Nature will reshape food value chains

October 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How can insects be a part of future food security?

July 31, 2015

Since the FAO published a report in May 2013 presenting insects as a possible source of food to meet future protein demand, the topic has become quite popular in the mainstream media. I wrote an article about this (Insects on the menu) in May 2010, in which I was giving some of my thoughts. I still think along the same lines.

In the last few weeks, I bumped into the insect story several times, purely by coincidence. I believe insects can play a role but I am getting a bit frustrated by the lack of specifics in all the talk about insects and worms.

Apparently insects would present many performance advantages compared with traditional meat productions. Aaron Dossey did a presentation at the IFT15 symposium organized by the Institute of Food Technologists. Here are the advantages of insects he mentioned as reported in the article from Science Daily of July 14 2015:

  1. Efficiency. They use less land, water, feed, energy and other resources than livestock.
  2. Environmentally friendly/clean. Insects create fewer greenhouse gases and are not contaminated with pesticides. They also do not have any hormones in their bodies.
  3. Prolific. They reproduce quickly so they can replace depleted resources.
  4. Biodiverse. There are millions of insect species, so it is easy to find a match to a location’s need.
  5. Nutritious. They have protein and Omega 3s, a class of essential fatty acids that help lower cholesterol.

All of this is nice but…

  1. How efficient? How much less land, water, feed and energy and other resources?
  2. Environmentally friendly as long as they do not massively invade it. How many fewer greenhouse gases? No hormones at all, really? Of course insects contain hormones. They are necessary for their physiology and development. So which hormones was he referring to?
  3. Yes they are prolific, which raises the issue of what would happen if insects escape from farms in large numbers. They are prolific but they are tiny, so it takes huge numbers to match the weight of a cow or pig or even a chicken. The real question to answer is how many tonnes of insect protein can a farm produce compared with other animal productions? What should be the size of an insect farm and how many farms should there be to meet future demand. Also what feed will the bugs eat to grow?
  4. Biodiversity may be nice, but what species would be production worthy when it comes to the mass production of volumes that would be comparable with other productions?
  5. They are not the only food sources of omega-3

Unless someone can quantify the above, the story remains rhetoric. If insects are to become a large-scale production along the lines of other animal proteins, it is necessary to single out the species that will be the most efficient, technically and economically. It is also necessary to sketch the design and the magnitude of farms. There are a number of companies that have been venturing in the insect business but most of them are tiny, in the grand scheme of world food security. Aaron Dossey’s company produces 25,000 lbs of insect powder per year. That is 12 tonnes, and he does not sell them to the hungry of Asia and Africa. Compared with the world average meat consumption per capita per year, 12 tonnes of meat represents the yearly consumption of 250 to 300 people. If insects represented 1% of the world average meat consumption per person, his production would feed only 25,000 to 30,000 people, or less than 0.0005%! Clearly, even to cover 1% of the average animal protein need as it is on average per today, the magnitude of the challenge to set up a significant production is huge. The other challenge to overcome is to make insect production economically competitive, be it for human consumption of for animal feed purposes. Most businesses offering insect products today are operating in a small niche, just because there is little industrial production. The dominant part of the insects and worms consumed are picked in nature by those who eat them, as those animals are usually consumed when there is a seasonal shortage of other protein sources. The niche businesses sell their insect products at prices that even many people in wealthy country could not afford on a frequent basis. The insect products are offered to consumers at prices reaching several hundreds of dollars per pound.  Presenting such foods as helping the world feeding itself, which means mostly helping the world’s poorest to be able to afford nutritious food is at best delusional if not even plain cynical. Insects and worms can be contributors to future food security only if they are affordable and competitive against the other meat sorts. That cannot happen if they are limited to the treat sector.

Another aspect of insects as food is their attractiveness, or lack of it. Insects and worms are much more common in Asia and Africa, where the largest part of the world population is and will be in the future. In Western countries, insects and worms are perceived as repugnant by most people. In terms of marketing, it would make more sense to focus on the Asian and African markets instead of trying to convince Westerners to eat lots of insects, just because of the respective levels of acceptance.

However, there is communication to do and lessons to learn from the past. I would name two. First, escargots, which are so popular under their French name, are an expensive item on menus. Escargots are never sold as “snails” because that sounds gross for most people. Everything sounds tastier in French. Try presenting insects under a French names and the Anglo-Saxon population might be more tempted. Snails used to be, just like insects and worms in Africa and Asia today, food that the French were going to pick on walls after a rain in times of food shortages. My second example is lobster. Lobster used to be considered a bottom feeder that was only for the poor, and so it was. Clearly, the image of lobster has changed a lot. The other lesson about lobster, and I would add shrimp, langoustine and many other ugly crustaceans, is that there are expensive delicacies that actually look a lot like insects, and they are actually rather close to insects in their body structures.

