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.


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.


Who’s afraid of Brexit?

November 21, 2016

Brexit is a hot item. I am asked regularly what I think about it and I have to admit it is rather difficult to answer with any kind of certainty today. I hear and read all sorts of points of views and their opposites. The financial markets sent their messages and legions of experts have given their opinions but I see two main forces in what they tell us. The first thing is a lot of subjectivity. Most predictions I read seem to be more the result of spite, particular agendas or wishful thinking. It sometimes sounds more like what the pundits would like to happen to the UK and to the EU than the result of a solid analysis. The fluctuations of the Pound Sterling are also more the result of a lack of clarity than of a long-term view, but that is how financial markets work. Uncertainty opens the door to all sorts of rumours and speculations. When the crystal glass is too blurry, everyone develops his/her own scenario, which of course adds to the confusion, the uncertainty and the nervousness.

The only way to dissipate uncertainty is for political and business leaders to come out and say clearly what they are going to do and how. They also must explain what will change and that includes the good, the bad and the ugly. Brexit is about change and change always brings fear, which is really the fear of loss, as gains are usually never perceived as threats. The missing bit in the Brexit issue is the lack of clarity and communication about what the political leaders will do. Even the date of initiating the process seems rather fluid, not to mention those who say that it will not happen after all. As long as clarity and determination seem to still be missing, confusion will prevail. I believe that the situation remains vague simply because the leaders do not have a clear idea themselves of what to do with that referendum outcome they did not expect and therefore never really thought about what the next step should be. Just imagine what the reactions would be if the UK had the Euro as a currency and were part of the Schengen area…

road-for-the-ukWill the UK face an economic crisis or a recession? Maybe but maybe not. That would not be the first time and eventually the UK has always recovered. I do not see why this would be any different. I remember when Black Wednesday took place in 1992. By then, I was in charge of the UK market for a Dutch poultry processing plant. The UK was the main destination of breast fillets, our most expensive product and overnight the company turn-over was headed to a major nosedive. The Brexit excitement of today feels nothing like the panic of then. Regardless of how stressful it was, the Black Wednesday situation delivered some good lessons in term of business strategy that I am sure would be beneficial in today’s situation.

The first lesson for us by then was that having many of our eggs in the same basket was quite risky. The exchange rate and the law of supply and demand showed us that less attractive national markets became more attractive and we developed breast fillets sales outside of the UK, while the UK was more competitive outside of its borders. Markets dynamics changed but life went on. One of the most important functions of a sales department is to generate alternatives all the time. No alternative means there is no choice but to accept what the other party offers. The second lesson may be the most important. We had a good marketing strategy. We served the most demanding segment in terms of quality and we offered top-notch service. This made us the last suppliers our customers would want to eliminate and it gave us a solid leverage to renegotiate deals and compensate the loss due to the exchange rate. They wanted our product because it was supporting their business and they would not want to throw that value away. The third lesson is a correlation of the second one. We had chosen a specialized and growing market. By being market-oriented we were able to stay in demand and weather short-term market volatility much better than many of our undifferentiated competitors, both from the UK and the EU.

Because I have seen the benefit of a market-oriented value marketing approach, I can only recommend it as a choice in regards with Brexit. Even in a changing environment, if you have what the market wants, the market will want you. Crises are useful. They help eliminate businesses that are not adapted and not adaptable. The key is to find the customers with a future and help them to be so by delivering them superior value.

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


Nature will reshape food value chains

October 15, 2015

The recent climatic events, in particular droughts, have attracted more attention on future challenges for food production, and rightly so. Unfortunately, the mainstream media cannot help presenting the as all gloom and doom. Certainly, there are very serious reasons for concerns, but solutions can be found. I wish the media would present more examples of positive actions to face and overcome the challenges.

