have taken over and adjusted to their particular situations. Curiosity can deliver huge savings.

Curiosity is quite time consuming. That is a fact and its main drawback. This may be the reason why it does not happen enough. The quest does not always deliver, although for those who have a proper strategy, the yield is quite good. Curiosity, for a business, cannot be a random activity. It has to be structured and carried out with discipline. There is quite a similarity between curiosity and access to food. There are those who know where to find the tasty mushrooms in the woods and those who get lost in the forest. It is the same thing when going out there to find knowledge. Some are talented and find it often and fast and others just wander endlessly without spotting anything significant. Just as it is important to know the right spots to find food when hunting and gathering, there are some places where the good knowledge is. As with food, it is important to know the supplier and know the origin of the knowledge. To pursue the comparison with mushrooms, some knowledge is good and some can be toxic. The supply chain is just as important, especially considering how fast and far social media can replicate and distribute information. When it comes to knowledge, the reliability, seriousness and quality of the sources is of utmost importance. A discerning knowledge consumer must be critical about what they find. A solid critical sense is of the utmost importance. Regardless of whether the knowledge is found through a hunting/gathering activity or comes from a knowledge farm, it is essential to double-check its validity. The packaging can be deceiving.

Next to focused curiosity activities, it is also important to encourage what I would call open curiosity, in which there is no particular objective but just letting new findings lead to new discoveries. There is no business discipline involved. It more often research you would do in your free time. One piece of information generates interest to know more and you just follow. It is similar to a child-like exploration in which each answer triggers the next “why?” question. It is pure learning. There is no way to tell when or even whether the new learned knowledge will be useful, but there is no such thing as too much knowledge. The trick is to be able to retrieve it when it is needed.

Another important aspect of curiosity is to link experience to knowledge. Usually, knowledge is the result of certain protocols. The knowledge itself takes its full dimension and value only through the use we make of it. Some people make good use and others do not. When gathering new knowledge, it is essential to also learn about the lessons from the experience of those who used it. Why did certain things work in certain conditions and others did not? Which factors influenced the outcome and how would different conditions or a different environment affect the outcome? Getting the big picture is a very important part of curiosity. Expanding the scope and seeing how the pieces of the puzzle come together are the foundation of future successful strategy and adaptation.

Curiosity is a great asset when it comes to face and prepare the future. It is not the whole story, though. Food and agriculture are not intellectual exercises. They must deliver concrete products and results. It is nice to be curious but what do you do with that? The answer to this question is quite simple: action.

According to the saying, knowledge is power. Knowledge is true power only when it is active and circulates. Knowledge that remains in a brain or in a drawer is not very useful for the greater good. The first step that I advise curious people to do is to share what they learn. It is even easier today with the Internet, and there is a lot of knowledge out there. By sharing, I do not mean simply copy and paste or click the share button. Before sharing, it is essential to make sure that what you share is quality. There is too much information that is spread on social media while clearly not critically reviewed, not to say not even read, as it is quite often the case. The mindset here is a mix of enthusiasm, critical thinking and practical service orientation. The knowledge must be correct and the message must come over. It also must be useful to the recipients. It must connect to their needs and add value to them. The final result has to be better food through more efficient and sustainable systems that are financially viable. In the food and agriculture sector, it must lead to always more collaboration and knowledge transfer in all directions within the entire value chain. Often, the weakness of communication is that it stays too long in the same circle and other links, consumers in particular, are kept too long out of the loop. It results too often in misunderstanding, distrust and erroneous perception.

Through collaboration and brainstorming, curiosity helps create a more accurate and achievable vision of the future, on which action can further be carried out to shape the future. From this angle, it makes no doubt that collaboration between all stakeholders is an ongoing process. This is especially true with technology. There are new developments all the time and it certainly takes a curious mind to be able to keep up with novelties. It actually takes many curious minds, considering how huge the quantity of knowledge and information is. It also takes minds that can connect all the dots, and also connect with each other. Although time consuming, the back and forth collaboration, together with ongoing feedback about performance and new demands, allows all links of the chain to know better what the objectives are and how to foster ongoing improvement. As many new technological developments come from outside the food and agriculture sectors, I believe it is critical that the food producers be proactive in the development of technologies and applications, but stating clearly what they expect from technology suppliers and tell them what they expect from them. It is never too early to let them know what your problems, limitations and/or objectives are, so that they can work on it as soon as possible. Being proactive will help speed up the development of the right products, systems and applications.

In this process, leadership is of the essence. Leadership is essential to create the right dynamics to make knowledge transfer happen, fast and well. The role of leaders here is to make knowledge transfer attractive and stimulating for others, so that more stakeholders participate in the development of innovation. The more pressure they will be on suppliers to bring better solutions to the food sector, the higher the chances it happens, indeed. Leaders must also foster connections and networking across the disciplines, even or actually especially with partners outside of the food and agriculture sector. A vision that includes the bigger picture will have more chances of stimulating the cross-discipline and cross-sector collaboration. At the same time, it is crucial to stay practical. The goal is to produce food, and that must be in the minds of all participants.