When it comes to human consumption, I wonder whether people will still be tempted to eat bugs if the economic situation keeps on improving in Asia and Africa. Not that long ago, China was in situation of near famine. Anything that contained protein was food. They were roasted rats for sell. In France, during the privations of World War II, rats – and cats- were used to replace pork in many deli specialties. There is a big difference between having to and wanting to. Has rat meat consumption increased in China since the economic boom? Do the French since WWII ended have been asking their butcher for rat pâté? I may be wrong, but I really think that when people, wherever in the world, have the choice, they will go for a juicy steak or some chicken before looking for bugs.

Then, there is the possibility of using insects and worms for animal feed. The advantage of animals compared with humans is that they eat to satisfy their hunger, but there is no psychological side to what is in animal feed, at least from the animal perspective. A trial to feed live insects to chickens just started in The Netherlands. It will be interesting to see the results. What I am wondering about this trial is why use live insects instead of dead ones. When I worked in animal husbandry, one of the things farmers worked on preventing was the possible invasion of insects in the houses, in particular because of the damage to insulation material. Further, I hope they make sure the insects will not escape, and that at least, should that happen, they are not using species that could cause damage in the neighbourhood. Also, I hope that the insects chosen have been screened on the health safety in terms of passing on diseases. Especially, after all the problems caused over the past years by avian flu and contamination by migratory birds, one can never be too cautious.

So what will be a good production system for large-scale production? I do not know yet, and I cannot find much information on how insect husbandry of the future may look like. However, I remember a TV program I saw some 25-30 years ago on the Dutch channel VPRO. I am not sure about the title of the program, but here is what it was about. The documentary was presenting an old fellow living as a hermit somewhere in the wild. He was using meat offal from his farm animals to attract flies, by storing them in a large tank. The flies were colonising the offal and bones and used them to lay their eggs. Later, the maggots hatched and when he found they were large and ripe enough, the hermit harvested the maggots and boiled them in a large caldron. He used that mass of cooked maggots as feed for his pigs and so he recycled the carcasses leftovers of the previous batch of pigs to produce the next one. I found that it was a pretty smart feeding and recycling system. Perhaps, it could be a solution for the future. In his system there was no waste. Of course, it sounds a bit like a porcine version of the movie Soylent Green.

For as much as I can see potential for insects and worms, I also see a huge lack of number crunching and comparative trials to figure out which species to produce and in which productions systems to provide an abundant and affordable of safe insect and worm food for both consumers and environment worldwide. The generality talk about bugs is cheap and does not help me envision how insects would play a prominent role in feeding the future.


Maybe a different approach of climate change conferences would help

December 16, 2014

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

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

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

Here it is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Robots, sensors, drones and big data are coming to the sea, too – Fishermen and aquaculturists: be prepared!

December 2, 2014

There is not a day that goes by without articles about new technologies in agriculture. I enjoy seeing the excitement because I believe it is will revolutionize how farmers produce food. When I started The Food Futurist in 2009, I saw right away that this was coming. I have to say that I am even happier to see the interest for all the drones, robots, driverless tractors and sensors as when I was telling about it in my presentations until probably just 18 months ago, the audience would look amused. They would love to hear my “Star Trek” story. That is how my topic was referred to. It was entertaining. They liked the story but they reacted as if I had a bit too much of imagination. For sure I never come short of that but to me, it was no fantasy. It was going to happen. And I do not see why it would not happen at sea just as well.

The arrival of new technologies is interesting far beyond simply the technological aspect. The possibilities are many if we decide to use them to their full potential, by linking them with each other and with the management of farms and of the environment.

Just like in agriculture, so far mechanization had been mostly about adding muscle to the operators. It was about performing physical tasks faster with less manual labor. The new technologies are of a different nature. They are about creating a nervous system. With the new technologies, the ability to monitor, collect data, analyze, make decisions will not only be faster, it has the potential to be autonomous, but under supervision of the farmer. It will provide more precise information, reduce the possibility of errors and will fix mistakes mush faster when they happen.