It is not easy to deal with a changing environment, especially when it is impossible to predict accurately what the change will be. Predictions about temperature increases are useful but they are quite insufficient. An increase of 2 degrees on average will be different if the standard deviation is 1 degree or if it is 20 degrees. Other factors such as hours of sunlight and precipitations (including their nature, frequency and intensity) will impact agriculture at least as much as average temperatures. Changing climatic conditions will not only affect plant growth and development, but they will change the ecology of weeds and pests as well and that needs to be factored in future forecasts and models

Nature will reshape food value chainsA special attention on water is necessary. Without water, there is no life. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, wasting natural resources has been a bit of a way of life. The issue of food waste has finally received the attention it deserves, but the waste is not just about food. It is about all the inputs such as water, energy, money, time, and fertilizers. Water is still wasted in large quantities. Just compare how many liters a human being needs to drink compared by the amount of water that is flushed in bathrooms every day. Before the housing crash of 2008 a study in the US had estimated that lawn watering used three times as much water as the entire national corn production. But the issue of water is not just about waste. It is also about preserving water reserves. The late example of the drought in California illustrate what water scarcity may mean for food value chains. California is not only a major agriculture power house, but it exports a large part of the production outside of the state’s borders. The issue of water scarcity and the dwindling level of the Colorado River are not new for Californian agriculture. It has been known for a couple of decades that problems were coming. California produces a lot of water-rich fresh produce by means of irrigation. It actually has been exporting its water in the form of lettuce, spinach, melons, strawberries and citrus far away to places from where the water will never return to California. The water loop has been broken wide open and that is why, among other reasons, the system is not sustainable. If California can no longer supply its current markets, it will have to rethink its target markets. At the same time, other regions, that may not be competitive with California today, because externalities are never included in the cost of production, will eventually take over and replace the Golden State as suppliers for some productions. Unfortunately for the future, California is not the only region with a water problem. Saudi Arabia changed its food security policy a couple of years ago as the country leaders realized that trying to produce all its food would lead to a severe depletion of its available drinking water reserves. Instead of pursuing food self-sufficiency at all costs, the country chose to find other supply sources through international trade and through the purchase of farmland in foreign countries. The examples of California and Saudi Arabia demonstrate how natural –and demographic- conditions shape food value chains. The issue of water is not just about produce. Animal productions require usually more water than vegetal ones. In the future, water availability will surely affect where which kind of animal products are produced. New regions will arise and old traditional ones may review their strategies from volume-driven to higher margin specialty animal products market opportunities because of environmental constraints.

Climate change and water scarcity show how international trade can actually contribute to food security when done responsibly and with long-term vision. The prevailing model of producing where it is cheapest to produce without taking into account negative environmental externalities is facing its own contradiction and demise. The next model will be to produce not only where it is the cheapest to produce but where it is sustainable to do so. When water runs out, it is no longer possible to ignore the externalities of a production. When water becomes scarce, it gets more expensive. The law of supply and demand commands. When inputs get more expensive, several things happen. The economic model shifts. Priorities and externalities change, too. At first, producers try to find ways to increase efficiency and eliminate waste. The benefits outweigh the additional costs. Uncertainty stimulates innovation. New systems, or sometimes old ones that found a second youth, replace the current ones. If that does not work well enough, then producers start considering producing something else to ensure the continuity of their operation and find new business.

It is not the first time that our natural environment changes. Finding successful solutions to deal with it really are about our ability to adapt and to preserve our future, as it has been the case in the past. The challenges may be of a magnitude like never before, but so are our knowledge, our technical abilities and the tools present and future.

From an agricultural point of view, adapting to a new environment is about finding the type of production that thrives under new conditions. It may mean different areas of production for some species. In North America, there is already a shift for corn. Iowa has traditionally the main grower, but the corn production area is now expanding north. Minnesota is now producing more corn than in the past and so are the Canadian Prairies. Similarly, the production area for soybean is shifting north. Minnesota is growing an increasing volume of soybean and even in the province of Manitoba in Canada, soybean production attempts have been carried out since a few years.  It is the result of better production conditions and the development of new varieties that can adapt to new less favorable climatic conditions. Because of the local supply for soybean, the development of aquaculture with local soybean products for fish feed is now considered a long-term possibility in Minnesota among others. In Europe, corn production regions also saw a shift to the north for corn during the 1970-80s thanks to the development of new varieties, which largely contributed to the growth of dairy production in these new areas through the widespread use of corn silage. For the future, there is no doubt that genetics will contribute again to ensure food security. There is currently a lot of work done to develop varieties that can withstand droughts, floods or soil salinity. The ability to know the complete genome of species, to spot genes through gene markers, to be able to create new varieties that are less sensitive to diseases help speed up the development of crops that can thrive under future conditions. The recent developments in synthetic biology are quite interesting. Research conducted at the IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) on the development of rice varieties that can have a higher photosynthesis efficiency and thus higher yields could open new perspective for a more productive and more sustainable production.