Curiosity is really the starting point. It feeds an entire chain of ideas and decisions that are the basis for improvement. There is no doubt that fortune favors the bold. In the never-ending quest towards better foods and better agricultural practices, such a process becomes an illustration of “the best way to predict the future is to create it”. This saying may have not been so true as today. Progress and food security depend on it.

 

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Food fights will go on and it is a good thing

March 28, 2016

A funny thing happened to me when I moved from Europe to North America in 1999. In Europe, I was used to having demanding customers. Issues about how food is produced have been rather common during pretty much my whole life (I will turn 55 later this year so that you have an idea of how long it has been).

When I came to North America, I dealt with a completely different situation. I did not get some of those 30-page product specification documents from retailers, foodservice and manufacturers with all the do’s and don’ts of how to produce food. I just got some 30-page disclaimers and liability documents, for the customer to dodge any heat should there be a law suit some time down the road instead. Before, I left Europe, I remember my Managing Director from the poultry company I worked for telling me how lucky I was because “over there (North America), customers hardly ask anything, you just sell them what you produce”. I remember looking at him and thinking that it could not be possible. I was wrong and he was right. For as much as European consumers were picky on all things such as hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, animal welfare, feed composition and origin, North American consumers, and retailers as well, seemed totally uninterested about production methods. It was almost eerie and to be quite frank, it was boring, because I could not see any challenge. One of my American colleagues enjoyed telling that it was the way it was and that it would never change because that is how Americans are. I disagreed but it certainly appeared he was right for a few years. Things have changed now. The American consumer has become more demanding and the dynamics of the discussions have become quite similar to what I had known in Europe for decades. It is actually rather easy for me to “predict” the future as I am living in an ongoing déjà vu nowadays.

The debate about food has indeed evolved into food fights. If there is one thing that I always found remarkable in my professional life in the food and agriculture sector is the issue of the producer-consumer relationship. Maybe it comes from my family background, but I have never understood why the food industry is so defensive when challenged by consumers or any organizations. My father used to be a butcher and I spent quite a bit of time around the shop and with him on the markets. I discovered very early that customers would ask the weirdest things but that what matters is not the factual truth but whether they trust the supplier. If you cannot deal with that fact, I suggest you do something else than producing food. Food is loaded with emotions and that is that. If consumers were rational, there would not be any diversity in foods and other consumer goods. They always would do the right thing and would not pay attention to all the marketing efforts that support the world economy. If consumers were rational, I bet you that they would deconstruct any PR by spotting all biases. If consumers were rational, they would focus on nutrition only and they also would reject anything that is unsustainable. I have a feeling that a lot of people who resent consumers’ emotions would actually be out of business because they would deal with a much tougher audience than the current consumers. Be careful what you wish for. Further, it is also clear that those who criticize consumers for not being rational, are not rational themselves in their consumption patterns, either. Nobody is.

Last year, a book titled No more food fights hit the shelf. Considering the author is actually supporting the conventional agriculture and has a problem with consumers and activists who challenge the food system, it is actually ironic. It reminded me of the words of my Managing Director about the North American market. What could be better than the good old days when the agribusiness could push their products to lethargic consumers? It sure must have been a good time, but it is gone. The book’s author, just like the agriculture sector, does not want anybody questioning the food system. They don’t want anyone looking over their shoulders and find out the bad and the ugly, at the risk of not showing the good either. I do not understand the food producers’ reluctance. If you are proud of what you do and what you produce, as they claim, you are proud to show the world and to share that goodness. You are also willing to always improve and make your customers satisfied. In my opinion, the attitude is really more about being production-driven –or should I say production-centred- than market-driven. The difference is that the former is about oneself and the latter about others. That difference actually reflects quite well in term of whom consumers trust. They trust the latter group, but are very distrustful of the former. I can understand both attitudes because I have filled functions that were more oriented towards technical operation as well as commercial functions.

I started my professional life in a position in a technical and scientific field, which suited me well by then because I was a hard-nosed rational fellow with a tendency of not accepting unfounded non-sense. Then, by accident, I got myself involved in a commercial role, which opened me new doors, and my eyes, too. The successful experience led me to other commercial positions and the lessons that I had learned in my father’s shop, I rediscovered on a daily basis in the multinational company. There is a huge gap of perception of the customers between the different departments of a company. Very often this discrepancy is reflected in the dynamics of the sales and operations departments of a business. One wants to say yes and the other wants to say no.

Food fightPersonally, I find being challenged a very good thing that can happen to a producing company. I would agree that negative feedback is never pleasant, but even though the message can be rough, it is feedback after all. In this regard, it should be handled in the same way as customer complaints, the good kind of handling that is, not the denial kind. The latter is usually more of a reason for a customer to drop a supplier than the problem that occurred in the first place. Business, like it or not, is first of all about human interaction. Money is only a means to secure it. In the course of my career, I had to deal with “consumer resistance” in quite a few occasions, but what it put into motion brought me most interesting and rewarding experiences. They helped me to learn about business and to understand the complex dynamics of entire value chains faster than ever. They helped me grow and that experience has made me one of those who understand the ins and outs of marketing, production and management in a variety of discipline the best. I am thankful to my “difficult” customers forever.