Just like on the land, new devices will be available. Satellites, drones and sensors will be able to be the eyes and the senses of the operator. Data processing software and artificial intelligence will be able to monitor in real time and 24/7 any event on the fish farm and in its environment. It will be able to report and initiate relevant actions. Robots will carry tasks that used to be done by the farmers. Fish robots are being developed. Fish robot MITFor instance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has created a soft body fish robot. The development of such fish robots is aimed at carrying out research on fish schools in the oceans, but there is no reason why similar robots could not be made to swim between the fish on farms, to monitor them and to record and report information about proper feeding, fish growth and fish health. From a technical point of view, nothing stops us from adding biometrics software in the fish robot that could be used for ongoing sampling to estimate the size of the fish in production, and the size distribution as well. It would replace static cameras and the need to dive in the nets. The “vision” of robot fish would probably be better than the human eye. Of course, the information collected by the robot would be sent to the computer to continuously determine technical production results and readjust feeding and harvest schedules. Sensors inside and outside the nets would allow to monitor environmental conditions such as water quality, in particular oxygen content. Biosensors could monitor levels of plankton and risks of algae blooms as well as the presence or the level of pathogens. All that information would be linked to the computer and fed to the central nervous system assisting the farmer. Satellites and aerial drones can also help monitor events inside the pens and provide further production information to complement what originates from the fish robots. They also can give a bird’s eye view of the farm environment. This would work in two directions. One is the prevention of harmful events to enter the nets. The other is the monitoring of the environmental impact of farms to prevent any pollution or take corrective action at once. Sensors at the bottom of the ocean and aquatic drones could also take continuous sample of the environment around the farm to detect any potentially harmful component for the environment. This would help making fish farms more environmentally friendly. In such a design, the farm becomes part of the nervous system. It can be managed even from a distance. After all, some people have already built a number of houses that are connected in such a way these houses can send tweets to the owner to tell them of any event inside or outside, even if someone is at the door. It is also possible to think of linking the system to the nets and have the net size adjusting automatically to the production conditions inside and the need of the proper volume based on water quality data. The farms could also move –horizontally and/or vertically if needed, depending on water quality, but also to avoid harmful interaction with wild fish, which is always a contentious issue between fish farming and commercial fisheries. Such mobile cages already exist. With all these systems, the farmer could actually follow several sites, instead of one, at the same time on interactive screens and interact with the machine and the systems.

It gets even more interesting by looking from further away and higher up. By having robots and aquatic drones roaming the oceans, it will become easier to have a full monitoring of ocean ecology, environmental conditions, sources of pollution, stocks of the different seafood species and all other life forms present. It would make fisheries’ management easier and more effective. It would address sustainability issues both for fisheries and for aquaculture. It would not only help seafood producers, but it would provide fact-based support to make policies -locally and globally- and to manage an important part of food production in better harmony.

The use of new technologies does not stop at the farm or in the ocean, though. Seafood processing, like any other food production, is also going to use robots more and more. Quality will also be monitored through new technologies and reports will be produced automatically. Robotics and data collection will ensure production and quality system that can take corrective action automatically. By connecting all the data produced along the entire production chain, traceability and transparency will be improved further. If used well big data can help improve food quality, sustainability and cooperation between the different stakeholders. It will help manage more efficiently. It also will be a tool to increase trust in the way food is produced and allow a closer connection between producers and consumers.

Here is a presentation about new technologies I did recently at a Precision Agriculture Conference. If you invite me to a Seafood conference, I will be happy to talk about the future with your audience.

Copyright 2014 – the Happy Future Group Ltd.


Precision is the future of agriculture and our future

August 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2014 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Tree oils can fuel economic development by integrating different agricultural activities

January 13, 2014

Over the past few years, agriculture has been a hot center of attention and rightly so. In my line of work, I am always interested in finding new and innovative ways of growing production more efficiently, more sustainably and in a way that offers viable jobs and attractive livelihoods. Recently, I got acquainted with Mr. Sreenivas Ghatty, from India, and Dr. John Wightman, from Australia. They both are involved in the production of tree oils for the production of a renewable alternative to diesel oil. Mr. Ghatty founded Tree Oils India Ltd and owns a plantation of 3,000 oil trees. Dr. Wightman is actively promoting the development of similar projects in Australia, USA, Africa and South Asia. The story of the tree oil interested me right away for several reasons. First, it reminded me of the Sahara Forest Project that I had mentioned in Future Harvests, but with this difference that the tree oils projects are already there. Secondly, and more importantly, it is a great example of a project that can generate many economic activities, while filling an environmental and social function by calling upon a collaborative approach like what I discussed in We Will Reap What We Sow. As several projects have already reached the production stage, the gentlemen have the numbers to present a case to interested investors.

