The math and the myth

March 22, 2011

No, this is not one of those “are in a boat” riddles. Those who have read my articles or my book know that I like to bring some perspective by crunching numbers and double checking statements that seem beyond any discussion.

During National Agriculture Week held last week in the US, one of such statements popped up in most of the social media dedicated to agriculture: In 2010, one US farmer provided on average for the needs of 155 people, while in 1960 this number was only 26!

Of course, if you follow social media, you know that, immediately, the partisans, mostly in the Midwest, spread the good news as fast and as much as they could. To them, this number of 155 is the best proof that large-scale industrial technology and mechanization driven agriculture is the best there is, and US farmers are the best in the world! So that the world knows it this time!

That is clear. Or is it really? Then let’s look at the numbers a little closer and do some math.

Knowing that China became the first export destination of US agricultural goods since only last month, finally passing Canada and its gigantic 35-million population, I had some doubts.

First, one statistic that is not mentioned in the 155 per farmer is the total number of farms. This number dropped from 4 million in 1960 to 2.2 million in the latest (of 2007) census mentioned on the USDA website. Going from 26 to 155 would have been very impressive if the number of farmers had been stable, but this is not the case.

In 1960, 4 mio x 26 = 104 million people fed.

In 2010, and by keeping the number of 2.2 million farms, the calculation is 2.2 mio x 155 = 341 million people fed.

Instead of increasing 6-fold (155/26) as the fans try to make believe, the actual improvement of US agricultural production has increased only 3.3 times. Over a period of 50 years, this represents an average year-on-year increase of people fed by US agriculture of only 2.4%. It is higher than the average year-on-year increase of the world population over the same period, but it is not stellar, either. As an indication for comparison, the world’s food production has increased by 3% year-on-year over the same period.

This becomes interesting when comparing with other parts of the world. I choose India, because, it is often presented, especially in the Anglo-Saxon press, as a country that does not tackle agriculture properly. According to those articles, India should be a lot more like the US, going big and industrial, instead of keeping their large rural population.

India has 1.2 billion inhabitants, and statistics indicate that 200 million people are malnourished. This implies that 1 billion people are fed reasonably. Now, let’s compare another number that rarely appears in analyses. The population density of India is 10 times higher than the American population density. This means that if the US had the same population density as India, there would be 3 billion Americans, and only 341 million of them would have food. In such conditions, they would not eat much meat, they would not suffer from obesity and they certainly would think twice before growing food to feed their cars. If India had the population density of the US, there would be only 120 million Indians. India would probably be the largest food exporter in the world.

Maybe this comparison is not the best to make. After all, the Indian diet is rather different from the American one, and India still needs imports to feed its people. Let’s try something that is closer to America in terms of eating situation: the EU.

There rarely passes a day by without some article from a US industrial agriculture supporter that criticizes Europeans to resist the American model, especially GMO crops. According to the biased pundits, Europe is losing ground because of this shortsighted stubbornness. There again, some math can help. Once again, the population density will provide us with insight. If the US had the population density of the EU, there would be 1.1 billion Americans. Once again, that is much higher than the 341 million that US farmers can feed. As far as the EU is concerned, the region is self-sufficient, and in most European countries, the yearly per capita consumption of meat is close to 100 kg. There is no food security problem in the EU. In this case, we are not comparing meat eaters and vegetarians. Just as it looked that India was doing not such a bad job at feeding its people, the EU actually delivers a nice and enviable performance.

The math shows us that the number of people fed by one farmer is not a good indicator of the actual performance of the national agriculture. I would compare it with bragging about the number of horsepower in one’s car engine without looking at how far that car can take you. Gas mileage is more important. In the case of the US, the 155 only indicates that there are very few farmers, and that they have to manage very large farms. It is not an indicator of yields. Bigger, more intensive or more technology do not necessarily mean more efficient. It has to be the right size, the optimal level of intensification and the proper use of the right type of technology.

A much more relevant number is the number of people that one hectare (or one acre) of land can feed. With this indicator, the performance of the US is average. The key is the yield. In the case of wheat, which is grown in most regions, the yield in the EU varies between 6 and 9 tons per hectare, depending on the country. In the US, the yield is of only 3 tons/hectare, which also happens to be the world average.

What the math really shows is that the world is very diverse. It is diverse from demographic, economic, sociocultural, climatic, agricultural points of view. Agriculture is not mechanics. It must consider all these parameters and be adapted to the specific environment to meet food demand optimally. There is no universal model, and there does not need to be any. We simply must focus on producing high yields in a sustainable manner, meaning that this performance can be repeated indefinitely for the generations to come. To grow food, we need good seeds, fertile soil , proper financial resources and skilled farmers!

