Helping farmers produce better

November 26, 2010

Meeting food demand depends for a large part on the ability of farmers to produce adequate quantities of the food products of the right quality. To achieve such an objective, farmers depend on their business partners. To feed an increasing world population, helping farmers succeed is not an option; it is a necessity.

There is no argument against producing better. A market-driven and more efficient production reduces the amount of waste, and it increases the amount of food available for consumers. It reduces the impact on the environment and it actually reduces the cost of production. However, it is important to realize that actions to produce better often are investments, as the effect is not always immediate.

From a value chain point of view, efficient production starts with high-quality ingredients. If the world wants farmers to produce higher volumes, they must have access to good genetics. Seeds that have the potential to deliver high yields, or farm animals that can produce and grow fast, while using feed and water efficiently, are an absolute necessity. Genetics and agriculture must also take genetic diversity and sustainability into account, but with poor genetics, farmers will not be able to meet food demand, and they will not be financially viable for the long-term. Vision and proper strategy are the elements to deal with this dilemma.

Farming inputs, such fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and animal feed, must help plants, and farm animals, to express as much of their genetic potential as possible. Suppliers can play a very important role in helping farmers use the proper products in the right amounts, in the right place, and at the right time. The same principle applies for food processors and distributors. It is their role to help farmers deliver what the market needs when it needs it. They must encourage this by rewarding financially the farmers who do things right. This is in the interest of all the parties involved. Farmers make more money with their products. Processors get products that are more efficient to process, thus saving on costs. Distributors gain market share because they offer the right product to their customers, thus increasing customer satisfaction, appeal and loyalty. The advantage of doing things right is that it becomes more difficult for business partners to switch to a competitor. By being the best partner in business, the need for complicated contractual and legal agreements becomes a little less relevant. It is about loyalty and mutual security.

To achieve this kind of ideal situation requires a lot of effort, commitment and communication. Market needs must be translated in clear product specifications. The knowledge on how to be able to meet the required standards needs the proper channels to be transferred to farmers. Access to information has become much easier with the development of communication tools such as Internet and cell phones. Smart phones are helping further, and now farmers, anywhere in the world, have much faster access to market and technical information than by the past. This helps them make faster and better decisions. However, better technologies and better communication tools are not enough. Extension services are crucial. In my book, Future Harvests, several examples show how positive this is for food production. One is the policy of the Ugandan government that resulted in a boom in rice production, making the country a net exporter of rice. The second example is about the extension services of a food corporation, McCain Foods, in India, that helped farmers produce a better quality of potatoes, meeting market requirements, and earning substantially more this way. Another illustration of the positive effect of knowledge transfer is about the farming leader in Burkina Faso who helped increase food production with simple techniques, and stopped the exodus of population. Proper education and on-going training is part of the food production of the future. The human factor in knowledge transfer is as important as ever. Only people can know what the specific situation of a farmer is. Knowing the farmer is the best way to help them set up plans and strategies to improve their technical and financial performance. A farmer being independent business owners, their main concern is to generate enough revenue to stay in business, and to offer a decent standard of living and a secure future for their families. Helping them in these objectives is the way to get their attention and loyalty. Extension services need to offer the most effective solutions by taking into account the level of skills of the farmers, as well as their financial situation. Some farmers can afford and use high-tech solutions easily. Others may have money, but lack the skills to use certain techniques or technologies. Others may be technically savvy, but may lack the money. Extension service people are the ones who can help farmers make the best choices. They also must assist farmers to get the proper financing if this is the limiting factor, for as long as the money would used to deliver the proper return.

