Wisdom in poetry

April 21, 2011

The more discussions about future food production and food security in which I participate, the more I discover the amazing number of dimensions this issue contains. This makes it even more fascinating to investigate and to reflect upon it.

Meeting the food demand of an increasing world population goes much further than agriculture. Some like to see it as a matter of science and technology, others as a social issue, others as an economic problem and so on. This is all true, but isolating the various pieces of the puzzle is not satisfactory. At least, it is not to me. When I listen to the many points of views, it becomes increasingly obvious to me that we will need to integrate all these dimensions: the science, the technology, the finance, the social, the environmental, the cultural, the religious, the spiritual, the philosophical and the moral. I probably even forget to mention some dimensions in this list.

As human beings, we have the privilege of the thinking and of setting the rules to ensure our prosperity. The human genius is amazing, and we have been able to develop an astonishing amount of tools to improve our lives. However, tools are only an extension of our understanding and of our perception of the world around us.

The drivers of our societies have changed in the course of time. In ancient Greece, philosophy and science played a central role in our effort to understand the world. During the Middle Ages, science became a threat to religious leaders. Galileo experienced the pressure. Science did not make much progress in these dark centuries. With the Renaissance, the arts and the curiosity to understand the world came back in fashion, supported by a number of enlightened rulers. Leonardo da Vinci could experiment and let his genial mind at work without fear. For a couple of centuries, science, arts and philosophy were considered equally important. Personally I am a great admirer of the 18th century philosophers/scientists whose curiosity helped develop many theories and research that are still useful today. During the course of the 20th century, a shift occurred. Science gradually took a dominant position, and the philosophical, the spiritual and the arts lost quite a bit of their lustre. I can understand that the feeling of “exactness” in science offers an apparent sense of security, although, the use we make of science is not always that exact. Some of our societies seem to reject anything that has not been proven scientifically. They tend to reject the point of views of those who search answers in other areas of human sciences. Pragmatism, which I strongly advocate, requires that we consider all possibilities, before choosing which ones offer the best answers to our problems. Science is not a judge for what should be allowed or not. For eons, farmers have applied successful techniques without having any scientific explanations, simply because science was not advanced enough. That does not take away that certain things worked. Similarly, we need to keep an open mind about yet scientifically unproven techniques. If we had to know how everything works before we could do anything, we would be stuck in inaction. I believe that technical sciences and human sciences have much to benefit from each other. Only by considering all aspects of our knowledge, technical as well as human, will we be able to achieve the most in future years.

Recently, I remembered a poem I had to learn in school. Although the topic has some agricultural background, the theme is more about the true values in life and the true riches. It is about fulfillment and achievement, but it also gives a nice reference to what motivates most of us. I believe it could serve as a useful tool to think about what will or should really matter for the future.

Here I give you Jean de la Fontaine’s “Le Laboureur et ses Enfants” that he published in 1668, first in French, and then translated in English.

French version:

Le laboureur et ses enfants

Travaillez, prenez de la peine :
C’est le fonds qui manque le moins.
Un riche Laboureur, sentant sa mort prochaine,
Fit venir ses enfants, leur parla sans témoins.
Gardez-vous, leur dit-il, de vendre l’héritage
Que nous ont laissé nos parents.
Un trésor est caché dedans.
Je ne sais pas l’endroit ; mais un peu de courage
Vous le fera trouver, vous en viendrez à bout.
Remuez votre champ dès qu’on aura fait l’Oût.
Creusez, fouiller, bêchez ; ne laissez nulle place
Où la main ne passe et repasse.
Le père mort, les fils vous retournent le champ
Deçà, delà, partout ; si bien qu’au bout de l’an
Il en rapporta davantage.
D’argent, point de caché. Mais le père fut sage
De leur montrer avant sa mort
Que le travail est un trésor.

English translation:

The farmers and his children

Work hard, sweat all you can:
Riches is what counts the least.
A rich farmer, sensing his impending death,
Called for his children, and spoke to them without witnesses.
Do not sell the inheritance left by our parents, he said,
As a treasure is hidden in it.
I do not know where, but with a bit of courage
You will find it, you will figure it out.
Go search the field when summer ends.
Dig, scratch, plow, do not leave no earth unturned
Anywhere your hands can reach.
After the father’s death, the sons worked the field
Everywhere, over and over again, so that within a year
It produced more than ever before.
There was no money to be found, but the father had been wise
To show them before his death
That work is a treasure.