The reason is simple. By being very demanding, customers forced us to be better than ever and be resourceful to find ways of both meeting their expectations and allow us to remain profitable. Quality only improves through pressure from customers and a competitive environment. It very rarely happens as the result of a voluntary decision, simply because there is a cost at first. In the case of my past professional experience, needless to say that adjusting to consumer demands was never an easy process internally. On the one hand, there was the source of the company’s revenue – in other words salaries – at stake, and on the other hand, the natural drive to keep production costs under control. The key was to not lose our focus on the one essential parameter: the margin. Margin management with market vision really delivered amazing results in such situations. Another essential point was to negotiate everything and always get something in return for any effort made on our part. I remember some very tense conversations with Marks & Spencer in the time the talks were about the removal of meat and bone meal from animal feed. We showed them the impact of their demand on our bottom line and made clear that if they helped out on the bottom line we would go along. Because we were offering top quality chicken, we were able to find an agreement. For as much as we could not afford to lose their business, they did not want to lose us as a supplier, either. The willingness to accept challenges from the market and the drive to always improve our products and service served us. We would not have been in a position to ask anything in return if we had produced a basic commodity. By aiming at being the best, we had a sustainable competitive advantage. Finally we were able to have them accept to buy more from us so that we could dilute the extra cost over a larger volume and have more efficient logistics. The result for us was actually more volume of above average margin products. The customer had to say goodbye to some suppliers who were not ready to go the extra mile for them, and we also said goodbye to customers who would not support us in the cost effort. In the end, a very tough challenge ended up in a strong long-term profitable win-win situation. We came out of a crisis that could potentially have destroyed us stronger and more respected than ever. This is only an example of a tough market challenge. I went through similar situations in the various sectors –feed, pig, poultry and aquaculture- in which I have worked. The added value got in the millions per year each time.

Food fights are good, but they work only by picking the right partners in the market. As a producer, you need to have customers and make the right choice to achieve this goal. As a consumer, you need to find a producer that listens to you and meet your expectation. They will be disagreements along the way, but in the end both parties can benefit, but it will not just fall on your lap. Fights are a part of life. On the first day of my last year in the Agricultural University, the head teacher had a short presentation. He said that life is about:

  • Learning
  • Creating

Those two points were very well received by the students. Of course, it fits quite nicely with a crowd of intellectuals. The third point was received by the chilliest silence I can remember. The third point was…

  • Fighting!

Yes fighting is an integral part of life. We all fight all the time. We fight with competitors, with other drivers, with customer service representatives, with sales people, with the tax man, with retailers, waiters. You name it and it you will find an example of fighting. So no more food fights? Forget it, it won’t happen. In my experience, the only reason why anyone asks for a fight to stop is when they are losing. In this case, if they are losing, it is more because of their refusal to listen to where the market is going than because of those bad irrational consumers. The smart food producers, big or small, have all made moves in the direction of consumers’s demands because they know that is where the growth and the future are.

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


What future do you want?

March 10, 2016

What future do you wantUsually, when my customers contact me, their purpose is to have me tell them my vision of the future. Since the dawn of time, people have always had the secret hope that someone can tell them about their future. People have always sought to reduce uncertainty and looked for a more predictable future, be it in the stars, in a crystal ball, in cards or goat insides. If the purpose is the same, there are different attitudes and expectations when it comes to the future. I would identify four main types of requests.

Some are interested in what I would call Fantasy Future. Their expectation is not so much to have a realistic view of the future but they want to see a picture of unlimited possibilities. Their focus is primarily on the potential of new and as futuristic as possible technologies. They want to stimulate their imagination as much and as possible. Presentations that sound a bit like science-fiction fit quite well for such audiences. Whether such a future is actually possible and viable is secondary. Escaping from hard rational reality of day-to-day operations is a great way of getting new hopes, see new opportunities and building a dream about how thing might be. There is no real timelines for when that future might take place and it is fine, as it is not so important in this context.

Another form of future that is also in the realm of fantasy but more dangerous is what I call Wishful Thinking Future. For as much as with the Fantasy Future, it is clear that the predictions are quite speculative and the tone is more one of entertainment, those who tend towards Wishful Thinking Future have the tendency to think that, just because they believe in a particular scenario, it will and must happen, regardless of whether it makes any sense from a technological, practical or economic point of view. Usually, those who look at the future from the wishful thinking angle rarely do a thorough analysis of the actual possibilities and of how sensible their scenarios are. Quite often, they do not have the thorough set of skills and knowledge to carry out such an analysis. They seem more interested in pushing their dogma on others and they generally have a hidden agenda. The danger here is that it misleads and even possibly deceives the public. In the end, it is a major waste of time and money. Unfortunately, Wishful Thinking Future is much more common than one may think and unfortunately not that rare with some so-called influencers with some ego, and that is where the danger lies.

