Ecological accounting vs. financial

When it comes to sustainability, the debate always shifts to the respective weights of money, people and environment. As we all know, these three areas are always tricky to reconcile. Here, I am going to give my views on why that is. In fact, it is not that difficult to understand. It comes down to the concept of externalities that I have addressed many times in previous posts. You can see the list of all these posts at this link I am really amazed how absent this term of externalities is from conversations about sustainability and about the future, because externalities are the very cornerstones that will determine our future. Talking about sustainability without mentioning and digging into externalities is purely and simply a useless exercise. Externalities being the long-term effects of human activities, it really raises the issue of the me/here/now vs. the others/somewhere else/later. This simple statement sums up the dilemma about both future and sustainability. In my opinion, not talking about externalities when addressing sustainability and future comes down to not taking the topic very seriously. Another area of discussion that I do not hear enough is the idea of closing the loops. Our materialistic consumption society based on always more has grown by opening the loops and ignoring externalities. To have a future we must close the loops again. The discrepancy between the me/here/now and the others/somewhere else/later is another expression of that.

To clarify, just have a look at the picture below. I compare Nature’s accounting with man-made financial accounting. I believe it makes everything much clearer. The way humans have organized their financial accounting is about having a snapshot of the financial situation of an organization or of an individual. Since it is a snapshot it is limited in time. We look at the financial situation over a defined period (week, month, quarter or year). As it is a snapshot, it is frozen at a particular moment. A few minutes later, another snapshot would show a different financial situation. Everyone who has had to do some accounting knows that. We allocate things in certain ways, most of which are arbitrary and dealt with just to make sure the snapshot looks good. It is just like having a portrait taken. Accounting makes sure that the subject is showing its best profile and under the nicest light possible. But because of this moment frozen in time, man-made financial accounting is of a linear nature, which also fits very well, or at least accommodates itself quite well with a system in which the loops have been broken open. Financial accounting, as its names tells, is about money and money only. The social and human balance-sheet does not appear in there, and neither does the impact on the environment. They are externalities. They are matters that are neither limited in time, nor linear and which are way beyond money only. Just imagine how things would look different if instead of our current currencies, we all shared one same currency, which would be CO2. Just think what it might do for the way we internalize the environmental externalities.

That is what Nature kind of does. Our little accountant bee from the picture could tell us more about that. Nature’s accounting is not based on a snapshot, it is an ongoing process. It is not a photograph, but it is a movie! And a very long one that has no beginning and no end. What can be more circular than that? And to be this circular is must have closed loops all interacting with each other. That is how Nature works. Humans, on the contrary, look at accounting of organizations as independent units from each other. The interactions are not factored in. There is no comprehensive accounting for the entire system, which makes each organization focus only on itself and leaves the others deal with their own. Human accounting limits co-responsibility and collaboration on our long-term impacts.

Instead of practicing creative accounting, Nature’s loops just constantly rebalance themselves. Nature works according to the most fundamental market liberalism there is. If something is out of balance, it readjusts itself. If that means that some populations see their numbers being decimated, so be it. That is the price of rebalancing life with resources. It is brutal but it is highly sustainable. Nature’s does not print money, does not maintain an imbalance for the sake of not affecting populations. Nature does not play musical chairs with its economy, as we do. For example, in financial accounting, there is always the game of improving the working capital for the closing date of the fiscal year, one part of this being to postpone payments to suppliers for just after the end of the fiscal year, but try to get the customers to pay their bills before the end of that fiscal year. That way, the working capital is lower and the numbers look better. That is the beautiful portrait snapshot approach I mentioned earlier. What we do with working capital, we do with externalities, too. We try to pass the inconvenient hot potato to others. In man-made economy, we also fight “natural’ market forces as much as we can. And even liberal capitalistic countries who champion free-market economy do this. Just see how much money has been printed pumped and into the economy after the subprime crash of 2007-2008. Just see how much money has been printed and pumped into the economy to deal with Covid-19, just to try to keep the economy (herewith I mean the GDP) afloat as much as possible. Just also look at all the subsidies of all sorts to keep systems running while they have no future, and the food and agriculture sector is no stranger to that. In our consumption society system, we have done nothing else than subsidize activities that produce negative externalities, and we can read “subsidizing” as actually “rewarding”. While Nature rebalances to function at the lowest energy level possible, we fight the rebalancing with the highest energy level possible. Should we really be surprised that this cannot go on?

Actually, human economy and its financial accounting do not work in parallel with its ecological counterpart. All the money we print to support our gigantic consumption levels is nothing but a loan that we take at Nature’s bank. All that printed money is used to use (well deplete and burn mostly) natural resources, while we have not earned that money, which is actually the right to use these resources. On top of that (literally), with broken-open loops, we pile up mountains of waste with the resources we deplete. Breaking the loops is not one problem, but it consists of two problems. One is running out of useful resources, the other is accumulating waste that kills us. We do this for the “me, here and now” and just like we play with working capital, we play the exact same game between generations. The generations that have benefited from this world of abundance are playing musical chairs with the following generations. The former do not want to factor the externalities in their lifestyle and just pass them on to their children and grand children. This is why, in terms of environmental impact, we are using resources much faster than we should. The problem is that Nature’s patience is not unlimited (here, read “resilience” for “patience”). It is a matter of time before Nature’s is going to ask us to pay the interest. The boomers won’t pay the interest. They leave it to their offspring. Nobody wants to take ownership of the externalities. It has become part of our culture. It is only fair for the young ones to push back now. They have started realizing that they are going to be left with the bill to pay, possibly in a system where Nature’s approach to economy will be stronger than the man-made system.

My purpose is not to depress you, although we all know that we are running out of time and climatic events certainly are cause for perplexity, to put it mildly. There are not many ways to rebalance our environmental impact. The most important is to reduce waste, which means reducing consumption volumes, From the 3 Rs (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle), Reduce is not popular because it means lower GDP and our politicians and economists freak out at that thought. At least, reuse and recycle leave some hope for GDP. Even the word Recession is unbearable. It is now called the R-word instead. As a society leader, if you cannot say the word recession and accept that it happens once in a while, because recessions are good, they are like slimming down after the excesses of Thanksgiving and Christmas, to get back in better shape, you have no place as a leader. Actually, you are a liability to society.

We are seeing more and more attempts to internalize the externalities. Unfortunately, they are always referred as taxes, which is another word that nobody wants to hear. So much for the quote “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society”. Perhaps, it is no wonder that we see an increase in incivility. To make our world sustainable, which means having a future, we cannot keep the same economics as now. Then, we must change the economics. We must change the way profit is built up. We must change the way we organize taxes. Money always talks and people will always welcome change if they make more money. Considering the amount of money printed, as I mentioned above, we clearly have the ability to put money at work to solve the challenges that we are facing. Yet, everybody seems to wish that when the Covid-19 problem is behind us we can revert to where it was before the virus hit us. Why on earth should we revert to a system we know leads to disaster? There was a great opportunity for our leaders to organize a shift of economics for before and after the pandemic, by putting money at work to create a healthier economy. No, most of that money has gone to the stock markets instead. We are missing an opportunity to change economics. We are missing an opportunity to reward good behaviour while penalizing damaging activities. Money talks and rewards are even more important than penalties to get acceptance for change. People always manage to dodge penalties and they do not cooperate. Opposite to that, people love rewards and cannot get enough of them. Not only do not they dodge rewards, they actively look for more. Here is a sadly underused potential: more rewards for good behaviour! As we can see, the solution lies in our behaviour and how we want to deal with adversity. This is quite important to underline. Technology alone will not deliver much if we do not want to change. Those who say otherwise are just salespeople trying to make some bucks. If we think that technology will do the work for us, while we do not make efforts to succeed, like spoiled lazy brats waiting for their parents to clean up their bedrooms, we just as well can cut the charade right now and accept the fact that Nature will go on but without us. The planet will be fine, no need to feel self-important by claiming to save it. What we need to save it humanity and life.

