The futuristic and the future

December 8, 2018

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.

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Is animal farming really on the way out?

October 22, 2018

Lately in the food world, one can read many stories about alternatives to protein from animal farming. Animal farming also gets blamed for its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. With so much finger pointing, one can wonder whether animal farming has a future. Proponents of alternatives do all they can to convince everyone that the writing is already on the wall. Personally, I believe that things are far from being that simple.

To predict what scenarios are likely for the future, it is necessary to look at the issue from its many dimensions, both on the production side as on the consumption side. I prefer to look at it first from the consumption side because consumer markets shape production systems more than production systems shape consumer markets.

From the consumer end, there is already much to say. First, as the population is increasing and more people are able to afford protein, the demand for protein is increasing and will continue to do so in the coming decades. I wrote already many articles about this during the nine years of this blog and the topic is also part of my books. The fact that more and more people can afford food is a positive development. The problem is that more and more of them now actually consume more than they should. Overconsumption boosts the need for more production beyond what nutritional needs are. Overconsumption comes down to excess, waste and pushes our use of resources too far. The goal must be to help people to eat balanced meals and not to overeat. If the purpose of the suppliers of alternative protein is to push for consumption of their products and not address the issue of overconsumption, they will be just as guilty as the current protein suppliers. The future challenge is not just to replace one overconsumption with another. It is to stop overconsumption. Unfortunately, as long as our economic model is about volume growth, one should not have too many illusions. Future food prosperity is really about having always enough, not about always more. To achieve this goal, we must shift from sheer volume growth thinking to high quality (including production of course but also social and environmental) with faire distribution of the created wealth between all links of the value chains, and in particular a fair price for farmers through proper planning between supply and demand. The purpose is to supply affordable food instead of just cheap food with all the consequences that we all can see of the race towards always cheaper. Unfortunately, the volume-driven model is heavily subsidized in the wrong places and that will also have to stop if we want change.

Consumers also need to realize the true value of food instead of taking it for granted because future food is anything but for granted. Regardless of the type of protein, one thing is sure: it is precious and rare. This is much more so than for carbohydrates. Protein should be treated with respect. Here are two examples why I make this point. I remember in the 1990s the CEO of Tyson Foods explaining in a conference that the poultry industry is a producer of lean protein and he lamented that, in the US at least, the favorite use was to deep fry it in cheap oil, and thus completely change the nutritional quality of chicken meat. The second example was during a presentation by the CEO of a German fish fast food restaurant chain called Nordsee, who was mentioning that breaded fish was very popular, but not so much because fish is healthy but because fish sticks were used to be a carrier of ketchup from the plate to the mouth. If the true purpose of meat for some consumers is to be a carrier of oil or ketchup, then this is a problem. Never should a product that required the sacrifice of an animal be used to soak into cheap and unhealthy product when over consumed. Speaking of sacrifice, it is good to remember that the word “sacrifice” comes from the word “sacred”. It is true that often our dealings with animal protein looks more like sacrilegious. This is a useful detail to think about when considering consumption of meat. The thing is that animal protein should never really be a commodity. It should remain special. But that is not the way or economic model has decided.

From the production side, agriculture has followed a similar pattern as most other industries. It is about lowering costs (nothing wrong with that) and standardization (maybe a topic more susceptible to debate). Regardless of what people may think of intensive animal husbandry, this system is not here per accident. It is the reflection of how we look at economy and ourselves. Have no illusion about alternatives to animal protein; they follow exactly the same economic philosophy. I always say that the dominant production system is the one that matches the desires of the larger number of consumers. The saying “we are what we eat” is very true. If you look at it that way, you can see that our economy is just as much about intensive human husbandry as it is with farm animals. Economy is organized around three components: resources, labor and capital. Depending on the prioritization and distribution of these three components, we build different systems. A simple example can illustrate what I mean is mechanization: workers have been replaced by machines backed with capital investment in machines. The tricky thing about heavy injection of capital is that the system becomes capital-dependent. The capital must deliver a return on the investment and very often the only way is inject even more capital, just to keep the head above water. It is good for the bankers, but as many farmers and food producers will tell you, less so for them.