Seven year old Pongamia trees at the TOIL (Tree Oils India Ltd) R&D farm

Seven year old Pongamia trees at the TOIL (Tree Oils India Ltd) R&D farm

In India and Australia, the species farmed is Pongamia. It is an indigenous tree to India that used to provide oils for various applications, of which fuel. However, with the rise of cheap fossil fuels, its use regressed to some extent but in the second half of the 20th century, the Mumbai commodity market traded one million tonnes of Pongamia oil per year. The purpose of this production is to develop land that would otherwise have no agricultural use, because of the arid climate. Some of the current projects are aimed at using waste lands around former mines, as is already the case in some parts of Queensland in Australia. It is a way of regenerating a landscape and agricultural production by fixing carbon and producing a renewable fuel that emits less greenhouse gases than fossil fuel. Pongamia is a rustic species that is well-suited in such regions. To understand what this production can create, it is important to put it in a broader context than oil alone, and that is why I find it particularly interesting.

It takes the Pongamia tree four years to start producing its oil-rich seeds and once in production, it will keep producing at a steady level for a hundred years or more. To give an idea of the production potential, a conservative yield estimate that Mr. Ghatty and Dr. Wightman gave me was of 1,000 liters per acre of Pongamia plantation. Although the harvest is not all year-round, the seeds can easily be stored and the oil production capacity can be organized evenly all through the year to optimize the oil production capacity. The oil is suitable for diesel engines without any particular further refining. The oil provides a source of fuel to run the farms and when acreage is large enough, it could cover the needs of local communities, too. The by-products from the oil production, such as the seed cake that is of good agronomic value, can be used as a fertilizer or mulch to return to the land, and thus enrich it as production goes. They can also be used as fodder for cattle, as a complement for other feed sources.

Pigeonpea growing between rows of 3 yr old Pongamia trees on the TOIL farm

Pigeonpea growing between rows of 3 yr old Pongamia trees on the TOIL farm

Next to storing oil in its seed, Pongamia is a tree legume, and therefore it can fix nitrogen and help enrich the soil where it grows. It also has nematicide and fungicide qualities. Pongamia production can be the basis for a multi-level and complex agricultural activity. With its agronomic qualities, Pongamia is quite suitable for an agro-forestry production system. The combination of the shade provided by the trees with soil enrichment by nitrogen fixing and seed cake fertilizer and the moisture retention that results from these new local conditions creates a suitable environment for the production of vegetal crops for food production. For instance, on the Tree Oils India Ltd farm, they grow pigeonpea between the Pongamia rows. Further development of optimal combination and rotation of crops will be enhanced as the system will enrich itself over time. It is also possible to combine the tree plantation with extensive grazing cattle. The Pongamia plantation helps the production of grass and in return the cattle fertilize the soil with manure.

Agro-forestry can be combined with extensive cattle grazing to restore soil and agriculture potential

Agro-forestry can be combined with extensive cattle grazing to restore soil and agriculture potential

The combination of the various possible productions also offers different possibilities of cooperation. Not all activities need to be done by the same farmer. There is always the possibility to offer land for use for vegetal crops or grazing. The partners can decide of which form the cooperation can work, between ownership, renting, sharing of land or of harvest or any other form that can create a harmonious cohabitation. Such different possibilities allow the integration of local rural communities to access production potential as the plantation creates the condition and the potential for both vegetal and animal productions such as meat, milk or wool. By generating different farming activities, the Pongamia production has the potential to create several agricultural value chains for all the productions involved as well as processing, storage and marketing. It can have a snowball effect beyond simply agriculture. When the local communities develop livelihoods, they also will need access to other products and services to function. The combination of all these activities allows creating sustainable production systems, as all the products and by-products can be used locally and thus, closing the loops. However, the system does not have to be a closed one. Productions can be used locally or sent to markets elsewhere, and the same is true for inputs, but integrating all the activities allows monitoring and managing the production systems in a sustainable manner. Closing loops is a key phrase in regard to such integrated production systems. In this case, the loops cover carbon, nutrients, moisture and organic matter.