Copyright 2021 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Update on my poetry book

I am almost finished with the book, which will have Down to Earth as its title. I am going to make a French version as well, the title of which will be Vers de Terre.

The book contains 90 poems about food and farming. As a strong believer in the benefits of using both brain hemispheres, I composed poems that range to more “classic” themes to themes dealing with new technologies in food and agriculture. There is something for everyone in these poems.

I divided the content into six sections (click here to see the table of contents):

  • Fields: poems about plants and agriculture
  • Pastorale: poems about animals and animal husbandry
  • Characters: poems about people from food and agriculture
  • Edibles: poems about food
  • Destinations: poems about countries and their foods
  • Gravitas: poems about serious subjects

I also mixed many poem formats:

  • Sonnet, because of its elegance and structure
  • Haiku, for its powerful and concise impact
  • Villanelle, because it is so musical and light
  • Limerick, just to try to be funny
  • Rondeau, for classicism
  • Cinquain,  for modernity and concision
  • Free style, to let my mind wander without the rigidity of predetermined format, which I did mostly in rhymes but sometimes without rhymes but for a feel of rhythm and visual or sensory impressions

Next to the simple pleasure of poetry, I wrote these poems in a way that can be conducive to read and discuss them with an educational function in mind.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Some lessons from an unusual year

Well, 2020 will probably remain in our memories as something rather different. Unlike most commentators, I would not refer to it as “unprecedented”. It is a great word, though. It makes one sound like an expert. Since nobody can know everything on any particular subject, I do not know what an expert is, really. Although there have been many inconveniences during this year, I believe that previous events such  the Black Death, the Spanish flu, both world wars and, any war really, have been much worse than this. So, there have been precedents. For all the crises and drama that has occurred, there is always something to learn from it. Here follow some of what struck me the most.

Since my primary focus is on food and agriculture, the first reaction I noticed was that even in countries of plenty, people felt food insecure as all the panic buying and hoarding showed. They were afraid of shortages, while there was absolutely no reason to think that way. At no point in time, was there any food shortage. Empty shelves in stores were the result of the hoarding that messed the normal smooth supply chain planning. Of course, these unexpected disruptions sent shock waves through the system and it needed some time to adjust, and it eventually did. The system adapted and the disaster scenarios did not happen, simply because they had no reason to occur.

Colorful 2020 - 3D rendering

Creator: carlotoffolo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The ability to adapt is another lesson from this year. Adapting is not new. It has been our way of life and an absolute necessity since the beginning. What I noticed is that many small businesses were much more agile and much faster to adapt than the heavier multi-layer organizations. In particular, food retailers have been lagging and still are. In particular, I think that it would only make sense for online sales, pick-up and home delivery to stay and grow further. They have some work to do in that area. They could reshape their activities in such better ways than today’s model but I think their problem is that they do not think like consumers, which is rather ironic for retailers. If businesses adapted rather quickly and in a rather disciplined manner, I cannot quite say the same about consumers who seemed to have a hard time to accept rather soft disruptions and making slight sacrifices. What I also found remarkable was the lack of structured strategy from about all levels of society. The main theme seems to have been knee-jerking, and that is for those who really had a strategy at all. My area of business also adapted. Conferences and speaking engagements moved to a virtual format. I thought that was gone but 2020 turned out in line with previous years in that area.

At the beginning of this post, I was mentioning experts. Everyone seems to have become a Covid expert. I have read and watched so many opinions about the future after Covid-19. It is amazing how quickly we get to have all sorts of extrapolations about something we know almost nothing. The future of work and the total reshuffle of food systems seem to have been rather popular. Yes, people have worked remotely and organizations have accommodated that because there was not much choice. But is that really a trend? What I see is that many organizations would like to have their staff come back to the office, with perhaps a mix of office presence and remote work, but claiming that remote working is the future is quite a step I will not make. What I see is that a lot of urban professionals would love to work remotely and live on the countryside, in theory. If executives from high-wage countries can perform their jobs remotely, what would be the reason not to move these jobs to people from lower-wage countries. There are many capable and very well-educated people in these countries who could do the work. If remote becomes the standard, those who dream of having the best of both worlds between urban life with high pay and the lifestyle of retirees might end up being just retired and unemployed. Be careful what you wish for. As for a total redesign of food supply chains, if there has been some talk about it, although that has faded as food producers made the proper adjustments, I do not see any significant action. There is some very locally, often for PR and marketing purposes but it does not go far. There is a simple reason for that: the farms and the farmers are just not there anymore near large consumption centres. The arable land has been paved and the land is too expensive. Dreaming is nice but we do not live in village scale anymore and we are talking about serious volumes that have to be produced. Further, about the topic of change, what clearly shows is that a lot of people just want to go back to where things were before the pandemic, with perhaps some minor adjustment, but priority number one seems to be leisure and breakaways with friends.

Crises always get the best and the worst out of people and the Covid-19 crisis is no exception. There has been lots of mutual support between individuals, but also some serious examples of selfishness. We have heard a lot about rights and freedom from the crowds, much less so on their duties and responsibilities. In my second book, I had a passage about humans looking at themselves more as legal entities than as biological entities. There have been many examples of this. Covid-19 is a biological event, and the legal decorum has no grip on any virus. The crowds were angry. Of course, there is always anger when there is change because when there is change, there is loss, but some really got over the top. For example here in British Columbia, there have been quite a few cases of customers insulting store staff and health care workers as well. People spat on store clerks because they were asked to put a mask on, or even assaulting and beating up staff for the same reason as it happened in a Wal-Mart store. Racial prejudice also came to the surface really quickly. Civilization is only skin-deep, and there are quite a few folks out there with a really thin skin. Of course, when some leaders enable this kind of moronic behavior, it should not be a surprise that followers follow.

Generosity, as usual, has not always been the come from the wealthiest. Since I am talking about money, one has to agree that all of a sudden, there has been plenty of money made available, as if it actually grew on trees. I am not too sure where it came from, how we will repay it and if the proper amounts have been distributed to the proper recipients. Money that before this crisis was lacking, as many programs could not be funded or worse had been cancelled. It is tempting to conclude that the reason why poverty has not been eradicated is simply because we have not had the resolve to get it done. People have been generous, as usual. Yet, the so-called philanthropists (cute euphemism for the Scrooge McDucks) with their billions, not so much. It is surprising considering how much their net worth shot up this year thanks to the solid stock markets, another sign that this crisis has not been all that disastrous. Regarding the wealthy, generosity came mostly from show business and sports personalities. Another example of disturbing priorities is this large Canadian retailer which temporarily had paid their staff a bonus for working in the front line at the beginning of the Covid-19, but ended it as the summer came and restrictions were loosened. Well, they decided not to reinstate this bonus as the virus flared up again since the fall, but in almost the same sentence as they were announcing their refusal to reinstate the bonus, they were also announcing a dividend increase to the shareholders. Very moral. Not.