Next to the development of better and more adapted seeds and genetic material, the development of new technologies that I described in a previous article will bring a number of effective solutions as well. In particular the rise of precision agriculture is certainly quite promising. The ability to deliver to the crops exactly what they need when they need it at the right time and at the right place in the right quantity will help reduce the environmental impact of agriculture while offering the possibility of delivering higher yields. Similarly, in animal production, there still is room to improve feed efficiency. It can happen through further genetic improvement, the use of more efficient feed ingredients and feed composition and through better farm management. The latter is definitely an essential facet of a better future for food production. Better and updated skills for food producers will help being more efficient, more productive and more sustainable at the same time.

An area that is often forgotten when it comes to the future of food is the functioning of markets. If demand for certain products, and in particular animal products, increases faster than supply, price will go up and there will differential increases between the different types of products. As most consumers, unlike what marketers sometimes tend to make believe, still choose what they eat depending on the price of foods, there will be shifts. Some productions will thrive while others will struggle.

As prices still will be an essential driver of the location of the various vegetal and animal productions, markets and environmental constraints will increasingly have a joint effect. In the future, the dominant economic model of producing where it is the cheapest to produce will evolve. As the pressure on water supplies, soil conditions and pollution issues will keep increasing, the model will include an increasing share of negative externalities. They are the long-term costs that are never factored in the production costs but that will affect future production economics. Externalities are the hidden side of sustainability and they will determine the future map of agriculture, as it will no longer be possible to ignore them. Choices will have to be made between short-term financial performance and the long-term ability of various regions to be able to produce, and to keep producing, the volumes and the quality specifications that are needed by the different food markets of the future.

A friend of mine told me a couple of years ago after a trip to Asia how she could see from the plane the large plantations of palm oil trees, and how they had replaced the jungle. She described her impression as the view resembled the strategic game of Risk to her. Yes, climate change and water availability in particular, will reshape food value chains because agriculture, regardless of it scale, is a strategic activity. It is about life and death. It is about peace and war. Future strategies for both global commodities as well as for local food value chains will integrate Nature’s new deal of precious resources and conditions of productions. Together with the geography of future consumption markets, world agriculture will readjust, relocate and the Earth will look different once again.

Copyright 2015 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Maybe a different approach of climate change conferences would help

December 16, 2014

The climate conference COP20 has ended in Lima. As usual, there was lots of hype and fear mongering beforehand. Then, after lots of false hope press releases and fun hobnobbing, the conclusion was exactly the same as usual and as expected: a few vague statements meaning about nothing and no agreement except the one to meet next year in Paris, because having to cancel two weeks in the City of Light… oh la la quel malheur!

As COP20 indicates, that was the 20th time that such a conference was organized, and that was the 20th time that the outcome and conclusion were so predictable. One can wonder why it is so difficult to make significant progress. Is there really a problem? If so, why is this charade going on and what do the world leaders waiting for. Well, maybe it is just because they have no vision for an alternative economic model. That could be a problem, indeed.

This repetitive failure is frustrating. Sometimes, I think that the conference participants should be locked in the conference center with no air conditioning (or maybe on at full blast is another option) and only 80% of the food and water necessary to make it through the duration of the event. It might be more stimulating. But I admit this is not a politically correct proposition. As an alternative I give you here an excerpt of my second book, We Will Reap What We Sow that I published in 2012. In this excerpt, I had written some of my thoughts about how to do it differently.