I enjoy some Fantasy Future once in a while. It is entertaining and, usually, the audiences that are interested are quite relaxed and curious. There is always a good energy in such meetings. However, I always present the futures scenarios in a very practical way to connect my story to the day-to-day activities of my clients. I also always present the limitations and what I think the odds of such scenarios are to actually concretize, so that my clients keep in mind what to expect. I do not engage and cannot stand the Wishful Thinking Future. Making people believe things that are not realistic, not possible or, worse, not true, is not in my DNA. I have exposed some non-sense quite a few times in the past, which is usually rather simple with the help of grade 6 math. Yet, I am always surprised how non-critical most people are and many fallacies get spread quickly and reach large numbers of people through social media. Fortunately, there are more alternatives to sketch a more sensible future. We live in a world where many one-eyed try to be king of the blind, I see my function to get my clients have 20/20 vision.

One approach towards realistic future scenarios is what I call the Likely Future. It is based on actual trends and historical patterns. The scenarios are the result of a rational analysis and usually such scenarios have a high probability to realize. In a sense, it is a cautious approach of the future. On the one hand, it takes into account facts and data and on the other hand the emotional and psychological aspects of human behaviour. It has little to do with fantasy and absolutely nothing with wishful thinking. It is based on verifiable facts and the scenarios can be discussed in a rational manner. It may not be the most exciting exercise but is creates the basis for the development of alternative scenarios and to assess their feasibility and assumptions by identifying areas of uncertainty. I wrote my first book, Future Harvests, with this approach in mind. What was the result? Pretty good because most of the issues that have now gone mainstream were all mentioned in the book, which I wrote in late 2009 and early 2010. Many other issues mentioned in the book certainly would deserve to get the same exposure but getting the message to the average person is a baby step process. Clearly, my approach of likely future works. I wanted to see whether the world could feed 9 billion people. I just wanted to get to either Yes or No, and I found the answer, and I also debunked a lot of myths and fallacies in the process. To me, the Likely Future is a good first step towards a strategy, but it is only a first step. By connecting such scenarios with resources, ambitions and desires for the future, it is possible to go to the next approach of the future, in my opinion the most interesting but also the most challenging: the Desirable Future.

The Desirable Future is really a lot of fun to investigate. It mixes the Likely future with the development of a vision. In this regard, it makes both brain hemispheres work. It combines a rational approach with strategy, creativity and leadership. By using the Likely Future as a basis, it aims at not taking the outcome as inevitable. It is a matter of finding out what will be if we act “normally” and then challenge it to deliver a better prospect. It leads towards a positive, collaborative and stimulating vision of the future. It is an extensive exercise that includes many disciplines and many stakeholders. Futurists mostly like to talk about technologies, but building the future depends much more on leadership and managing human nature than it does on technology, which will only offer tools to achieve future goals. Technology is only as good as the use we make of it, as I explained in a previous article. Earlier on, I mentioned both brain hemispheres having to work together, but the cooperation goes beyond what is inside. It calls for a collective approach. It requires enthusiasm and respect of others. It is about building a better world for all and not just for a few. There will not be a better world if a select few build a future for themselves only. The Desirable future is by far my favourite approach. It is energizing and an endless source of hope and happiness for me. This is why I sketched quite a few avenues about the Desirable Future in my second book, We Will Reap What We Sow, which was ahead of its time when I wrote it and still is (unfortunately?) and still will be for years to come (that’s fortunate for me!)

So, dear reader, what future are you most interested in? The answer is important because it will shape yours!

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy future Group Consulting Ltd.


Transparency is a market-driven exercise

March 2, 2016

Among all the trends in food markets, transparency is a tough demand to meet. As such, it is only natural that consumers have questions about what they buy and want to be sure that they buy something they feel comfortable with. In times when the food economy was local with everyone knowing each other in small communities, the food supply chain seemed transparent. With the separation of rural areas and urban centres and the increasing distance, both geographical and relational, between consumers and the different links of the chain, the distance in trust increased, too. Add to this a few scandals through the years and the result is a feeling that something is broken in the world of food.

The renewed desire for transparency is nothing than a cry for trust. Since the personal relationship with suppliers in many cases no longer exists, trust cannot be just a matter of knowing the farmer, the baker or the miller. Today’s transparency is about verifiable facts. Today’s consumers, unlike their parents or grandparents, do not want to be told a story anymore. If they don’t trust you, they won’t believe you anyway. They are used to search online for everything, with more or less success when it comes to the truth, but they nonetheless want to find out for themselves and figure out on their own what to think. Today’s concept of transparency is replacing PR, which is a one-way push communication technique. Today’s consumers want a one-way pull information platform. That is all the difference. PR is obsolete, but most food producers still have not come to this realization.