What a waste!

April 12, 2011

Nobody can have missed it. The hot topic of the past month was the so-called global food crisis. If you believe the media, the conventional ones as well as the social media, we are facing food shortages. For those who follow my articles, it will be no surprise that I am inclined to challenge such statements.

When 40% of all the food produced is wasted and lost, it is not possible to talk about food shortages. As I had explained in “Hunger is about more than just food production”, there is plenty of potential to increase food availability. Currently, and with this extremely sloppy 40% food waste, the world agriculture feeds quite reasonably six billion people. Unfortunately, this is not the case for one billion hungry people. By eliminating the waste, we could supply enough food to feed nine billion people. Not in 2050, but today already! That is not ideology or political agenda. It is simple math. Interestingly enough, the amount of the 40% food waste corresponds with the 70% more food the FAO says we should produce to feed nine billion. The more food we will save, the less we will need to push production up.

Unfortunately, the food waste issue receives little attention in the media. This is surprising because there would be some sensational articles to write about it. A little bit of guilt here, a little bit of horror there. That should sell some newspaper or get people watching TV. If this does not happen, it is probably because the food situation is not dire. From time to time, I receive requests from journalists. Sadly, the stories that interest them have to be scary, such as doomsday scenarios including food shortages and the imminence of food riots everywhere, to be followed of course by World War III. I do not do that. Other type of topics that journalists love is science fiction stuff, such as meat artificially grown in labs and anything related with high-tech, or freaky stuff like eating insects and worms.

The food crisis was not so about shortages. If it had been the case, we would have seen pictures of people fighting for food. It did not happen. Actually, it is a price crisis. The price increase of commodities futures results from the depreciation of the dollar (as I was predicting in “The danger of a weakening US dollar”), and the strategy of what the financial media likes to call hedging against inflation. The later is really smart stuff, as investors rush into buying commodities to hedge against potential future inflation. The high demand for commodities results in price increase. That is the best guarantee to get inflation. Brilliant!

The media attention has been interesting to follow, though. Every newspaper wanted to have a piece about the subject. And they really published a lot. Everyone became a food security expert, from restaurant critics, to balcony gardeners and other economy reporters. Depending on the sources they wanted to use, the sponsors, and of course their paying audience, everybody could find about anything and everything about the subject. Some made a bit of sense, but many reports were sadly erroneous.

For some pundit, we are just one bad harvest away from a global food crisis. That was true 10,000 years ago, that was true just before the Irish famine, and it will be true as long as farmers do not control the weather. Is that worth receiving coverage? For many, it has been an opportunity to push their respective agendas. For some, the only way is high-tech big agriculture. Hmm is that so? For others, only small-scale organic farming will save us. Hmm again. For others, eating meat is responsible for all the problems. Did I say hmmm already?

In this frenzy of food apocalypse reporting,  I simply have not seen one article dedicated to food waste, just like I have not seen any sensible research about how the price of commodities is set, either. When the total market for financial derivatives is US$ 600 trillion, while the world GDP is only US$ 60 trillion, something is a little out of balance, would not you think? The daily trading volumes of commodities largely exceeds the actual physical daily consumption of these commodities. Are all the traders only adding costs in the food chain?

However, let’s come back to the waste part. What the math I presented at the beginning of this article shows, is that the future is not so much about producing more, but about producing better and smarter, consuming better and smarter, and organizing the supply chain more effectively to ensure that food indeed reaches consumers.

