Why now may be the best time to work on the future of food and farming

October 21, 2013

Now is the right time to look forwardAlthough agricultural commodities markets have recently calmed down, the past few years have been turbulent. The result has been an increased attention for the world’s food supply and demand. Even in food secure regions, it is quite important to not take food security for granted, as it is always a work in progress. In this regard, the stress on agricultural markets and the recent price hikes have been a good thing. They have forced many to take a closer look at the situation and to start reflecting about the things to come. I have been among the ones who started earlier than most others, for two reasons. Firstly, it was obvious that meeting the demand of a strongly growing population would bring some challenges. There was no need for a crisis to figure that out. Secondly, I did not find analyses that connected the dots beyond the particular interests, the particular regions or the particular business areas of those who produced research and documents about the subject. This is why I have developed my foresight activities for food and agriculture and published the two books. The first, Future Harvests, answers the question of whether we can feed the future population and the second, We Will Reap What We Sow, reflects on how our future behavior towards consumption, together with the quality of our leadership, will decide whether the future will be prosper or gloomy. Those of you who read them know what the answers are and why.

Although the period of tensed markets helped bring valuable attention to the food issue, it has produced more quantity than quality about what should be next. Between those who announced the end of days and those who see it only as an opportunity to use fear to stop others from thinking, there has been little structural long-term thinking. Both groups play on short-term fear to push agendas that serve mostly only themselves. The future cannot be selfish; it will be about helping others succeed. Profit is only a by-product of sound decisions. Those who will foresee the actual needs of the future will make lots of it in the long term. The others, although they might score in the short term, will not win the race. In food and agriculture, foreseeing the future and defining winning strategies are complex activities. I say complex, but I do not say complicated. Ironically, the more thorough the analysis, the less complicated it comes out. When done well and communicated properly, there is no reason why others would not be willing to build a successful future. The complexity comes from the many levels involved in food security. The interactions between natural conditions with the political, economic and cultural environments, together with the many – and often divergent – interests of the players of food value chains are difficult to reconcile. But this is not all. The fact that food production systems and consumption behavior are also influenced by many other sectors competing with agriculture for resources adds to the complexity. The issue is not just about production techniques, new technologies or functioning of markets. Other societal issues play a role, too. The quality of a society and as a result of the people of which it consists will play a role. Health, education and on-going training are very important components of how we will manage the future. Each of the “blocks” I just presented are complex in themselves, simply because they deal with life and keeping the dynamics of life running harmoniously is no easy task. On top of that, the fact that these different blocks, depending on how they individually function, interact with each other and affect the performance of the others, it is clear that we need to look at the issue of feeding the world in a comprehensive manner. We need to identify and integrate all these elements in the analysis to determine the proper action to take. It would be quite convenient if future actions depended only of what directly affect a particular sector. Unfortunately, limiting the thinking to one degree of separation is not enough, by far.

In my years of the Food Futurist, I have had the opportunity to notice that the multidimensional nature of the issue is the one that seems the most difficult for most organizations to fathom. There is no shortage of reports or publications about the future of this or that. However, although they clearly are of excellent quality and the result of hard work, many of them miss the dot connecting part. They focus on the area of interest but tend to neglect the bigger picture. It is only natural that organizations look at the future from the angle of how it will affect them. Yet, nobody should investigate the future from a self-centered kind of production-driven manner. This tends to produce a self-serving strategy that will not prepare those organizations to deal with what will come from the higher degrees of separation. The here and now is nice, but to thrive, they must focus at least as much on the elsewhere and later. I must say that I also have dealt with organizations that do have this comprehensive approach. I found that they had several qualities in common with each other (and with me to some extent): serenity, a rather positive and optimistic outlook on the future, and the quiet confidence that we can overcome the challenges.