So, will animal farming eventually disappear? Of course, it is difficult to answer this with certainty. My opinion is that it is not going to happen any time soon, if it ever happens. What will change are the production systems. After all, the current intensive production systems have not been around since the dawn of times. They are actually fairly recent. They have changed and are continuously adapting. Production systems that are not environmentally sensible will disappear, simply because they will not be able to be profitable and competitive. The reason for this is simple: sooner or later they will not be able to ignore the negative externalities anymore from their production costs. Environmentally sensible systems will take over. Note that I do not use the term environmentally friendly but I use environmentally sensible instead. I believe it is a much better reflection of reality. Will this transition be smooth? It might be, but it is much more likely that it will not be.

Another question to reflect about is whether animal farming is unnecessary? My answer to this is: no! First, like it or not humans are omnivores. Our dentition can testify about that. That is the result of dozens of thousands of years and it is ingrained in our system. It is nature. We are mammals, even though there’s no shortage of groups who try to even deny our biological reality and try to reduce people –and animals- to legal entities. Between Laws of Nature and man-made laws, we will see which ones will prevail. Our first food –milk- is animal in nature. There always will be people who want to eat animal protein. Every time that economic prosperity has increased, meat consumption has increased. It does not happen per accident. When money is tight, meat is often the first thing to decrease. To get back to the question, I believe that animal farming is alright, as long as it is respectful of the environment, of the animals, and also of the farmers. I believe that animal protein is a privilege what we must cherish, not a right that we should take for granted. Animal protein is not the sole source of protein and there are many delicious dishes to make with vegetal protein. Look at Indian cuisine! If the purpose of animal farming is to stuff oneself, then yes I am with those who have an issue that approach of farming and consumption.

Of course, most of the opposition to animal farming takes place in Western countries. It is kind of a First World problem. If certain animal farming systems are environmental time bombs, other systems are actually beneficiary. In many developing countries, having a few goats or cattle is actually essential for the economy and for the survival of farmers. Pastoral systems contribute to prosperity and social stability. Another important point is the biology of ruminants. Just as much as I was mentioning the biology of humans as the results of dozens of thousands years of evolution, the same is true for animals. Ruminants are amazing processors of cellulose. Humans can thrive on grass, because we are not equipped biologically to extract nutrients from it. Ruminants are experts at that. Since there is about twice as many hectares of grasslands as there is of arable land, grasslands represent a huge food potential and ruminants are superb transformers of cellulose in high-value foods for humans in the form of milk and meat. The key is that must be done sensibly and by taking future consequences into account. Many societies around the world know the value of farm animals. If ruminants are excellent transformers of cellulose, it is also important to mention that they have never evolved to be grain eaters, at least in large quantities. Sooner or later, this will become a much more vivid issue than it is now.

Suppliers of alternative protein bring a number of arguments why their products have the potential to replace “traditional” animal meat. The environment plays a central role, in particular the issue of greenhouse gasses. They also address the animal welfare as a driver for their products. The issue of slaughterhouse by-products is also a valid argument. Theoretically, texture proteins, lab meat, insects and vegetarian diets do address these concerns, indeed. So can alternative protein push animal farming out of business? The answer is complex and I will try to answer it as concisely as possible.