Oil press used for Pongamia oil production in India (TOIL R&D project)

Oil press used for Pongamia oil production in India (TOIL R&D project)

Like many economic development projects, a leading project is necessary to create the necessary momentum upon which other activities can connect and grow along. Pongamia production has this potential but as always for such projects, the need for investment is critical in the early stages. It must start somewhere and the return is not immediate. There is always a chance to take. Because it takes several years for the Pongamia tree to enter production, the early years do not generate revenue from oil, and only the crops generate income. However after the trees start producing, income increases substantially. Over a period of ten year after planting the trees on the plantation, the return allows farmers to have a good income. Economic development requires long-term commitment from the shareholders. As many activities and also economic benefits are the objectives, all stakeholders that can benefit in the long term should also be shareholders. Success cannot be the responsibility of the plantation investor alone. When stakeholders are shareholders, they become owners of the project as well; and owners are more determined than spectators to turn a project into a success. Many jobs can be created in farming, in different activities of oil processing, logistics, trade, and in the different activities of the different value chains that can spin off from Pongamia. It is also not just a matter for businesses only, but governments also would benefit. More economic activity means more taxes down the road, as well as less need for financial support of rural communities once they can generate a solid local economy.Every project would have to adjust to the local conditions. If the projects in India and Australia are developed on mining grounds, other regions may offer different types of land for development. The available land might decide the size of the plantations and the production volumes. From there, each project will have to list the potential other activities that can be combined with the plantations, and how many jobs in which activities may be created. By reviewing the entire production potential with the socio-economic potential, it will give clarity to the different stakeholders of what their individual return would be. Then, they can determine how big a share of the project they want or how much they can contribute to the development of such integrated activities. If, for now, tree oil projects are more advanced in India and in particular in Australia, they certainly could be quite instrumental to help develop economic development in particular in arid parts of Africa. It is possible as a number of success stories with agro-forestry have already demonstrated there. This type of integrated agriculture has good potential to recreate productive vegetal landscape in former deforestation areas like for instance in Brazil.

If you wish to know more about Pongamia oil, feel free to contact Dr. John Wightman or Mr. Sreenivas Ghatty

(Photos: courtesy of Mr. Sreenivas Ghatty and Dr. John Wightman)


Adapting our thinking to the future – part 2

May 14, 2013

At the end of part 1 of this article, I had mentioned how our elders used to make progress by blending the modern with the traditional. It is quite important to keep this way of looking at our life environment quite alive. How we evolved to where we are today determines very much why we have the current possibilities available. They are the direct result of our history. Whether we like it or not, our future has its roots in our past. The art is to improve what we have, and to improve, we need to learn from the mistakes of the past. Rejecting solutions for the simple reason that they are old-fashioned or not based on science is really excluding diversity, while diversity is the fuel of progress. Reducing diversity comes down to reducing options to move forward. As someone who looks toward the future and tries to find out what is likely to come as well as what is desirable to create, I find this balance between past and future especially interesting. I often am surprised to see how many people are actually busy reinventing the wheel, while they think that they are busy innovating. Many projects and research that I see taking place have actually already been carried out in some way either in another place or in another industry. I regularly have to tell some of my contacts about similar projects that took place years and sometimes even decades ago. This is why I always insist on the need to be curious. For the future, curiosity is an asset. I could never urge anyone enough to have an open mind for anything that happens anywhere and in any industry. Maybe, I am doing some sort of transfer about this and I wished others would be as curious and eager to learn as I am, but this is so helpful to foresee the changes to come, that anyone who is interested in the future should be wired like that. Unfortunately, I find most people to not be really curious. They seem to be interested in what will serve them directly in the short term, but much less for what may serve others now but also in the future. Until someone can tell me that it is better to limit one’s perception and understanding of the world and of its possibilities, I will keep being curious and open-minded.

People really need to expand their horizons. Not only is it useful to be prepared for the future, the main reason is that it is incredibly fun to learn to know new things and new people. For the sake of humanity, it is time to open up towards others. The attitude of future business will not be about pushing new products and services to others, but to have a “what can I do for you “ and “how can I help you” mindset. The business of the future is the one that delivers solutions. In the future, successful products will be at least as much about the service included as it is about the actual physical product. This is what circular thinking will deliver. In a future where others are really what matters the most, the social perception will also change. “Old boys clubs” (which are nowadays just as much girls clubs) and other clans are not really the most dynamic organizations. There is no doubt that they are incredibly comfortable, because they are basically made out of clones. Everyone thinks the same, shares the same values, comes from the same university or social group, lives in the same country or region, has the same feeling of importance, and looks to the outsiders just as such: outsiders. There is a lack of diversity; therefore there is a lack of progress. A new interesting development that, to me, shows the quality of networks has appeared recently on LinkedIn. They visualize how much of your network belong to which organizations. I recently have seen some of the apparently very social individuals that have close to 40% of their network linked to only one company, and the second organization in his network only 1%. To me, that does not spell open network. And I thought that the main organization in my LinkedIn network was already high at 5%. Personally, I prefer by far those who have a balanced distribution of their networks. The chances are much higher that people who have a more balanced distribution of their networks have been exposed to more diversified experiences, and are likely to be more open and more flexible to different or challenging ideas. For a successful future, we must not think in terms of networks, but we all should be interconnected in the same one that would be the complete integration and interaction of all the ones that exist. My customers have demonstrated this to me. About all of my business has come from my being on the web with this blog and my books. They caught my customers’ attention who decided to get in contact with me. None of them knew me personally beforehand. The result has been business. Actually, I have not prospected once for the Food Futurist services. I just found a way of being visible beyond any limitation of network boundaries. The Food Futurist has become part of that global web.