Here it is:

“The reason behind the resistance and the denial of climate change is actually very mundane. It is about money. Climate change is an incremental process. It takes years to show significant effects. Opposite to this, the effect of tougher legislation is immediate. The negative impact on costs and on jobs manifests quickly. The negative short-term impact is even more sensitive in a time of economic hardship. In such conditions, it becomes more difficult to gain acceptance for long-term sacrifices while there is no viable alternative to generate at least an equivalent profit and employment in the short term. Of course, subsidies can alleviate the pain and make the transition acceptable, but they are difficult to justify in times when government deficits take alarming proportions everywhere around the world.

The path of least resistance and the preference of the short-term prevail. The leaders choose not to be courageous. Such a conclusion is common, and it is a simplistic one. Is the failure to take courageous decisions only the responsibility of the leaders? To answer this question, one must wonder how many people in polluting industries would accept to sacrifice their jobs, their livelihoods to save the next generation. If there is no viable alternative, the answer will be a loud “No!” without the shadow of a doubt. Similarly, one can wonder if consumers would be willing to stop buying products that contribute to climate change. Would they give up their cars and switch to bicycles? Unless the alternative would be much more painful, it is likely that they would answer “No!” to that question, too. In the current economic model based on consumption, asking people to cut back on consumer goods to live lives that are more frugal would cause a deep recession.

Such a proposal will never receive the support of the political and business deciders, even if it would keep the world livable for the coming generations. The truth is that everybody is responsible for the problem, not just the leaders. Everybody enjoys the convenience and the comfort created by mass consumption. Very few would be willing to give it up voluntarily. The lack of political will, as it is called, showed by the world leaders is only a reflection of the collective inertia. While many people are contributing to the problem, nobody feels responsible for it. It is always someone else’s fault. Climate change can be seen as an illustration of Jean Paul Sartre’s quote “Hell is other people”. It is difficult to hope to see a solution to the problem as long as nobody is willing to acknowledge responsibility and take action so drastic that others will feel compelled to follow the example. The world leaders skillfully dodge their opportunity to state whether they think climate change is a problem or not. It would be nice to hear from the different countries how they feel about the issue. It would also make it easier to understand why they act the way they do. Climate change is a problem or it is not a problem. The leaders who think that climate change is not a problem should say so. Those who think it is should do the same. Of course, those who would state that it is a problem will have to develop their plan to show what they want to do about it.

Failure to do so would look strange. Another reason why talks about climate change make so little progress is the lack of vision for the future. The international conferences try to address greenhouse gases emissions without addressing the economic model of the consumption society at the same time. In such a model, where people are supposed to buy more and more goods that are cheaper and cheaper, that are made and delivered with massive amounts of energy and natural resources, there is simply no climate-friendly alternative. There will probably never be any climate-friendly alternative in the future, either. There is no point in being hypocritical and in trying to make believe that the economy can grow forever. It is not possible to increase the use of finite resources in a finite system indefinitely. It is physically impossible, but it is possible to deny it.

In this case, humanity will reap what it will have sowed. However, it is possible to debate and find out where the point of no return is. Even if some countries have higher emissions than others do, pointing fingers at them is not productive. Greenhouse gases emissions may be produced locally, but their effects extend much farther than the national borders. The solutions must be global and developed by all countries as a team. They need to have a vision and a plan to reduce the effects globally. As different sources of energy have different effects on the level of greenhouse gases emitted, the focus should be more on how to produce the required energy than on where the problem originates. The conferences should offer brainstorming sessions about solutions and concrete funding measures for cleaner energy production. The approach should be one of a global contest to offer systems that solve the problem. It would be interesting to change the discussion from one focusing on by how much which country should reduce greenhouse gases emissions into one focusing on developing a vision for energy production, both quantitative as qualitative. The next step is how to produce the amount of energy needed in the future while producing this energy below a global limit that all parties must define. Since money plays a central role in political decisions, it could be a good idea to organize a different type of conference. This time, the participants would have to present all the scenarios that would be possible if they did not consider the short-term economic consequences. It would be stimulating to hear how the problem can be solved from a technical point of view. The solutions would have to review all the possibilities for all industries, starting by the most polluting, to produce more with fewer emissions. Once this part would be completed, the next question would have to address how much these scenarios would cost, and to elaborate a plan that would fund the winning solutions. Nowadays, economic decisions seem to be based on the too-big-to-fail-bailout concept. Then, why not apply the same approach to humanity and climate? Pumping as much money as necessary to ensure the transition in order to create the energy production of the future and save humanity from much costlier consequences sounds reasonable. It would be interesting to compare it with the amount of money printed and the amount of debt created to alleviate the effect of the Great Recession of 2008 that still lingers in many regions today.”

