How can insects be a part of future food security?

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.

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

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.

Copyright 2014 – the Happy Future Group Ltd.

Precision is the future of agriculture and our future

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.

Why now may be the best time to work on the future of food and farming

Now is the right time to look forwardAlthough agricultural commodities markets have recently calmed down, the past few years have been turbulent. The result has been an increased attention for the world’s food supply and demand. Even in food secure regions, it is quite important to not take food security for granted, as it is always a work in progress. In this regard, the stress on agricultural markets and the recent price hikes have been a good thing. They have forced many to take a closer look at the situation and to start reflecting about the things to come. I have been among the ones who started earlier than most others, for two reasons. Firstly, it was obvious that meeting the demand of a strongly growing population would bring some challenges. There was no need for a crisis to figure that out. Secondly, I did not find analyses that connected the dots beyond the particular interests, the particular regions or the particular business areas of those who produced research and documents about the subject. This is why I have developed my foresight activities for food and agriculture and published the two books. The first, Future Harvests, answers the question of whether we can feed the future population and the second, We Will Reap What We Sow, reflects on how our future behavior towards consumption, together with the quality of our leadership, will decide whether the future will be prosper or gloomy. Those of you who read them know what the answers are and why.

Although the period of tensed markets helped bring valuable attention to the food issue, it has produced more quantity than quality about what should be next. Between those who announced the end of days and those who see it only as an opportunity to use fear to stop others from thinking, there has been little structural long-term thinking. Both groups play on short-term fear to push agendas that serve mostly only themselves. The future cannot be selfish; it will be about helping others succeed. Profit is only a by-product of sound decisions. Those who will foresee the actual needs of the future will make lots of it in the long term. The others, although they might score in the short term, will not win the race. In food and agriculture, foreseeing the future and defining winning strategies are complex activities. I say complex, but I do not say complicated. Ironically, the more thorough the analysis, the less complicated it comes out. When done well and communicated properly, there is no reason why others would not be willing to build a successful future. The complexity comes from the many levels involved in food security. The interactions between natural conditions with the political, economic and cultural environments, together with the many – and often divergent – interests of the players of food value chains are difficult to reconcile. But this is not all. The fact that food production systems and consumption behavior are also influenced by many other sectors competing with agriculture for resources adds to the complexity. The issue is not just about production techniques, new technologies or functioning of markets. Other societal issues play a role, too. The quality of a society and as a result of the people of which it consists will play a role. Health, education and on-going training are very important components of how we will manage the future. Each of the “blocks” I just presented are complex in themselves, simply because they deal with life and keeping the dynamics of life running harmoniously is no easy task. On top of that, the fact that these different blocks, depending on how they individually function, interact with each other and affect the performance of the others, it is clear that we need to look at the issue of feeding the world in a comprehensive manner. We need to identify and integrate all these elements in the analysis to determine the proper action to take. It would be quite convenient if future actions depended only of what directly affect a particular sector. Unfortunately, limiting the thinking to one degree of separation is not enough, by far.

In my years of the Food Futurist, I have had the opportunity to notice that the multidimensional nature of the issue is the one that seems the most difficult for most organizations to fathom. There is no shortage of reports or publications about the future of this or that. However, although they clearly are of excellent quality and the result of hard work, many of them miss the dot connecting part. They focus on the area of interest but tend to neglect the bigger picture. It is only natural that organizations look at the future from the angle of how it will affect them. Yet, nobody should investigate the future from a self-centered kind of production-driven manner. This tends to produce a self-serving strategy that will not prepare those organizations to deal with what will come from the higher degrees of separation. The here and now is nice, but to thrive, they must focus at least as much on the elsewhere and later. I must say that I also have dealt with organizations that do have this comprehensive approach. I found that they had several qualities in common with each other (and with me to some extent): serenity, a rather positive and optimistic outlook on the future, and the quiet confidence that we can overcome the challenges.

Yet, even these “better” organizations still need to go further than they have in preparing the future. Their comprehensive understanding on all the factors that will influence the future needs to go to the next level. All organizations, those with the comprehensive outlook on the future as well as those who carried out the exercise in a less deep manner must translate their understanding of the future in specific strategies and effective execution. In many cases, this is still missing. Organizations must let go of the past by not assuming that past, present and future are linked in a linear manner. That way of thinking is still dominant and, considering the magnitude and the nature of the changes to come, it will not be the best approach to be successful in the future. Another important aspect to take in consideration is to clearly identify in advance what the effect of their actions will be on the rest of us. The latter will be a prerequisite for a prosperous future. It is amazing to see that most plans have no plan B. Without a plan B, a plan is pretty much not a plan. There cannot be only one strategy. There has to be an arsenal of options. What must stand fast, though, is the final outcome. Building a strong future is also about being prepared for the unexpected and to adapt accordingly to succeed. Such an approach would also show that their future actions are taken in with responsibility in mind.

