And another COP passed by

After so many COP conferences, it was not particularly difficult to predict the outcomes, the process and the reactions before, during and after. Below, I embedded a thread of tweets about my take on what I expected to happen. I guess I was not too far off with my facetious messages.

But more seriously, I think the main reason why progress is so difficult and so slow is just that nobody tells us what the world after (the beautiful sustainable and livable future) is supposed to look like. The so-called fear of change has never been about change as much as it is about fear of loss. By focusing only on what must stop, and indeed many things need to be halted and replaced by better alternatives, the message that comes across is mostly a message of loss. That, of course, is the best recipe to trigger resistance and opposition at all levels, from individuals to businesses and governments.

So, how does the world after look like? Is it indeed better? Can the COP leadership sell us a vision that eliminates this fear of change, simply by bringing us hope instead of fear. Clearly, fear does not cut it. It has very little impact at this stage. So, please, leaders of the world, show us (not on metavers, although this might be the refuge of the future for many) what you think life will be if we accept the sacrifices you ask, and most of all show us a world that has appeal! If the goal is to save life and Nature, make it look natural and alive!

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

First speaking engagement with Turkey

I recently had the honour to be the keynote speaker at the 5th Aegean Economic Forum. Below you will find the video of the session dedicated to agriculture (my presentation starts at 23:45 and lasts until 26:00). This was the first time I had an assignment with a Turkish organization and I encourage you to watch the video if you have 2 hours available. It was an outstanding session and I was quite pleased to be involved with a group that focused on essential topics before focusing on first world problems and first world solutions, unlike it often is the case in North America or Europe. I have added the text of my presentation below the embedded video, and I have highlighted in bold letters my main messages.

Text of my presentation:

Tonight, I will quickly tell you what changes I see coming and what is needed to adapt to a different future.

We have gone a long way since the beginning of agriculture. For centuries, agriculture worked in local and closed systems at the level of a region. With the development of industrialization, we started to open the loops, and not just in agriculture. We actually created two problems, not just one. On the one hand we have depleted natural resources and on the other hand, we have created piles of waste. We went from a circular to a linear system.

To make it worse, we never looked at the long-term effects and costs of this linear system. We never included these externalities in the production costs. So, waste became an accepted part of consumption society. And we waste lots. In the case of agriculture, the number that comes back regularly is that 30 to 40% of the food produced never gets eaten.

The issue of food waste is twofold. In developed countries, it is a behavioural and organizational problem at consumer, retailer and restaurant level. In developing countries, the main cause is post-harvest, either rotting on the field or because of poor storage and logistics. It is an infrastructure and money problem.

Regardless of the causes, food waste is not just about food, it is about all the water, the energy, the money and the land used to produce, transport, process and sell it. 

For consumers, it is about throwing away a third of their food budget. For a household spending 12% of its budget on food, it means that they voluntarily throw 4% of their budget in the garbage bin. That is rather silly, isn’t it? The total price tag of the wasted food alone amounts to about one trillion US Dollars worldwide. But beyond the money, let’s just think about what a third means.

A third of the world agricultural land is about 10 million km2 wasted (Added note: world arable land is about 14 million km2 and grasslands twice as much, so 10 million km2 is a conservative number, out of caution). This is 60% the area of Russia; it is the area of Canada or the Sahara; it is slightly bigger than the USA or China or Brazil; it is 2.5 times the size of the EU and 3 times the size of India. Because of waste, we need to put more land in production. So, indirectly, food waste is a significant source of deforestation.

Now, if we look at a third of the world population, we are talking about 2.6 billion people. It is almost the combined population of China and India, and more than twice the population of Africa.

Where else than by solving food waste, do we have 33% room for improvement in food and agriculture? It is only a behavioural, an organizational and an infrastructure investment issue. It is not rocket science. All it takes is money and discipline.

Right now, people are gathered at COP26. Unlike what they claim, what is at stake is not the planet, it is the biosphere, which is soil, water, organic matter, climate and of course life.

There is not only one food production system. There is a huge diversity of production systems and they do not pollute equally. There are huge differences between the different regions of the world. Even within one particular system, different farmers have different production and environment performances, and impacts. We need a targeted approach.

The proper way is to look at the different situations and through innovation and knowledge transfer level up the playing field and help producers improve. We must do more to help farmers succeed. They know the problems; they often know the solutions, but often lack the needed support. There is great potential in this field, especially with the introduction of new technologies.

Previous periods of modernization of agriculture were about adding muscle, first with animals, and then with machinery, it literally and figuratively was about adding horse power. The current transformation of food and agriculture is about adding a nervous system and synapses. Drones, satellite imaging, robotics, driverless vehicles, sensors, artificial intelligence and data collection are all extensions of the farmer’s senses and brain, but far beyond human capacities. The principle of precision agriculture is about taking the right action at the right time at the right place. This actually offers the best of all worlds. It helps producing the highest yields by using the very strict minimum of inputs. It helps reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides; it helps reduce the amount of energy, therefore reduce greenhouse gases and it helps reduce the use of water. These technologies go beyond production alone. They also can help monitor the environment and help detect possible impact on the environment immediately. The main issue with implementing new technologies is their cost.

New technologies and precision are the ideal tools to address waste, simply because waste and efficiency are two sides of the same coin. When we reduce waste, we are more efficient, as we need less input for the same output. It really comes down to producing more with less. 

In my opinion, there is no reason to sacrifice yields. Not everybody agrees. The USA think along the lines of increasing efficiency and producing more to meet future world demand. The EU, with its brand-new Farm to Fork policies seems to prefer to reduce production as the way to reduce greenhouse gases. Personally, I am surprised by the EU’s choice. The EU has a highly efficient agriculture, with some countries being the very top, and its carbon footprint is relatively low compared with many other regions of the world. Indeed, the EU, like all other regions, needs to reduce the use of inputs but in my opinion, the EU’s agriculture problem is not so much a carbon footprint one as it is a problem of distribution of productions, in particular a few areas having too high a density and concentration of intensive animal farms. They mostly need to rebalance animal farming and crops. The reason is, as I mentioned earlier, that loops that have been opened. 

The future will be about repairing the damage done. We will have to replace the consumption economy, which is about quantitative growth -about “always more”- by a maintenance economy, which focuses on qualitative growth, or on “always enough”.

Closing the loops is about the biosphere, with a financial element on the side. It is about preserving and regenerating soil, water, organic matter, while mitigating climate and by including the externalities. This means changing the economic equation. The economy is a combination of three components: resources, labour and capital. Next to this economic equation, markets determine prices through supply and demand. The math for both the economic equation and the markets are influenced by policies which set the rules of the game through rewards and penalties, and future choices of the reward/penalty system will strongly influence how agriculture will be organized and how it will perform, because producers will choose what returns them the highest income. A change I expect is the implementation of taxes on some product categories and production systems, mostly because governments need more money. To some extent, it will also influence consumers’ choices although consumers are subject to many more stimuli to make their choices. 

Setting new rules require thinking carefully about how they change externalities and therefore what the long-term consequences will be. It also means looking at the bigger picture. Climate change will affect the food world map. Some regions will not be able to keep producing what they produce today. They will have to choose for different crops and combinations thereof. Other regions will be more suitable to take over. Water availability will be a crucial factor in the future food map. How long can regions that produce and export large volumes of water-rich products to far away markets, from which the water will never return can continue to do so? 

New strategies are required. It can be the adoption of new and better varieties that can resist drought. It can be the use of different production systems, such as the use of cover crops, the use of mulch and organic matter. It can be the development of plants that use fertilizers more efficiently or that have higher photosynthesis efficiency. It can be different irrigation systems and move to a crop-by-drop approach. It also can be production systems that reduce evapotranspiration, for instance by combining a low-level crop under a cover of trees. It also can be desalination of sea water for irrigation purposes. 

