Ten human factors that may hinder feeding nine billion people

February 22, 2011

The road to ensure food security for all is still long. Although humans are very creative to solve and overcome their problems, when it comes to food production, they still lack control on many parameters. Since the beginning of agriculture, farmers have watched towards the sky to see what the weather would bring them. Rituals to call for friendly climatic conditions and soil fertility have been common in all cultures. Droughts, floods, never-ending rainfall, frost and other climatic events have happened on an ongoing basis and, climate change or not, they still will happen in the future. If natural events are out of our control, we can influence another parameter, although mankind’s history has shown that it is a difficult one to tackle: the human factor.

Here follows in condensed form my top ten human limitations to succeed in feeding nine billion people by 2050:

#10: Fear

Although fear is a defence mechanism, it will not protect humanity against food shortages. There are many fears that play a role in our understanding (or lack of it) of food production. The problem is not so much fear itself, but the inability to overcome it and to start bringing effective solutions to the problems. The other risk that fear brings is its ability to spread and to evolve into panic.

There are many challenges ahead, but we need to keep our heads cool, and address the issues practically and rationally, at least as much as we can. Inaction, which is a symptom of fear, will not be helpful. To feed nine billion we cannot be passive.

#9: Greed

Greed is fear’s twin sibling. It is a strong driver that makes people take risks for the sake of material reward. As such, a little bit of greed is good, as it stimulates action and entrepreneurship. It stimulates the need for action that I just mentioned. Speculation, the purest form of greed, will have to be brought under control. Its consequences in terms of social unrest and on the stability of societies are too serious. The risk with greed is that all the focus is on the short-term financial reward. It is also essential to ensure the continuity of food production for the long term, and we should not engage in solutions that can undermine future food security. A little bit of fear will help bring some balance.

#8: Not addressing the right issues

This, together with the slow disappearance of common sense, is a growing tendency. Too often, the focus is on eliminating the symptom rather than the cause of the problem. This usually results in creating a new set of unnecessary problems. By eliminating the cause of a problem, the solution does not create any new problem. We just have to deal with other problems and their causes. In the case of food security, an example of mistaking the cause and the symptom is hunger. The cause is poverty, not the lack of food. The food is there, but the poor cannot afford it. In our world of information overflow where the media are more interested in the sensational and the “sexy”, true and thorough analysis has gradually become less interesting to the public. Although analysis may be boring indeed, it is an absolute necessity if we really want to solve problems.

#7: Lack of education/training

Here is a topic that rarely makes the headlines in the media. Farmers, and candidates farmers, need to have access to proper education and training. In order to improve and produce both more and better, they need to have the knowledge and have the possibility to update this knowledge. This may seem obvious in rich countries where education and training are well organized, but in many developing nations, usually plagued with food insecurity, this is not the case. Too often, even the most basic knowledge is missing. For these populations to succeed and to contribute in increased food security, it is necessary to have education high on the list of priorities.

#6: Lack of farmers

This topic does not get much publicity, although it is of the highest importance. In many countries, the average age of farmers is above average and there seems to be little interest from the youth to take over. We need farmers if we want food. To have farmers, we need to make the profession attractive and economically viable. Two weeks ago, the US Secretary of Agriculture announced measures to make it easier to start up a farm. He mentioned that his country needs to find 100,000 new farmers. In Japan, they are developing robots to do the farmers’ work as there is too little interest from the youth for agriculture, and they face a serious risk of not having enough farmers. In the EU, there are more than 4.5 million farmers older than 65, while there are fewer than 1 million farmers younger than 30. This is how serious the situation is becoming.

#5: Lack of compassion/Indifference

In our increasingly individualistic and materialistic societies, the focus has shifted towards the short term, and even to instant gratification. Our attention span has shrunk dramatically, and unless other people’s problems affect us, we tend to forget about it. When it comes to food security for nine billion people, this will not work. There are many possibilities to produce enough food, as I have shown in previous articles, but to achieve this goal, we still have a lot of work to do. Mostly, we have to change a number of bad habits.