The animal protein market is huge and one cannot expect to replace it overnight. Since the demand for protein is going to increase further, alternative protein would probably happy to take only a chunk of the growth. They have to create their spot in an existing and very competitive market. Textured proteins have been around for decades and they have never represented a threat to traditional meat. That does not mean that it could not change of course. Lab meat is all new and there is at this stage no solid indication that they can even compete with traditional meat on world markets any time soon. They are still a long way of representing a force in the animal protein business. Time will tell. An important detail for both textured protein and lab meat is the number of factories, incubators and texturing lines that they need to build to replace animal farms. That will represent huge investments for which they will have to earn the money to carry out. Competing with traditional animal proteins means engage fully in a commodity markets where margins are often thin. They will compete with independent farmers who are often contracted by corporations and often hardly make minimum wage. These suppliers will have to fight against the huge animal protein corporations and deal with retailers and food service companies with strong bargaining power. Will they really want to take the road to commodity markets? I doubt it, or it will be a very long journey. When I hear or see their pricing objectives, nothing tells me that they are really willing to target the mass animal protein market. It looks more to me that they will try to work from a targeted marketing strategy and will work their way into niches for quite some time. Another hurdle is the consumer perception for their products. Vegetarian products already have exposure and are well-perceived. Lab meat may be a more difficult challenge. The mere fact that lab meat producers want to call it clean meat instead and are already facing opposition from meat producers who claim that lab meat is not real meat shows that they have not solved the perception challenge, yet. Even the term meat is not a given.

Where does that leave us for the future and the issue of animal farming greenhouse gas emissions? Considering the time that I believe it will take for alternatives, I do not see that they will play as big a role as they think and/or claim. I believe that reducing greenhouse gasses emissions will have to be enforced. Regulations on production systems will have to address this. This has to happen today already. There is no time to wait until these emerging industries will have developed critical mass. Also production volumes will have to be addressed. It is likely that if we want to be serious about curbing the environmental footprint of animal husbandry, they will not be many alternatives to capping production volumes. That will be a tough one as nobody will want to be at a disadvantage with their competitors. There will be the exact same discussions as there already are with climate change and those who refuse to participate. Neither governments nor corporations will take effective measures. The answer lies with consumers. They are the ones who have the power to reduce animal protein production and changing production systems. From an environment point of view, the only real option is a reduction of global consumption of animal protein. That is the easiest and fastest path to solve the problem, but I do not expect a massive shift from omnivore to vegetarian of such amplitude that anything significant will happen. Unfortunately and just like with anything else related to climate change and overconsumption, only a minority will really act voluntarily. On the consumer side, if prices remain too cheap to trigger a change in behavior and a reduction of consumption, then overconsumption will simply continue. What I wrote in my previous article will fully apply to the topic of animal protein and animal farming.

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

 


The Accordion, the Contrarian & the Robot

June 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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


Curiosity: it’s where the future starts

August 17, 2016

The challenges ahead are bigger than ever before, and be assured that they will bigger in the future. The good news is that progress and new developments in science and technology are bigger and faster than ever, too. From a technical point of view, I would dare to say that the solutions to the challenges already exist or are very close. Often, the problem is that these solutions are not immediately economically viable. In such a fast-changing world, curiosity is undoubtedly one of the most desirable qualities to adapt timely and find new ways of running the business.

Perhaps, it is because a lot of my work is about finding as much information and gathering as much knowledge as possible about all sorts of technologies, facts, systems, science and experiences that I find curiosity quite natural. Perhaps it is also because I have a curious nature. In my daily activities, I find that people are relatively not curious enough. I also can see that the ones who have that quality are always ahead of the pack. What is really amazing is how much is already out there. The trick is to find it and to know about it. Often, the information originates from very different business sectors or comes from other parts of the world or is available in a different language. I can see regularly a lot of organizations busy reinventing the wheel, going through the pain of setting up research and spending vast amounts of time, money and resources to find out results that are already available and that they could have taken over and adjusted to their particular situations. Curiosity can deliver huge savings.