The list of solutions is long but the redistribution of the world food map will have consequences far beyond the field. It will redefine geopolitics. All countries will have to rethink both old and new alliances. Feuds and partnerships combined with new natural conditions, and therefore trade, will affect food security.

It is also important to realize that food security, food sovereignty and self-sufficiency are different concepts. It is impossible for all countries to produce everything, simply because of different natural conditions. With more extreme climatic conditions, choices will have to be made. This is why I think that trade will be essential not only for food security, but also to mitigate the effect of climate change. 

Until now, the economic model has been “to produce where it is cheapest to produce”. As such not a bad idea, except that it opened the loops and did not include externalities. True sustainability means closing the loops and including these externalities. In the future, the concept must evolve to “producing where it is the cheapest to produce sustainably”. And this word, sustainably, is going to make all the difference. It will affect availability; it will affect costs and it will affect prices. And as always when prices increase, it offers opportunities for alternatives and also for resourcefulness.

An example is urban farming and there are all sorts of projects. It is estimated that 20% of all food produced in the world is produced in urban areas. Next to food production, it also has a social function and can help mitigate some of the effects of climate change. The question is often to figure out how to organize urban farming. There can be community gardens, people can also use their balconies to grow food, or old buildings can be transformed into farms. In cities, the roof surface is huge and roofs can be an ideal location to set a garden. Actually, some supermarkets are already growing perishables such as tomatoes, lettuce and strawberries on their roofs and sell them day-fresh to the consumers visiting their stores.

On the consumer end, there is plenty of activity, too. Suppliers offer products with green claims, true or not by the way. There are campaigns of information as well as disinformation about the impact of various food groups. Protein is one of these areas, and the fight to meet the need for protein is on between animal farming and alternatives.

But what do consumers want? They want food to be available, affordable and safe. There is also strong demand for natural, although natural is a rather unclear term, and most of the time, it means “not artificial”. They want healthy foods, and the rise of obesity and diabetes reinforces this demand. Because of climate change, consumers have become more discerning or at least try to be about which products they consider responsible or which ones they see as harmful for the environment. Production methods will matter more and more and a good example of this is the growing concern for animal welfare. Another strong trend is authenticity, which is also an unclear term rooted in some nostalgia and often means that it must not be “industrial”, or at least not be perceived as such.

Other areas that consumers look for are value and values. Value is not new but it becomes more complex. It is rooted in perception and psychology, not to say ego and status. Values have become increasingly relevant with the presence of social media. Consumers buy from suppliers that are aligned with their values. They are keen on knowing the food producers’ views on their role in society and environment. For a food producer, this can be tricky, as often it will take only one word or message that goes against the consumer’s values and they decide to stop buying. Social media have made people extra sensitive and touchy and bad publicity spreads like fire on social media platforms. This is a new dimension that food producers need to consider very carefully. Social media can make you and can break you in a heartbeat.

Transparency is important. Most suppliers see it has providing consumers with every bit of information but this is a herculean task and one can wonder if this is the right approach. Let’s face it, only very few consumers want to know everything from beginning to end about the history of the product they buy. Transparency is not so much about information as it is about trust. They want to know enough about the producer to feel confident buying the product. They want to have the assurance that the producer has nothing to hide and will answer honestly all questions. The food producer’s business needs to be on display as if it were behind a clear –transparent- window where consumers can look at anything they want in complete freedom.

Traceability is a cousin to transparency. It is essential to trace the source of a problem, should one arise, but it must be much more than that. It must be a proactive tool. Knowing why something went wrong is nice but it is after the facts. A good traceable quality assurance system is what producers need. This is where new technologies – “the nervous system”- can be useful by allowing a full online in real time quality control that has the ability to flag any deviation and stop the production line immediately. Having a proactive system that will prevent quality issues to be sent to the customer will spare many frustrations and save lots of money.

But next to better production methods and new technologies, one area that needs to improve in the future is to help people eat better. It should be the moral duty of food producers to take good care of their customers. In this area, we are still in an era of marketing-driven business, which is about having consumers buy more. It will have to change from quantity to quality, and the promise will have to be kept, indeed. An advantage of social media is that it will expose those who make false claims and false promises. Consumer information is going to be another front for suppliers. A system like NutriScore is drawing more and more criticism. It seems to have become a marketing tool and is no longer a true nutrition tool. If it does not get fixed, it will lose all credibility and in fact reinforce the feeling that the industry is always trying to deceive consumers.

So, what segments can be the winners of the future?

The points I have presented before, such as quality, clean, healthy, authentic will do very well. Foods and recipes that are rooted in nostalgia and tradition have great potential. This is especially true in mature markets that I see evolve into a mosaic of niche quality specialties. Of course, because not everybody is wealthy, there still will be a large market for low-cost staple foods sharply priced, but with increased standards about health, environment and ethics.

Over the last few years, perhaps the most disputed battlefield has been protein. Animal farming is being challenged. A lot of investor money flocks to tech protein alternatives. Plant-based imitation meat and seafood has received a lot of publicity. Many claims have been made about their potential. So far, they come short of those claims. The segment has room to grow but it will not replace animal farming. Performance on the stock markets is poor and the investors’ money is now moving somewhere else. I see better potential for smaller private producers with a low profile, catering to the need of consumers with wholesome products instead of high-tech meat imitations. If the stigma is currently on meat, the next category to be demonized will be ultra processed foods. Investors have also moved into what used to be called lab meat, a product that still struggles to find its name. Although they make regular claims about readiness to deliver large market quantities and being price competitive, it is still not really clear whether it will happen on a large scale. Other alternative protein sectors include the use of bacteria to produce specific protein. Perhaps, it will have some potential for animal feed, but more surely in the medical field. And of course, there are insects. There has been a lot of publicity but success is slow to materialize. One problem is the price. Just like all the other alternative proteins, they are not price-competitive with animal products. Producers of insects try to push it in Western countries’ markets but this is not the right place. There, people do not want to eat bugs. Westerners like soft and meaty. That is why lobster and shrimp are in demand. They are large aquatic insects really, but their look does not matter because they contain lots of flesh. Crickets don’t. It is that simple. I see insects having more potential for animal feed, if it can be price competitive.

The protein fight is useful. It has put animal farming on the spot and forced producers to find solutions to reduce their environmental impact, and it works. The sector has already come with innovations to reduce its methane emissions, and although there still is a lot of work ahead, the improvements are getting noticed. This is the beauty of the fight between industry and environmentalists. As long as the industry does not feel threatened, the initial reaction is always : “no, it costs too much”, but when the industry sees that it will lose business and it will cost them dearly, they are actually amazingly innovative, fast and cost efficient. 

Perhaps anecdotal is the fact that Bill Gates, who has been an investor in alternative protein and a man behind the claim that it would replace animal farming in a decade, which is not going to happen, has now invested in a cow milk producer (Note: the company’s name is “Neutral”) that gets the milk from farms where new technologies are being used to reduce methane emissions. He is pragmatic and he is moving on. Others will follow him. 

As animal products are concerned, all the forecasts for the long term show a further increase of consumption. In particular, poultry is by far the biggest winner. Aquaculture could do very well, too, if consumer prices become more affordable. You are in an area with great potential for the production of fish, shellfish, crustaceans and seaweed.

To conclude,

Feeding a population of 10 billion individuals is a huge challenge. It will require changes in the way we produce and in the way we consume. 

My main concern is that the conversation has become more and more polarized and intolerant. Instead of opposing systems and points of views, we need to listen and think carefully. Nothing is black and white and there is no one-fit-all solution. There is no silver bullet that will solve the problems so that we do not have to change. Instead, we will solve the problems through a combination of many solutions. Some will be of a technical nature but technology is only as good as how we use it. Technology is not only about high-tech, and innovation is not only about technology. The key is the way we think, and we need to be flexible with thoughts and ideas. 

