Perhaps the ultimate challenge

July 1, 2017

There certainly is no lack of challenges on the path to feeding a growing world population, but a successful future does not just stop with food volumes. Beyond quantity, it is necessary to ensure that people eat balanced diets. Of course, this is true for those who are food insecure and need help to be able to access more food, but it just as true for the overweight and the obese. The health cost to society is high and is so the cost to the environment. Although excess calories end up as body fat and not in landfills, overweight and obesity should be looked at as food waste nonetheless. After all, body fat is food that has been produced but not consumed for any useful purpose. The problem is only getting bigger as rates of obesity are increasing among the population of emerging countries and are reaching alarming levels. It is not a Western countries’ problem anymore. It is a global one. There is no one particular cause to explain this trend, but it is a combination of lifestyle, example at home and education about the basics of nutrition. We are what we eat and we eat what we are. Diets are undoubtedly a reflection of society and its values.

One of the drivers of today’s economies is growth and too often this concept is restricted to quantitative growth. We must be honest and recognize that our food and agriculture systems still are greatly production driven. Although the idea of a market-driven approach is widely spread, the practice seems to differ, and it looks like it is only translated in marketing-driven instead, always with an underlying production-driven thinking. About all food sector and companies always look for ways to sell more volume. There is competition within any particular industry, but also between industries. For example, in the animal protein sector, poultry, pork, beef and fish are always trying to get a higher stomach share at the expense of one another. Usually, the main decision factor for consumer to make their purchase is the relative price of one type of protein versus the others.

The main message that consumers receive every day is: eat more of this or more of that. Then, it is only normal that they do just that. Why expect any other behaviour? The result is a value system of always more, without really thinking about how it all adds up, while it should be about always enough. Overconsumption leads to waste and to unbalanced diets. Waste is the number one enemy of sustainability, and educating the public about proper diet is actually an important weapon in fighting waste, but it is a difficult one. Although good habits are generally not any more difficult to adopt than bad habits, it seems that the latter group is more attractive. Changing eating habits is all about education. It starts at home and in school. Actually, it is rather easy to learn about the proper ratios between protein, fats and carbohydrates –both fast and slow ones- that are needed in a balanced diet. Information is everywhere, but unfortunately, the lack of education and therefore knowledge about nutrition results in many consumers having no idea how to read labels and how to compose proper meals. If our lifestyles and our needs have undergone major changes over the past five or six decades, physiology of digestion and nutritional metabolism have not changed much at all over the tens of thousands of years that humans have been roaming the planet. It would seem obvious that such an essential element of life should be common knowledge, but it is not. An interesting experiment is to ask people at random what the nutritional needs of an average human being are. Usually, people have an idea about how many calories a person should eat on a daily basis. When it comes to how many grams of protein and even more so fat, then the faces tend to turn blank. Another even more interesting experiment is to ask the same question to people working in food and agriculture. Just go ask how many calories, how many grams of protein and fat. It is an eye opener.

It is possible to make consumer behaviour change from harmful to healthy. There are lessons to be learned from the example of tobacco. To change, consumers need the proper incentives, but the bottom line is that people change only if they perceive the change to be an improvement. Since eating habits rest on powerful psychological triggers, the difficulty is in finding the right triggers and creating a perception of reward. Food producers have a critical role to play in this transformation, and it has to be a collective and collaborative effort with all other stakeholders as well.

Copyright 2017 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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The Accordion, the Contrarian & the Robot

June 8, 2017

Although change happens all the time, in some areas human nature demonstrates great constancy. One of these areas is how Pavlovian we react to market fluctuations. Agriculture knows many cycles, most of which are as much the result of human nature as the mechanics of economics.

In the time of high commodity prices that preceded and followed the Great Recession of 2008, one of the main questions I was asked about the future of agriculture was to give predictions about prices and profitability of agriculture. This is a tricky exercise if there is any. So many factors can influence both supply and demand that it is unrealistic to believe someone could predict with certainty future prices. Price predictions would only be meaningful by predicting costs at the same time. Despite the difficulty, many economists venture in the exercise. The levels of accuracy are disappointing. Past research on economists’ and gurus’ predictions has shown accuracy levels of 47% on average. In other words, tossing a coin would statistically be more accurate by a margin of 3%.