Technology has been on everybody’s mind as being the solution for all of our problems. Well, technology certainly has helped a great deal during this crisis. It has helped many businesses to survive by bringing in remote working and virtual interaction. Also, it is a great help in speeding up substantially the possibilities to find a vaccine. Just think of the same problem 20 years ago. Things would have been much more difficult by then. Technology is a big part of our future for a better world, but technology alone will not be enough. We also have to rethink our behaviour in many areas if we want to succeed. If we do not make this inner change, technology will not solve much. And there is a lot to think about our behaviour and attitude. Just think at how extreme polarization and division have become, about how the most twisted and idiotic conspiracy theories and alternate reality take root and gain ground. Supposedly, we are the intelligent species, but that means that we must keep this ability to reason and reject nonsense. Responsibility is the ability to respond. Here, I would make the same remark about some leader and the followers I already made above.

Speaking of this leadership, the world moved on and found new directions for the future around the special case of the US. In the agriculture sector, China reoriented its sourcing of commodities to Brazil and Argentina, US farmers needed to get compensated with billions to keep afloat (that’s kind of socialism to rescue people who overwhelmingly vote republican,  bit ironic). The Chinese are quite astute people. I am quite baffled by how this country is still looked down by some Western countries that do not seem to realize how much China has changed. It is the same attitude as with Japan in the 1960s and 70s, which saw having these same Western countries being outcompeted in markets, cars in particular, and had to end up learning quality systems from the Japanese. Asian countries and Australia and New Zealand finalize a trade agreement, which is a reworked version of the TPP that the US shot down (or better said, one single American did). These countries no longer consider getting the US, which has a long coast on the Pacific, as being an indispensable partner. The world is moving on, the boat is sailing. Too bad for those who missed it. A cherry on the cake of the poor display we had to witness of the last couple of months. For as much as I love the US, and I really do, I must admit that my head has been hurting lately.

Since, I did not want to write a book on the topic, I will end it here. We have seen human nature express itself perhaps more clearly this year. We have seen the best and the worst. It is nothing new, but adversity always makes the contrast appear more clearly. Even though, Covid-19 has been quite disruptive, for most of us it was manageable with discipline and modest sacrifices. As I wrote in my introduction, I do not see this crisis as “unprecedented”, but I am pretty sure that we will face much worse ones. In particular, if we do not decisively take action to curb the effects of climate change, 2020 will look like a year in heaven in comparison. For those who had a hard time to accept wearing mask or just keeping distance, I believe that they will lose it completely when the serious problems take place. Just look at 2020 as being a gentle signal from Mother Nature. It was just a dry run to see how prepared we were to face much tougher challenges. I guess it has been pretty obvious that we are not prepared one bit. In my second book (We Will Reap What We Sow) that I mentioned earlier, I also had a passage in which I warned that Nature does not do politics, does not do PR and does not care if we are part of it or not. The dinosaurs went extinct, but the universe did not freeze because of that. Actually it processed the dead reptiles into fossil fuels, which we use to possibly repeat history. Since the time I published the book, some new concepts have developed and I should add that Nature does not do conspiracy theories, does not function in an alternative physics, either. The choice of our future is ours. We can succeed or we can fail. It truly is a case of We Will Reap What We Sow.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Positively setting the stage in my office

A substantial part of my work consists of speaking engagements, in particular keynote presentations to conferences. Of course, Covid-19 has been a bit of a disruptor. Yet, many events organizers have adjusted to the new situation and virtual conferences have now become a new format. If I felt at first like I was going to have lots of time on my hands, I have been rather surprised by the ongoing interest for the future of food and farming, and by the many requests for virtual speaking engagements that I have received. I am as busy as ever. In a way, there is some irony –or maybe just a sign that I saw certain things before others- because virtual meetings have been on my list of services for a decade. Few had used that possibility until Covid-19 raised its ugly head. Virtual meeting are now happening.

At first, it was a matter of simply accommodating, getting on Skype or Zoom, just like everybody else. I can understand that lockdowns took everybody by surprise and it is a matter of first things first. I just want to go the next level. Zoom meetings are nice but, and I do not know if you will agree with me, there is a bit of a depressed atmosphere about it. People do not dress as they would for business in the “real” world and everybody looks a little subdued and droopy. It feels a little soft. Often, it has more to do with not setting the camera in the right spot but nonetheless, I want virtual meetings and conferences to feel as dynamic, energetic and upbeat as the “real” ones. We are not going to let the virus get us down, are we? It is a matter of mindset, really.

Virtual meetings will stay, even after we have defeated the virus. The old in-person conferences will return but many people and event organizers will have discovered the value and the benefit of virtual events as well. This why I have organized my home office as a stage, where I can stand and look at the audience right in the eyes (although through the lens of a camera). Every time, I am just trying to replicate the feeling of an in-person meeting. A positive mindset is always contagious, hopefully more so than Covid-19. I have a whole array of tech gizmos to be able to do presentations, as I mention in the video. In a number of occasions, I needed to get in touch with my inner MacGyver.

I just want to let you know that virtual meetings and conferences are on my list of services. I hope that it is something that appeals to you and if you are interested, let’s get in touch and see what we can organize.

Christophe Pelletier

How to be a food futurist?

Probably, the question that I have been asked the most in all my years as a food futurist has been “What does a food futurist do and how and you do it?” Of course, being a food futurist is just like any other business. There is no one-fit-all approach. Different people and organizations have different needs and different expectations. As a food futurist, I have had to define my niche. That said, the term futurist is used in many ways and can cover very different activities. In the food and agriculture sector, the theme of the future of food and farming has actually shifted more and more as a marketing gimmick for many organizations. It has lost its role of foresight to just be another term for what used to be new product development. Personally, I do not use the word futurist to be a consultant under a sexier and trendier name. I focus on the future in a way that I described in my article What future do you want? Although the futurism market is segmented, just as any other market, I see a number of characteristics that make a futurist truly add value.

Accurate predictions

In my opinion, this is the number one key performance indicator of a futurist. Since the job is about what is not here yet, what the futurist says as to be a prediction, in the true sense of the word, with the prefix pre, meaning before, and diction being what s/he tells. A good futurist is someone who tells the future accurately before it happens and before everyone else. Accuracy is of course essential to spot a good futurist. Someone who consistently predicts accurately is of course highly valuable. If the futurist makes predictions with a low rate of accuracy, someone’s time is being wasted. As far as I am concerned, in my career. Often, I met skepticism or disbelief but generally speaking, my predictions came true some time later. The same thing happened with business strategies. In particular, since I started this blog, I made many predictions in my articles and in my books. I also made many for my customers. Most of them are out there and I leave it to you to decide whether you think my predictions have been accurate. I have my own opinion on the subject. As a teaser, I have compiled a number of them in my page Some of my past predictions.