Pragmatism will be essential. Whatever works is good, even if it is sometimes goes against our prejudices. Remember what Deng Xiao Ping said when he changed the course of China 40 years ago. “It does not matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice”. 

Our attitude will make all the difference. I expect that we are going to rediscover old wisdom and that many solutions will come from the past but in a modern jacket, as it is already happening. Money will make a difference, too. There is plenty of it around. All it will take is some effort. 

Succeeding will also require humility and cooperation. Nobody knows everything and nobody can solve all the problems on their own. Engaging in a positive and constructive dialogue is what will shift the conversation from a sterile win-lose debate into a win-win vision.

You can read more about my thoughts and views about the future of food and farming on my website blog and my books. 

I thank you for your attention and I wish you a fruitful session.

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

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.

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.

 

 

What’s ahead for animal protein?

As I explained in previous articles about protein, the future of animal farming looks rather good, actually. This does not mean that current productions systems are perfect. They are not, and many changes are necessary. Four drivers are going to make animal farming evolve towards systems that meet future requirements in term of environment, health, sustainability and consumer demands. They will not affect only farms, but the ways entire value chains are organized and even future flows of animal protein in international trade.

Two pillars of sustainability are externalities and the necessity to close the loops. Strangely enough, these two fundamental topics rarely ever get mentioned. Yet, they will define the future. I mentioned externalities quite a few times on this blog and if you are interested to read what I say about it, just do a search on the search window on the right side of this page. Basically, externalities are the long-term economic effects and in particular long-term costs of repairing the damage that any human activity causes. Closing the loops is simply following the basic principle that nothing ever disappears or get created, but that everything gets transformed. These two pillars of sustainability are going to force us to review how balanced -or not- productions systems are. Greenhouse gases and minerals balance from manure will force a change in location of animal productions, in regard to the location of production areas of ingredients for animal feed, feeding programs, logistics of both feed ingredients and animal products, in particular in terms of transport. Distance between markets will be only one part of the equation. Transportation systems will weigh even more. Will trade rely on road transport, rail or water ways? Different transportation systems have very different carbon footprints and this will affect the future of some industries depending on how they are organized and where they are located. It will also force countries to invest heavily in their infrastructure, which is another topic that is too often ignored and yet so critical for the future. Of course, infrastructure is not as sexy as tech start-ups and more importantly, it does not have the same appeal for investors. After all, infrastructure is an expense that benefits all, while the current thinking about money is more about individualising profits. Yet, infrastructure will have more impact than tech. Location will also be influenced by water availability, as water will become an increasingly influential aspect of sustainability. Just as an example, California has been struggling with water availability for decades. Yet, it keep sending water-rich produce to other regions, thus exporting its already scarce water. On top of that, California produces about a quarter of American agriculture. See the danger ahead? For the future, the economic paradigm will shift from “producing where it is the cheapest to do so” to “producing where it is the most sustainable to do so”.  The main reason for the shift will be externalities as we will have no choice but internalizing the externalities (sounds fancy doesn’t it?… try to place that one in a cocktail party when you have a chance).

Location is one of the changes, but of course when it comes to greenhouse gases, there will be other solutions to reduce the impact. Feed programs are one, and gas capture from manure will be another one. Tech and innovation will play their roles in those areas. Markets will do to, and I expect manure to become a highly valued co-product, and not a by-product anymore. Just as manure is a side effect of intensification and high densities, so are diseases. Last year saw the huge outbreak of African swine fever in China, which so far has lead to the destruction of 25% of the world’s pigs. That is the perfect example of what can happen again. It is not the first outbreak. There have been other ones before of the same disease and of avian influenza. The risk of diseases and their huge cost will also contribute to a readjustment of location of animal production, in terms of production centers, in terms of density of farms and also of densities on the farms themselves. So will the prospect of possible transmission of diseases from animals  to humans.

Next to such production issues, consumer demands will also change the way animal products are produced. The pressure for better animal welfare is increasing and will not weaken. It is just fair and it also makes a lot of economic sense. In my times in the pig industry, the poultry industry and in aquaculture, I did quite some research on the topic and the numbers spoke chapters. Treating animals with the proper respect pays off big time. Yet, I also faced a lot of resistance when I tried to show my conclusions by then. I guess that it did not fit in the thinking of the times. The future proved me right, though. The need for better animal welfare will also contribute to a change in production systems, housing and feeding in particular. Animal densities on farms will also be reduced. This trend is already taking place in Europe and there are more and more farming programs that go in this direction. And so do government policies. Along with animal welfare, environmental concerns from consumers will also push towards more “natural” methods of farming. Intensive animal husbandry is not going to disappear but its excesses will. The problem is that too many people tend to associate intensification with efficiency but it is only true to a point. When we reach that point, any incremental intensification does not lead to incremental efficiency anymore and the further we pass this point, efficiency actually decreases and externalities increase substantially. The future will be about finding the optimum between intensification, animal welfare, environmental impact and long-term effects. Next to that, as consumer markets mature, especially when people already eat more than they really need, demand shift from quantity to quality and we will see more and more quality programs appear. It will be good for consumers, for health, for the environment, for the animals during their life and for the profit margins of farmers.

As the graphs from my articles Cow farts, or quite a bit of hot air?  and What’s ahead for plant-based foods? show, demand for animal products is expected to increase and a number of products will do quite well. As I mentioned in the same article, ruminants actually play a important role in the management of grasslands and I mentioned their importance for a healthy environment, I believe that responsible animal production systems will help mitigate climate change. Of course, this means that the necessary changes be carried out as I mentioned earlier on in this article. I also believe that animal productions will play an important role in economic development, especially in developing countries and in regions where the population is expected to increase the most. It is nice to expect that the urban population will increase, but it is essential for a prosperous future that we also make sure that people in rural areas can be prosperous and that we do not end up with a demographic desertification of regions that can contribute to a prosperous future. Just as animal productions, although they were intensive and have had a negative impact on the long term, have helped many European young farmers stay in their regions and make a decent living for themselves, it can play the same role in rural areas in developing countries. It is true that mistakes have been made in the past and grave ones. We cannot change the past, but we can learn form past mistakes and make sure not to make them again. Productions that I expect to be successful and popular as economic development tool are poultry (meat and eggs) and aquaculture. Poultry and chickens in particular have the advantage to have a short production cycle and this helps farmer getting a quick cash-flow, which is essential to limit the need for capital. Aquaculture can have the same advantage with fast-growing species but less with species that have a longer production cycle as capital requirements can be heavy, although this can be attractive to investors. Two big pluses for aquaculture are the strong deficit between supply and demand and the health aspect of aquaculture products. The world is quite short of healthy seafood.

I see many areas of success for certain types of animal productions and I have summed them up in the following illustration. In particular, I would like to emphasize is my expectation for the future to see a surge of grass-fed beef with special breeds in semi-intensive systems in which there will be a minimum amount of high energy feed and no hormones at all. For all productions, I expect to see more and more of old-fashioned “authentic” products and recipes, and also a lot of “happy animal” products to be marketed more aggressively than has been the case so far.

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

Happy Holidays!

Time flies and 2019 is coming to an end. For me, it has been a good year. I have had very interesting assignments with really great organizations and people. From that perspective, 2019 might very well have been the most interesting of my 10 years as “The Food Futurist”. I am also in the process of launching another venture: The Sensible Gourmet (see at the end of this posting to have a glimpse of what I have in mind).