Yet, even these “better” organizations still need to go further than they have in preparing the future. Their comprehensive understanding on all the factors that will influence the future needs to go to the next level. All organizations, those with the comprehensive outlook on the future as well as those who carried out the exercise in a less deep manner must translate their understanding of the future in specific strategies and effective execution. In many cases, this is still missing. Organizations must let go of the past by not assuming that past, present and future are linked in a linear manner. That way of thinking is still dominant and, considering the magnitude and the nature of the changes to come, it will not be the best approach to be successful in the future. Another important aspect to take in consideration is to clearly identify in advance what the effect of their actions will be on the rest of us. The latter will be a prerequisite for a prosperous future. It is amazing to see that most plans have no plan B. Without a plan B, a plan is pretty much not a plan. There cannot be only one strategy. There has to be an arsenal of options. What must stand fast, though, is the final outcome. Building a strong future is also about being prepared for the unexpected and to adapt accordingly to succeed. Such an approach would also show that their future actions are taken in with responsibility in mind.

The current times of agricultural markets calming down and readjusting to more reasonable and realistic prices are, more than any other, ideal to focus on how to proceed to build the future of food and farming. As grain prices have slowed down and the animal protein sector is improving financial results, everybody is in a more serene mode. The white noise from the media and the fear mongers has faded for now. Everyone can hear him/herself think again. That is quite a good thing. However, this is no time to lay back or become complacent. Such a serene environment will not last. The population keeps on increasing. Meat and poultry producers will resume production increase as demand for their products is among the fastest growing of all foods. With grain and oilseeds prices less attractive, the incentive to push for more production will also slow down. It will not take a genius to figure out that demand for animal feed will grow faster than production of feed ingredients once again. Lately, Asians have also hoarded agricultural commodities to have stocks at hand, but as availability of commodities increases, they will get more relaxed about it. For all these reasons, agricultural prices are going to go up again, hurting animal protein producers again and sending agricultural markets up as investors and speculators will see their chance for quick money. Let’s also be sure that there will be some climatic event somewhere sometime that will also join the party to add on the stress. When the different parts of the food value chain do not plan ahead globally to ensure a balance between supply and demand, such cycles persist and crises come back. It probably will be a couple of years (my guess is three to five) before we face a similar crisis again. This is why the time to act is now by developing solid plans, engaging in the right partnerships and collaborate closely and intensely to work on the future of food and farming. I mentioned earlier that analyzing what will happen in the future and to prepare for it is complex, the exercise is actually easier than it sounds. It is only a Herculean task for those who want to solve all the world’s problems on their own. One simple trick is to see the big picture but to define what the realistic contribution of the organization to the whole problem actually can be. Another one is to ask for help and support, and thus engage others on the right path. The contribution can be products, services or collaboration. Nobody will fix the situation alone, and nobody should think in such terms. The essence is to act and make others act in the right direction. Communication towards others is quite important as it helps other organizations to determine their respective objectives. In this regard, conferences and events about the theme of the future of food and farming are quite useful. I have participated to quite a few already. Sometimes, I wish they were more focused on what it means for the partners and the audience than what it means for those organizing such events, though. It is clear that many of such events have a marketing and/or image purpose, but that too can only be a by-product. The most important is the added value to the attendants and what they can use practically in their own operations from what they heard at the events. At least, that is my philosophy and how I approach such speaking engagements. Too often, participants present their offering, such as new products for instance, but so far I have not heard anyone ask what I think is the most important question and the key to success: What do you need from me or from other partners to succeed? There are too many conferences about the future of agriculture that do not even include a farmer among the speakers! The customers are the ones who know best what they need from others to do a better job in the future. Let them speak out!

As far as I am concerned, I have now started to work on my third book, the topic of which will be about strategic foresight for food and farming. It will be about anticipating the changes that will come as well as the changes that must take place with the main purpose of presenting adequate strategies to adapt and to prosper. It will review the future evolution of the different productions, the different links of the entire food value chain from DNA to consumer. It will present strategies for and between stakeholders in the different regions of the world, as they face different challenges and conditions, with the objective of showing how it can work for all. I believe it will be a welcome follow-up to the previous two ones, which had already paved the way to show options a building a prosperous and viable future for all, here and now as well as elsewhere and later.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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