An actual futurist

As I said earlier, there are many ways to be a futurist. The way I look at it, a futurist must present the future before it happens. It is the result of research and analysis, and the vision that comes out has to be substantiated with strong arguments. Since it is about the future, it cannot be about what already exists. Writing the present in the future tense does not make it a prediction. Many futurists, especially those who like to focus on technology tend to stick too much on presenting catalogues of what is already in the works. To me, this is not a foresight job. It is a journalist, a story teller and/or a student’s job. Similarly, presenting the future as a way to sell particular products categories or advocate for some production systems, whichever they might be is not a futurist’s job, they are sales rep’s, advocate’s, activist’s or a lobbyist’s jobs. Personally, I never advocate anything. I do not let my feelings or opinions stay in the way, either. I just present arguments to weigh in favour or against, so that my customers can decide for themselves. Actually, this way of working sometimes made me change the way I looked at the future myself.

A good futurist must be ahead of the pack, which can be lonely, and come up with an original angle. If it is not original, then it already exists and then the story is not a prediction anymore. In such a case the futurist is more of a follower than a leader. A good futurist anticipates. If there is a requirement to carry out a thorough rational and objective analysis, being a futurist requires a strong intuitive side and a strong sense of anticipation. People who have rational and analytical skills combined with intuition and a “sixth sense” are quite rare. Usually, most people are strong on one side only. Having both is a gift, for the futurist of course, but especially for the customers.

Independent and candid

Good futurists must be objective. They must be able to present a vision of the future that is not biased. This is where things can become difficult. Often, the futurist wants to please the customer and will emphasize the bits that make people happy and avoid the topics that are sensitive or even controversial. Yet, in my view, useful futurists will tell things the way they see them, regardless of whether the customers likes what they hear or not. Being candid allows telling the full story. I see resisting candour as actually short-changing the customer by holding some bits of the future. It might be tactically useful as customers who love everything might be more inclined to have repeat intervention for the futurist, but they might miss much other beneficial information. Sometimes, it is the other way round. The customer is the one who does not want to hear about certain topics.Then, I wondered why they would pay someone while applying what is a form of censorship. I have no interest in such assignments.The future has to be a bit shocking and disturbing; otherwise something is missing in the picture. The future should trigger resistance and requests for further explanations. After all, futurists are not oracles or gurus, although sometimes people seem to like seeing them that way. No, a futurist presents a vision and from there, a conversation must follow. Especially, it some bits of the vision strike a nerve, it is essential to go to the bottom of things and understand what substantiates the vision. This dialogue is critical to get the full value of a futurist. Otherwise, it is no more than a flat presentation, often quite entertaining, but with limited staying power. I guess I can say I have staying power since I have been doing this since April 2009. I have seen many others venturing as food and/or agriculture futurist but choosing the past of least resistance and they lasted a couple of years at the most. If I were to pinpoint a frustrating part of being a futurist, I would say that it would be the lack of this getting to the bottom of things. I find people are not curious and inquisitive enough, or perhaps they are too nice and do not want to engage in a passionate dialogue. They should because the vision is just the tip of the iceberg. The future encompasses much more that the vision and customers should dive deep to see the entire iceberg. At least, I wish they would. This why I always organize my schedule to have plenty of time available for my customers after my presentations. Often, informal after hours conversations are more conducive than formal stage time for good conversation.

Experience and specialization

There are futurists who will talk about the future of everything. It can be done but it depends for which purpose. Like anything else in life, there is a trade-off. I chose to focus on food and agriculture only. The reason is simple. I want to spend my time to deepen my expertise in this field. A person has only so much time and if I tried to do the same quality of work for all sectors of life, I would have to cut the time I can allocate to each of these sectors. It is the old joke of being a generalist vs. being a specialist, the generalist being someone who knows less and less about more and more things while the specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less. In a way, I have specialized in food and agriculture, but I see myself much more as a generalist, though. Of course, my personal and professional background help me, although my experience and using my critical mind through my education and professional experience also help me a great deal to know what works and what does not. I do not see my work as a food and agriculture futurist as a continuity from the past. On the contrary, I want to look at the sector with new eyes all the time. Otherwise, I would be like many futurists/consultants who are trying to recreate the old jobs they lost. I do not have any particular interest in this approach. Even though I have chosen to focus on food and agriculture, I do follow everything I can outside of food and agriculture. If I did not, I would not be good at what I do. I spend a lot of time following other sectors of activity and even economy, politics, history and philosophy to be able to understand all the interconnections that will shape the future. The future of food and agriculture will not originate from food and agriculture only. In a way, I probably could talk about many other sectors as well, but it would be at the cost of my in-depth analysis of all sectors. There, too, I would have a feeling of shortchanging the customer. Let’s say that I am a specialized generalist. I know less than specialists in their areas of specializations but I connect the dots and have the full 360 picture of the sector, and they cannot. I believe that this is a good approach, as my customers’ feedback tells me. But once again, the market is segmented.

Connecting the dots

The ability to get the big picture both within and outside the food and agriculture sector, together with the understanding of how all the interactions affect what can happen, where, when and how is a major asset in the work of a futurist. Nothing and nobody is on an isolated island. Just like my jiu-jitsu teacher used to say “it is all about action and reaction”. Even if certain things seem to have nothing directly with each other, I look at our world as a huge set of gears rotating together, or sometimes getting stuck. It is amazing how our world, present and future, is shaped by many events often far way and taking place at different times. It is better to keep your eyes and ears wide open. In particular, with food and farming, we are dealing with life, which is a nexus between the Earth, the air, the water and energy. Life is all about ecosystems and ecosystems evolve on equilibriums. This is what makes food and agriculture so interesting and so dynamic. The systems constantly have to maintain themselves and function in a delicate balance between many elements. The many levels for life to sustain itself make it powerful, yet vulnerable.

Critical thinking

Since the work of a futurist consists of a lot of research, it depends on the work of many others. Some are reliable and others less so. When browsing for information, it is essential to be able to sort out what is solid from what is not. To do this, it requires some serious critical thinking, as well as knowledge and experience. Not everything that is out there is true. It is important to know where reliable sources are and it is at least as important to know which sources are not. Personally, I do not care if what I read or watch -and I do a lot of that on a daily basis- comes from an expert, a Nobel prize, a high-rated university professor, an social media influencer (beware of those!), a billionaire or a celebrity. Even those who are considered in the know do not always say sensible things. The amount of useless stuff that I come across is quite impressive. In particular, the amount of myths, misinformation and fallacies that are carried around by people who either do not even read the stuff or do not have the knowledge to assess if something is true or false, or do not make the effort to do some critical thinking would really surprise you. Or maybe it would not. I am glad that I am naturally equipped with a seriously critical mind and I also am lucky that I have been in an education system with teachers that fostered this quality. Critical thinking is essential to a futurist. With a lack of it, the futurist can end up looking like a fool.

Open-mindedness

I mentioned the need for independence and objectivity earlier. It is also true that we all look at the world through a prism that we received from our parents, our culture, or teachers and our life experiences. I do not think that anyone can claim to be 100% objective and unbiased. This is where critical thinking helps a great deal, in particular by thinking critically about our own thinking (still following me?). It may sound a bit schizophrenic but with some practice it can be done without medication (just joking here). Without critical thinking, there cannot be any open-mindedness and without open-mindedness, there is no room for critical thinking. People who miss one of those or both, have no alternative than to fall in a binary world, the kind of binary world that the thought police and the political correctness brigades scourging social media try to impose. Let’s face it, people with an open mind and critical thinkers are dangerous, even subversive. They tend to scare the brigades I just mentioned. Especially, they escape their power. Yet, a good futurist must wade above that because anything that restricts our potential to develop a vision of a different world will ruffle some feathers, sometimes. Open-mindedness is essential to do this part of the work. Indeed, how can anyone think of a different world if they cannot accept for themselves first that it could be the way of the future?