The end of the year is always a good time to reflect as things slow down and almost everyone is taking a break. The end of the year is also the time of COP conferences. For 25 years, world leaders have gathered to do I am not sure what. This year was no different, or maybe it was after all. Previous years always saw the same theatrics at play: disagreements, slight extension and a miraculous last minute non-binding agreement but at least some sheet of paper that would make us believe that it is worth organizing the next conference. This time, this did not even happen. Santa did not bring a shred of hope. Of course, many will blame politicians for the failure. I do it too because it is easy. Yet, should the politicians be the ones to blame? After all, we have the leaders we deserve and we either chose them or let them take that position. Is it that they could not agree or is it possible that there might be a different reason and perhaps a much more sinister one than their being poor leaders? As a highly empathetic person, I always like to try to put myself in the other side’s shoes and even play devil’s advocate. I am sure that they, and their advisers, are all aware of all the reports about climate change and the many challenges that we face. They cannot be that ignorant and stupid. I believe that their problem is not so much about finding agreements as it is about finding workable solutions. We have to be realistic. Even though technology and innovation will bring solutions, our problem is not as much of a technical nature as it is of a behavioral nature. As a futurist, no day that passes by without crossing paths with news of technology and innovation. Purely from a technical point of view, we already have all the technologies to fix all the problems, and we will have more technologies coming our way. The problem is that most of them are not financially competitive, or not competitive yet. One of the reasons is that we have not and still do not include externalities (a very important concept that I have addressed regularly in this blog, books and conferences) in the cost of the goods we produce and consume. That additional cost can be included through regulations and fiscal incentives or penalties, but it takes time. If technical solutions face a financial challenge, so does our behavioral problem. We overconsume, and to add insult to injury, we waste a lot. We waste, energy, water, food, resources, clothing, electronics,  etc… You name it and you can be sure that we waste a lot of it. Reducing waste will mean a relative slowdown in production and therefore an industrial slowdown, and the same thing is true if we decide to consume less. The “3 Rs” have different impacts from a production capacity and thus economic point of view, at least as long as we rate our economies from a quantitative growth point of view instead of a qualitative growth point of view. One of the Rs, recycling, is popular. Why is that? Recycling means that the only thing to change is the source of raw materials. From that perspective, industrial production processes hardly would have to change. It gives an impression that the system would not have to change much, and we know how much we tend to dislike change, regardless of what we say. It is always OK for others to undergo the change but when it hits us personally, it is a different story. Just look at all the demonstrations a bit everywhere around the world to realize the validity of my point. A second one of the Rs, reuse, although less popular is not perceived as too much of a threat. After all, it does not imply a reduction of industrial activity, and the growth of population would mitigate the stagnation. Then, there is the third R, the one that we mention but we would resent from a quantitative growth point of view: reduce. The word says it all: it implies a shrinking of the economy, at least the current economic model. Our economic system is about always more. Reduce goes in the opposite direction. Yet, from an environmental point of view, it is probably the only effective approach. The Great Recession of 2008 was a period when actually, greenhouse gas emissions were showing some change of trend, because consumption was slowing down. “Reduce” works, indeed. A couple of months ago, I read an article from The Guardian and it basically said that the best way to save our future was to stop buying stuff. I agree, and I believe that it is true but how to do that and not end up in a major economic depression? It comes down to have a transition plan, and we do not have that and I wonder if we have any idea of how to do that.

Because of the financial lag for better alternatives, jumping ships without a proper transition would result in short-term economic hardship and politicians do not want that. They want happy people. And people do not want that, either. They do not want to lose their jobs, and politicians know that, too. Who is willing to volunteer to lose their livelihood to save the environment? Nobody wants to do that of course, unless there is some compensation. Just as politicians do, all individuals try to protect themselves from adversity. It is just human nature. How to transcend the fear of loss into a desire for sacrifice, because sacrifice there will be? The question is just when and who. What is needed to answer this question are 1) a conviction that it is meaningful and useful and 2) a sense of hope for the long term. In an increasingly individualistic world, this is difficult to make happening because it requires altruism. One might think that the Holiday Season is the perfect time to ponder about altruism, but that spirit has become a nostalgic thought, really. Nowadays, Christmas is about buying more stuff. The causes of our future challenges are behavioral and collective, and therefore so are the solutions. We may blame the politicians because finding scapegoats takes away some of the guilt from ourselves, but we allowed those politicians to be where they are and we all (well many of us) want always more, so each of us really are responsible twice for the problem. And since we are all responsible, we all have to bring our share of the solution. Waiting for others to do it for us won’t cut it. Doing nothing is not really an option. In the end, the choice is simple: willing to make sacrifices today or having to make much tougher sacrifices soon.

I can understand that reducing consumption might not always be easy but reducing waste is. I have made a comparison between the Canadian average (since I live in Canada) and my household on a per capita basis. In my home, we generate 87% less garbage going to the landfill, waste 99.9% less food, use about 70% less water (and I have a garden and little vineyard that I need to irrigate!), use about half of gas and electricity of the per capita Canadian average. I will give you that I always have been a frugal type but I live quite comfortably. All it takes is a bit of discipline, some organization and planning, simple common sense and some basic sense of money, because reducing waste and consumption saves quite a bit of money that we can use for more useful things.

Perhaps, there is hope after all. All the companies that I follow on LinkedIn post many articles and announcements about how sustainable they are or will be soon. Of course, they must deliver and their claims must be true. Because, it is the holiday season, I will do as if I believe all of what they say. In the meantime, I am going to start thinking of how I will treat my family with a nice Christmas Eve’s dinner. One of my predictions is that cooking and home economics will make a strong comeback because it (meaning proper cooking) helps reducing food waste, it helps making healthier meals, it saves tons of money, has many social benefits and is among the nicest things a human being can offer to his loved ones. It is good for people, the environment and for the wallet. Cooking is going to be one of the most sophisticated skills to show around. Wait and see!

My idea for the dinner is (you’ll have to look up a few things because it is French):

  • Smoked salmon on toast with a shallot and dill sauce
  • Duck magrets (fillets) in a cherries, honey, port and balsamic sauce accompanied with Sarladaise potatoes and mixed vegetables
  • A chocolate “Bûche de Noël”
  • Accompanied with a selection of the wines I make from my vineyard

Enjoy your time with your loved ones and see you again in 2020!

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

Cow farts, or quite a bit of hot air?

Very likely, the only reason why one would have missed all the “commotion” around cow farts is to have been stranded on a desert island without any access to some telecom network. Who would have thought that those poor ruminants were actively busy suffocating us? Just in case anyone would doubt this is the case, some influential billionaires were ready to join the fight against animal protein and put their money to work in protein alternatives to save the world. Yeah, right. I will get back later on this with my views on the altruism of the one percent.

First things first. Cows have been blamed for climate change based on research. Actually, it is useful research, but like any research and statistics, it needs to be put in context. Here is a chart that shows the results of that research from Clark & Tilman, from the University of Minnesota.

On that chart, I have added two productions based on literature: Norwegian salmon fillet and Chinese aquaculture ponds. I did not put an emission number as it did not come from the same source and methodology as the Clark & Tilman research, but it is my best guess of where they would fit. My purpose here is to make the same point as the one I want to make on beef: there is a broad diversity of production systems and it is necessary to look at each of them on an individual basis.

The research results are an average of many different production systems, 742 in total for the entire research. The results are averages and that is a weakness because averages do not mean much if there is no mention of the standard deviation within the group. Before pointing fingers, they should analyze the variance between the various production systems for a particular type of food. Another weakness of their research is that it does not indicate which share of each link in the production and supply chain contributes to the environmental footprint. In the case of ruminants, where is the problem the largest? On the grasslands? In intensive fattening operations? In the logistics of meat? In the logistics of feed? And so on and so on. Several years ago, Brazilian beef producers were upset about a research showing that their footprint was much larger than the European Union’s, and they strongly disagreed. Yet, in the EU, most of the beef comes from the dairy herd (as you can see on the chart, the dairy footprint is much lower on average), the infrastructure is quite good and in particular, there is massive use of waterways, which have a much smaller carbon footprint than road transport by trucks, especially on sometimes terrible road conditions, on which there sometimes is massive loss of grains that fall off the trucks. Anyway, without getting into too many details, the bottom line of this story is that production and supply systems vary greatly between regions and those differences translate in differences in terms of environmental footprint. Another issue with the carbon footprint of beef from that study had also been pinpointed by another research from the Oxford Martin Programme at Oxford University that also showed that methane has not the same lifespan and long-term effect as CO2.