When “predicting” the future, it is more useful to focus on patterns than trying to miraculously try to pull the right numbers. Human nature is rather predictable. When prices and profitability are good, suppliers want to produce more, because they expect the result to be even higher profits. It is intuitive, and it would work fine only if the competitors did not follow the same thinking. Unfortunately, they do and the result is an increase in supplies. As it takes two to have a supplier-customer relationship, the flip coin of the high price medal is that buyers are less warm to buy more of what increase their costs. I like to compare value chains to an accordion. There is only so much money that flows between the two ends of the entire chain, and all the links must share that money. One end is the consumer market and depending on prices, consumers switch foods when prices reach a pain threshold. Since the amount of money entering value chains actually come from the consumer end, consumer resistance limits the elasticity of the entire chain. Thus, depending on the relative supply and demand between the individual links of the chain, some see their profitability expand while others see it shrink. The FAO knows the conundrum. High food prices put the economically vulnerable into food insecurity, while low food prices put many small farmers in economic difficulties, and into food insecurity. There is nothing like a food shortage causing high prices to encourage farmers to produce more. Following high price years, they have done exactly that, and that is why prices have fallen, sometimes to the point that entire sectors suffer dramatic losses. Low prices will give an incentive to those who will survive to boost their production, and the cycle will continue.

The counter intuitive approach is to be a contrarian and to supply tomorrow products that have low price and low profitability today and reduce exposure to today’s attractive products. It is easier said than done, because natural conditions limit the choice of products a farm can produce and heavy investments for one kind of production can limit flexibility. Nonetheless, the contrarian approach is a good one from a planning and forecast perspective. Market swings happen because forecasts tend to be made with today’s prices in mind and assume that the system is static. It is not. Forecasts must take into account the big picture and project what all actors of the value chain will do, as well as in what shape other value chains are and will be. The tools have been here for a while. The exercise then comes down to technical analysis, which is a very common method used by traders. It uses historical data and the predictability of human behaviour to give an indication of which direction prices are most likely to go in the future. Unfortunately, too many actors in value chains do not use that tool for their forecasting and miss on the most likely picture of the future. Some help might be coming, though. The development of software, robotics and artificial intelligence will come to the rescue by eliminating the intuitive and preference of the present of human nature by more rational analysis and forecasting than is the case today. Price setting and negotiations will increasingly be automated and carried out by machines, squeezing out the human factor, especially for undifferentiated commodities. Wall Street is already working on this. Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs indicated that they were going to replace traders by software engineers to achieve this very change, and also to reduce their costs, as a software engineers cost them four times less than a trader.

Copyright 2017 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Two legs that make humanity move forward

April 3, 2017

The tremendous progress that the human species has made since its apparition on Earth is not the result of just good luck. Two qualities have driven our success: innovation and collaboration. There is no doubt that these two characteristics will be essential for our further ability to adapt and overcome future challenges. In this regard, the current dynamics bring some good news and some- not-quite-as-good-yet news as well.

The good news is that innovation is probably livelier than it has ever been in the past. There is not a day that goes by without hearing of some new idea being brought into action somewhere in the world. They will not all succeed, but in the grand scheme of innovation that is the price to pay to benefit from the ones that will make it. Every problem and every limitation is an invitation for a solution and always better ones, too. Since the human brain started to analyse its surroundings and look for better tools to deal with it, innovation has been driven by a number of rather stable incentives:

  1. Survival or just live better and longer
  2. Reducing physical labor
  3. Increasing efficiency, which reduces waste
  4. Helping communication
  5. Increasing mobility and speed
  6. Offering more leisure and entertainment
  7. Making some people a little wealthier

Many of the future challenges fall in these categories, and number 1 and 3 are probably the most critical ones in our dealings with the environment.