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Revisiting the pyramid, grandma and other things

The coronavirus has taken our world by storm. There has been little time to react and it will take more time to adapt. In a matter of days, our economy and societies have undergone an acid test like they had not in a long time. Important questions, many of them existential, have had to be asked. Perhaps, the most personal and intrusive one is to decide what is essential and what is non-essential, and by what, the question really has come down to who is and is not essential. This one is rather traumatic, because for many it has meant that they lost their jobs, part or all of their income, with all the implications about their livelihoods, security, sense of purpose and future.

Those who know me know that I look at many things through Maslow’s pyramid of needs. To me, the current troubled times that we are going through and how people cope -or not- with it, is very much the same as revisiting Maslow’s pyramid. Until a few months ago, the world economy seemed to run on all cylinders and although a recession seemed to be overdue, as one tends to happen every decade or so, there was very little that indicated that the economy would slow down drastically. The stock markets where like a fun fair. Then, everything freezes over. The topic of essential vs. non-essential sent us right back to the pyramid. All of a sudden, the lower layers of the pyramid took precedence. Physical security and security of food and shelter became obvious again, and the more superficial matters had to step back a bit.

Not only did many household budgets take a painful hit, store shelves were often scarcely filled. This pandemic has shown that our economic model is really built around quantitative growth and abundance, but should conditions change drastically, it is not as agile and resilient as we may have liked to think all this time, especially when nobody really wants to have inventories. Empty shelves did not remain empty for just a couple of days but it took more like a couple of weeks for some products to reappear in satisfactory quantities, and some items have hardly reappeared at all even a couple of months into this crisis. Shelves were empty, and yet farmers dumped their products, in particular dairy farmers literally pouring milk down the drain. An outrageous food waste has been taking place, in a time where food banks are overwhelmed and can get enough to help the ones in need. There is some thinking to do about connecting the links of the value chains, because it shows very little value and does not behave like a chain, either.

The small pop-and mom shops actually did rather well in this mayhem. They adapted quickly to ensure social distancing. They took orders for pick up and for delivery, and actually prepared them without errors. Most of all, they showed no disruption of supplies. The small meat store had meat and the baker had bread. They may be a bit more expensive than supermarkets, but the value of not wasting time and risking contamination to find only half of what is on your shopping list outweighs the slight price uptick. Grocery chains did not perform anywhere this level of service. At least, here I am talking about the part of the world where I live. Online ordering, pick and delivery have been subpar, and that is for those who actually were able to set up something. Orders were incorrectly filled and even after so many weeks, it is rather cumbersome.

A look at what flew off the shelves is quite revealing and a confirmation of our revisiting Maslow’s pyramid. Remember the trendy times from before the Corona Wars? Yes, it feels like an eternity but in fact it was not that long ago. When it came to food, many of us had been convinced that the good old-fashioned foods that previous generations, all the way back to the early times of agriculture, had become about irrelevant, that farming was going to be revolutionized, mostly by people without any background in agriculture. Cows were farting and that was unacceptable to some billionaires, as clearly the debonair ruminants were up to kill us with their gasses. I wrote my thought about that in previous articles. We had to give up animal products altogether. Sure. Then, the virus came and we stopped flying around in planes, we have to work from home and forget about morning and evening commute, our factories had to shut down and our energy use dropped dramatically. Then, all climate monitoring showed the same thing: greenhouse gasses emissions dropped significantly and the quality of our air improved, and all of that with the same numbers of cows and farm animals. Understand me well, some animal farming systems will need to change dramatically to adapt to a climate friendly approach of agriculture. We were supposed to all become vegetarians and vegans, and yet the most striking thing I could see in grocery stores was that meat, dairy and eggs were about all gone. People hoarded the recently forbidden fruit and apparently were proud to do so. With most of the staple animal products gone, what was left in the stores, then? Well, the sections with plant-based animal products surrogates were still aplenty even though the shelf space for those is usually rather small. No shortage of soy- and pea protein burgers, but no ground beef. No butter except the fancy expensive more “natural” ones, but plenty of margarine on the shelves. No milk today, but lots of soy and almond milk. No regular eggs, but no shortage of the expensive ones produced with special feed, supposedly healthier for us. On the protein side, consumers left massively the higher layers of Maslow’s pyramid, forgot the trendy products and hypes of all sorts to rush back to the basics.

Other categories that showed an amazing comeback are flour and pasta. What a change of heart! Here, too, consumers went back to the basics. Baking and cooking have been among the most popular activities during the pandemic lockdown. What happened to carbs and gluten? Weren’t they supposed to be the incarnation of all evils? Weren’t they supposed to make us fat and sick, to a point where self-proclaimed sometimes questionable dieticians and marketers worked really hard to convince us to not buy any of those staple products but instead choose for the much more expensive gluten-free alternatives that would fill their pockets? Well, not only the pasta, flour and baking sections in the stores were desperately empty because the staples products were back in favour, but the amazing part was that the shelves with gluten-free and other carb-alternative diet products were left about untouched. Flour is back, and so is bread and baked goods because 1) they are fun to make, 2) they are cheap to make and 3) they are good for you, of course with moderation that is. That is the stuff I am advocating on my other blog, “The Sensible Gourmet”. Take a look at it is you have time and you will see the many advantages of preparing food yourself. Baking and cooking are so much more than just that. They are an act of love and they are a unique way of connecting people and generations. This is what we are witnessing here. The need for social contact and love, the second layer from the bottom in Maslow’s pyramid is as popular as the bottom layer about basic physical needs. Baking is just a trip back to grandma’s kitchen. It is a reminder of our childhood and the atmosphere of grandma’s kitchen and the complicity that it brought around the stove. It is a reminder of the happy moments of tasting warm dough and making a mess with chocolate cream. In the current uncertain times, it is a safe haven where love and comfort bring us a badly needed protection from a harsh reality.

But the journey into nostalgia is not only limited in the kitchen. The poorly agile supply chain to large grocery stores and empty shelves showed that food supply is not a given. This has not gone unnoticed and if baking and cooking are popular right now, so is gardening. People transform their lawns into veggie gardens and those living in apartments buy and grow herbs, tomatoes or strawberries in pots on balconies to find some sense of food security. Empty shelves and long distances bring a reflection of where food should be coming from. There is a renewed attention for local food production, this time not some much as a trendy phenomenon, but for food security reasons, which in turn is becoming trendy. As usual with such issues, the conversation is more about a philosophical “we-should” approach but nobody really addresses the important part, which is how to make it work financially and for the local producers to be competitive, especially when many consumers are going through a violent financial crunch. Other questions would be to figure out who the farmers would have to be and where they should farm, as there used to be a lot of farming around cities, but the farms got bought, paved and developed in the past, so they will never come back. Urban farming could be a possibility, but so far, except some fancy expensive greens or massive subsidies, urban farms hardly survive. As someone who has a garden, I can tell you that growing your own food has advantages. I do not have to worry about residues, as I do not spray any chemicals. I also can tell you that the cost of a seed is much lower than buying produce from a store, but the untold reality about gardening is that to have a garden, you need to buy one and that if you look at it from an economic point of view and were to calculate your cost as if it were a commercial operation, you will have to include the price of the land on which you have your garden. Nonetheless, gardening is a great hobby. Personally, I find it very soothing to work the ground and take care of the plants with nobody around. It probably feels like a bubble or a cocoon and I can imagine that this is also part of the renewed interest about gardening.