Curiosity is quite time consuming. That is a fact and its main drawback. This may be the reason why it does not happen enough. The quest does not always deliver, although for those who have a proper strategy, the yield is quite good. Curiosity, for a business, cannot be a random activity. It has to be structured and carried out with discipline. There is quite a similarity between curiosity and access to food. There are those who know where to find the tasty mushrooms in the woods and those who get lost in the forest. It is the same thing when going out there to find knowledge. Some are talented and find it often and fast and others just wander endlessly without spotting anything significant. Just as it is important to know the right spots to find food when hunting and gathering, there are some places where the good knowledge is. As with food, it is important to know the supplier and know the origin of the knowledge. To pursue the comparison with mushrooms, some knowledge is good and some can be toxic. The supply chain is just as important, especially considering how fast and far social media can replicate and distribute information. When it comes to knowledge, the reliability, seriousness and quality of the sources is of utmost importance. A discerning knowledge consumer must be critical about what they find. A solid critical sense is of the utmost importance. Regardless of whether the knowledge is found through a hunting/gathering activity or comes from a knowledge farm, it is essential to double-check its validity. The packaging can be deceiving.

Next to focused curiosity activities, it is also important to encourage what I would call open curiosity, in which there is no particular objective but just letting new findings lead to new discoveries. There is no business discipline involved. It more often research you would do in your free time. One piece of information generates interest to know more and you just follow. It is similar to a child-like exploration in which each answer triggers the next “why?” question. It is pure learning. There is no way to tell when or even whether the new learned knowledge will be useful, but there is no such thing as too much knowledge. The trick is to be able to retrieve it when it is needed.

Another important aspect of curiosity is to link experience to knowledge. Usually, knowledge is the result of certain protocols. The knowledge itself takes its full dimension and value only through the use we make of it. Some people make good use and others do not. When gathering new knowledge, it is essential to also learn about the lessons from the experience of those who used it. Why did certain things work in certain conditions and others did not? Which factors influenced the outcome and how would different conditions or a different environment affect the outcome? Getting the big picture is a very important part of curiosity. Expanding the scope and seeing how the pieces of the puzzle come together are the foundation of future successful strategy and adaptation.

Curiosity is a great asset when it comes to face and prepare the future. It is not the whole story, though. Food and agriculture are not intellectual exercises. They must deliver concrete products and results. It is nice to be curious but what do you do with that? The answer to this question is quite simple: action.

According to the saying, knowledge is power. Knowledge is true power only when it is active and circulates. Knowledge that remains in a brain or in a drawer is not very useful for the greater good. The first step that I advise curious people to do is to share what they learn. It is even easier today with the Internet, and there is a lot of knowledge out there. By sharing, I do not mean simply copy and paste or click the share button. Before sharing, it is essential to make sure that what you share is quality. There is too much information that is spread on social media while clearly not critically reviewed, not to say not even read, as it is quite often the case. The mindset here is a mix of enthusiasm, critical thinking and practical service orientation. The knowledge must be correct and the message must come over. It also must be useful to the recipients. It must connect to their needs and add value to them. The final result has to be better food through more efficient and sustainable systems that are financially viable. In the food and agriculture sector, it must lead to always more collaboration and knowledge transfer in all directions within the entire value chain. Often, the weakness of communication is that it stays too long in the same circle and other links, consumers in particular, are kept too long out of the loop. It results too often in misunderstanding, distrust and erroneous perception.

Through collaboration and brainstorming, curiosity helps create a more accurate and achievable vision of the future, on which action can further be carried out to shape the future. From this angle, it makes no doubt that collaboration between all stakeholders is an ongoing process. This is especially true with technology. There are new developments all the time and it certainly takes a curious mind to be able to keep up with novelties. It actually takes many curious minds, considering how huge the quantity of knowledge and information is. It also takes minds that can connect all the dots, and also connect with each other. Although time consuming, the back and forth collaboration, together with ongoing feedback about performance and new demands, allows all links of the chain to know better what the objectives are and how to foster ongoing improvement. As many new technological developments come from outside the food and agriculture sectors, I believe it is critical that the food producers be proactive in the development of technologies and applications, but stating clearly what they expect from technology suppliers and tell them what they expect from them. It is never too early to let them know what your problems, limitations and/or objectives are, so that they can work on it as soon as possible. Being proactive will help speed up the development of the right products, systems and applications.