The prospect of having to collect, update and disclose all information through the chain from DNA to retail store or restaurant seems a daunting task and for many food producers, it feels like an overwhelming request. It seems and feels that way because it is. It is rather close to some Herculean task. One of the questions I often get is how much do consumers want to know and should everything be available? My answer is that in theory, consumers want to know everything and so it all should be available indeed but in practice, it is somewhat different. Consumers do not really want to know everything about how their food is produced. Well, maybe some do but they are very few. Most consumers do not even read nutritional labels, so they won’t bother spending hours or more to learn everything about the bread or the chicken they just bought unless something serious triggers it. So, what do the large majority of consumers really want? They don’t want to know everything but they want you to be able to answer them any question they have. They want the certainty that, should they have a question about their food, they will get an answer, the truth and that nothing will be hidden from them. Transparency is much more about trust and truth than it is about hard data. Yet, the way to get there is through data and open access.

TransparencyThe amount of data that can be collected is huge and so is the task to set up your transparency system. However, regardless of how much data you collect and share, your transparency performance will always depend first on making transparency one of the pillars of your organization. By that, I mean have the genuine willingness to engage in a candid and honest interaction with your customers and consumers. Genuine, candid and honest are key words when it comes to transparency. People will sense if you are so indeed. If they sense the opposite, you will not gain trust and the perception of your company will further deteriorate. Consumers will forgive honest mistakes when you admit you made one and are willing to do what is needed to correct it, both inside your organization as towards your customers. Consumers will accept that you do not necessarily have all the answers ready but that you are willing to do the research and come back diligently to them with the information. Although immediate response has become an expectation in the digital world, people understand that sometimes a bit of time is needed. Although data is important for transparency, attitude is at least just as much. By being responsive and handling difficult conversations in a mature manner will get you a long way. In a transparency approach, there is no need for defensiveness. You open the doors and you get out of the way! Of course, the mix of transparency and data brings the issue of boundaries. There is a fine line between what is useful information for customers and what is critical information about the company and information that affect competitiveness. Consumers will understand that some information is sensitive enough to not be disclosed. In this process, too, it is essential to be genuine, candid and transparent as long as it is not an attempt to hide something. Remember, transparency is a tool to increase the consumer’s trust and loyalty!

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Future implications and consequences of the ChemChina-Syngenta deal

February 16, 2016

The purchase of Syngenta by ChemChina did not go unnoticed. Many commentators are trying to see all sorts of reasons and all sorts of consequences, mostly depending on whether there are pro or anti GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms). When it comes to China, the best approach in my opinion is to look at it in a very pragmatic manner, simply because the Chinese have been quite pragmatic over the years. Their approach of food and agriculture is the same as for all other economic activity. It is dictated by the need for the government to ensure social stability or at least prevent social unrest. They will do what is good for China, meaning what is good for the Chinese government. It is not aimed at pleasing any other country or the financial markets. They still follow the principle express by Deng Xiao Ping: “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”.

In both Future Harvests and We Will Reap What We Sow, I was announcing such a move, simply because it makes sense when looking at the economic and demographic changes the world is going through. The purchase of Syngenta is a very good move for China because it kills several birds with the same stone.

The Chinese seed sector was –and still is- fragmented and far from effective. By bringing a heavy weight company like Syngenta in their market, they will establish a much stronger seeds and genetic business to meet the challenges of the future. Syngenta brings expertise that will help China speed up the learning curve and create a critical mass of production that will be able to meet some serious volumes. It will stimulate further consolidation in China and also stimulate innovation and progress for other Chinese seed producers, if they want to stay in business. I read many derogatory comments about China’s quality approach. It is amazing how many people are stuck in clichés from the past. China is improving in many areas and quality is one of them. There is a generation of entrepreneurs who are quite bright and competent leading businesses. It is quite clear to me that Syngenta is and will be a quality player in the future, under Chinese leadership. Those who think this deal is bad news for Syngenta’s employees will be disappointed. I believe the contrary. They will get many more challenges to tackle and their jobs will be more focused than they were before or would have been if it had been bought by a North American company.

The purchase of Syngenta sends a clear message that China wants to be in control of its seeds. By buying such production assets, China will not have to go on the market, or at least will be much less dependent, to buy seeds from outside. It will strengthen China’s bargaining position towards other seed suppliers. Thus, China will be in charge of strategic choices that are good for China’s agriculture instead of having to choose from suppliers who do not have China’s long-term food security at heart or who would try to impose their conditions to China.

Regarding the topic of GMO, the purchase of Syngenta certainly offers China access to the technology, but it is not the main reason for the purchase. What it does though, is to offer China the option of using genetic engineering technology if they consider it useful. If they choose to do so, they will approach the use of the technology as a resource that supports their food security goals only and they will develop the products they actually need, not the products other suppliers would want to sell them. Whether China will use GMO is up to China and nobody else. Trying to see the Syngenta purchase as a sign of China’s attitude towards GMO is in my opinion wishful thinking more than anything else. When it comes to seeds, they will not look at the cat’s color. They will focus on having one that catches mice.