So here we are. We revisited Maslow’s pyramid of needs. We took a trip back in time to grandma’s kitchen and garden. Grandma (at least both mine who were born in early 1900s) knew scarcity. She knew the value of things and would never waste anything. She would not throw food away, as it was too precious, and the same thing is true about everything, being bits of candle, bits of soap, water or old socks that would be repaired. About this, it was interesting to see a run on sewing machines in France recently, as they were on ad. Grandma knew what sustainability meant, even without a university degree on the subject. It was engrained in the way they were raised. Other things that my grandmas used to telling me to do were to always cover my mouth and nose when sneezing, wash my hands after touching things from others, in particular money. Sounds familiar? After all, they had grown up in a time when there were not many vaccines, tuberculosis and long ailments were shortening many lives and they also had been through the Spanish flu.

The coronavirus has hit abruptly and showed we do not really have a contingency plan or a preparedness plan, another problem has been lingering for some time. Climate change could have even much more devastating effects and although we have been warned times and times over, our actions to adjust have been very meek. Perhaps the virus should bring us to think about the next crisis and how to absorb the shock, if we really can or want to.

The current crisis has led us to look for more security but will we learn from it and will it last? The question is what this will mean for the future? How will retailers adapt, if they do? How will supply chain adapt? How will food producers manage a transition to a 5-foot economy, as the Dutch government calls it? How will farmers and food producers find the work force of the future? What products should have priority in the future of food and agriculture, and will the marketing realign along grandma’s lifestyle or will we feel compel to revert as soon as possible to the pre-coronavirus times? These are critical questions to ensure that we will keep having food supplies secure and affordable. I will come back on these questions in future articles.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Life around the virus

I looked up in my books what I had written about my concerns regarding epidemics, as it is a topic that I raised quite a few times at conferences and other assignments in the past. To me, high density of people and animals are just a disaster waiting to happen as I also believe that sooner or later some epidemics will be passed from animals to humans, and there are suspicions that the current coronavirus may have originated from animals. Here are excerpts from Future Harvests, the book I published 10 years ago.

[…] the high density of human population with a high density of farm animals causes issues of manure smell. There are also fears of animal diseases and potential risks for public health in the case of outbreak flu-related epidemics […]

[…] In the mixing of urban and agriculture, one activity will require special care, though. As the risks of epidemics and of transmission of viruses between humans and farm animals exist and increase, local governments will need to set up appropriate measures to prevent diseases and their spreading. A high density of people, together with a high density of animals, could have catastrophic consequences […]

So, I am not surprised with the CoVid19 pandemic, all the less so as I found initial reactions from developed countries rather inadequate. Pretty much, their message sounded as if it were merely a Chinese problem, or even an Iranian one and their claim was that the chances that the virus comes here was low (look up for their early statements). With the little bit of understanding of diseases that I have gathered from my years in intensive animal husbandry, I found that kind of statement a bit cavalier, to say the least. Considering the mobility level of people and the speed at which virusses propagate, I would not share their optimism. I believe that their assessment was biased with some prejudice and some superiority complex. I won’t go into much details about my thoughts about this here, but I was much more prudent. The world can say a big thank you to China for acting swiftly and with determination like they did. I am sure that there was quite some denial going on from Western governments, as is usual with such things. same thing would be true about the attitude of financial markets that were more concerned about GDP issues than the actual lives of Chinese citizens, but as we saw, reality started to catch up and they went from denial to depression at record speed and might – just only might yet – be close to acceptance. Governments have reached acceptance, but not quite all of their citizens, though.

The current crisis brings some interesting information to light. In particular, satellite imaging and monitoring of greenhouse gasses emission levels since transports and economic activity has slowed down show a noticeable reduction. Interesting because, with such correlation, it will be hard to claim they are not related. The crisis also brings up some reflection of the organization of work, communication and economy. Something to chew for futurists.

For how contagious the virus might be, I believe that it is fair to state that we are not dealing with the Black Death here, neither are we dealing with the Spanish flu, well as long as we are disciplined and use our communication tools effectively. About that, of course and as with everything these days, everyone on social media seems to be an expert on everything, although we must realize that having an opinion and being an expert are two very distinct concepts. A few days ago, a news outlet in the region where I live here in British Columbia came with some weirdly cooked up math to explain why we would have thousands of death soon, while there are no recorded cases in the region and Canada has very few cases altogether. That article was complete nonsense written by a so-called journalist with clearly zero understanding of viruses and how diseases spread. Fortunately, after some strong rebuttal from people who know about the stuff, they came out with apologies in good old Canadian fashion (sorry, eh!) stating that it was poor journalism. Indeed it was and totally counter-productive, too. I just hope they will fire the bozo who wrote that piece. He has no credibility any more. In my opinion (I have one, too), the only advice to give would have to be about the precautionary principle because it is always safe. A better advice to the self-proclaimed newly found experts is to just admit they know nothing and are not qualified to give advice and shut up. Just leave it to the true experts.

As far as I am concerned, the epidemics has affected me in my work, as a number of speaking engagements have been cancelled. Pity, but c’est la vie! I am just going to enjoy life at home for a while. Anyway, it’s time to do some work in the vineyard. I read a couple of great books, both about the dehumanization of the work place and of education by the introduction of so-called rational management methods and metrics of all sorts. The books are from the beginning of this century and they are spot on, as I can see happening around about every day. One is in French, from Jean-Pierre Le Goff, “La Barbarie Douce” (The Sneaky Barbary), and the other is in Dutch by Jaap Peters, formerly from E&Y, titled Intensieve Menshouderij (Intensive Human Husbandry). Too bad they are not in English, but if you speak the languages, I strongly recommend them.

To fill the gap, and because I am not one of those types plugged on their digital umbilical cord day in and day out, I have started a book of poems about food and agriculture a few weeks ago and since when I decide to go after something, I turn the turbo on, I am about finished with the writing. There will be between 85 and 90 poems. Originally in my previous post, I had mentioned 70 to 75, but hey that’s me, I like to perform above expectations. even when they are my own. Now, I have to read them again and edit them. That is the tedious phase. The writing has come out nicely and I think it will be a good book. I will keep you posted soon with the preface and the list of poems.

In the meantime, enjoy life, protect yourself and others and you will see that this, too, shall pass.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

 

 

My next book will be a little different

Over the past few weeks, I have been avidly writing a book of poems around the theme of food and farming. It is now rather advanced and I should be publishing it late Spring 2020. There will be about 70-75 poems. It is a refreshing diversion from my regular activities of food futurist, which tend to revolve around technologies and consumer trends, although I have managed to find some poetry about the future of food and agriculture and those topics. Surprisingly, there is poetry with drones, sensors, data and artificial intelligence. I have been experimenting with different poetry formats such as haiku, villanelles and limericks. It is a lot of fun to do and it good to use both brain hemispheres in harmonious balance and have them fully connected rather than grow one at the expense of the other, which would be like having one huge biceps and the other one all skinny.