In this process, leadership is of the essence. Leadership is essential to create the right dynamics to make knowledge transfer happen, fast and well. The role of leaders here is to make knowledge transfer attractive and stimulating for others, so that more stakeholders participate in the development of innovation. The more pressure they will be on suppliers to bring better solutions to the food sector, the higher the chances it happens, indeed. Leaders must also foster connections and networking across the disciplines, even or actually especially with partners outside of the food and agriculture sector. A vision that includes the bigger picture will have more chances of stimulating the cross-discipline and cross-sector collaboration. At the same time, it is crucial to stay practical. The goal is to produce food, and that must be in the minds of all participants.

Curiosity is really the starting point. It feeds an entire chain of ideas and decisions that are the basis for improvement. There is no doubt that fortune favors the bold. In the never-ending quest towards better foods and better agricultural practices, such a process becomes an illustration of “the best way to predict the future is to create it”. This saying may have not been so true as today. Progress and food security depend on it.

 

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


Future implications and consequences of the ChemChina-Syngenta deal

February 16, 2016

The purchase of Syngenta by ChemChina did not go unnoticed. Many commentators are trying to see all sorts of reasons and all sorts of consequences, mostly depending on whether there are pro or anti GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms). When it comes to China, the best approach in my opinion is to look at it in a very pragmatic manner, simply because the Chinese have been quite pragmatic over the years. Their approach of food and agriculture is the same as for all other economic activity. It is dictated by the need for the government to ensure social stability or at least prevent social unrest. They will do what is good for China, meaning what is good for the Chinese government. It is not aimed at pleasing any other country or the financial markets. They still follow the principle express by Deng Xiao Ping: “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”.

In both Future Harvests and We Will Reap What We Sow, I was announcing such a move, simply because it makes sense when looking at the economic and demographic changes the world is going through. The purchase of Syngenta is a very good move for China because it kills several birds with the same stone.

The Chinese seed sector was –and still is- fragmented and far from effective. By bringing a heavy weight company like Syngenta in their market, they will establish a much stronger seeds and genetic business to meet the challenges of the future. Syngenta brings expertise that will help China speed up the learning curve and create a critical mass of production that will be able to meet some serious volumes. It will stimulate further consolidation in China and also stimulate innovation and progress for other Chinese seed producers, if they want to stay in business. I read many derogatory comments about China’s quality approach. It is amazing how many people are stuck in clichés from the past. China is improving in many areas and quality is one of them. There is a generation of entrepreneurs who are quite bright and competent leading businesses. It is quite clear to me that Syngenta is and will be a quality player in the future, under Chinese leadership. Those who think this deal is bad news for Syngenta’s employees will be disappointed. I believe the contrary. They will get many more challenges to tackle and their jobs will be more focused than they were before or would have been if it had been bought by a North American company.

The purchase of Syngenta sends a clear message that China wants to be in control of its seeds. By buying such production assets, China will not have to go on the market, or at least will be much less dependent, to buy seeds from outside. It will strengthen China’s bargaining position towards other seed suppliers. Thus, China will be in charge of strategic choices that are good for China’s agriculture instead of having to choose from suppliers who do not have China’s long-term food security at heart or who would try to impose their conditions to China.

Regarding the topic of GMO, the purchase of Syngenta certainly offers China access to the technology, but it is not the main reason for the purchase. What it does though, is to offer China the option of using genetic engineering technology if they consider it useful. If they choose to do so, they will approach the use of the technology as a resource that supports their food security goals only and they will develop the products they actually need, not the products other suppliers would want to sell them. Whether China will use GMO is up to China and nobody else. Trying to see the Syngenta purchase as a sign of China’s attitude towards GMO is in my opinion wishful thinking more than anything else. When it comes to seeds, they will not look at the cat’s color. They will focus on having one that catches mice.