The current times of agricultural markets calming down and readjusting to more reasonable and realistic prices are, more than any other, ideal to focus on how to proceed to build the future of food and farming. As grain prices have slowed down and the animal protein sector is improving financial results, everybody is in a more serene mode. The white noise from the media and the fear mongers has faded for now. Everyone can hear him/herself think again. That is quite a good thing. However, this is no time to lay back or become complacent. Such a serene environment will not last. The population keeps on increasing. Meat and poultry producers will resume production increase as demand for their products is among the fastest growing of all foods. With grain and oilseeds prices less attractive, the incentive to push for more production will also slow down. It will not take a genius to figure out that demand for animal feed will grow faster than production of feed ingredients once again. Lately, Asians have also hoarded agricultural commodities to have stocks at hand, but as availability of commodities increases, they will get more relaxed about it. For all these reasons, agricultural prices are going to go up again, hurting animal protein producers again and sending agricultural markets up as investors and speculators will see their chance for quick money. Let’s also be sure that there will be some climatic event somewhere sometime that will also join the party to add on the stress. When the different parts of the food value chain do not plan ahead globally to ensure a balance between supply and demand, such cycles persist and crises come back. It probably will be a couple of years (my guess is three to five) before we face a similar crisis again. This is why the time to act is now by developing solid plans, engaging in the right partnerships and collaborate closely and intensely to work on the future of food and farming. I mentioned earlier that analyzing what will happen in the future and to prepare for it is complex, the exercise is actually easier than it sounds. It is only a Herculean task for those who want to solve all the world’s problems on their own. One simple trick is to see the big picture but to define what the realistic contribution of the organization to the whole problem actually can be. Another one is to ask for help and support, and thus engage others on the right path. The contribution can be products, services or collaboration. Nobody will fix the situation alone, and nobody should think in such terms. The essence is to act and make others act in the right direction. Communication towards others is quite important as it helps other organizations to determine their respective objectives. In this regard, conferences and events about the theme of the future of food and farming are quite useful. I have participated to quite a few already. Sometimes, I wish they were more focused on what it means for the partners and the audience than what it means for those organizing such events, though. It is clear that many of such events have a marketing and/or image purpose, but that too can only be a by-product. The most important is the added value to the attendants and what they can use practically in their own operations from what they heard at the events. At least, that is my philosophy and how I approach such speaking engagements. Too often, participants present their offering, such as new products for instance, but so far I have not heard anyone ask what I think is the most important question and the key to success: What do you need from me or from other partners to succeed? There are too many conferences about the future of agriculture that do not even include a farmer among the speakers! The customers are the ones who know best what they need from others to do a better job in the future. Let them speak out!

As far as I am concerned, I have now started to work on my third book, the topic of which will be about strategic foresight for food and farming. It will be about anticipating the changes that will come as well as the changes that must take place with the main purpose of presenting adequate strategies to adapt and to prosper. It will review the future evolution of the different productions, the different links of the entire food value chain from DNA to consumer. It will present strategies for and between stakeholders in the different regions of the world, as they face different challenges and conditions, with the objective of showing how it can work for all. I believe it will be a welcome follow-up to the previous two ones, which had already paved the way to show options a building a prosperous and viable future for all, here and now as well as elsewhere and later.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Adapting our thinking to the future – part 2

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.

Just for fun, a bit of science fiction

One of the issues that I regularly raise during my presentations is the one of the farmers of the future. As about everywhere in the world, the average age of farmers is increasing, this brings the question of who will take over and what effect it will have on the future of agriculture and future production systems.

One topic that generates interest from audiences is the possibility of having farming robots. Surprisingly, the same intrigued enthusiasm comes from audiences that have a bias against industrial large-scale agriculture. Yet, the prospect of robots roaming the fields does not seem to be a cause for concern.

Because of the lack of interest by the youth to take over farms, the Japanese are actively working on setting up farms that could be run by robots, instead of humans. In many other countries the aging farming population with the limited interest from younger people to become farmers, also linked to the rising price of agricultural land, raises the question of how big farms might become, and how to manage them.

Currently, the many developments in the field of robotics, of satellite applications, of field sensors and of computer programs make a futuristic picture of farming become more realistic.

With the expected rise of the cost of energy and of the price of all compounds made with massive use of fossil fuels, precision agriculture is the future. The name of the game will be zero-waste. Future economics will not allow for wasting energy, water or fertilizers or any other input. It will be imperative to get the most out of the least, not just simply producing more with less.

The use of satellites to map fields and indicate the variation of the content of fertilizing elements in the soil is already a reality. The use of GPS for harvest is now common with modern equipment. We are really only one step away from having computers processing all this data and operating fertilizer spreaders by automatically regulating the distribution of fertilizer on the field, based on the soil scan assessment. This will avoid overuse of fertilizer in zones that already contain enough nutrients. With the expected exhaustion of phosphate mines, and the large variation of phosphate contents in soil, it will pay off.