Some poems treat of serious matters such as hunger, suicide among farmers, food waste or environmental matters, but most are rather cheerful, like the villanelles and humorous like the haiku and the limericks. It is full of bees, birds, fertile fields, winemaking, gardening, calves, little lambs and piglets. There is also a section that I call “Destinations” that focus on some countries and their food cultures that I particularly like. I am thinking of making a French version of the book when I am finished, as the poems are in English.

I came up with poetry in an unexpected manner. A former member of my team in my time in aquaculture here in Canada, recently died suddenly at a much too young age. Of course, I was stunned as his passing away was the last thing I had expected. He was a great professional and very instrumental in the turn around that I led here, but most of all he was a gentleman with great human qualities whom I held in very high esteem. After hearing the sad news, I started to write my thoughts in the form of a poem about him. Why did I use poetry? I have no idea but it came naturally. “His” poem will be in the book. But after writing that poem, I felt the urge of keeping writing poems, this time around one of my passions, which is food and farming.

That is the story. I will keep you posted with the next steps.

What do consumers really want to know about food?

My previous article about what consumers know about food is only part of the equation. What is as important is to know what they want to know and why. When it comes to knowledge of food, consumers can be divided into three main groups. There are those who know about food and most are always interested to learn more. Then, there is the (large) group of people who do not know. Some are willing to learn. Usually, they are confused by all the contradictory points of views that they hear or read and they just do not know who they should believe. This open-minded sub-group gathers people from all walks of life. They may have their biases but they are willing to change their minds. Another sub-group among those who do not know much about food gathers people who do not know and do not care as long as their food is safe, tastes good to them and has the right price. Then there is the third group, the difficult group of those who think they know but don’t. Usually, they are not willing to learn because, well, they already know it all and they are certainly not looking forward to have their certainties challenged. This group can be divided into two sub-groups, too: those who think they have the monopoly of science and those who think they have the monopoly of morals.

In this article, I will focus on the people who have the willingness to learn about food. What would be the point of trying to spend time if that willingness was not there? Also, all I can tell is my personal experience when meeting with people who are asking questions about food and where it is all going. Actually, I always found that the conversations I have had with people asking me about food and agriculture went quite well. I guess the secret for that is to not try to force people into any conclusion. Let them decide for themselves. People do not like being told what they should know and believe. It is a very normal reaction, and that is why so-called “educating” the consumer will never really achieve much. Just have a relaxed talk without any particular agenda other than to listen and respect each other’s point of view.

Further, even though marketing experts always like to define specific areas of attention, the mapping of consumers is not all that useful when it comes to the food conversation. Of course people are concerned about health, environment, origin of product, production methods, etc… When you look at what consumers want to know, it really comes down to two main issues. One is “How do I know that my food won’t make me sick -or worse?”, and the other one is “Can I trust the food producer?” These two issues are quite interconnected and not easy to address for food suppliers. The first issue, which really comes down to the topic of food safety is work in progress. There has never been full absolute food safety in the past and it will not be possible to guarantee that in the future, either. A large part of food safety issues actually happen in the consumers’ homes because of poor food handling. Many consumers do not know the basics of proper food handling. But even at the producer’s level, no production system is immune. Problems happen just as well with industrial production as with farmers’ market type of food. It happens with large producers just as it happens with small producers. This is where the issue of trust plays an important role. Consumers want to know which suppliers they can trust for food that does not contain anything harmful or/and weird. In previous posts, I have raised the issue of trust many times and mentioned how difficult it is to earn. Why do some food producers earn trust and others not? It has been the idea of brands since day one: the consumer can recognize the producer easily and know that the product is reliable every time. In our world flooded with information, rumours and stories of all sorts, and with a reach like never before, this is not sufficient anymore. If the question of how to earn trust is often difficult to answer, another way of looking at it is to do what I like to do when I cannot get an answer: to look at it from the opposite angle. The question then becomes what makes consumers not trust a producer? I am sure that you can make a list of reasons very quickly. Here I can give you a few: not knowing the producer, bad or unknown reputation, unreliable quality, regular problems, hiding information, not answering questions, lying to the customer, saying one thing and doing another, etc… It has a lot to do with quality of the product and quality of the communication, and consumers want to know what the quality of both is.

Traceability and transparency address those concerns to some extent. They are certainly helping by creating a much required communication and openness. However, the question remains whether food suppliers are on the same wave length as what consumers want to know. Traceability and transparency are not new concepts. They were part of my dealings with my customers some 25 years ago, and I still have the same reservations today as I had by then. I can state without any doubt that traceability is essential but I would like to see it become a proactive tool, instead of about just recording history. I remember telling one of my customers by then that I thought that traceability in order to be able to explain on rather short notice what went wrong was really short changing the customer. With today’s mass digitalization, which makes getting the information about the records even quicker, I believe that my point has become even more important. Traceability cannot just be about finding out the cause of a problem after the customer has found out. I always have considered that the customer can never be the quality control of a supplier. If producers have traceability systems that allow them to tell within moments what went wrong, then the system has to be able to prevent the problem from happening. The traceability system has to be connected with the quality assurance system. With the rise of sensors, internet of things, data collection software and artificial intelligence, the traceability system must become the frame for quality assurance and the high-tech devices will have to allow a real time 100% quality control on physical, chemical and biological quality criteria. It will have to be able to shut down the production line as soon as a deviation from the quality standard occurs. Traceability will move from “writing history” to “making (clean) history”. There are already a lot of possible quality defects that are prevented from being sent to consumers but it has to be even better in the future. Ideally, the objective must become zero recall, because even if recalls help prevent problems from getting worse, their incidence is creating a feeling of insufficient safety.

Regarding transparency, I believe that there is a disconnect between what food producers are doing and what consumers are looking for. Of course, the best way to be fully transparent is to put every bit of data and information in the system. From a consumer’s point of view, what is transparency really about? Do you know anyone who wants to check every detail of the production of what s/he buys? Consumers might be interested to know from which farm their food comes from. They might be interested in knowing the farmer’s name and see pictures. Will they want to be interested in digging as far as to know when chickens were born and when, what feeds they ate during their life and where the feeds came from and what they were made of and where the ingredients used for the feed came from and when they were produced, or would they really be interested in knowing the genealogy of the chickens and look up for where the parents and grandparents were raised, or have the production details in the slaughterhouse? I doubt it. In my opinion, the highest value of transparency for consumers is that the food producer has it and is willing to show everything if questions arise. In other words, the producer is not trying to hide or misrepresent anything.  After all transparent means exactly that: you can see for yourself through the window and you do it without having someone telling you what and where to look. More than the content of information presented, it is the food producer’s attitude that matters. The role of social media also amplifies the need for transparency, but it also may contain some pitfalls for producers. A recent survey by Deloitte shows that Millennials and GenZ assess producers by their values a lot and that their loyalty will be to the values and not to the brand. I believe that values are going to be a critical aspect of how consumers choose from whom they will buy their food, and anything else. The combination of social media with heightened sense of individualism (some would say narcissism) and yet at the same time a strong trend towards polarization and tribalism around sets of values and beliefs means that food producers will have to navigate skillfully in the future.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

How much do consumers really know about food?