Back to GHG emissions of agricultural products, overall conclusion here are

  1. Don’t jump to conclusions and especially do not generalized
  2. Go beyond average numbers and look at the individual production system
  3. Learn from the best to improve production and supply systems
  4. Identify which links of the chain are the weakest ones in terms of greenhouse gasses and fix the weaknesses
  5. For governments, subsidize the systems that are the cleanest and tax (or possibly ban) the dirtiest

Another aspect to look at when it comes to ruminants is cellulose. There is plenty of cellulose in the world and the thing is that we, humans, do not have the enzyme (cellulase) to break down and metabolize it. Ruminants can break down cellulose thanks to the micro-organisms they have in their rumen, and this is how we can indirectly eat grass in the form of milk and meat provided by ruminants. This is all the more important as the world area of grasslands is twice the size of the world area of arable land. Actually there is between 3 and 4 times as much grassland acreage as arable land, but many of such grasslands barely can sustain animal farming so with twice the size of arable land, I give a safe estimate of what is usable. The beauty of using ruminants on grasslands, besides milk and meat, is that grazing is actually an amazingly circular economy (very trendy term nowadays and that should appeal) system: the animals eat the grass, and poop their excrements on the pastures and thus fertilizing and regenerating them. Another interesting fact to know is that grasslands actually fix more carbon on Earth than forests do, so proper grassland management is actually a great tool to mitigate climate change on a global basis. Sorry to disagree with all the anti-cow hype but ruminants are very useful. In quite a few of my past articles, I have mentioned the concept of externalities, or in other words the long-term costs (negative externalities) or benefits (positive externalities). Ruminants on grasslands generate quite some positive externalities and that should be taken in the conversation. Ruminants eat grass. That is a fact of Nature, and too bad for our societies which try desperately to make us lose our connection with Nature and even our own biology by transforming us mostly in passive thought-controlled not questioning anything consuming units. Ruminants eat grass and that is why I see grass-fed beef as a winner in the future of animal protein, not in volume but in value both nutritional and environmental, and actually from a farmer’s income point of view, too. Another statistic that everyone should have in mind in the discussion about livestock is that the UN FAO estimates at 1.7 billion (yes billion with a B) the number of people whose livelihoods depend on livestock.

So, from what I just wrote, do we want to remove two thirds of agricultural land from our potential from food production and do we take away the livelihoods of another 20% of all people on Earth so that hipsters from San Francisco and opportunistic billionaires can cash in on a very artificial hype? Food production used to be production-driven, then we started to convince ourselves that we changed it into market-driven (which has been mostly marketing-driven really) and now we are in a situation of making (some) food products investor-driven, which is not really about solving large-scale problems, but a mix of production-driven marketing-driven to play on people’s concerns about health and environment to convince them to buy new products and boost the share price of start-ups. We haven’t changed anything really: we still have the same volume-driven approach of always more that we know is not sustainable. Beware the pendulum will swing back. Let people choose what they want to eat. Don’t preach because most of the preaching, like all preaching is about control. I am an omnivore but I also cook and enjoy many vegetarian recipes. I do not believe that I should eat meat at every meal or every day for that matter. I also, and that may be because I can cook quite well, I do not need to get my plant-based servings from a food processing plant. I also believe that cooking and home economics, along with agriculture, should be taught in school, because they are essential for true sustainability. Moreover, since there is sexual education in school, it only seems normal that these matters belong in everyone’s curriculum.

I would say beware of social media as it is not a reliable source of information. It is only a digital form of the good old human habit of gossiping, and as such can spread all sorts of misinformation, just like the pre-digital era gossiping used to do. The difference is the number of people that can be reached.

So, to conclude, I would like to pinpoint a couple of things:

  1. Animal farming has indeed a higher carbon footprint than crops
  2. Therefore, it has to be carried out in a sustainable manner and what is not sustainable must be eliminated
  3. Therefore, animal protein production and supply systems will have to change in the future and they will change
  4. Meat is a valuable food and source of nutrients, but it is not for recreational everyday gluttony. After all, animal had to give their lives for us to have meat, and the concept of sacrifice should be present in our minds
  5. And to finish, a bit of a joke but not quite it either: there are indeed cow farts but there is also quite a bit of bullsh*t about the topic.

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

Food wasted is money wasted

For a change, here is something slightly different than my previous posts. I believe it is an eye opener, though. I have published this article on a new blog that I have started recently, and that I would like to introduce here. The blog is still in the beta phase but shows a strong start. Its name is The Sensible Gourmet. It is more focused on good food, as I like to prepare it at home, sensible nutrition and home economics. My purpose is to show that anyone can make great healthy meals worth of a good French restaurants for just a few dollars. I believe that sooner or later, there will be interesting synergies between both websites. Without further ado, here is the article:

Since it has been making headlines in the mainstream media for some time, you must have heard about it. It is estimated that about a third of all food produced in the world is not eaten and wasted. Recently, I was reading that Canadian households throw about half the food they buy in the garbage. This is bad economics. Here are simple figures to make my point.

You might remember the campaign a few years ago about the challenge of making $5 meals. Those were the days of the Great Recession of 2008 when some people discovered that economy is not always up and economic hardship made them realign their priorities. But time goes by and with economic recovery, being money-savvy has become boring again and who does still care about the $5 meal challenge today? You can see in the text of my Gallery page that all the great dishes I photographed cost even (much) less than $5, so not much of a challenge if you actually can cook and have a good sense of money. So, I will take $5 for a meal per person and with two meals a day that will be $10 per day per person.

Over a year that is $10 x 365 days = $3,650 dollar in food per person

Let’s take the world average of a third of food wasted: $3,650/3 = 1,217 dollars thrown away in the garbage per person per year.

If you take a household of two persons, that is $2,434 wasted per year. For a household of four, that is $4,868 per year. In the shameful case of the Canadian average of 50% (apparently, American and Australian households do not do much differently than the Canadians), these numbers become respectively $3,650 and $7,300 per household per year.

Another way of looking at the impact on household budget is to take the share of the food budget in the entire household budget. In Western countries, food represents roughly 10% of the household budget. Then, it is easy to see that 50% food waste represents 5% of the household income, and a third would represent 3.3% of the income.

Just as in my previous article about cooking in which I presented a calculation of how much money cooking can save you, you can see how much money you can save by not wasting food. That is free money that you can use to pay your mortgage or anything else useful to make your life better now or for the future.

These two examples, cooking at home and not wasting food, save literally thousands and thousands of dollars per year to your household, and the amazing thing is that this is YOUR money. You can make it work for you or join the legions of people struggling financially because of poor sense of home economics. This is easy money to keep on your bank account. All it takes to save this money is just some sense of organization in the kitchen and a bit of discipline.

After reading the article about the poor Canadian performance (I live in Canada), I did my own estimate of how much food I throw away, and I got to a figure less than 1%! Next to that, I compost all food scraps and I use the compost in my garden where I grow my own produce, which also saves me money and it is all produce free from any chemical whatsoever!