Further towards the future, the Syngenta purchase will have other long-term effects, and outside of China, too. China will be a significant seed producer and supplier. With an organization like Syngenta, there is no reason why they should limit business to China. I expect to see China playing a much more important role in the seed market outside of its borders. In particular, I expect to see China eye the huge African seed market. China has been active for decades in Africa and contributes to many economic development projects. China does not interfere with African politics but focuses on how it can help Africa developing and playing a future role for China. Considering the potential of African agriculture and its significance for China’s future food security, the new Syngenta should be instrumental for future progress of agriculture in Africa. A side effect of such a strategy would reshuffle the cards of the world seed market and bring a new and different equilibrium. There is quite a bit of activity on the mergers’ side. Syngenta had been the object of interest from other potential buyers, especially Monsanto. DuPont and Dow already brought their agriculture activities’ together. BASF seems to be looking at reshaping its activities. Further consolidation and mergers will take place in the coming months and years. What will be the next big merger? I can think of two possible ones: BASF and Bayer or BASF and Monsanto. I also see the possibility of Monsanto not being considered a purchase candidate at all by anyone.

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Nature will reshape food value chains

October 15, 2015

The recent climatic events, in particular droughts, have attracted more attention on future challenges for food production, and rightly so. Unfortunately, the mainstream media cannot help presenting the as all gloom and doom. Certainly, there are very serious reasons for concerns, but solutions can be found. I wish the media would present more examples of positive actions to face and overcome the challenges.

It is not easy to deal with a changing environment, especially when it is impossible to predict accurately what the change will be. Predictions about temperature increases are useful but they are quite insufficient. An increase of 2 degrees on average will be different if the standard deviation is 1 degree or if it is 20 degrees. Other factors such as hours of sunlight and precipitations (including their nature, frequency and intensity) will impact agriculture at least as much as average temperatures. Changing climatic conditions will not only affect plant growth and development, but they will change the ecology of weeds and pests as well and that needs to be factored in future forecasts and models

Nature will reshape food value chainsA special attention on water is necessary. Without water, there is no life. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, wasting natural resources has been a bit of a way of life. The issue of food waste has finally received the attention it deserves, but the waste is not just about food. It is about all the inputs such as water, energy, money, time, and fertilizers. Water is still wasted in large quantities. Just compare how many liters a human being needs to drink compared by the amount of water that is flushed in bathrooms every day. Before the housing crash of 2008 a study in the US had estimated that lawn watering used three times as much water as the entire national corn production. But the issue of water is not just about waste. It is also about preserving water reserves. The late example of the drought in California illustrate what water scarcity may mean for food value chains. California is not only a major agriculture power house, but it exports a large part of the production outside of the state’s borders. The issue of water scarcity and the dwindling level of the Colorado River are not new for Californian agriculture. It has been known for a couple of decades that problems were coming. California produces a lot of water-rich fresh produce by means of irrigation. It actually has been exporting its water in the form of lettuce, spinach, melons, strawberries and citrus far away to places from where the water will never return to California. The water loop has been broken wide open and that is why, among other reasons, the system is not sustainable. If California can no longer supply its current markets, it will have to rethink its target markets. At the same time, other regions, that may not be competitive with California today, because externalities are never included in the cost of production, will eventually take over and replace the Golden State as suppliers for some productions. Unfortunately for the future, California is not the only region with a water problem. Saudi Arabia changed its food security policy a couple of years ago as the country leaders realized that trying to produce all its food would lead to a severe depletion of its available drinking water reserves. Instead of pursuing food self-sufficiency at all costs, the country chose to find other supply sources through international trade and through the purchase of farmland in foreign countries. The examples of California and Saudi Arabia demonstrate how natural –and demographic- conditions shape food value chains. The issue of water is not just about produce. Animal productions require usually more water than vegetal ones. In the future, water availability will surely affect where which kind of animal products are produced. New regions will arise and old traditional ones may review their strategies from volume-driven to higher margin specialty animal products market opportunities because of environmental constraints.

Climate change and water scarcity show how international trade can actually contribute to food security when done responsibly and with long-term vision. The prevailing model of producing where it is cheapest to produce without taking into account negative environmental externalities is facing its own contradiction and demise. The next model will be to produce not only where it is the cheapest to produce but where it is sustainable to do so. When water runs out, it is no longer possible to ignore the externalities of a production. When water becomes scarce, it gets more expensive. The law of supply and demand commands. When inputs get more expensive, several things happen. The economic model shifts. Priorities and externalities change, too. At first, producers try to find ways to increase efficiency and eliminate waste. The benefits outweigh the additional costs. Uncertainty stimulates innovation. New systems, or sometimes old ones that found a second youth, replace the current ones. If that does not work well enough, then producers start considering producing something else to ensure the continuity of their operation and find new business.

It is not the first time that our natural environment changes. Finding successful solutions to deal with it really are about our ability to adapt and to preserve our future, as it has been the case in the past. The challenges may be of a magnitude like never before, but so are our knowledge, our technical abilities and the tools present and future.