As Cicero stated, “The sinews of war are… endless money”. This tends to be overlooked by many who talk about increasing food production. If farmers do not have access to enough money to be able to produce the food the world needs, they simply will not. Developing agriculture requires serious investments, either from individuals or from governments. Asian and Arab countries know this and this is why they spent massive amounts of money in African and Asian countries, and even in Brazil and Argentina. If farmers cannot buy the basics to produce efficiently, they will have poor harvests. If farmers cannot be profitable, they will stop farming. This is important to realize that being a farmer must be attractive financially, too, if we want to motivate the next generation to be in agriculture. Money is important, but just for food production, more is not necessarily better. To get good results, we must ensure to have the right amount of money at the right time at the right place for the right purpose. The money must be aimed at producing for the market. Financing agriculture is about meeting food demand, not to produce blindly. Just like there is a need for efficient market-driven precision agriculture, the future of agriculture financing must evolve to efficient food-market-driven precision financing.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Swimming in circles

November 21, 2010

If there is a never-ending feud in the food industry, the one here in British Columbia (BC) about farmed salmon certainly should be put on top of the list. The fight between salmon farmers and environmentalists has been going on for as long as the industry has been around, and it looks as if it will keep lasting for a long time to come.

In previous articles, I have addressed some of my views about the poor perception of some areas of food production and the inability of the industry to connect. The BC salmon industry certainly seems to have difficulties to fight this battle.

I still do not quite understand why they have such a hard time. On the other hand, maybe I just do know too well why.

The controversy is much fiercer in BC than it is in other farmed salmon producing countries. Perhaps, this is because BC farms salmon in the only region where wild salmon is still quite abundant, and this region of the world is still a direct interface between wilderness and human activity.

Opponents of salmon farming came out last week with “superheroes” who were going to put things right of course. Here is their website. Clearly, some people have a lot of imagination. Another PR event was the release, also last week, by the salmon farming industry of a 30-minute video, titled Silver Harvest,  that would put things right of course. Here is the link to Silver Harvest. These two recent PR activities made me come to write the following lines.

I have not so much to say about the superheroes stunt, except that their creators are a bit short on sense of humor and of creativity. Captain Condom? Batman and Spider-Salmon? Come on, anyone can do better than that.  Since they are there to save the wild salmon, the least they could have done is to give the names of the wild Pacific salmon. I had expected Captain Sockeye, Lady Pink, King Chinook, Mighty Coho and Superchum instead. Unless they are stuck in teen years, they sound more like Halloween pranksters.

The industry video was announced with lots of fervor by industry tweets and I was curious to see if finally they would reach the hearts of the public. There, too, I ended disappointed. After a good start, a farmers’ crew sailing to the farms, I thought they would glorify the farmer’s job by showing a typical day at the farm. Not really. The video then focused about how many mistakes the industry made in the past, making me think that, after all, the industry opponents were right to be as active as they had been. I am not going to go in details about a number of statements that made me raise my eyebrows. I prefer to express here what I would like this industry to communicate, instead of the constant defensiveness, the constant reference to facts and science that do not interest the public. Is this video aimed at the public? I am not sure it is, and I am not sure it should be. Who are farmed salmon consumers? For BC farmed salmon, they are mostly North American consumers, and to a lesser extent Japanese and other Asian nationals. Are these consumers concerned about the type of containment system? Hardly. They hardly care where the fresh salmon they buy in stores comes from. With Chile’s ISA epidemics problem that about decimated their production, consumers shifted to Norwegian and BC farmed salmon massively without any further concerns. When Chile’s production returns to previous levels, they will switch back to Chilean salmon just as easily. One of the most important criteria for consumers is the price in the store. Most consumers have no idea how farmed salmon is produced. Only a tiny minority of consumers know, and those who allegedly care do not eat farmed salmon anyway.

I would have liked to see the video showing all the tasks carried out on a farm. I would have loved to see the camera follow a farmer explaining what viewers could see going on on-site, explaining them what they do and why they do it. I would have enjoyed seeing the pride of being a salmon farmer and of providing people with food. Farms employees are good people who want to do a good job that is meaningful to society. They should say very clearly once and for all that they do not accept to be stigmatized and ostracized. They are family people. They have kids to feed and to bring up. They must make clear that no group of society that has the monopoly of morals and ethics. They have to say that enough is enough, and that they deserve respect, even if some do not agree with what they do for a living. A couple of years ago, an email from one of the environmentalists stated that “it is so much fun to torment the salmon farmers”. Harassment is not a sign of superior intelligence. Salmon farmers must also state that if people have ideas to improve production while also ensuring economic activity, they are open to suggestions, but that only constructive and productive criticism is acceptable. The public would understand that.