And when it comes to food waste, there is of course the issue of waste at the level of restaurants and retailers. Don’t hold your breath too much. I have heard about this problem for about 50 years and it clearly has not improved all that much despite the active communication campaigns when the issue makes the media headlines. I recently read that the US retailers Kroger and Walmart were re-evaluating their “ugly produce” concepts as they notice that consumers prefer to pick the pretty ones, which sounds like they might give it up. So much for social and environmental responsibility that we always hear so much about. When it comes to the $$$, then it is a different tune. There is a reason why there are different quality grades and why people make the choices they make. It is called market and price. It is also about knowledge and perception. it is also about store ownership. I can tell you this: when I was a kid, I used to go with my father on the market. We made sure that we would never throw anything away and that all our products would be sold by the end of the day. It required sensible planning and also the proper commercial thinking, which sometimes included to adjust the pricing on slow days. Money always talks to customers. it also talks to business owners. Trust me when it is your money that is in the business, you look at it quite differently than when it is someone else’s.

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

The futuristic and the future

From the many requests I get, the one thing that excites people most about the future is to be presented with a futuristic picture of the future. They like the idea of seeing a different world than the one they know. Maybe it has to do with the fact that many feel unhappy with our world the way it is. Maybe they want to dream a bit or maybe they simply want to have a feeling that there is hope for a utopian world. Science fiction is full of that futuristic feeling. Sometimes it carries an optimistic feeling and sometimes it paints a brutally gloomy vision of the future.

Very often, conference organizers approach me because they would like me to present a futuristic view of food and agriculture. If all they are looking for is science fiction entertainment, I prefer to decline. Fiction is nice, but my business is about realistic and practical evolution of food and agriculture. Everyone who knows me well will tell you that I have no lack of imagination, on the contrary, but that is not what I do as a futurist. My main objective is that my audiences go home with a feeling that it is possible to evolve from today to tomorrow with feasible changes, instead of chasing dreams, which nobody can say whether they have any chance of succeeding. I believe in baby steps, and possibly quick ones.

Perhaps it is the advantage of having been around the block for quite a while, but I always take a circumspect attitude regarding futuristic visions. I am old enough to have heard that we were all going to shift away from traditional foods and that our future diet would be made of pills, one for energy, one for protein and one for God knows what else. That was the time of the Apollo space missions and of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Our future meals would be an astronaut type of diet. Well, guess what, we have passed 2001 a long time ago and meat and potatoes are still on our plates. Be careful about science fiction, because although it certainly is a great source of inspiration for exciting innovations, it also contains the word “fiction”. To me, the most realistic part of 2001: A Space Odyssey is HAL 9000, the computer. As we are eagerly working on artificial intelligence, I can very well see that we could end up with machines that can think and feel the way that HAL does. If some genius finds a way of creating an artificial ego and implant it in such an AI machine, then humans would have a problem. Anyway, we are not there yet.

Another big change in our food, presented several decades ago, was making synthetic meat out of oil (does that sound somehow familiar; you know meat from an incubator?). I started my Career at BP Nutrition, which was part of the BP oil and gas company. Apparently, BP had moved into the food business because they thought that the “oil steaks” could be a reality and be a part of their business. Of course and as usual, nobody can foresee everything and the oil crisis of the 1970s hit and that was the end of the synthetic meat, because guess what? Money matters and if the numbers do not add up, the project dies.

In more current innovations, I remember feeling a bit of the ugly duckling in a conference about the future of agriculture where one of the hottest topics was the Google glass. Maybe you remember, some sort of portable smart device that would make you feel like a cyborg. I did not see the added value of the glasses for a farmer. Apparently, I was one of the very few and you know almost not much a futurist at all for not embracing unconditionally some tech innovation. No, I do not do unconditional support. Instead, in these current days of compulsively pressing “Like” buttons, I did –and still do- this almost heretic thing: I think and exercise my critical sense. Just as a short addendum, I would like to remind you of the quote by Descartes ”I think, therefore I am”. The way, I look at things, a derivative of that quote would be “I don’t think, therefore I am nothing”

Another recent hot topic that seems to have lost steam is the 3D printer that would produce food. I remember even posting a question on a futurist’s website. It was several years ago and I am still waiting for an answer. My question related to an article with the illustration of a banana laid on the printing area of a 3D printer. I was asking two things. The first was why anyone would use resources to make the banana peel as it appears on the posted picture, as the peel is waste. The second was to know what material would be used to make the flesh of the banana (and where it would be coming from) because if it were banana flesh, that would be rather absurd. This banana example is the perfect illustration of hypes being parroted by everyone who wants to be trendy without thinking about the most basic principles, such as the one expressed by Lavoisier “Nothing is created, everything is transformed” If you want to print a banana, you need some material to print with. Everyone seems to think that it would be created out of nothing. Great way to solve famine…

If I have an issue with the banana, I do not have any about 3D printing. When it comes to food, it could certainly crate new textures and new ways to experience foods and perhaps even discover new flavors that do not pop up in traditional textures. That is an area that could be useful. If lab meat is to be a viable production system, 3D printing might be a way of making it more appealing to the market. It is worth investigating. Another area that I would hope 3D printing to be useful is the production, possibly at home, of spare parts that you and I could use when some device gets broken (instead of having to buy an entire device all together), and possibly by using recycled raw materials to make the replacement parts. That would be a great step towards sustainability and in the fight against planned obsolescence.

I can name other hypes that have never impressed me. Remember the “new economy” that was going to make the old economy obsolete? Well, the result was the dotcom crash (bubbles are made out of hot air usually) and the good old-fashioned economy came back with a vengeance, as the good old care for our living environment will. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies were going to make existing currencies obsolete. Guess what? It is bursting simply because these are currencies that do not have any really economic roots. They are artificial with nothing to sustain them but hype, so poof goes the bubble. In the area of something more useful, I have not been impressed by blockchain either. I found it artificially inflated for something actually quite simple and basic. By the time, they complete it, if that ever happens, it will already be replaced by something more useful and effective. And I could go on with a list of things that would revolutionize our world and that nobody remembers.

To me, the main difference between the future and the futuristic is that the latter finds its source in imagination while the former is about practical and economical feasibility. We need both, but it is essential to make the distinction because it is difficult to find our way with a blurred vision. The virtual is not the real but it can become it under the right circumstances.

Similarly, we must not think that innovation is only about technology and that technology is only about high-tech. High tech is very sexy and the fact that teenagers can become billionaires overnight is very appealing but, in the grand scheme of things, that part is only a drop in the ocean of problems to solve for the future. I am convinced that many solutions will actually be low tech and inspired by old-fashioned wisdom. Innovation must address the causes of the problems it solves, not just the symptoms. Morphine can be very useful for cancer patients but it does not cure the disease. Another misconception is also to think that innovation is the same as progress. There is a difference. It may appear that way on the short term, but progress is also a relative concept. What seems progress today might appear as a disaster a few decades from now. I will let you think for yourselves of some examples for “progress” from the 19th and 20th centuries that hurt us today to illustrate my point.

A similar kind of confusion is to think that science and knowledge are the same. Indeed, good science is, but through the centuries people have known many facts even though they had not been scientifically proven. Here, I will only mean knowledge and not beliefs, as beliefs very often rest on non-proven concepts, and in some cases possibly improvable but beliefs are not about knowledge. They are about creating a system of values that help making sense of what we do not know or do not control. Therefore, beliefs and knowledge are two distinct things. Bordering on knowledge and science, but quite abundant in bad science is another confusion: statistics and facts. Anyone who has studied statistics knows that one must first make a hypothesis and then test it. If the test is negative, one must reject the hypothesis. That is the easy, and non-confusing, part. If the test result is positive, one can only say that one cannot reject the hypothesis and that is all. One cannot conclude that the hypothesis is correct. No, all one can say is that the hypothesis may just not be incorrect. But that subtle -yet essential- difference is never a problem for those who want to push their point of view and they will merrily go as far as using to claim the absence of evidence as being the evidence of absence. So much for intellectual integrity. Further, depending on which statistical test you chose, you may come to a different result about the same hypothesis. It can be a bit complicated, can’t it? That is the conundrum of research and science when they are not independent anymore, not to mention when they are funded by groups who are after making a profit of their “findings”, but that is the way human nature goes.