If innovation is doing well, the second leg –collaboration- is not at its optimum. In this column, I have expressed my wish to see more collaboration, cooperation and exchanges, several times in the past. Although it does not always appear that way, collaboration is one of the cornerstones of life. Just look at all the examples of symbiosis. It occurs everywhere. It is what an ecosystem is all about; it is the combination of all sorts of individuals that are interdependent for their survival. In the agriculture sector, we know that collaboration happens in the soil; we know it also happens inside the roots of legumes and in the food sector we know how the bacterial interacts with our digestive system. For all these reasons, collaboration should receive as much attention and praise as innovation. After all, good innovations are usually the result of active collaboration. Many ideas come from interacting with others, by listening to what they know, to their experiences and through the feedback they give to our own knowledge and experiences. In my opinion, the risk for sub-optimal collaboration is the result of an always increasing emphasis on competition. Competition is good, as I have written here before, but the key is to find a good balance between competition and collaboration. In Nature, both coexist but with a slight difference with the human attitude. In Nature, the competition is about survival, but the winner takes only what it needs. The “always more” concept does not apply. It is just about “always enough”. If you look at it, it provides a sound basis for a sustainable system, as long as supply can follow that is. And that was the original idea of agriculture: finding a way of adjusting food supply to the needs of the community. Agriculture rebalanced the relation between collaboration and competition. This original principle is somehow too often overlooked. To look at it from the triple bottom thinking, there is another analogy with sustainability or the lack of it. The strong emphasis on competition is mostly the result for always more financial profitability. Social and environmental issues are the result of the imbalance with the other two bottom lines.

To get the best of the combination between innovation and collaboration, the altruistic approach is often the best one. Innovations succeed only if they are profitable, too. From the technical point of view, most solutions to our future challenges already exist. It is just that the numbers often do not add up. In the end, innovation must deliver an added value. Often, the added value is monetary, but not always. On some of the innovation drivers from the previous bullet points, it is clear that time, convenience or quality of life also weigh in what added value represents. Sometimes it is of a quantitative nature, sometimes it is qualitative, and sometimes it is both. The beauty of adding value to others is that their adopting your innovation will add value to the supplier, as long as the innovation is priced properly of course. Innovations that truly add value just about sell themselves. Adding value just brings the supplier in a pull marketing situation, which is much easier, fun and lucrative than the push approach.

The magic word when collaborating is “how can I help you”, mean exactly that and then deliver!

Copyright 2017 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Critical thinking in a world of fake news

February 20, 2017

Nothing seems to be more in the news lately than the concept of fake news. The issue of fake news is a great example of how technology in the wrong hands can create a lot of confusion and damage. Internet and social media are great tools that can serve the larger good if used with discernment, but they are so powerful that human nature can also express its darker sides in just as an effective manner. In We Will Reap what We Sow, my second book published in 2012, I explored how leadership and human nature could influence the future of food and agriculture. In one chapter, I was warning that the global digital village would follow the same dynamics as the regular physical little village, but with the potency of the speed of light. The Twitter and fake news mania that we are currently witnessing with the recently elected new world leader unfortunately illustrates my comparison. In the traditional village everyone would know about everything about everyone else and there would be no shortage of rumours and gossips. In the 7-billion people village, the exact same is happening. The difference is the reach and the speed at which it spreads. Human gullibility does not depend on the size of the population. The flip side of this medal is that distrust is spreading at the same pace. Paranoia becomes the counterpart of gullibility. Everything that does not please must be fake, right?

Over the years, the public trust in governments, corporations and more recently science and journalism has been only fading. Opposite to that, people have a blind trust in what they find on Internet, Facebook and other social media, as shows how swiftly and easily they share nonsense that becomes the new truth. The village dynamics create a new type of clans and tribes that rest on their own sets of beliefs and, more worryingly, their rejection of the other tribes’ beliefs. It feels like we are regressing into digital feudalism where the truth does not matter, even if it could mean self-destruction. If you have any doubt about the reborn tribalism, there is a social media engagement platform called trib.al. If you still have doubts , check the following picture I found on Twitter.tribe

Why approach the future of food and agriculture in such terms? The future is not about tribes. It is about collaboration and cooperation between ALL stakeholders regardless of their particular views on the subject. That is the beauty of democracy. Collaboration has always brought prosperity. Tribalism has only resulted in chaos, as we can see every day, unfortunately.