I wish the video had shown all the steps of production from the egg to the delivery to the final consumers. The content would have been similar, but it would have told an enthusiastic story that could have ended with a group of friends having a blast at a barbecue party with some farmed salmon on the grill. They could have addressed the very same topics but, instead of vague statements of being sustainable, responsible, etc…, well the usual politically correct stuff, they had the opportunity with Silver Harvest to show specifically the precise actions that they have taken, and demonstrate the improvements they made. Thus, the viewers would have seen firsthand the daily activities that ensure that the fish they produce indeed meet all the standards that they claim to use. That does not really happen in Silver Harvest. Instead, I got to listen to a list of topics without real cohesiveness between each other and the announced purpose of the video. People do not like to be told how they should think. They love to come to the conclusions themselves. They do not like being lectured. The public is not stupid, just ignorant. After all, no group has the monopoly of knowledge and science. In Silver Harvest, the speaker who, in my view, would reach the public’s hearts is Richard Harry, President of the Aboriginal Aquaculture Association. He made such a clear and strong plea for the communities that depend so much on aquaculture for their livelihoods.

Too few consumers have a chance to visit a salmon farm, especially considering how far away from farms they live. The camera could have been their eyes. Most people with whom I have talked about farmed salmon in Vancouver simply tell me that they know nothing about salmon farming, but they hear “things”. I always enjoy telling them how farmed salmon is produced, about the good things as well as the areas for improvement. After such a conversation, they usually look at the issue with a different perspective. They are interested in learning more, but they need to know that they can trust the one telling them the story.

Talking spontaneously from the heart about one’s passion is what reaches and wins others’ hearts the best.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Future Harvests is on Facebook

November 19, 2010

In this age of social media, it is interesting to explore the potential of the tools available. This is why I have created a page for my book “Future Harvests – The Next Agricultural Revolution” on Facebook.

This Facebook page is for all the people who are interested in the future of food production and food supply. Readers of the book, as well as non-readers yet, can interact there with each other and with me.

There are more than 500 million Facebook users in the world. According to LinkedIn, there are 2.2 million people in my network.

The book has been well received. It has already directly generated new business for my company. What does happen when someone depends on the kindness of strangers?

Clearly, I am very curious to see how far the Future Harvests Facebook page can reach through my contacts, their contacts, and so on.

If you want to know more and/or you know someone who would be interested in the topic of the book, please pass this message on. I believe something interesting should happen.


Follow the water!

November 15, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The danger of a weakening US dollar

November 1, 2010

The global economic situation is still fragile, and one of the symptoms is the nervousness about currencies. All it takes is a rumor to see a particular currency drop within minutes. The actions taken by central banks during the financial crisis have consequences. The amount of debt and the ability, or inability, of individual countries to manage the situation will influence the relative strengths of all currencies.

One currency has a special status. Because of the economic and political influence of the USA since World War II, the US dollar is the currency for most commodities. This special status also influences the actions of financial markets. Since the stock market plunge of October 2008, investors have become cautious. The value of stocks and commodities does not follow fundamentals anymore. A lot of cash has left the markets and, more than before, the active players in the market place their bets for short-term returns. Most transactions are computer-generated. Software programmers have developed algorithms that allow computers to make transactions based on technical analysis within a millisecond. This maybe a technological beauty, but such programs do not analyze data. They act mechanically, in a very sophisticated manner of course, but mechanically nonetheless. When it would have taken half an hour for traders to panic, the computer can now deliver the same result in less time than it takes to blink. When you add to this that investors, and especially speculators, borrow large sums of money to play with derivatives instead of doing so with the actual assets, the consequences for the real economy may be rather high.