Copyright 2014 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

 


Precision is the future of agriculture and our future

August 22, 2014

By the end of last July, the InfoAg conference took place in St Louis, Missouri. Matt Waits, CEO of SST Software, a conference sponsor, introduced me before my presentation titled “Beyond the Farm of the Future”. In his brief introduction he told the audience that he strongly believes that precision agriculture is the future of agriculture. His statement resonated quite positively with me. I see only advantages in making agriculture more precise. Just for starters, per definition the opposite of precision agriculture would be an imprecise agriculture. That is already reason enough to become a supporter of precision agriculture.

The first reason why a precise agriculture is the way to go is the necessity to manage finite resources more efficiently. Precision agriculture means sustainability. The philosophy behind precision agriculture is to use only what is needed where it is needed when it is needed in the mount that is needed by crops. In practical terms, this means that every molecule of input in agricultural production has to be transformed into food and not end up in the environment. Precision agriculture reduces waste. When I was writing my first book on the future of agriculture in 2009, the estimated worldwide amount of nitrogen loss due to leaching was of about 50%. The example of nitrogen shows what reducing waste can mean. In an ideal world where nitrogen would be used much more efficiently, it could be possible theoretically to use only half of the nitrogen we have been using, or in other terms, the current amount of nitrogen used should help produce twice as much food. Considering that the FAO claims that between 2010 and 2050, agricultural output should increase by 70%, it means that in an ideally precise agriculture, the world could meet the demand for agricultural products by using 15% less nitrogen than it did in 2010, theoretically. Also considering that the production of chemical nitrogen fertilizers represents about half the use of fossil fuels in agriculture, the positive impact on the carbon footprint of agriculture would be substantial. Similar calculations can be done on other inputs, such as water and crop protection products. By bringing just the right quantities at the right time at the right place, the consumption of water and chemicals will be reduced substantially, too. As recent droughts have reminded us how precious water is, precision watering is also becoming more important than ever. Water is precious, but in many cases, its price has not emphasized this enough. The main reason for wasting is always the result of economics. If inputs appear cheap, the low price is always implicitly perceived as a sign of abundance and of negligible value. Such a perception goes against the reflex of sustainability. Our elders did not waste anything (candle bits, soap bits, socks, you name it). They were frugal simply because the cost of replacement was too high, and at least was higher than the cost of repairing and saving. When a government subsidies inputs to make them cheaper, the users end up wasting much more. It is sad because such subsidies always have a well-meant starting point. The idea is to make it affordable to poor farmers so that they can increase their production. The result is when the less poor ones get the subsidies, they do not see the new price as affordable anymore but they see it as cheap instead. Managing for sustainability really is about managing the fine line between affordable and cheap. That is not easy, because the difference is not just about the price of inputs; it is also about the financial situation of the subsidy’s recipient. Subsidies should not be aimed at just price, but at more at efficient use of inputs and should be based on achievable yields. If governments wish to spend money, it should not result in farmers overusing and wasting water and production inputs. That is counterproductive. These governments, which often are in developing countries where resources are scarce and access to inputs difficult, had better spend money on helping farmers being more precise. The math is simple: efficiency is the ratio output/input, and the difference between what comes out and what got in the field in the first place is what is wasted – or lost. A precise agriculture reduces the waste, and therefore increases the ratio. This means that precision is the way toward increased efficiency.