From an agricultural point of view, adapting to a new environment is about finding the type of production that thrives under new conditions. It may mean different areas of production for some species. In North America, there is already a shift for corn. Iowa has traditionally the main grower, but the corn production area is now expanding north. Minnesota is now producing more corn than in the past and so are the Canadian Prairies. Similarly, the production area for soybean is shifting north. Minnesota is growing an increasing volume of soybean and even in the province of Manitoba in Canada, soybean production attempts have been carried out since a few years.  It is the result of better production conditions and the development of new varieties that can adapt to new less favorable climatic conditions. Because of the local supply for soybean, the development of aquaculture with local soybean products for fish feed is now considered a long-term possibility in Minnesota among others. In Europe, corn production regions also saw a shift to the north for corn during the 1970-80s thanks to the development of new varieties, which largely contributed to the growth of dairy production in these new areas through the widespread use of corn silage. For the future, there is no doubt that genetics will contribute again to ensure food security. There is currently a lot of work done to develop varieties that can withstand droughts, floods or soil salinity. The ability to know the complete genome of species, to spot genes through gene markers, to be able to create new varieties that are less sensitive to diseases help speed up the development of crops that can thrive under future conditions. The recent developments in synthetic biology are quite interesting. Research conducted at the IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) on the development of rice varieties that can have a higher photosynthesis efficiency and thus higher yields could open new perspective for a more productive and more sustainable production.

Next to the development of better and more adapted seeds and genetic material, the development of new technologies that I described in a previous article will bring a number of effective solutions as well. In particular the rise of precision agriculture is certainly quite promising. The ability to deliver to the crops exactly what they need when they need it at the right time and at the right place in the right quantity will help reduce the environmental impact of agriculture while offering the possibility of delivering higher yields. Similarly, in animal production, there still is room to improve feed efficiency. It can happen through further genetic improvement, the use of more efficient feed ingredients and feed composition and through better farm management. The latter is definitely an essential facet of a better future for food production. Better and updated skills for food producers will help being more efficient, more productive and more sustainable at the same time.

An area that is often forgotten when it comes to the future of food is the functioning of markets. If demand for certain products, and in particular animal products, increases faster than supply, price will go up and there will differential increases between the different types of products. As most consumers, unlike what marketers sometimes tend to make believe, still choose what they eat depending on the price of foods, there will be shifts. Some productions will thrive while others will struggle.

As prices still will be an essential driver of the location of the various vegetal and animal productions, markets and environmental constraints will increasingly have a joint effect. In the future, the dominant economic model of producing where it is the cheapest to produce will evolve. As the pressure on water supplies, soil conditions and pollution issues will keep increasing, the model will include an increasing share of negative externalities. They are the long-term costs that are never factored in the production costs but that will affect future production economics. Externalities are the hidden side of sustainability and they will determine the future map of agriculture, as it will no longer be possible to ignore them. Choices will have to be made between short-term financial performance and the long-term ability of various regions to be able to produce, and to keep producing, the volumes and the quality specifications that are needed by the different food markets of the future.

A friend of mine told me a couple of years ago after a trip to Asia how she could see from the plane the large plantations of palm oil trees, and how they had replaced the jungle. She described her impression as the view resembled the strategic game of Risk to her. Yes, climate change and water availability in particular, will reshape food value chains because agriculture, regardless of it scale, is a strategic activity. It is about life and death. It is about peace and war. Future strategies for both global commodities as well as for local food value chains will integrate Nature’s new deal of precious resources and conditions of productions. Together with the geography of future consumption markets, world agriculture will readjust, relocate and the Earth will look different once again.

Copyright 2015 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Beyond just technology… the human factor

August 6, 2015

Early July the SeaFest 2015 event was held in Ringaskiddy, Co. Cork, Ireland. The Our Ocean Wealth conference was aimed at showing the potential of the sea as part of a successful economic development for Ireland. I had been invited by BIM (Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Irish Seafood Development Agency) as a speaker and my presentation was about future technologies and how they will change seafood production, both in fisheries and aquaculture. One of my previous articles, “Robots, sensors, drones and big data are coming to the sea, too” had caught some attention.

From left to right: Joe Gill (Goodbody Stockbrokers), Susan Steele (SFPA), Kieran Calnan (BIM), Donal Maguire (BIM), Helen Brophy (UCD Smurfit Business School), Eddie Power (Green Isle Foods), Øyvind Oaland (Marine Harvest) and Yours Truly

From left to right:
Peter Marshall (RS Standards), Joe Gill (Goodbody Stockbrokers), Susan Steele (SFPA), Kieran Calnan (BIM), Donal Maguire (BIM), Helen Brophy (UCD Smurfit Business School), Eddie Power (Green Isle Foods), Øyvind Oaland (Marine Harvest) and Yours Truly (Photo: BIM)

The agricultural sector is currently implementing many new technologies at an amazing pace. The comparison with precision agriculture is quite useful for the seafood sector. The development of robotics, sensors, satellite imaging and analysis, unmanned vehicles such as drones and driverless tractors, data software, artificial intelligence and interconnected devices are already revolutionizing many sectors of food production and it is just the beginning. The picture of the future that I have in mind is amazing and the possibilities seem almost endless. Imagine if fishing vessels do not need operators anymore. Would they need to float or should they operate as submarines? What would the effect it be on their size, their shape and the way they fish? Imagine robots equipped with sensors replacing divers on fish farms, executing the current tasks and at the same time being able to inform about water quality and other production conditions, presence of contaminants or diseases. Imagine fish farms being connected to such robots and to global satellite and data collection systems making them move or change configuration to get to better production conditions or to avoid negative interaction with wild marine life, thus constantly optimizing production performance and reducing –maybe eliminating- long-lasting environmental impact. Carrying out an “Imagine Exercise” is not only useful but it is fun.