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The fertilizer of the future?

March 12, 2011

Among the many challenges that the agriculture of the future faces, soil fertility ranks high on the list of priorities.

Originally, most farms were mixed. They had land to grow crops and they had animals for milk, eggs and meat. Markets were mostly local, and food was consumed in the villages and towns near the farms. Food waste was fed to farm animals; the manure produced was mixed with straw and returned to the fields where the crops had been grown. Over time, farming has evolved. Agriculture has become much larger scale, global and specialized. This evolution has been driven by the use of oil, mechanization, and by the development of mineral fertilizers.

That model, which has been greatly based on cheap energy and resources, needs to be looked at critically as the economic environment changes. Energy is no longer cheap and, like oil, the resources used for the production of fertilizers have been depleted. New solutions are required to be able to produce optimally.

The production of nitrogen fertilizers requires a lot of energy. According to estimates, it uses 5% of the world’s natural gas production, and half the fossil fuels used in agriculture. Because nitrogen is quite mobile when dissolved, as this happens when it rains, a large amount of these high-energy-consumption compounds are lost. An estimated 50% of the nitrogen spread on crops leaches through the soil. It ends up in the water system. The reserves of phosphates, another important mineral fertilizer, are facing depletion. This might happen in 20 years from now. With the development of precision agriculture, the waste of minerals can be reduced. With the development of satellite imaging indicating the mineral status of a field, and the local variations within the field, it has become possible for farmers to bring just the right amount of the right mineral at the right time and at the right place. This follows somehow a similar thinking as fertilizing plants in hydroponics operations where crops are produced without soil and fed a mineral solution drop by drop.

A consequence of the specialization between crop farms and intensive animal farms is the rupture of the organic matter cycle. Large monoculture farms have suffered soil erosion because of a lack of organic matter, among other reasons. In soils, the presence of organic matter increases moisture retention, increases minerals retention and enhances the multiplication of microorganisms. All these characteristics disappear when the quantity of organic matter decreases. A solution to alleviate this problem is the practice of no-tillage together with leaving vegetal debris turn into organic matter to enrich the soil. This has helped restore the content of organic matter in the soil, although one can wonder if this practice has only positive effects. Tillage helps eliminating weeds. It also helps break the superficial structure of the soil, which can develop a hard crust, depending on the precipitations and the clay content of the soil. Possibly, in the future the use of superficial tillage could become the norm. Deep tillage, as it has been carried out when agriculture became mechanized, has the disadvantage of diluting the thin layer of organic matter in a much deepen layer of soil. This dilution seriously reduces the moisture and mineral retention capacity of soils, thus contributing to erosion as well, even in organic matter-rich soils.

The removal of farm animals from specialized crop farms requires the systematic use of mineral fertilizers because farmers do not have access to manure and the minerals it contains, even though most of these minerals originate from the crops farms.

At the other end of this interrupted cycle of manure, intensive animal farms do not suffer a lack of organic matter and minerals. They have the opposite problem. They have too much of it, and not enough acreage, if any, where to spread it. This leads to accumulation of manure and other related problems, such as stench, high concentrations of minerals in the soil and eventually in the waterways and drinking water reserves.

Since nothing is lost, what has happened to the minerals from fields and from fertilizers? They have been transferred to other places via the global trade of agricultural commodities. Many of these commodities are used to produce animal feed. Phosphate in European pig manure may come from Asian manioc farms. Therefore, the best way to find out where the minerals are is to look at where intensive animal husbandry farms are. As mentioned earlier, nitrogen is washed away into the water system because of its mobility. Unlike nitrogen, phosphates are not mobile in the soil. They will accumulate, which also leads to a loss of soil fertility, eventually. The other area of concentrations of these minerals is in city sewers, and in the soil of slums. Since the purpose of agriculture is to produce food, and since consumers are increasingly concentrated in urban centers, the exportation of minerals is actually gathering momentum out of rural areas.

In the future, we are going to see a new look at fertilization. The economics of agriculture will change. This is inevitable, because the cost of inputs will increase. This will be a direct consequence of the increase of the price of oil, and of the depletion of phosphates reserves. This change of economics will drive renewed interest for manure, and for sewage. These sources will become attractive and competitive, as they contain large amounts of minerals directly available. Because of their nature, they have a high content of organic matter. One of the most efficient ways to remove nitrates from water is to grow plants with it. One of the main sources of phosphates will be manure.

