We Will Reap What We Sow, my next book

October 30, 2011

“We Will Reap What We Sow” is the tentative title of my next book, which I have started writing. My first book, Future Harvests, focused understanding the challenges to meet the food demand of an increasing world population, before it became trendy in the media. Future Harvests also indicated which principles would be helpful to overcome these challenges. The book also presented the many areas where food production and food supply can be improved and optimized. In the conclusion, I wrote the following sentences:

The answer to “Can we feed nine billion people by 2050?” is “Yes!” Will we feed nine billion people by 2050? That is a different question! It will all depend on everyone’s attitude.

“We Will Reap What We Sow” will focus on the human factor. Indeed, our attitude and the way we deal with problems will play an essential role in future decisions. The consequences of these decisions will shape our future world. Success or failure depends mostly on us. The current level of technology, combined with the amazing developments that we can expect in the coming decades, is not the limiting factor. Our ability to act for the common good will determine our fate.

For those who have read Future Harvests, this next book will be a useful sequel focusing on human nature, behavior and leadership. The book will start where Future Harvests ended. This new book will review the interaction between human population, and their leaders, with all other aspects that contribute to food production and prosperity of societies. Those who will not have read Future Harvests will it a stimulating ground for discussion, and hopefully a reason to read my first book, too. Anyway, they still have enough time to order Future Harvests and read it before We Will Reap What We Sow is published.

“We Will Reap What We Sow” will address the major questions that need to be answered, and discuss the pros and cons of the different points of views. It will indicate what the most likely consequences of the different scenarios might be. Human nature being what it is, the book will also focus on how to develop positive incentives and reduce the possibility of negative stimuli. There will be a balanced discussion between economic, scientific, philosophical, and moral parameters; and how they contribute in building prosperity. The book will be an exercise in foresight.

The book will also focus on leadership. It will review what expectations of leaders will be. How leaders can help humankind overcome the fear of change and make the transition to a more food secure world. Dealing with change will be a major part of building the future world. Just as much has changed over the past decades, much will change in the future. The coming changes are beyond what most of us can imagine. Yet, it will happen. We had better accept it and prepare to adapt.

Unlike most of the articles published recently about the seventh billion human on Earth, “We Will Reap What We Sow” will not look for sensationalism. Doing that is quite easy, but not productive. Just like Future Harvests, it will explore the possibilities. It will focus on solutions, not on problems. There is no point of mongering fear. Leaders are there to help people dare and succeed, not to hide afraid or give up hope. The task ahead is not easy, but it is not impossible. Only by realizing the benefits for all of responsible and collaborative action, will humanity ensure its future food security.

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Yields of corn and soybeans over 1970-2009

October 20, 2011

The debate about genetically modified crops is sometimes difficult to follow. Some claim they did not deliver on their promises. Others claim that yields are higher thanks to GMOs. Obviously, the answer is not obvious.

When in doubt, it is good to go to the basics and see what the stats show us. I have collected the yield data from the FAO over the period 1970 to 2009 and compiled them in graphs. For soybeans, I show yields for the US, Brazil and Argentina, as they are the main producers.

For corn, I show the same three countries, plus France and the Netherlands. The Netherlands are interesting because they have much higher yields than other countries (30% higher than the US and France). However, they are not a large producer, but Dutch farmers are quite highly technically skilled farmers. France is interesting because it is a major agricultural producer, and also a strong opponent to GMOs.

I also added trend lines to show any divergence between the countries. The Netherlands are shooting up on corn. France is slowly catching up on the US, while yields in these two countries have been very close all along. For soybeans, Brazil shows a stronger uptrend than the US and Argentina, while it seems to lag the others for corn.

What these graphs also show is how much potential there is. If the Netherlands can produce 13 tons/ha (without GMO technology, mind you), this means that the genetic potential is higher than that number.

Here are the graphs (click on them to have the larger version). Can you spot when GMOs were introduced?

The annual yield variations for corn and soybeans for the countries mentioned are as follows:

Average yield variation per year (ton/ha) Average yield variation per year (%)
1970-’95 1996-’09 1970-’95 1996-’09
Corn
Argentina 0.90 1.41 3.9% 3.5%
Brazil 0.46 0.96 3.2% 3.6%
USA 0.83 1.41 1.8% 1.8%
France 1.21 0.61 2.4% 0.7%
Netherlands 1.57 3.43 3.8% 4.3%
Soybeans
Argentina 0.34 0.31 3.3% 1.5%
Brazil 0.37 0.38 3.2% 1.7%
USA 0.25 0.19 1.4% 0.7%

Keep in mind that yields vary depending on production conditions, and that the numbers for the years 1970, 1995, 1996 and 2009 can influence the annual yield variations to some extent. I took the averages of the three years at the beginning and the three years at the end of both periods to eliminate the incidental “abnormal” data. It gives an idea of the comparative performance between the two periods.

These are just stats. I will leave to everyone what conclusions they may want to draw from the numbers and the charts.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Ltd.