Throwing large amounts of food in the garbage is one of those bad habits. By changing this, we can save amazing quantities of food. First, we must lose the I-do-not-care attitude.

Large quantities of food are lost before reaching markets in developing countries. All it takes to solve the problem is to make the funds available. Compared with the stimulus packages and bank bailouts, the amount is ridiculously low. There too, the not-my-problem attitude is improper.

Another example is Africa. With the size of Australia of unexploited arable land, and low yields because of lack of proper seed and proper support, the potential for food production is huge. We need to help Africa succeed. The attitude of the West towards Africa, and Africans, needs to change.

Humans are social animals. This behaviour is an evolutionary advantage aimed at ensuring the survival of the species. Hard-nosed individualism and indifference go in the opposite direction. They work only in period of abundance. By showing some compassion and helping others succeed, the fortunate ones actually increase their own odds of survival. In our globally interconnected world, any negative food security event affects us all, eventually. We feel a pinch while we are “only” seven billion. This says how painful it would be by being nine billion.

#4: Interest groups

A better name should be self-interest groups. There is not a day that goes by without showing us the total lack of interest they have for those who are not affiliated to them. For as much as it is essential that all opinions and philosophies can express themselves, it is just as essential that they also have empathy and respect for those who think differently. Interest groups do not appear to do that. They express the behaviours that I indicate under #10, #9, #8 and #5. Their objective is to influence policies by bypassing the people who elected the representatives who depend on these groups for their political funding. Would that sound accidentally reminiscent of corruption and banana republic?

#3: Lack of long-term commitment to the vision/plan

There are many plans for food security out there. About every government has one. Industry groups come out with their vision as well. So do environmental groups. The problem in many cases is not the lack of objectives; it is the failure of execution.

To achieve food security, proper execution is paramount. It requires much more than a vision and a plan on paper. It requires a clear allocation of responsibilities and a schedule for the delivery of the objectives.

Often, what undermines the execution of a plan is the lack of a sense of ownership of the mission. All the actors of food security need to be involved as early s possible in the process. This makes them participate in the set up of the plan and this increases their level of commitment. There is nothing worse than a plan developed by a limited group that tries to push it on those who actually must make it happen. When people are not involved and committed, they feel no ownership of the plan. They simply will not participate.

#2: Ego

There is nothing like some good old-fashioned ego to thwart the general interest. Unfortunately, ego is a rather common component in higher circles of government, business and organizations. Some of the symptoms include the inability to say “I don’t Know”, the inability to admit being wrong, the tendency to wage turf wars, and the unawareness of the win-win concept. Acknowledging one’s ignorance is the first step to learning, therefore improving. Believing to be always right is simply delusional and shows a lack of sense of reality. Turf wars may end up with a winner, but usually it is a Pyrrhic victory.  Thinking that one can win only if the others lose is just an illustration of point #5. When it comes to food security for nine billion, a short-term victory at someone else’s expenses will soon be a defeat for all.

#1: Poor leadership

Leadership is paramount in any human endeavour and feeding nine billion is quite the objective. While I was writing Future Harvests, I constantly came across the importance of leadership. I have no worries in our technical abilities.

All the success stories that I could learn from had all in common having a strong leader with a clear vision of what needs to be done. The leader also had the ability to gather all the energies behind him and get a consensus on the objectives and the path to follow.

Similarly, all the failures stories also had leadership in common. Usually, it shows a despotic leader who acts more out of self-interest than for the general interest, who does not accept being wrong and change course before things go haywire.

In order to succeed and meet food demand by 2050, we will need leaders, at all levels of society, who have the following qualities. They will overcome fear, keep greed under control, address the right issues, will foster education, will encourage farmers’ vocations, will be compassionate, will work for the general interest, will involve and commit all to succeed, and will not put their egos first.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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An Interview with The Food Futurist: 100 Answers about the Future of Agriculture

February 14, 2011

Following up on the recent publication of the report “100 Questions of Importance for the Future of Global Agriculture” by a group of experts from all over the world under the lead of Jules Pretty of the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, I wanted to react candidly and spontaneously on every of these 100 questions.