As I mention developing countries, here is another important point to bring up: precision agriculture is not just for large farms but can be implemented everywhere. The development of precision agriculture goes parallel with the development of new technologies. At first, it would seem that such technologies are too expensive for small and/or poor farmers. If the point of view were to be that every farmer should own all the precision equipment, the answer is: yes, it is only for the large and wealthy, but looking at precision agriculture from that angle would be rather dull. Satellite imagery, drones, sensors, robots and other big data software can also be shared. In the era of the cloud and social media which are all about sharing, so can new technologies. Just like ownership of agricultural machine has also been shared through equipment coops for instance, so can these new devices. After all, it does not matter so much who owns them, as long as those who need it to do a good job can have access to them. Mobile communications have changed how farmers everywhere can get the latest information on markets. Smart phones have become affordable to the point that there are about as many mobile phones as people on the planet. Similarly to mobile communications, precision agriculture will also become more affordable in the future. If precision agriculture tools can monitor, map and help make fast decisions on farms of tens – and even hundreds – of thousand acres, they just as well can look after an area of the same size even if it is divided between many farms. It is just a matter of management and coordination between farmers. In poorer regions, it could very well be that the authorities be the owner of the equipment and proactively communicate with farmers through extension services to help the groups of farms manage the region efficiently for higher output. Such tools will help developing agriculture, in a sustainable manner. The benefits will be many. It will help increase farmers revenues, create economic activity, enhance social stability and help reduce the waste of water, energy and all other inputs. It will pay off in the long run and actually probably in the not-so-long run at all. Agricultural development requires financing and investments. Precision agriculture is in my opinion a very good place to put money at work.

In the future, the key for these technologies will be to also help see the bigger picture, not just the field and not just production data. The potential for applications and interfaces seems almost endless. By connecting all the devices and allowing sharing information of all events taking place on farms, these technologies are going to help reconcile the interests of all stakeholders much more effectively than it has been the case in the past. By monitoring production parameters as well as environmental parameters, proactive action will help anticipate instead of reacting. Actions will be targeted timely. One of the difficulties to manage sustainability is one of timelines. It is possible to monitor financial performance on a second to second basis, even faster actually, in the case of financial markets where algorithms can execute millions of transactions in less than a second. Environmental impact does not manifest immediately. It takes decades to notice the impact of a particular type of activity. With this time discrepancy between financial performance and environmental performance, it is only logical that money has trumped environment, even though there is a price to pay some day. That is the dilemma of externalities: how to factor such externalities when the exact cost is unknown. The future generations of technologies to monitor and map agriculture and environment will bring solutions. Once the focus widens from the field to the level of regions, countries and the entire planet, then it is possible to envision monitoring systems for all resources, environmental impact of agriculture and production output. It is only logical to expect dynamic information systems that could look like Google Earth, but with many editions, such as, the aquifer status edition, the nutrient edition, the crop yield edition, the soil erosion/restoration edition, the pest edition, the contaminants edition, and so on and so on. With such dynamic systems, it will be possible to not only monitor but to also produce simulations and test different scenarios. It would become possible to have an idea of how long resources can last, depending on different production techniques. It could be possible to make estimates and develop policies to adapt agriculture timely and ensure that future practices will maintain sustainable production systems. With such tools, precision agriculture, it will possible to develop worldwide policies and strategies to coordinate agricultural production. It also will help make markets much more transparent, as such dynamic systems would take into account consumption demand, worldwide stocks and production updates. Such transparency will reduce risks of speculation as the system would present a continuous update on the most likely scenario. Let’s face it! The computers will eventually replace the market places or agricultural commodities.

I agree with Matt Waits, precision agriculture will be the agriculture of the future. I also believe that the technologies that agriculture will use will play a role at a much larger scale and beyond just agriculture to shape the way we deal with our planet and our societies. Precision agriculture will play a crucial role in ensuring food security and prosperity.