For a successful future, futuristic ideas are important but critical thinking, a solid dose of common sense, a practical approach and the ability to make the money work are essential. If we lose grip on reality or, worse, if we ignore it, it will catch up with us, a bit the way HAL 900 does in the movie. Dreaming is good as it feeds the human machine, but a strong sense of reality is essential to go in the right direction. It is a bit like both the legs and the brain when riding a bicycle.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Why we are not solving the climate challenge

The latest report on climate change published last week was not cheerful. Instead of making progress towards the goals, it appears that we are off course and actually deviating further away. None of the G20 countries will achieve their goals. The world has had plenty of notice and time to act, but clearly success is further away than before, but probably less so than next year and the years after. Why is it so difficult to do the right thing, then? Well, there are a number of reasons for this and this does not bode well. Here they are, in no particular order.

Reason #1: We are not scared, yet

Whenever a devastating climatic event hits us, it is not really perceived as a threat for those who have not been affected. Like any dramatic piece of news, people read about it, think how terrible it is for a few moments and then move on and forget. It is a bit like car accidents. Everyone thinks that it won’t happen to them. Even if you are a good driver, you never know when a bad one will cross your path, and it is the exact same thing with climate. The consequences do not stay within the borders of the countries that produce emissions. It takes only one bad neighbour to spoil it for everybody. The consequences go all over to the neighbours just as well. In my book We Will Reap What We Sow, I addressed the denial and procrastination by making a comparison with Pharaoh in the movie The Ten Commandments by saying that the leaders of the world may pay attention when their first born will be killed in such a natural disaster and just like in the movie, they might grieve for some time and then decide to taunt fate again. I believe that is exactly where we are heading.

Next to that, as long as insurances are willing to cover the damage, a false illusion of protection will still exist. Be assured that if insurers decided to not cover climate change related damages, the debate would change rather quickly. Last summer, there was a wildfire rather close to my place. It was the second year on a row that the region had been hit by forest fires. I can tell you that this time, considering the location and the direction and strength of the wind, I was seriously worried. We were lucky and the fires were eventually contained. We had to breathe very smoky air for weeks and our air quality was worse than Beijing or Delhi, though. In my opinion, we should be a bit more scared by what is going on than we currently are.

It is difficult to scare people by talking about just a couple of degrees in 80 years from now. Presented in those terms, it sounds benign. That, too, is part of the procrastination problem. We need to hear where there is going to be devastation, how big it will be and how much it will cost. If the problem is big and serious, it must sound that way.

Reason #2: We have no real vision for a different, better world

It is nice to look at alternative energies and all sorts of innovations, but they will not happen unless the numbers (meaning the $$$) work out well. That is the problem. Technically, everything is possible. We could replace fossil fuels rather quickly but the economics as stated today do not stimulate change. To change the economics, it would be nice to start by stopping subsidizing the disaster, but we do not do that. The problem with climate a change and economics is that there is a simple reality: it will cost money and we all will have to pay a share. The worst part about this is that the longer we wait to invest in our future, the more expensive it will get.

But beyond the boring money concerns, what we need is a vision of our future world. How will it look like? How will people be able to have a decent standard of living (oops, money matters again)? What are the jobs of the future and which ones will disappear? Will it be a safe or dangerous world? There are many questions to answer if we want to create good will for change. There is no such thing as fear of change as such. Fear of change is actually the fear of loss. What I might lose is the primary concern. To alleviate this concern, clear and reliable vision is a prerequisite, and we do not have any at this moment. There is too much focus on problems and not enough on solutions. Without a vision that speaks to people, there is no reason why they should get excited about change.

Reason #3: There is no plan

Since there is no clear and strong vision, there cannot be a plan. When it comes to climate change, all we hear is an abstract-sounding target of limiting temperature increase to 2 degrees maximum, even though it sounds specific. What does that mean concretely for our daily lives, starting today? Who is supposed to do what and by when? All the climate agreements have been non-binding, which means that, in terms of determination, they compare with the average person’s New Year’s resolutions. It is obvious why the agreements are non-binding. If they were, there is not one single country who would commit. Countries have goals. It almost sounds like a plan, except that the goals are not really specific. Indeed, which sectors of society, business, governments and non-governmental organizations are supposed to do what? Does any industry have goals to achieve? Not really. Look at the car industry. Since the economy runs better, they have decided to stop the production of small cars and focus on larger cars, mostly SUVs and trucks, which consume more fuel  than the smaller sedans. Why? Just because the profit margin on larger vehicles is higher. At least, during the Great Recession of 2008 and the following years, when gas prices were much higher and the economy was hurting, sales of small economical cars were out performing the big gas guzzlers. Maybe economic hardship is what is needed to fix the problem. We just never really learn, it seems. Let’s face it, we have no plan and everybody does what is in his/her best interest, or just suits them best, on the short term.

If we and all the leaders in all sectors of society had a plan, there would be clear instructions about what is required from us. Nobody is giving instructions to people like me about how I should and could reduce my environmental footprint. There is a lot of PR and marketing, though, but the underlying message from businesses is really the same as before: buy as much goods as you can from me. It is all about volume, while the solution is to replace volume to shift from always more to always enough.

The most important part of the plan would be the transition plan. Setting targets without defining all the concrete practical steps and how to measure progress is rather pointless. How do we get from situation A to situation B? How long does it take and how do we ensure progress? Let me know if you know because I do not see anything of the kind.

Reason #4: There is no collective coordination

Besides the goals, a good plan would indicate clearly what the respective responsibilities are of all organizations and individuals. It would be clear what the contribution of each entity needs to be. This is essential for a plan and in particular for the transition plan. Since we are all in this together, success is about team work. Everybody must be motivated, must believe it is the right thing to do and participate. How many of you have received clear goals and a mandate to participate?

Yes, we can fix the problem. We did fix the hole in the ozone layer, didn’t we? We also fixed acid rains, didn’t we? How did we do that? Simply by defining very clear and specific goals and allocating them clearly. The team knew what to do, who had to do what… and they did it. Regarding climate change, we are just 25 years late. Countries reject the blame on each other instead of finding good agreements on how to fairly solve the problems and help each other out of trouble.

Reason #5: We prefer to blame than to fix

As I mentioned earlier, emissions from one country travel all around the Earth. Eventually, we all own and share all emissions, not just the ones we create. We are collectively responsible and the problem can be solved only collectively. That is tricky in a world where individualism spreads everywhere. The result is that we focus much more on who is to blame than on fixing the problem. We have limited time to fix the problem, but once it is fixed, we will have ample time to figure out who was to blame if we think it is a useful way to spend time.

Let’s face it, everyone who indulges in the consumption society is to blame, but of course, as Jean Paul Sartre wrote “Hell is the others”. Unfortunately, we have created a society in which we all feel so entitled to pretty much everything; we have lost the sense of what the value of things really is. Our entire economic system is about more for me here and now. Of course, changing this philosophy will not be easy because to fix the problem is going about to give up something and that is tough. Of course, we can choose not to act and Mother Nature is going to fix it for us. I suspect that then all the consumption aficionados will turn to their mother (nature) and say angrily that is it not fair and that they hate her. That is always how it goes when mommy decide to clean the little one’s messy bedroom. So who will fix it:  we or Mother Nature? The choice is ours.

Reason #6: Short term prevails

This is a basic human nature trait. The short-term always comes first, before the long-term. It is certainly interesting to try to bring a message of responsibility about future generations but the human animal is not wired that way. Only very few people are truly altruistic and have the willingness to give up their own interest. The only way to get people to have a balanced approach between the short term and the long term is by creating a trade off that is worth it. Here, the key word is trade. If we want people to give some of their short-term comfort for future generations, we must give them something in return. Give and take is a very basic human characteristic, too. So what can we trade off? Let’s not be naive, what will work is always something of a material nature, in particular money. As time runs out, there is not much time for cute negotiations. We are going to have to bribe the current generations to do something for the future ones. It is just that simple. Of course, somebody is going to have to pay for it. My guess is that it will be all of us, present and future. There is no real alternative to that, and it is time we all realize this it is what it is going to be.