The waste issue is rather simple to sum up. In rich countries, and also increasingly among the wealthier in emerging countries, the food waste occurs at the consumer end of the chain. In developing countries, the waste occurs at the post-harvest level. Food rots before it had a chance to reach consumers. In these countries, food losses are the result of an insufficient infrastructure. Another area of major food waste is fisheries. Because of (ironically) highly efficient trawlers, many fish species, as well as large quantities of edible fish are lost as they are crushed in fishing nets

Retailers are working on improving their part. For instance, Wal-Mart has initiated a large program to offer food to food banks, as part of their zero-waste strategy. European retailers did something similar several years ago. Consumers must do their part, too. Throwing food away is inexcusable for people who have refrigerators at home. People need to get some basics of household management. When I was a kid, there were classes about this at school, but it disappeared somewhere in the 1960s. Throwing away food is bad economics. Although nobody would think of throwing away coins and bank notes in the garbage, throwing away food is exactly that. That money could be used for better purposes.  Throwing food in the garbage, or as I have recently read in a local paper here in Vancouver throwing it in the toilet pot, is pretty much an immoral act, especially when so many lack food. Of course, not throwing away food in North America will not solve hunger in Africa, but there are other consequences to think about. Producing food requires a lot of energy (for production of fertilizers, for transport, for agriculture machines, packing plants etc..) and water. Wasting food means that the water and energy have been used for nothing! It is pure waste. Some may think that this is not relevant in Europe or North America. Do not be so sure, because for instance California is struggling with water scarcity, while exporting its water to other regions in the form of produce and other perishables. The gas emissions created for the wasted food will have been for nothing. Not wasting food actually reduces the environmental impact of agriculture, and this particular impact is the consumers’ responsibility. They need to know about this, because their behaviour influences the quality of the environment.

In rich countries, there is no food shortage, but we could use more leadership in informing and educating consumers to do the right thing. This is not only a matter for retailers or food service, but for all levels of the society. Rising awareness about the cost of wasting food should be on the agenda of all community leaders. Schools, parents, religious and political leaders should all address this topic in their respective circles. Food waste is where economics meet morals.

The post-harvest losses in developing countries are also both about economy and morals. The moral part is about their populations who already have so many difficulties to afford enough food, while almost half of it rots because of poor storage and infrastructure. The economic part is about the waste beyond the food losses. In many developing countries, water is scarce and most of them use large amounts of this water to irrigate food crops. Many developing countries already struggle to have clean drinking water, yet almost half the water used for irrigation is wasted together with the food. This is not acceptable, morally and economically. Moreover, some governments subsidise water for farmers to irrigate. Yet half of these subsidies are wasted with the food. Some governments also need to subsidize food for low-income families and to counter food inflation, simply to allow their people to buy food. If food availability were about to almost double by fixing the infrastructure, this would have some very positive consequences. Today, close to half the food receives zero money for revenue, while the production costs have been made to produce all of it, the eaten food as well as the wasted food. By eliminating the post-harvests losses, the currently lost quantities would create revenue that is currently missing. Considering the volumes of food involved, the total amount of new revenue generated in all these countries would be astronomic. Everybody would win. Retailers and wholesalers would increase their sales substantially. Farmers would make more money. Storage companies would have a business. Transport companies would have more business as there would be much more food to bring to market. More food available would also mean less inflationary pressure on food prices. This new activities would create jobs. This would help more people have a better income and be able to afford food a bit more easily. Governments would not have to spend as much money to subsidize food. A population that eats better would not be as tempted into social unrest as a hungry mob. At the production level, less food waste would mean less waste of water, energy and inputs. This would alleviate water problems, and increase the efficiency of the use of energy. All of this has a positive impact on the environment. According to the FAO, the cost of fixing the post-harvest losses in developing countries is about US$81 billion. Considering the quantities of extra food involved available “almost for free” since it has already been produced, the US$81 billion sound like a bargain. Indeed, agriculture represents 5.8% of the world GDP (source: CIA Factbook), or roughly US$ 3.5 trillion! Therefore, saying that post-harvest losses must be in the neighborhood of US$ 1 trillion is probably conservative. One would expect to see the payback time for infrastructure investments to be rather short. Someone needs to crunch the numbers, to take the lead and to show to all parties involved what their advantage will be. I certainly would be happy to do that. All actors of the food chain will have to participate, private sector as well as public sector. The return will be high in all respects, financially of course, especially once the current social and environmental externalities will be eliminated as the result of an efficient supply chain.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.