There is little indication that the human population will return to the land, but animal farms can be moved rather easily. After all, they already are segregated from vegetal production. The increased need for manure will call for a relocation of animal productions. In an expensive-energy economy, having the “fertilizer factory” on site, or at least much closer than today makes a lot of sense. This is especially true because manure contains a lot of water, although there are substantial differences between productions. Transporting water is expensive. Mixing crops and animal productions again on farms will also allow the inclusion of vegetal debris together again with the feces and urine, producing a higher dry matter content, with limited transport costs between the field and the “fertilizer factory”. Regardless of the size of the farms, I expect to see a relocation of animal production units on agricultural land. They will be spread more evenly in the landscape than today. This will decrease the density of farm animals in currently high-density areas to levels that will allow a better control of environmental issues, as well as reduce partly the risks of transmission of animal diseases. Animal production units will reappear in areas where they had disappeared because of the fertilizer that they will provide.

This evolution will also come together with a new approach of manure storage and treatment. Open-air lagoons like those that we know today will simply cease to exist. The changed economics of energy will make the capture of gases financially attractive. Manure storage units will be covered; the biogas will be collected to be used for energy purpose, for the farm and the local communities. The solid and the liquid fractions of the manure will be processed and transformed to provide organic matter and the fertilizing minerals necessary for crop production. The location of the “manure units” will be influenced by the type of animal production, and therefore by the physical quality of the manure. There will be a logistic optimization of manure collection to the crop farms. It will be based on efficiency and optimization of resources. Therefore, the new farm structure will be efficient, as much financially as environmentally. Similarly, open-ocean fish farms that currently do not collect the feces will see the financial value in recuperating the fish waste and sell it. In cities, there will be an increasing interest to recycle the sewage. The purpose will be to recuperate the organic matter and the minerals it contains. A similar approach for human waste will apply as for animal production units as I described above. This will also be integrated in the future approach of urban farming, as it will provide the necessary nutrients for an efficient urban food production. It will be a source of revenue to the cities.

In rural areas and in urban areas, organic matter and fertilizing minerals will become strategic activities. They will serve the purpose of feeding sustainably the world population.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

SeaAgra Seafood and The Food Futurist team up for consulting of seafood projects

March 9, 2011

Vancouver, 9 March 2011

SeaAgra and The Food Futurist will cooperate to offer consulting services to their customers involved in the seafood industry. By combining their pool of expertise in the field of sales, marketing, processing, quality, supply chain, business management and strategy, the new partnership will focus on actively helping execute the development of market-driven seafood projects.

The ultimate objective will be to develop viable value chains between producers and seafood buyers by matching the best partners together and by removing all unnecessary costs in the chain. Thus, the maximum value is distributed between the links of the chain. The focus will be on market-driven strategy, efficiency and optimization, sustainable projects, business organization, setting up long-term win-win partnerships, and fostering customer service. The results for the customers will be a stronger market position, improved financial results and a clear and focused future.

”A synergy of talent is what makes this partnership special. Different expertises, different experiences, and a wealth of knowledge, combined with a common focus will allow us to offer a service that is unparalleled” says SeaAgra’s Joe Collins.

About SeaAgra Seafood

Sea Agra Seafood Brokerage Ltd. commenced operations in 1992, initially as a fresh farmed salmon brokerage company servicing small and medium sized salmon farms. Since inception, the company’s product line has expanded to include fresh wild salmon, wild B.C. caught ground fish, farmed steelhead, sablefish and salmon.
We have since expanded to include the purchase of niche wild and farmed seafood products for re-sale to our highly discerning customers. Our team offers an unrivalled combination of 95 years of experience in the seafood industry and brings a genuine passion for what they do to our business.
Honesty, integrity and a keen understanding of the inner workings of our industry converge to form the basis of our approach to business. We have earned an outstanding reputation in the seafood industry in part because we treat the products we sell as if they were our own. This approach keeps our customers coming back year after year for our fresh and irresistibly delicious seafood.
SeaAgra services fresh seafood markets across North America and other major consumption countries.

I am very enthusiastic about the cooperation with SeaAgra. I have known the owners of SeaAgra, Ralph Shaw and Joe Collins, for many years. When I was in the salmon business, Joe was part of my team, and Ralph was one of our customers. They contacted me last year for a project. We did a superb job under a very tight deadline, and we have received praise from third parties who have read the report since then. Our work has been much appreciated. This has led us to pursue this partnership further. The combination of talents with the great chemistry between us generates a positive energy. We will add tremendous value to the customers. Our concept goes beyond simply advising, it ensures the successful execution of the projects!

This partnership will also allow us to explore scenarios for the future of seafood and develop marketing strategies for new species, such as barramundi, cobia and other high-end specialties.

Christophe Pelletier