Reason #7: Lame leadership

I wish I did not have to say that, but it is truly part of the problem. Our leaders are not really leading when it comes to climate change. As I mentioned earlier, they have not presented a vision of where our world is going and how our lives, private and professional, will be in the coming decades. They have no detailed specific plan to transition to the future and they do not have the gut to enforce change. They mostly give lip service. I understand that. When you have to face elections every so many years, you do not want to upset the voters. You do not want to put their jobs at risk and you do not want to cause a recession or worse. That, too, is very human. But the job of governing is not about trying to please all the time. Just as there is a difference between being friends and being parents, there is a difference between being a head of state and being a demagogue. In exceptional times, tough decisions come with the territory. As a leader, if you cannot take the heat, get out of the kitchen! Being a leader is first of all to take good care of your followers so that they can make it to the destination. Communication is a crucial part of leadership, especially when it comes to change. A leader must explain what must change, how it must change and what it will take to succeed. There is never enough communication about change. It is the only way of making it sink in the people’s minds. They have to get acquainted with the idea and they also must be part of the conversation to develop a sense of ownership of where things are going. About the climate change issue, the communication has been insufficient by far. This lack of communication is largely responsible for the lack of trust in politicians and why the people think their leadership is disconnected with the reality of their daily lives and concerns. Leaders must reassure people. Instead, they too often worry them. Other important thing to mention is that every society has the leaders it deserves.

Reason #8: There are powerful opponents

Not everybody is pleased with the potential change that the climate change challenges are calling for. This is the main reason why they work hard to discredit the scientists who report about their findings. As I said earlier, fear of change is really about fear of loss and the climate change deniers are no different than the average man about that, even when they happen to be millionaires or higher. What are they afraid to lose? Well, it is always about the same: money. Either because they would have to accept higher costs of operation or possibly seeing their business die or simply lose their jobs and livelihoods. I can understand such a fear when the person in question could lose his/her job and not find employment easily and land into financial hardship. I find it much more difficult to understand that from billionaires who have nothing to worry about in terms of financial security. Actually, I would expect from true captain of industries that they see opportunities in new business activities and venture into them for both their benefit and society’s. Perhaps, it depends if they are billionaires by hard work or just by birth.

Reason #9: We are addicted to materialism

The so-called consumption society has been acting like a drug dealer in a way. Most people are so hooked on buying stuff that they can’t stop. The banks have contributed greatly to the problem but lending money too easily so that people who cannot afford stuff can go to the mall and buy just like the rest. The flip side of this addiction is that withdrawal is not easy. Everything is about tempting the client. It is not just businesses that lure consumers but peer pressure joins into pushing people into buying more stuff. Perhaps, it is easy for me to say this because I must have some sort of a temptation resistance gene. Marketing leaves me completely cold and I buy something only if I need it, not because someone wants to sell it to me. My wife calls me a minimalist. I am not sure what that means but maybe I am. All I know is that I live happily and I do not have any creditor breathing in my neck. Along with this personality trait of mine, I also have no problem making sacrifices if needed. I can wait to buy something. In a way, my motto could be “if you don’t need it don’t buy it/if you can’t afford it, don’t buy it”.

About climate change, sacrifice will be part of the game one way or another. I believe that it will be quite useful to realize that life cannot be about instant gratification all the time and that happiness can be found through many other ways than through buying “stuff”. Of course, such an approach is going to conflict with our dominant economic model.

Reason #10: The economy and financial system is all about growth

All our economy revolves around always more. In a finite world, it is just a matter of time before such a model comes to an end. In biology, there is a distinction between growth and development. And it is a very important distinction.  I believe that when it comes to economy and finance, the distinction between the two terms has blurred out and it might very well be the root of a misunderstanding that might prove very costly in the future. I am all for development, but I have mixed feelings about growth. As an example, I would mention an animated graph that has been circulating recently on social media about the variation of GDP per country between 1961 and 2017. It is a cute animation, but I do not find it all that interesting because the GDP depends for a part of the size of the population. A graph showing the GDP per capita would have been a better indication of the wealth of the inhabitants of the different countries, although an average does not say much about distribution. I also would have preferred to see a graph showing the distribution of that wealth with the people of the countries, as this would be a good indication of whether the countries takes good care of their people or not. I also would have liked to see the graph with the ratio debt/GDP and deficit/GDP. I suspect those graphs would have told very interesting stories. For a country, the GDP is just the same as what the sales revenue is for a business. It is not a particularly good indicator of the profit or of cash-flow.

Growth is also the magic word for stock markets, and in particular of the share price. Since the entire financial system is locked in stocks directly and indirectly, any stock market crash will affect everyone, because even people who do not own stocks depend on the markets (just think of how deep in stocks some pension plans are).

This is why the climate is tricky to handle because if company stocks from environmentally damaging companies or industries crash, the entire system can potentially implode. The best way to prevent this would be to have a plan, and in particular a transition plan ready so that company could transition smoothly and thus avert a market crash, but we haven’t got that. As we all know, there is a lot of short-term activity on stock markets and there, too, short-term prevails over long-term. Speaking of short term, CEOs have to present their results quarterly to financial analysts. Compare that with elections only every 4 or 5 years!

Reason #11: We are increasingly disconnected from Nature

This is a consequence of how our societies and economies have evolved since the first Industrial Revolution. Today’s most obvious consequences are mass production and mass consumption, which relocated human populations from rural and agricultural areas into urban centers and the trend, continues. There are a couple of generations who have never really been in much contact with Nature. Surveys for city people about where they think food comes from are always revealing. In particular, with animal products, it is amazing to see how many people do not make a connection between eggs and hens or between milk and cows, or even between a live animal and its meat. I strongly believe that when we lose the connection with nature, we also lose a sense of where we come from and what we are about. If we do not understand how Nature works, it is difficult to respect it and when we do not understand our biological nature, we also lose respect for life. Unfortunately, we look at ourselves less and less as biological entities and more and more as legal entities. This trend worries me.

In a way, the so-called primitive societies (which I am less and less sure that they were that primitive at all) had a strong respect and fear for the forces of Nature. The term Mother Nature that I have used above is reminiscent from this respect and fear. We would not mess with it because we understood that we could be punished. Once the connection with Nature fades, the punishment part fades too. Then, we are just too happy to take and not give back and this is a serious mistake. Sustainability and circular economy are all about giving back so that the cycle can continue. This part we tend to have forgotten and this is why we shifted away from always enough to always more and that we will have to revert to the original concept because always more is not sustainable but always enough is. Here is your challenge!

Reason #12: We put too much faith in technology

Understand me well, I am all for technology and innovation. That said, technology is only as good as how we use it. I have mentioned in earlier articles how important this subtle distinction is. I am convinced that as of today we already have all the technology we need to mitigate climate change and have happy lives. So, why don’t we solve the problem? Once again the magic word is: money. For many of these technological solutions, the economics do not favour them, but favour the current destructive system. A part of the problem is in the allocation of where subsidies go. We encourage non-sustainable systems to survive while we do not reward enough sustainable solutions. Another important aspect of whether technology can help us overcome the challenges lies in our behaviour and that is independent of technology. Technology can only help us if we want to help ourselves first. Keeping our same bad habits of wasting and overconsumption and hoping that some new technology is going to clean the mess for us without us having to make any effort of any sort is completely delusional, not to say completely immature. There cannot be any solution if we do not change ourselves. I could paraphrase both Einstein’s quote saying that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result and Ghandi’s saying that we must be the change we want to see.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.