Perhaps it is a case of multiple copy-and-paste events but I was surprised to read and hear recently in several occasions something that intrigued me. According to some research, millennials would know a lot more than their parents and previous generations about food and how it is produced. It surprised me because I wish I could bump into millennials who know something about food. Actually I wish I could bump into people from any generation that would have some significant knowledge of food and agriculture. I also disagree with those who claim that people have never known as little about food and agriculture as nowadays, but those have their own hidden agenda.

The main reason marketers are interested in the millennials is that this group has much more money than previous generations, or at least that is the thinking. Since the world population has more than tripled since 1950, representing an increase of more than 5 billion people, it is no surprise that millennials represent a financial force. However, one should look at the average individual financial situation of a millennial compared with previous generations. If the group has more money as a whole but less on an individual basis, their consumption pattern might not be as expected. Also, it would be wise to compare between regions as the boost might be different depending on whether they live in emerging countries or mature developed countries. 

So, have I been sleeping too much lately or do I meet the wrong people? Or is it a matter of confusing terms as it seems to happen more and more. Do millennials have more knowledge about food, or is it perhaps that they have access to more information? As Einstein supposedly said, “Information is not knowledge” and this might be truer more than ever in today’s world where we are constantly buried in information, some of it being accurate and most of it being not so, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. It would be good to think about several concepts that we tend to consider synonyms while they are quite different: data, information, fact, knowledge, truth and wisdom. I will try to explain the difference by using a very food and agriculture related metaphor.

Imagine data as a field of potatoes. There are plenty of plants and potatoes in the field and you are going to harvest. All you do is to collect all the potatoes from the field and eventually bring them to a place where you will sort out what you have harvested. At that stage, potatoes are just like data. It is raw units without any processing of any sort. All you can tell at this stage is how many potatoes you have, what they are and what the total volume is.

Once the potatoes have been harvested, you are going to look at them in more detail. You are going to sort out the small ones from the larger ones. You are going to sort out the ones that may have been damaged or are not proper to send to market. Depending on the criteria that are useful for you, you are going to distribute your potatoes into small groups according to various qualities and uses. Each group or package has a particular relevance. You want to make these groups in such a way that they are useful, practical and to make something good out of each group. Each group contains information that either your customers if you sell the potatoes or the person who cooks will use to decide what to do with the potatoes. Are they for mashing, for frying, for sautéing, for baking, etc…?

Once the potatoes have been sorted out, you have information and that information could fit on a label. If the label is accurate, anyone using the group of potatoes will have some knowledge of what the bag contains, but they will not have all the knowledge. Will other users know when the potatoes have been harvested, what variety they are, how they have been produced and by whom and if they are safe to eat? Here is why regulations, traceability and transparency increase the amount of information to the user who will use the batch of potatoes. As long as the information is correct, it equates to some knowledge. If the information in incomplete, so is the knowledge. If the information is incorrect, it is neither knowledge nor truth and can lead to wrong decisions by the user. If the information is incorrect on purpose, it is deception and even fraud (think about the case of horse meat that was labelled as beef in Europe a couple of years ago, the numerous cases of fraudulent fish names or the fact that many honey pots might contain more corn fructose syrup than honey but labelled as if it were all pure honey). Here is a case for information vs. misinformation vs. disinformation vs. deception and lies.

So imagine that the gossip mill now says that your potatoes have been contaminated by some disease or some creatures roaming in your field. How can you tell and how can the user of your potatoes tell? You grew the potatoes and you sorted them out, so you can tell if there were signs of disease, such as for instance black spots. You grow potatoes and you know what kind of disease of defect that may mean. How do you know and how do you translate the information (presence of black spots) into the knowledge of what the cause is? You know from experience, and that is exactly the difference between information and knowledge. Experience can be your own or someone else’s that you consult on the problem at hand. You and they have gathered experience into knowledge. Experience links information and facts into knowledge and understanding. Acquiring knowledge is a learning process. Reading information is not. So, what will happen with the person at home buying a bag of potatoes and finding black spots? If they do not have the experience, their imagination can go wild and they will enter their interpretation into the gossip mill (aka as social media). Many people without knowledge will forward the posting. Since they have no knowledge of potatoes they will not know if they should or not blow life in the gossip, but since something “weird” happened, how could they resist the urge to share and they will forward the information to the larger community and add their own comments such as “ew!!” , “gross!!”, “unacceptable!!”,  “shame!!” or even “boycott Christophe’s potatoes because they are weird and probably not naturally grown, etc…” and that is how a simple little problem can spin out of control and how ignorance and basic human nature attraction for gossip will change the fate of my growing potatoes.

Information is one thing and knowledge is another, but what about the truth? If I come with facts to explain what the deal is with my potatoes, two things can happen: people will believe me or they will not. Trust is an essential part in having customers believing the explanation. If people do not trust me, there is a good chance that they will not believe me. If they trust me, that is not a guarantee that they necessarily will trust me. Trust is always difficult to earn. It is difficult to earn the first time. It is incredibly easy to lose. To regain a second time, it is much more difficult than it was the first time. Trust depends on other people’s beliefs and it depends on the ability to convince. But when you take the broader picture of the gossip mill, in which other people will bring arguments against my explanation, there is competition for trust, whom do they trust more, me and my explanation or the social media mob? People do not necessarily trust those with knowledge, they trust those they believe. That can be dangerous. After all, it is easy to have an opinion. Everyone can have one on everything. having an opinion is not the same as to be an expert. No knowledge is required to have an opinion. usually, all it takes for people to give their opinion is to believe they know. Perhaps, this is the worst when it comes to information: people who think they know but don’t. I come across quite a few of those.  Beliefs always weigh more than facts, and that is why facts alone are not helpful when it comes to telling the true story about the potatoes. Being disappointed by my potatoes would not be a rational experience. It would be experienced by the users as a breach of confidence in the produce and the supplier. The first step is to connect at that emotional level of the disappointment. Only by connecting emotionally is it possible to gradually bring the conversation to more rational aspects. The other important part in regaining trust is to make sure to not disappoint again. People accept one mistake but they do not take well the same mistake when it is made again.

So, do the younger generations know about their food is produced? They may truly think that they do, but that is not the same as actually knowing. I also have mixed feelings about opposing generations. It is likely that millennials have different concerns, different values and different beliefs than their parents and grandparents. Yet, I have the strong feeling that I see more variation within a generation than I see between generations. Millennials may be exposed to a lot of information, but do they sort out the information in a rational way or do they simply choose the information coming from people they believe or who share the same values? I believe (I won’t be bold as to say I know) that the latter prevail. The difference may not be that one generation knows more about food and agriculture but that they are more concerned about it. That is not the same and it has little to do with knowledge. I also suspect that the concern is not just about food but it is more of an existential concern in times of uncertainty. It always seems that people are more critical about their food when they are pessimistic about the future. When everything goes well, those concerns do not seem to weigh as much.

What effect it will have on future food and agriculture depends largely on whom future consumers decide to believe. Psychology plays a very important part in food choices and I do not expect that to change any time soon. It has advantages but also disadvantages. Is it wise to think this way? Wisdom is the ability to discern the truth from beliefs to make the right decisions. The future will tell if wisdom will go in parallel with information.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.