In the food and agriculture sector, controversies have been around for quite some time and there are new ones coming all the time. In the sector, we have been dealing with many opinions, ranging from criticism to plain fake news. And let’s face it there has been some of that on both sides. The food fights have been lingering too much on problems and positions and not enough on solutions and cooperation. How to revert from tribalism to universalism in a world stuck between tribalism and paranoia? It is not easy but it is not impossible, either.

critical-thinking

Interesting chart I found on kariecolgy.blogspot.com

In my opinion, the solution is critical thinking. It feels too often that at some point in time, common sense has disappeared and that choosing a set of beliefs is more important than finding the truth. One of the reasons may be that tribalism is more comfortable and less threatening than being proven wrong. Whichever the reasons may be, it is time to reinstate common sense and its twin: critical thinking. Humanity will only progress and solve the many future challenges only by accepting reality and rejecting delusion. It might not be as comfortable in the short-term but it is the only way. If we do not want to see the problems as they are and choose for safe before sorry, it is highly likely that we will end exactly that: sorry. To reinstate critical thinking, it is essential to also make the distinction between critical thinking and criticism. Too often, these two are confused for one another. It is a mistake. Critical thinking is about taking nothing at face value and double checking the facts. It is the search for errors in the thought process to develop a better one. Criticism is only the first step of this process and it generally is received as negative, and sticks there. Critical thinking starts with positive attitude.

There is great value in challenging and being challenged. It stimulates thinking and more and better ideas pop up because of that. This is only a problem if what counts most is whose ideas these are, but ego is rarely of factor of progress. No athlete will ever win the Olympics if he/she is not challenged by competitors, and the competition for being the best is what pushes them to push their limits always further. The role of critical thinking in the process of making progress and improving ourselves and the world around us is just that: forcing us to push our limits and be better. Half truths, or worse fake facts, actually keep us from improving, as they divert our energy in the wrong direction. I am lucky that in my Alma Mater, one of my teachers taught us critical thinking. He was passionate enough to turn me into a fan and, although it sometimes landed me in arguments, it helped me, my staff and my customers achieve more than we would have otherwise. For the future’s sake, let’s practice critical thinking and encourage others to do the same!

Copyright 2017 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Feeding the future with focus on health and environment

February 2, 2017

In my opinion, the food and agriculture sector does not receive enough praise for its performance. Over the past four decades, the world population increased by 80%, which means that farmers have been able to supply food for an additional 3.3 billion people during that same period. Unfortunately, the number of hungry people has remained about stable, around a billion people. Every person who is hungry is a hungry person too many. There cannot be any discussion about that, and there still is a lot of work to be done. This is no small feat. Clearly, there is plenty of room for improvement, especially when you consider that about a third of the food produced is wasted but that means that the potential to supply future food demand is there.

nutrition

Image created by Paula Nettleton Source: Educational Materials Center (EMC), Central Michigan University

The discussions about meeting future food demand always tend to focus on production volumes. Of course that is the minimum requirement but to meet all other challenges, it is necessary to broaden the scope beyond volumes. Production is only half the equation. The other half is consumption. There is a lot of work to help consumption patterns contribute to a balanced future between supply and demand. The ongoing increase of obesity and diabetes are at least as worrying as hunger because of the negative health, environmental and economic consequences. One of the most important roles in the future for the food and agriculture sector will be to help people feed themselves properly. There is a need for this and it goes far beyond a marketing exercise. The basis for success will have to be education about nutrition and home economics. There already is action in these areas but it will be necessary to move towards a collaborative education, centred on physiological needs and how any particular food product contributes –or not- to healthy meals. The purpose will not have to be about enticing consumers to eat more volumes but to make educated decision and pick the right ingredients. Changing the focus from always more to always enough will also require a change in which foods to produce and what their future physical and organoleptic qualities will have to be. It also will change the dynamics of markets and on which criteria farmers get paid. Collaborative education will have to be carried out by and with full involvement of all stakeholders. It will have to place human physiological needs as the primary focus. Consumer well-being will have to come first, before particular interests and before volume.