One of the main differences between nowadays and yesterday lies in how intricate our world has become. In the past, things used to be more compartmented. Today, the whole world has opened. Knowledge travels fast and is accessible from almost anywhere on the planet. The level of interaction between industries and technologies is much higher now than it used to be. Most innovation that will help progress in food and agriculture in the future will not originate from the food and agriculture community, but from many different fields such as robotics, nanotechnologies, telecommunications, software development or medicine, just to give a few examples. Although technology will definitely play a major role in improving what we do, it will be important to not see technology as a panacea with dictatorial tendencies. I always underline the importance of the balance that we must maintain between technology and steering human nature for the best. In the end, technology is only as good and useful as the way we use and master it. Just take the example of gun powder. When the Chinese started to use it, they made fireworks for entertainment purposes. The “white man” chose to use it to kill others. Clearly, a similar technology used with different philosophies of life will serve different purposes. This is still true with today’s technology and it will be true with tomorrow’s. It will depend on the leadership. Technology needs to pass the test of morals and ethics, unless we accept that it might serve to be used against us. Technology and leadership go together, just like science and philosophy do. It is important to not forget it. If curiosity is an asset for the future, clearly, so is having a critical mind for the reasons just presented. It is essential to keep control on what we do and that we address concerns. Of course, this may delay some valuable financial objectives for some, but the quality of the future will depend on us doing the right things. The debate that results from critical thinking may be time-consuming, but open debate is an integral part of the democratic process. Open debates protect us from going back to dark ages. Looking back how what such ages have caused in human history, and unfortunately still do in some parts of the world, the need to learn from the past is clearly essential for a prosperous future.

Thinking ahead like a chess playerOther advantages of critical thinking are that it stimulates reflection and is a source of ideas. It is also important to make clear that critical thinking is not about criticizing but about questioning. Sterile boring criticism is just as useless for our future as not thinking at all. Let’s face it, critical thinking is not easy. It requires emotional distance. It is about accepting that what we may have believed appears to be wrong, or that they are better ways and beliefs. To be a good critical thinker, one needs to have enough confidence to overcome disappointment and to accept to change the course. Not that many people are willing to deal with such challenges. Yet, if we want to prepare for a prosperous future, we will have to accept that exercise, because, the future will be quite different, and in particular our interaction with our environment and the world will change and evolve further. Critical thinking actually requires a rather Zen mindset. One needs to have the calm and openness to observe and listen before speaking. One needs to accept being wrong as the debate that arises from the exercise will also show the value of other people’s points of views. Critical thinking is an exercise in humility. Humility is a highly valuable, yet often neglected quality. Yet, it is essential to be humble when thinking about the future. The challenges are quite serious and dealing with natural forces that may or may not be about to unleash upon us will not be an easy task. We will need to understand our relationship with Nature and accept the idea that, in spite of all our cool technologies, we are vulnerable and mortal. One of the arts of future thinking will be about pushing the system while knowing where the limits are that we must not transgress. That is what sustainability really is about. We really do not want to open Mother Nature’ Pandora’s Box. To be equipped properly to face the future, we need leaders that will think like chess players. We need leaders in all areas of society that can understand how the consequences of their decisions and of their vision will trickle down through the system. They must be able to foresee what may happen when they make their moves. Many already hardly can foresee what comes next. Those we need are the ones who can visualize what happens two, three, four and more degrees ahead, so that they can adjust their choices and already develop alternatives before troubles arise. A good plan A always includes a plan B, and preferably even a plan C. Plans that lack alternatives are not plans, they are merely wish lists.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.