Since giving extensive answers would represent several months, if not years, of work for a single individual, I chose for the interview format. I gave myself just a couple of minutes to say what came to my mind.

The result is this document: 100 Answers – An interview with the Food Futurist

I hope it will be as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to write. I hope that it will trigger reactions, as this is more a first attempt to initiate a forum discussion.

The questions were quite interesting. However, I missed a few elements tat I believe to be quite important in the challenge of feeding a population of nine billion by 2050. The initial report did not raise enough questions about the issue of water. Water is essential to agriculture, and the challenge of accessing enough water is even more urgent and more critical than improving food availability. Similarly, the initial report did not reflect much on urban farming. Estimates of today’s urban food production are of 15-20% of the total world food production. Considering that about 50% of the population lives in cities, this means that 30-40% of all the food consumed in cities is produced in urban centers. This is far from negligible. As the urban population is expected to double by 2050, urban farming will be an essential part of our food supply. I had also expected more attention to aquaculture, which is the fastest growing food production.

The initial report focuses more on production aspects and systems than it does focus on the human factor. Population increase, distribution and especially the quality of leadership will be crucial for the way food security strategies can be set up. As I mention in one of my answers, our future will be as bright as our leaders.

Writing this document, and reacting to questions asked by highly qualified experts, was a good way of assessing the book “Future Harvests” that I published in August 2010. I was quite happy to see that the book addresses all the concerns of the thinkers and policymakers.

I wish you happy reading.


Why we will change our eating habits, one way or the other

February 8, 2011

In the discussion about producing enough food for the 9 billion people the world will have by 2050, one of the sensitive issues, especially in the overfed world, is about what to eat and how much of it. There always is resistance to change, and changing eating habits may be even among the most difficult challenges we have. Eating habits are developed unconsciously since early childhood, and switching to conscious choices is not easy to achieve. It requires will power and self-discipline.

Most of the gloomy scenarios about the challenge of feeding the world are based on the assumption that the diet model would have to be the Western diet, and in particular the American diet. This is far from certain. Actually, do not expect this to be the case.

Changing eating habits will happen in two ways. One will be voluntary and the other will be a consequence of food prices.

There is a growing awareness of the health consequences due to overconsumption of food. All the stakeholders seem to blame each over for obesity, diabetes and other heart conditions, and try to convince the public that they are not the cause of the problem. Whose fault is it? Is it meat? Is it corn syrup? Is it fast food? Is it salt? Is it lifestyle? Is it the parents’ fault? Is it the schools with their vending machines offering snacks and soft drinks? We all have read such statements. Here is a scoop: overweight is caused by consuming more calories than are burnt through physical activity. Ailments are the results of rich and unbalanced diets. Eating (and drinking) too much, and too much of the wrong things is bad for you. There is a reason why gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins! Actually, our societies should have a close look at that list, because we might be in trouble.

In Western countries, we eat too much, and that should not be a surprise to anyone. Obesity and diabetes are becoming society problems in the USA, but other countries are following the same path. Europe and China have a rising percentage of obese people, especially young people. Even in Africa, there seems to be an increase of the number of overweight people. A recent study confirmed this (click here for the interactive chart). Awareness about health problems has already generated action. There are government campaigns. Food producers are reviewing their formulas and are working toward healthier products, in particular by lowering the content of salt and sugar of their foods. More and more consumers are also adjusting their eating habits, mostly by changing what they buy and where they buy it. The trend towards healthier and more natural food is growing and it will not stop. Only biotech companies seem to ignore this fact. This food trend is not just in Western countries but in China, too, the demand for natural and organic foods is increasing. After all, nobody really feels happy with being fat or unhealthy. If some people are taking action to improve their diets and its impact on the environment, this voluntary choice is still about a minority of the population, today. One of the reasons for this is that healthy diets seem more expensive than the junk fattening eating habits. I say seem, because those who can cook know that it is quite simple to make delicious balanced meal for less than the supersize combo deep fried so-called menu.