Making future food and agriculture sustainable requires that we address both production and consumption. Waste and excess do not fit in a sustainable future. Food waste is only a part of the total picture. When food is wasted, all the inputs required, such as water, energy, fertilizers, crop protection and money, are all wasted in the process. Overconsumption is not a sustainable strategy either. It takes a lot of resources to produce all the excess calories and protein than end up producing nothing else than excess human body fat. Until the rise of mass consumption, our grandparents knew what sustainability meant. It was about saving and about moderation. These two concepts vanished from the moment that consumption goods became so cheap that and consumers lost touch with scarcity and long-term negative effects, also known as negative externalities. It would be an eye opener to quantify these externalities and include them in the cost structure of consumer products. The consumer price and/or the producer margin would look different! Although it is quite a difficult exercise to quantify the externalities, just carrying it out would give some good insights about the limitations of the current economic model and in which areas it needs to change. Such a calculation would help rethink many of the existing financial incentives that drive the economics of food and agriculture, in particular many subsidies that find their origin in times where the objectives were quite different than the ones of the future. For example, health issues related to food should be considered as externalities. Many governments have calculated estimates of the cost generated by these two diseases. If society were to be able to quantify what part of the amount should be factored in food, as well as lifestyle and distributed between the entire chain from farm to patient, and to try to estimate the relative part of responsibility between the different links of that chain, it certainly would give a good indication of how to look at future economics of a healthy and satisfied society. The price of food would change but the key would be to have it change in a way that helps a better nutrition and better health while keeping good food affordable.

Copyright 2017 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


My Wish List 2017

January 5, 2017

Another year just started. It is always a good time to reflect a bit. As I have focused my activities for quite a few years on how the future of food and agriculture can be shaped, I regularly come across a number of the same little flaws that, in my opinion, delay the progress we can make towards a prosperous future.

Although the expression “keep it simple” is well-known, it seems that we have a hard time doing exactly that. I am amazed by the number of situations in my work in which I meet incredibly complicated set-ups. It is almost as if we have an almost masochistic tendency to make our lives more difficult than they need to be. Let me be clear, food production is a very complex system, but why make it even more complicated than it is? Too often, the problem is that food producers carry to much old baggage within their systems. Problems happen and innovations bring solutions. Unfortunately, it often results in adding layer after layer of old baggage. Keep it simple! Once in a while, just imagine how you would set up your production if you were starting with no past history and were setting processes and systems anew with all the latest technology, knowledge and experience. Then de-clutter! It makes life a lot easier.

Common sense is one of the things I would like to see more often. I remember a customer of mine who always enjoyed to say “With Christophe, if it makes sense he will deliver it; if does not make sense, he will say no” I know I have sometime frustrated some of my customers but I always took the time to explain how persisting in error would only result in bigger problems later and they actually always praised my no non-sense style. Remember that food production is not an intellectual exercise but a practical one. A customer will not reward you for your being intellectually stimulated, but for your reliability, consistency and honesty.

For the New Year, I also wish for more critical thinking. In these times of information oversupply and even fake news, it is quite easy to be misled. Sometimes it is accidental, sometimes it is intentional. Nonetheless, it always pays off to never assume and to double check. I pay special attention to numbers. Simple calculations help verify whether claims are true or not. I am amazed by how often I see numbers presented to the public that do not add up. Some numbers look spectacular and get attention, but that is no reason not to do the math again, just to make sure.

Another wish of mine is to see more listening and empathy, and less shouting and fighting in the debate about food. Too many arguments about this topic are a bit too Pavlovian for my liking. People are not rational, but they are always logical with themselves. It pays off to find out the logic and to have candid conversations. More than fighting about who is right and who is wrong, I prefer to see a focus on improving food production in a collaborative manner. Of course, it is easier said than done but he pays off because in the end, regardless of who is wrong or right, the customer is always right. The key for such a successful exercise is to use both our brain hemispheres and help our interlocutors do the same. How we will improve food and agriculture is really a balancing act between the emotional and the rational.