Just for fun, a bit of science fiction

October 15, 2011

One of the issues that I regularly raise during my presentations is the one of the farmers of the future. As about everywhere in the world, the average age of farmers is increasing, this brings the question of who will take over and what effect it will have on the future of agriculture and future production systems.

One topic that generates interest from audiences is the possibility of having farming robots. Surprisingly, the same intrigued enthusiasm comes from audiences that have a bias against industrial large-scale agriculture. Yet, the prospect of robots roaming the fields does not seem to be a cause for concern.

Because of the lack of interest by the youth to take over farms, the Japanese are actively working on setting up farms that could be run by robots, instead of humans. In many other countries the aging farming population with the limited interest from younger people to become farmers, also linked to the rising price of agricultural land, raises the question of how big farms might become, and how to manage them.

Currently, the many developments in the field of robotics, of satellite applications, of field sensors and of computer programs make a futuristic picture of farming become more realistic.

With the expected rise of the cost of energy and of the price of all compounds made with massive use of fossil fuels, precision agriculture is the future. The name of the game will be zero-waste. Future economics will not allow for wasting energy, water or fertilizers or any other input. It will be imperative to get the most out of the least, not just simply producing more with less.

The use of satellites to map fields and indicate the variation of the content of fertilizing elements in the soil is already a reality. The use of GPS for harvest is now common with modern equipment. We are really only one step away from having computers processing all this data and operating fertilizer spreaders by automatically regulating the distribution of fertilizer on the field, based on the soil scan assessment. This will avoid overuse of fertilizer in zones that already contain enough nutrients. With the expected exhaustion of phosphate mines, and the large variation of phosphate contents in soil, it will pay off.

We are also only one step away from having tractors, harvesters and other agricultural equipment doing the fieldwork without drivers. A company in Iowa is already developing such a technology by linking the position of a tractor to the harvester via GPS. Such an approach makes the use of human operators less of a need than it used to be. This would allow farmers to manage much larger areas from one remote location. Their role would become more one of process controller, monitoring and steering the fieldwork by ways of cameras and remote control. This also would require less physical work, thus allowing aging farmers to manage at least as much production as they would have at a younger age. This would become even more of a possibility, as farming robots would be developed to replace humans for the physically more demanding activities.

Developments in the area of sensors also offer many possibilities in terms of farm and risk management. The ability of monitoring variations of temperature, humidity, plant growth, the presence of diseases, fungi and other pests in real-time would help make use of resources much more efficiently. Current developments of biosensors used in food packaging are amazing. Some of such sensors have the ability to turn fluorescent in presence of food pathogens. They can help prevent risks of food poising. Sensors help to detect undesirable “visitors”. Sensors also would help farmers detect potential threats at an earlier stage, even before they actually become visible by the human eye. This would allow starting treatment before problems could take proportions that would threaten production. This has the potential to help farmers produce more optimally, and to produce higher yields than they would otherwise. Linking such sensors to devices that can release the necessary amounts of water, nutrients, pesticides and possibly herbicides would help produce quite efficiently, and would reduce the use of inputs. This would help reduce waste, work towards more sustainable farming methods and reduce the use of chemicals, as they would be used only at the right time, at the right place and in the right quantities, instead of being applied systematically to the whole fields, including areas where they are not needed. The use of airplanes to spread chemicals could be eliminated, which would also reduce the use of fossil fuels. Instead of airplanes, it is possible to envision the use of drones that would have a “patrolling” function to detect anomalies or the extension of pests in the fields. By bringing the huge amount of data that these robots, sensors and drones would produce, fields would be monitored on a 24/7 basis and decision-making would be faster than today. Corrective action could be implemented automatically just as well.

By adding more monitoring functions and developing ecological modeling, this futuristic approach would be a way of managing the interaction between the crop itself, which is the purpose of food production, and the need to manage the ecosystem surrounding the fields, to ensure that production is carried out in an environmentally sustainable manner. Monitoring living organisms in and outside the fields would help optimizing production. The farmer would know the status of soil organisms, mostly worms, insects and microorganisms. He would be able to deal with pests in a targeted manner, almost in a similar way as the images of surgical strikes that we can see in the news. Mapping the extent of weeds through such devices would also allow their control in a targeted manner and with minimal use of potentially harmful compounds. The emphasis would be about control and management, not on killing out everything that seems a threat.

Further, monitoring fields as described above would support the environmental steward’s role of farmers, while making it easier to execute as well. Farmers would be informed timely about production effects on groundwater quality and possible residues in the soil and the crops.

Of course, all of the above sounds like a bit of science fiction, but considering the amazing innovations taking place in the all the areas mentioned, together with the constant miniaturization of devices and the increased processing abilities of computers, it might not be as far-fetched as it may sound today. Although many of these developments are not taking place in the agriculture sector as such, they are real and happening faster than one could imagine. Farming in 50 years from now will probably look different from it does today.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.