While the previous generation of automation was about adding muscle to operators, the new technologies are adding extensions to the operator’s senses and creating a nervous system. The muscle era was about strong, big and fast, but it required an operator. The nervous system era is about smart, adaptable, much faster, and decision and action will be taken without human intervention.

By combining the possibility to monitor production parameters with the ability to detecting faster than ever before the environmental impact of production activities, new technologies will play a prominent role in helping food production become more efficient and more sustainable. They will help reduce the use of resources and save money. The interconnection of databases for both production and environmental monitoring will allow many possibilities for forecasts, simulations and comparison of scenarios. They will be outstanding tools for decision making and policy making. New technologies are going to offer a platform for collaboration between all stakeholders, be it businesses, governments and NGOs. Similarly, as the data will be made available, all the links of food value chains will be able to access and exchange information like never before. The potential to reconnect consumers and producers is amazing. Transparency and interaction are the way of the future and the tools that are coming will make it so easy. The global village is going to be exactly that. Virtually, everybody will have the possibility to know about everything they need to know about everybody else. Just like in old-fashioned villages, keeping secrets will be quite difficult and social control will prevail. Just see the reactions to inappropriate statements on social media to realize that this trend is already on. Communication and behavior of food producers will have to adapt to this new form of relationship, because there always will someone watching and telling.

Adjusting to a new technological world is a necessity. Food producers need to approach the future with the right mind. After all, technology is only as useful and effective as those who use it. I like to illustrate that statement with the example of gun powder. When the Chinese invented it, they used it for fireworks and entertainment. When the Europeans discovered it, they decided for quite a different use: weapons and killing people. Current technologies and future ones will also depend on who will use it and how. In my work, I always wish to make my clients realize the importance of the human factor on the future outcome of technologies and innovation. The outcome will depend on the intentions behind the development and the use of technology, but even if the intentions are pure, the outcome will depend on the skill of the users. Continuous training is essential to get the most out of technology. As I wrote in my first book, Future Harvests, there are several recurrent drivers of innovation:

  • Reducing physical labor.
  • Helping us live better and longer.
  • Increasing efficiency.
  • Helping communication.
  • Increasing mobility.
  • Offering more leisure and entertainment.
  • Making some people a little wealthier.

However, these drivers are not sufficient by themselves. An essential part of successful innovation lies in its practical use. I always insist in my presentations on practicality of technology. Innovation is not an intellectual exercise. When it comes to business, innovation must actually fulfil one or more of the drivers mentioned above and it must also be financially viable and advantageous. In other words, to be adopted, innovation and technology must add value. Although they may be fun, cute and exciting, gadgets do not really belong in that category.

For the future, we need to look beyond just technology. Giving the proper importance to the human factor and focusing on the practical side of new developments are two essential aspects of success. This is why the second book I published, We Will Reap What We Sow, is subtitled “Reflections on Human Nature and Leadership and Feeding a Growing Population”. Getting people to do the right things right through clear vision and solid leadership is what will eventually make the difference between prosperity and trouble. A number of qualities will help a long way towards a successful future.

Curiosity will be an invaluable quality. Innovation is taking place is all areas and many innovations can offer useful applications. It is necessary to follow what is happening elsewhere. In the past, innovations came from the own sector. It is no longer the case. Now it happens in start-ups that have nothing to do with food. The potential lies in creating applications for a particular purpose. There is much to learn from other food sectors, but also from the military, the medical sector, the tech sector, and not just in Silicon Valley. Another essential quality will be pragmatism and openness. Disruptive technologies will bring disruptive solutions. Tomorrow’s way will be different, technologically and philosophically. It will be useful to regularly brainstorm and review how things should be if they were to be set up from scratch all over again, by using all the latest knowledge and also from the experience, successes and mistakes from the past. To tackle the challenges of the future effectively with new technologies, it will be crucial to be practical. Applications must serve a purpose and deliver the solutions to the problems we face. It is not an intellectual exercise. A spirit of collaboration will be one of the keys for future success. Nobody can solve future problems alone. Wanting to help others succeed and not being shy to ask for solutions to succeed will get us a long way. Even though we seem to live in a world where pointing fingers, blaming and punishing is the preferred choice to deal with problems, it is necessary to approach the future with a 180 degree angle and reward and praise those who do things right and solve problems.

Copyright 2015 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.