Another item on my list is humility. Every day, Nature and chance bring new challenges and sometimes opportunities. It is essential to stay on our toes. It does not take much for problems to happen and it is necessary to never slip into complacency. In particular, always beware of good times. It is always tempting to see successes be the result of one’s qualities and systems and setbacks as being caused by outside factors. It is tempting but it is rarely that simple. Adversity is the true test. An area of excessive ambition that humours me is when it comes to feed the world. I gently smile at statements such as “Insects will feed the world”, “Aquaculture will feed the world”, “So and so country or continent will feed the world”, etc… I smile because it sounds like we could feed the 10 billions of 2050 several times over. I say humour because it is more about excessive enthusiasm than a lack of humility. We will feed 10 billions –and I really believe that- through the combination of many foods and many production systems all over the world. There is no magic bullet. It will take dedication, work, innovation, market orientation and visionary leadership. It is a never-ending exercise.

Copyright 2017 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


What food will be Donald Trump be serving?

November 25, 2016

trumpfarmerAfter a rather unconventional campaign and an unlikely outcome, the American people named its next president. The many controversial and vague statements of candidate Trump have left most of the world with perplexity. The presidential election gets the most attention. The fact that the Republican Party will now control both the House of Representatives and the Senate, next to the White House received much less publicity, yet it will actually shape American policies in the coming years. The Republicans have full latitude to pass any law they want, with little opposition.

Is the Trump presidency something to worry about? It is difficult to say at this stage. It is probably a matter of hoping for the best and be prepared for the worst. Since his election, Donald Trump has sent mixed signals. He seems to realize that things are more complex than he presented during the campaign and on a number of issues he put some water in his wine, but at the same time some of his nominations to key positions in his future cabinet and staff raise question marks. It is always tempting to try to predict the future from a subjective angle but considering the show he put on during his entire campaign, it would be easy to jump to wrong conclusions. I prefer to look at his character instead. To me, Donald Trump shows a number of characteristics than I believe will define his presidency more than the controversies of the campaign.

As his victory in the election shows, Donald Trump is a fighter who does not give up and who is willing to fight dirty. He will be a tough opponent to deal with. Toughness is an asset but his weakness may lie in his black and white view of the world. For him, you win or you lose. Win-win may be a foreign concept to him and instead he might achieve more lose-lose outcomes. He also appears to be a pragmatic. He does not seem to have problems changing his mind if he finds out that some things are better than he initially thought, as he admitted about Obamacare for instance. Pragmatic does not mean that he will change is agenda, though. Clearly, he is a proud American and he will always put the interests of the USA and of Americans and of American companies first. There is also a bit of an idealist in Donald Trump. His campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again” reflects that. I believe that he has nostalgia of the America in which he grew up and that used to be the dominant force and culture in the world. Donald Trump is a smart man. He also appears to be a bit short-fused. The question is will he try to achieve his ideal by turning back at the risk of isolating his country and stagnating or will he create a new momentum and try to achieve a new leadership through excellence? Different approaches deliver different results

Regardless of these character traits, he is a hard-nosed businessman. He has clearly indicated that he will create a tax-friendly business environment and he will simplify regulations, which is not quite the same as deregulating, though. He will lead pro-business policies. In food and agriculture, this will probably lead to two consequences. First, the so-called Big Ag will get a push in the back from his policies. Donald Trump made a number of comments that indicate he has a problem with what he calls environmental extremists. The second consequence will be to see how he manages a pro-business stance with his expressed statements of also caring for the American consumers. Food fights have been vivid in the US for a while, in particular because of a distrust of Big Ag by many consumers. At this stage, it is difficult to say how Donald Trump will manage both the interests of corporations with the desires of consumers. I expect food fights to go on with the same determination as they do today. I also expect that the role and the mandate of the Environmental Protection Agency will be revised and weakened.

Altogether, for food and agriculture, I expect rather traditional conservative republican policies both in the US and abroad. America will try to get what it wants and will make it difficult for others to compete against them, as usual.  The world is a big place and new developments happen everywhere. Depending on America’s stance, the rest of the world will adapt its strategies accordingly. Some projects will be killed, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership. Other agreements and partnerships will be sealed both with and without the US. As I like to say when I have the opportunity: the future will be as bright as our leaders and we have the leaders we deserve.

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.