Further towards the future, the Syngenta purchase will have other long-term effects, and outside of China, too. China will be a significant seed producer and supplier. With an organization like Syngenta, there is no reason why they should limit business to China. I expect to see China playing a much more important role in the seed market outside of its borders. In particular, I expect to see China eye the huge African seed market. China has been active for decades in Africa and contributes to many economic development projects. China does not interfere with African politics but focuses on how it can help Africa developing and playing a future role for China. Considering the potential of African agriculture and its significance for China’s future food security, the new Syngenta should be instrumental for future progress of agriculture in Africa. A side effect of such a strategy would reshuffle the cards of the world seed market and bring a new and different equilibrium. There is quite a bit of activity on the mergers’ side. Syngenta had been the object of interest from other potential buyers, especially Monsanto. DuPont and Dow already brought their agriculture activities’ together. BASF seems to be looking at reshaping its activities. Further consolidation and mergers will take place in the coming months and years. What will be the next big merger? I can think of two possible ones: BASF and Bayer or BASF and Monsanto. I also see the possibility of Monsanto not being considered a purchase candidate at all by anyone.

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


Nature will reshape food value chains

October 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Beyond just technology… the human factor

August 6, 2015

Early July the SeaFest 2015 event was held in Ringaskiddy, Co. Cork, Ireland. The Our Ocean Wealth conference was aimed at showing the potential of the sea as part of a successful economic development for Ireland. I had been invited by BIM (Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Irish Seafood Development Agency) as a speaker and my presentation was about future technologies and how they will change seafood production, both in fisheries and aquaculture. One of my previous articles, “Robots, sensors, drones and big data are coming to the sea, too” had caught some attention.

From left to right: Joe Gill (Goodbody Stockbrokers), Susan Steele (SFPA), Kieran Calnan (BIM), Donal Maguire (BIM), Helen Brophy (UCD Smurfit Business School), Eddie Power (Green Isle Foods), Øyvind Oaland (Marine Harvest) and Yours Truly

From left to right:
Peter Marshall (RS Standards), Joe Gill (Goodbody Stockbrokers), Susan Steele (SFPA), Kieran Calnan (BIM), Donal Maguire (BIM), Helen Brophy (UCD Smurfit Business School), Eddie Power (Green Isle Foods), Øyvind Oaland (Marine Harvest) and Yours Truly (Photo: BIM)

The agricultural sector is currently implementing many new technologies at an amazing pace. The comparison with precision agriculture is quite useful for the seafood sector. The development of robotics, sensors, satellite imaging and analysis, unmanned vehicles such as drones and driverless tractors, data software, artificial intelligence and interconnected devices are already revolutionizing many sectors of food production and it is just the beginning. The picture of the future that I have in mind is amazing and the possibilities seem almost endless. Imagine if fishing vessels do not need operators anymore. Would they need to float or should they operate as submarines? What would the effect it be on their size, their shape and the way they fish? Imagine robots equipped with sensors replacing divers on fish farms, executing the current tasks and at the same time being able to inform about water quality and other production conditions, presence of contaminants or diseases. Imagine fish farms being connected to such robots and to global satellite and data collection systems making them move or change configuration to get to better production conditions or to avoid negative interaction with wild marine life, thus constantly optimizing production performance and reducing –maybe eliminating- long-lasting environmental impact. Carrying out an “Imagine Exercise” is not only useful but it is fun.

While the previous generation of automation was about adding muscle to operators, the new technologies are adding extensions to the operator’s senses and creating a nervous system. The muscle era was about strong, big and fast, but it required an operator. The nervous system era is about smart, adaptable, much faster, and decision and action will be taken without human intervention.

