Dealing with complexity

February 1, 2013

Looking at the future of food and farming goes far beyond agriculture. It comes down to looking at the future of humankind. Balancing future supply and demand of food is an exercise that includes many disciplines and dimensions, probably more so than any other human economic activity. Anything that affects life and its level of prosperity must be taken into account. Feeding the world is not just a matter of production. Of course, the ability to produce and to keep producing enough food is paramount, but there is more to it than that. The consumption side is just as important. Demand will depend on the diet, which also depends on how much money people have available to pay for food.

Total future food demand is a combination of which foods and food groups people in the various regions of the world will buy and eat. This is a function of demographic, economic, cultural, religious and ethical factors. If future demand is about consuming according to the nutritional needs of a human being, clearly the situation will be different than if people demand twice as many calories and protein as the actual nutritional needs. The relative share of animal products in the total diet will also change the situation in terms of production and of production systems. Food production must adjust to the demand and do its best to meet it, but not at all costs. Therefore, it is essential to optimize food production at the global level so that the largest quantity of food can be produced at the lowest environmental cost. At the local level, production depends of course on natural conditions, but also on economic, political and cultural conditions as well. This may be the most profound change that we must deal with: feeding the world of the future is a global exercise. As more and more people worldwide have more and more money to spend on food, demand is now global, and therefore production plans must also be global. The times of producing food simply for the own people and exporting surpluses is over. Markets will now react to any event that will affect production or consumption somewhere else. Borders do not make this shift in thinking easy. It is always tempting to think that having one’s house in order is enough, but it is not. What happens in other countries on the other side of the world will affect us just as well. Why is that? Just one word to explain it: markets. There used to be a time, not so distant when if there was a drought in Russia, China or Brazil, markets would not react as strongly, and anyway not so much in the media, as we have seen over the past few years. This was the case because only a minority of the world was consuming large quantities and that minority did not have competition. Now the competition is wide open. Markets will keep reacting on this and the relative price levels of various foods will influence how much of what is consumed and where. We will see eating habits change because of this economical aspect of food supply.

At the same time, food production is also adapting to a changing environment, and to face its future challenges. The amount of new developments in technology, access to information and knowledge and in decision-making tools is amazing. Innovation is flourishing everywhere to solve environmental issues, to cope with new energy and water situations. The dominant themes are the reduction waste of all sorts, as well food as agricultural inputs and by-products, and the prevention of the release of harmful contaminants. Innovation is developing towards better and more efficient systems that must ensure the future continuity of food production and, at the same time, keeping food affordable for consumers. Interestingly enough, many innovations that will be useful for agriculture do not originate from the food sector. Food producers will need to be curious and look beyond the field to prepare for the farming of the future.

Clearly, the number of factors affecting both consumption and supply are many. To add to the complexity, many of these factors are not of an agricultural nature. Many of them originate from the population, its activities and its needs for all sorts of goods. I mentioned earlier that what happens in one region affects others, but the natural resources markets, such as energy, metals and minerals, that must meet demand for non-food consumer goods also affects agriculture and its production costs. Although many see rising costs first as a threat, I tend to welcome them, as they always stimulate innovative solutions to increase efficiency and reduce waste. Two examples show that it works. One is the car market in the USA that shifted from gas-guzzlers to high gas mileage vehicles since gas at the pump became much more expensive than it was only 5 years ago. The second one is food markets. Had you heard as much about food prices, food security or food waste before the food price hikes of 2008 and 2012?

In my work, I always try to make my clients and audiences aware of how everything that has to do with food is interconnected with many other sectors, and how economic, demographic and political events are linked to food security or how they might affect it in the future. That is an underlying them in my books.

Even, within the food and farming sectors, organizations do not realize enough how their future will be influenced by other food productions and vice-versa. I always get reactions of surprise at the magnitude of the interconnection and the interdependence with these factors, and how they affect their activities indirectly. It is a normal reaction, as most people tend to focus on what has a direct connection with their activities. After all, that is why I do what I do: to help them see and decipher this complexity, and understand what actions to take to adapt and prosper. I never shy away from show the complexity. My audience needs to get a flavor of the any dimensions and many layers involved. However, I always take a practical approach and show them that complexity is not the same as complicated. Deconstructing the complexity actually works well to show the many levels of actions there are. It helps my clients connect the dots between their activities and what will affect them and how. It gives them a level of confidence in how to deal with the future and take action. I also like to warn against oversimplifying, which is another tendency that I observe from time to time. The mainstream media is rather good at that. But I also get questions that sound like those who ask hope that I have a magic wand and will be able to give them a foolproof recipe for success. That simply does not exist.  If preparing the future were easy, nobody would even talk about it. It would be done. It it was easy, I guess many of the organizations that have been involved in agricultural development and food aid for decades would have already succeeded, and they would not exist anymore. Yet, they still have to keep up with their work.

Feeding the world is work in progress. Developing the right actions is complex, but not as complicated as it sounds. However, the true difficulty is in the execution, and in particular bringing other stakeholders with different agendas and different views on board to contribute to the success.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.