Considering the amount of debt that the Federal Reserve Bank has issued, also known as the amount of money they printed, the burden for both taxpayers and the American economy is heavy, and will remain that way for a long time. The bank crisis is not over. Unpaid mortgages and foreclosures will keep on weighing on the health of the financial sector for quite some time.

The low interest rate may help the American economy to some extent, but the key for a true economic recovery will be job creation. So far, the unemployment situation does not seem to present much improvement anytime soon. To consume, Americans need to make money. With the tightening of credit conditions, they now have started to save money again, instead of spending it at the mall. Before the crisis, on average, Americans were spending 105% of their income, thanks to credit cards and loans based on their theoretical home equity, which supposedly would only go up. Retail accounted for 70% of the GDP. Clearly, this model will not come back. All of the above explains why the US dollar will weaken over the long-term. To alleviate this trend, the USA should increase interest rates, but in the current situation this probably would stop the recovery. The USA are somehow stuck.

Lately, it looks like most of the trends in stocks and commodities prices are linked to the relative strength or weakness of the US dollar. Commodities have become currencies. When the US dollar drops, the price of stocks and commodities goes up, and vice-versa when the currency drops. The logic behind this is simple. Investors are interested in protecting the value of their capital. Instead of owning actual dollars, they prefer to own assets. This is why the demand for materials, oil and agricultural commodities is firm. By switching from cash to finite resources, investors want to ensure that they will, at the very least, be protected from the erosion of the currency. Most of the demand is not for the real commodities, though, but for futures contracts. By borrowing money, they can buy even more of such investment vehicles than they normally would, or should. The higher demand for commodities results in an increasing price, in US dollars that is. Since they buy as the US dollar weakens, they will get more dollars back when they sell, although with the potential depreciation, this might not be an actual profit, but at least it is not a loss.

What may be the consequences for food prices? We have had a flavor of what a run on commodities can do in 2008. This time, the level of leverage will be lower than by then, because investors will not be able to access loans as much and as easily as they could prior to the financial crisis. Nonetheless, increased demand for oil futures contracts together with an increased demand for agricultural commodities futures contracts will result in food inflation. Ironically, the most vulnerable country for this are the USA themselves, because the price inflation will be in US dollars, and that is the only currency that they have. Food inflation will put more stress on the income of Americans, and depending on the level of inflation, this can bring the country back into a recession. Considering the importance of the US economy, the whole world would suffer the consequences.

Food inflation will hit globally, because the demand on paper will be higher than the physical demand, and because, the focus will be in the price expressed in US dollars only. The exchange rate between other currencies with the US dollar will not be taken into account immediately. This will happen when consumers start to offer enough resistance. The resistance can be less consumption of consumer goods in rich countries, but it can be riots and violence in poor countries. Although food inflation has not hit consumers too much, yet, the high price of animal feed ingredients is already a concern for companies involved in animal productions. Processors will face a dilemma between a decrease of margins and the need to fill their plants at full capacity to keep costs down. Their margins and the farmers’ margins will be under pressure, because the retailers will resist price increases as long as they can. Another area of margin pressure for farmers will come from the price of inputs, fertilizers in particular. If the rumor, based on paper contracts, turns into the idea that demand for agricultural production is really increasing sharply, suppliers will hike their prices as soon as they can. If farmers get higher prices for their products, they also will pay much more for their inputs.

Reactions to food inflation will be the strongest in Asia. The situation is already sensitive, and the share of food in the household budgets is still relatively high, especially compared with Western countries. For many people, food is already difficult to afford. The situation is such that the Indian government is considering offering subsidized grains to 75% of the population. This represents about 800 million people. This is roughly the combined population of the EU, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand together!

What happens with currencies, stocks and commodities exchange markets will have direct as well as indirect consequences. We all need to follow the developments, because we all will feel the consequences in our wallets, eventually.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.