By combining the possibility to monitor production parameters with the ability to detecting faster than ever before the environmental impact of production activities, new technologies will play a prominent role in helping food production become more efficient and more sustainable. They will help reduce the use of resources and save money. The interconnection of databases for both production and environmental monitoring will allow many possibilities for forecasts, simulations and comparison of scenarios. They will be outstanding tools for decision making and policy making. New technologies are going to offer a platform for collaboration between all stakeholders, be it businesses, governments and NGOs. Similarly, as the data will be made available, all the links of food value chains will be able to access and exchange information like never before. The potential to reconnect consumers and producers is amazing. Transparency and interaction are the way of the future and the tools that are coming will make it so easy. The global village is going to be exactly that. Virtually, everybody will have the possibility to know about everything they need to know about everybody else. Just like in old-fashioned villages, keeping secrets will be quite difficult and social control will prevail. Just see the reactions to inappropriate statements on social media to realize that this trend is already on. Communication and behavior of food producers will have to adapt to this new form of relationship, because there always will someone watching and telling.

Adjusting to a new technological world is a necessity. Food producers need to approach the future with the right mind. After all, technology is only as useful and effective as those who use it. I like to illustrate that statement with the example of gun powder. When the Chinese invented it, they used it for fireworks and entertainment. When the Europeans discovered it, they decided for quite a different use: weapons and killing people. Current technologies and future ones will also depend on who will use it and how. In my work, I always wish to make my clients realize the importance of the human factor on the future outcome of technologies and innovation. The outcome will depend on the intentions behind the development and the use of technology, but even if the intentions are pure, the outcome will depend on the skill of the users. Continuous training is essential to get the most out of technology. As I wrote in my first book, Future Harvests, there are several recurrent drivers of innovation:

  • Reducing physical labor.
  • Helping us live better and longer.
  • Increasing efficiency.
  • Helping communication.
  • Increasing mobility.
  • Offering more leisure and entertainment.
  • Making some people a little wealthier.

However, these drivers are not sufficient by themselves. An essential part of successful innovation lies in its practical use. I always insist in my presentations on practicality of technology. Innovation is not an intellectual exercise. When it comes to business, innovation must actually fulfil one or more of the drivers mentioned above and it must also be financially viable and advantageous. In other words, to be adopted, innovation and technology must add value. Although they may be fun, cute and exciting, gadgets do not really belong in that category.

For the future, we need to look beyond just technology. Giving the proper importance to the human factor and focusing on the practical side of new developments are two essential aspects of success. This is why the second book I published, We Will Reap What We Sow, is subtitled “Reflections on Human Nature and Leadership and Feeding a Growing Population”. Getting people to do the right things right through clear vision and solid leadership is what will eventually make the difference between prosperity and trouble. A number of qualities will help a long way towards a successful future.

Curiosity will be an invaluable quality. Innovation is taking place is all areas and many innovations can offer useful applications. It is necessary to follow what is happening elsewhere. In the past, innovations came from the own sector. It is no longer the case. Now it happens in start-ups that have nothing to do with food. The potential lies in creating applications for a particular purpose. There is much to learn from other food sectors, but also from the military, the medical sector, the tech sector, and not just in Silicon Valley. Another essential quality will be pragmatism and openness. Disruptive technologies will bring disruptive solutions. Tomorrow’s way will be different, technologically and philosophically. It will be useful to regularly brainstorm and review how things should be if they were to be set up from scratch all over again, by using all the latest knowledge and also from the experience, successes and mistakes from the past. To tackle the challenges of the future effectively with new technologies, it will be crucial to be practical. Applications must serve a purpose and deliver the solutions to the problems we face. It is not an intellectual exercise. A spirit of collaboration will be one of the keys for future success. Nobody can solve future problems alone. Wanting to help others succeed and not being shy to ask for solutions to succeed will get us a long way. Even though we seem to live in a world where pointing fingers, blaming and punishing is the preferred choice to deal with problems, it is necessary to approach the future with a 180 degree angle and reward and praise those who do things right and solve problems.

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