Copyright 2014 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Future rhymes with infrastructure

March 21, 2014

In all the talk about feeding 9 billion people by 2050, the issue of infrastructure receives too little attention. In my opinion, this is a mistake. Of course, building, repairing and maintaining roads, railways, bridges, waterways or warehouses may not appear as sexy as fantasizing about robots, drones and machines that exchange information, or fancy marketing concepts, but infrastructure is really the lifeblood of future food security. For as much as I enjoy presenting a futuristic vision of food and farming and talk about market niches of the future, I also find essential to remind my clients about the practical implications of future development for their very concrete daily activities. Infrastructure is definitely one of the important topics. Considering how much attention the topic of producing more to meet future demand has received over the past couple of years, and considering the good prices for agricultural commodities of the past few years, it is only normal that production volumes have been on the rise. It may sound obvious that logistics should grow in parallel with production volumes to be able to keep moving products. Unfortunately, when it comes to the big picture, the supply chain seems to be overlooked to some extent. One of the problems is that the agricultural world is still very much production-driven, and so is all the talk about the future of farming. As I presented in Future Harvests, there are plenty of possibilities to supply the world with more food. Although there will be challenges to overcome, the potential is there to meet the demand of 9 billion, and even for the 11 billion that the UN is forecasting for 2100. However, the key is to be able to bring the food to the consumers, and that is where action is badly needed. Post-harvest losses may be the clearest example of how important infrastructure is. Worldwide, the estimate is that about 20% of all the food that is produced is lost on the fields or between the farms and the consumers because of a deficient infrastructure. In particular, the lack of proper storage results in food that rots or gets spoilt by mold or vermin. The problem is especially serious for perishables. In particular in the case of produce, which is fragile and contains a lot of water, post-harvest losses may exceed 50% of the total production, as for instance it has been observed in India and Africa. Post-harvest losses also occur with non-perishables. In China, it has been estimated that the amount of wheat loss during transport because of a poor infrastructure amounts to the quantity that Canada exports. Since Canada is the world’s second largest exporter of wheat, this shows the magnitude of the problem. Brazil, which is one of the world’s agriculture powerhouses, also suffers from infrastructure issues. Most of the transport of agricultural commodities takes place on roads that are far from being well-paved. The result is twofold. Firstly, the poor road conditions cause the loss of significant amounts of grains between production areas and export terminals. Secondly, since road transport is the main way of transporting agricultural products, the cost of transport and the resulting carbon footprint of food supply are both higher than they could and should be if there were enough railroads and waterways to bring products to markets. A couple of years ago, I read a report about the comparison of the carbon footprint of beef production between countries and one of the surprising conclusions was that Brazil scored relatively high. Although the survey needed to be taken with a critical mind, the infrastructure situation of Brazil certainly was one of the reasons for its high footprint. The good news about Brazil is that the country recently launched an ambitious plan of $200 billion to fix its infrastructure. As its economy grows, this will be essential to secure the future. Infrastructure development is not just a matter for developing countries, though. In Canada, the shortage of rail capacity for grain transport has recently become an issue, as record crop volumes have difficulties to reach their destination. Not only is this a logistical problem, but it highlights the lack of forward thinking and of communication within the entire supply chain. Over the past few years there have been more than enough conferences in which many experts insist on the necessity to increase production, in particular though yields. The high prices of agricultural commodities of the past few years have been great incentives for farmers to do exactly that. And they certainly have delivered. Did some not pay attention? Perhaps. Unfortunately, the post-harvest links of the chain have not adjusted on time. This will be true for the US agriculture, too. American farmers are working hard on increasing yields and export possibilities are good on the long-term, but they will have to keep the ability to move enough volume to the final markets. Roads, railways and waterways need not only some revamping but also need to develop further to adjust with future volumes. In spite of all the talks about improving the American infrastructure during the deepest of the economic crisis following the financial disaster of 2008, not all that much has been done, really. Transportation infrastructure, as well as the energy grid, still needs some serious refreshment. Like anywhere else in the world, a healthy infrastructure will be the basis for a sustained economic prosperity. Beside the volume implications, a well-organized infrastructure also contributes to lower costs and improves the competitiveness of the value chains that benefit from it. In my opinion, there cannot be long-term prosperity or successful economic development without an adequate infrastructure. For the future, another area that is going to require solid planning and vision is the population boom that will take place in urban centers of Asia and Africa. Many of the mega-cities that