Money matters. That is a fact. This is why money is probably the best incentive for change. And the future will bring us plenty of incentive to change our diets. The current concerns about food prices, and the food riots of 2008, have created awareness about food supply. Although the price hike is more the result of investors, not necessarily speculators, looking for a safe haven for their US dollars through transactions in futures contract, the reality is that the commodity markets, even on paper, becomes the “official” market price. This enters the real economy and affects the price of food for households all over the world. The poorer countries are more sensitive to food price inflation, and this has the potential to cause very serious unrest.

Regardless of the current causes of food price increase, simple economics show that when demand increase, while supply has difficulties to keep up, prices increase. And this is exactly what will happen. In a previous article, I showed that the potential for meeting food demand, or I should say the demand for nutritional needs, of 9 billion was there. Quite easily. However, in this calculation, I indicated the road to success includes reducing food waste and a reduction of the quantity of meat in the diet. This means that we need to change our behaviour towards food.

If there is a sensitive topic about diet, this has to be meat. Opinions vary from one extreme to another. Some advocate a total rejection of meat and meat production, which would be the cause for most of hunger and environmental damage, even climate change. Others shout something that sounds like “don’t touch my meat!”, calling on some right that they might have to do as they please, or so they like to think. The truth, like most things in life, is in the middle. Meat is fine when consumed with moderation. Eating more than 100 kg per year will not make you healthier than if you eat only 30 kg. It might provide more pleasure for some, though. I should know. My father was a butcher and I grew up with lots of meat available. During the growth years as a teenager, I could gulp a pound of ground meat just like that. I eat a lot less nowadays. I choose quality before quantity.

The future evolution of the price of food is going to have several effects. The first one is the most direct. As food becomes more expensive, consumers look for the more affordable alternative first. If their budget is tight, they buy slightly smaller portions. People will slightly reduce their food intake. Those who were over consuming might actually benefit from a positive impact on their health. For those who already were struggling, this will be more difficult to deal with. From all the food sorts, animal protein will be the most affected by an increase of the price of food commodities. Already today, there are clear signs from the meat and poultry companies that the price of feed is seriously squeezing their margins. As usual, passing the price increase to consumers will take time, as retailers will resist. If the price of agricultural commodities is to stay high, consumers will inevitably have to accept price increases for food in general, and for meat and other animal products in particular. The price of meat is going to be affected by other factors than just feed prices. The need for more control on food safety issues, the stricter environmental regulations that will come for animal husbandry, on the land and in the sea, a change in animal husbandry practices, especially a lower use of antibiotics and farms with lower densities of animal will all contribute to an increase in costs. Energy will become more expensive, too. A whole system based on cheap commodities is about to change, simply because there will not be any cheap commodity anymore. These are all adjustments to rebalance our consumption behaviour from the unbridled overconsumption of the past decades, when consumers were not thinking about the consequences of their actions. The industry will figure out how to increase efficiency to contain some of the cost increases, but the change of farming practices will make meat significantly more expensive than it is today. The price of ad-lib cheap meat is ending. The future dynamics of food prices as presented here will be ongoing. A long as we will not have adjusted our diets to a new equilibrium, meat will keep increasing faster than other basic food staples, until meat consumption, and therefore meat production, will reset to different levels. Do not expect this to happen overnight. It will be a gradual process. There will not be any meat or fish riots. If food riots happen, they will be about the basic food staples, simply because the first ones to riot will be the poorer among us, and their diet is composed mostly from rice, wheat, corn, cassava or potatoes. Should the situation become dire, governments will intervene to ensure food for the poorest. Such price systems are already in place in many developing countries, and they are likely to be maintained, and even strengthened.

The same critical factors to keep food prices in check are very much the same as the ones that I presented in the previous article that I mentioned earlier: food waste reduction, moderate meat consumption per capita; and economic development, especially in Africa.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.