will emerge in the coming 40 to 50 years hardly exist, yet. Nonetheless, they are coming. Urban planning that will address the challenges of these megalopolises is one thing, but organizing the supply of food, water and all other essential from production centers is another. The “unfortunate” thing about infrastructure is that it is a long-term investment. It is money that needs to be spent to get the economy flowing. The return is long-term. If done well, the positive financial return lies in economic development, more and better jobs and more people having more money to pay for goods and services as well as for taxes that can be used to ensure a good maintenance of the infrastructure. One of the issues is of course who finance infrastructure. Many stakeholders benefit from a good infrastructure. As I show in We Will Reap What We Sow, the FAO estimated the annual cost of fixing post-harvest problems in developing countries at $83 billion. Doing so provides so many upsides for all stakeholders from farms, businesses and government that the return for the entire system is actually higher than the $83 billion, and my calculation is quite conservative and cautious to say the least. There is more than enough money to fix the problem. What is $83 billion compared with the amounts spent since 2008 to bail out banks, to print money as massively as it has been done and to rescue the European countries that were in serious financial trouble? It is a drop in the ocean! Yet, fixing post-harvest losses is a painfully slow process. It is a matter of taking the right decision. How long will we accept not only to waste that food, but also all the water, the energy resources, the time and the money that have been used to produce it in the first place? Among the many projects that I have carried out, I would like to present one briefly here because it illustrates the importance of infrastructure. When I came to Canada, the previous management had signed an agreement with a First Nation community of the North Coast of British Columbia for the production of farmed salmon. When I inherited the project, I took a look at the agreement and I remember sending a memo of a page and a half that was actually a list of questions that had all to do with infrastructure. In a nutshell, how to transport fresh fish and deliver customers at least twice a week on the West Coast of the US from a remote island with no road connection, only a ferry every other week and highly unpredictable sea conditions? It was mostly unpredictable in the sense that the number of days the barge of some transport company involved in the project and run by someone who would prove later to be rather unreliable would be stuck for undetermined amount of time between that island and Vancouver where the dispatch center to our customers was. By then, nobody among those who shaped the agreement had the slightest clue about what answers to give to my questions. In the end, it all worked out fine and our customers never missed a delivery of fresh salmon. What it took was for yours truly to dive in the scrum and enjoy some Wild West type of action to get it all together, to bring materials in and send products and waste southbound using a tiny barge and connect with trucks on some unpaved wilderness road through the mountain ranges. By the way, 14 years later today and the unit is still running. That project could be a textbook case of why infrastructure is so important both to bring in stuff and take product away to consumers markets. Every time I hear or read about the need for farmers to have access to markets and of post-harvest losses in developing countries, I can totally relate to the complexity of how to set it all up. Producing without having the possibility to bring to customers is not economic development. It is economic suicide. In a business, be it a farm, a store or a manufacturing plant or any other, one rule is always true. And that is that money comes only from one end of the business: from sales. To get there, the business needs customers that they can actually serve properly in order to get paid and to retain them, because in the end, the customers are the ones who must pay for all the expenses of the business. It sounds obvious and yet it is forgotten too often. I am a strong advocate of a market-driven approach. The term market-driven already implies the value of infrastructure, as to be market-driven a proper and reliable supply chain is necessary. The other major advantage of being market-driven is that selling is easier because market-driven businesses offer what the market wants. Business is easier when all one has to do is to produce what is already sold. On the other end of the spectrum, production-driven is quite the opposite. It is the best recipe to end up painfully pushing production volumes at slashed margins and being depended on others to decide of the future of your business. For having been a market-oriented person in production-driven industries, I have seen the value of the market-driven approach. It requires a different mindset. It is about stepping out of the commodity markets rats’ race, and it is about implementing the necessary changes to deliver customers what they want while asking the price that you need. For the future, developing the agriculture of the future and being able to feed the world population will be about understanding the markets, finding the right customers and having the required infrastructure to bring to them, wherever and how far or close-by they may be, what they need. In my opinion, all agricultural development projects must start from the market end and be built backwards into adequate production volumes and structures. The organizations involved in such projects must bring in the marketing and the supply chain expertise to give local farmers the highest chances of success. All the technical and knowledge support is essential, too but they have to be aimed at supporting the implementation of the sales plan.

Copyright 2014 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.