We are also only one step away from having tractors, harvesters and other agricultural equipment doing the fieldwork without drivers. A company in Iowa is already developing such a technology by linking the position of a tractor to the harvester via GPS. Such an approach makes the use of human operators less of a need than it used to be. This would allow farmers to manage much larger areas from one remote location. Their role would become more one of process controller, monitoring and steering the fieldwork by ways of cameras and remote control. This also would require less physical work, thus allowing aging farmers to manage at least as much production as they would have at a younger age. This would become even more of a possibility, as farming robots would be developed to replace humans for the physically more demanding activities.

Developments in the area of sensors also offer many possibilities in terms of farm and risk management. The ability of monitoring variations of temperature, humidity, plant growth, the presence of diseases, fungi and other pests in real-time would help make use of resources much more efficiently. Current developments of biosensors used in food packaging are amazing. Some of such sensors have the ability to turn fluorescent in presence of food pathogens. They can help prevent risks of food poising. Sensors help to detect undesirable “visitors”. Sensors also would help farmers detect potential threats at an earlier stage, even before they actually become visible by the human eye. This would allow starting treatment before problems could take proportions that would threaten production. This has the potential to help farmers produce more optimally, and to produce higher yields than they would otherwise. Linking such sensors to devices that can release the necessary amounts of water, nutrients, pesticides and possibly herbicides would help produce quite efficiently, and would reduce the use of inputs. This would help reduce waste, work towards more sustainable farming methods and reduce the use of chemicals, as they would be used only at the right time, at the right place and in the right quantities, instead of being applied systematically to the whole fields, including areas where they are not needed. The use of airplanes to spread chemicals could be eliminated, which would also reduce the use of fossil fuels. Instead of airplanes, it is possible to envision the use of drones that would have a “patrolling” function to detect anomalies or the extension of pests in the fields. By bringing the huge amount of data that these robots, sensors and drones would produce, fields would be monitored on a 24/7 basis and decision-making would be faster than today. Corrective action could be implemented automatically just as well.

By adding more monitoring functions and developing ecological modeling, this futuristic approach would be a way of managing the interaction between the crop itself, which is the purpose of food production, and the need to manage the ecosystem surrounding the fields, to ensure that production is carried out in an environmentally sustainable manner. Monitoring living organisms in and outside the fields would help optimizing production. The farmer would know the status of soil organisms, mostly worms, insects and microorganisms. He would be able to deal with pests in a targeted manner, almost in a similar way as the images of surgical strikes that we can see in the news. Mapping the extent of weeds through such devices would also allow their control in a targeted manner and with minimal use of potentially harmful compounds. The emphasis would be about control and management, not on killing out everything that seems a threat.

Further, monitoring fields as described above would support the environmental steward’s role of farmers, while making it easier to execute as well. Farmers would be informed timely about production effects on groundwater quality and possible residues in the soil and the crops.

Of course, all of the above sounds like a bit of science fiction, but considering the amazing innovations taking place in the all the areas mentioned, together with the constant miniaturization of devices and the increased processing abilities of computers, it might not be as far-fetched as it may sound today. Although many of these developments are not taking place in the agriculture sector as such, they are real and happening faster than one could imagine. Farming in 50 years from now will probably look different from it does today.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The math and the myth

No, this is not one of those “are in a boat” riddles. Those who have read my articles or my book know that I like to bring some perspective by crunching numbers and double checking statements that seem beyond any discussion.

During National Agriculture Week held last week in the US, one of such statements popped up in most of the social media dedicated to agriculture: In 2010, one US farmer provided on average for the needs of 155 people, while in 1960 this number was only 26!

Of course, if you follow social media, you know that, immediately, the partisans, mostly in the Midwest, spread the good news as fast and as much as they could. To them, this number of 155 is the best proof that large-scale industrial technology and mechanization driven agriculture is the best there is, and US farmers are the best in the world! So that the world knows it this time!

That is clear. Or is it really? Then let’s look at the numbers a little closer and do some math.

Knowing that China became the first export destination of US agricultural goods since only last month, finally passing Canada and its gigantic 35-million population, I had some doubts.

First, one statistic that is not mentioned in the 155 per farmer is the total number of farms. This number dropped from 4 million in 1960 to 2.2 million in the latest (of 2007) census mentioned on the USDA website. Going from 26 to 155 would have been very impressive if the number of farmers had been stable, but this is not the case.

In 1960, 4 mio x 26 = 104 million people fed.

In 2010, and by keeping the number of 2.2 million farms, the calculation is 2.2 mio x 155 = 341 million people fed.

Instead of increasing 6-fold (155/26) as the fans try to make believe, the actual improvement of US agricultural production has increased only 3.3 times. Over a period of 50 years, this represents an average year-on-year increase of people fed by US agriculture of only 2.4%. It is higher than the average year-on-year increase of the world population over the same period, but it is not stellar, either. As an indication for comparison, the world’s food production has increased by 3% year-on-year over the same period.

This becomes interesting when comparing with other parts of the world. I choose India, because, it is often presented, especially in the Anglo-Saxon press, as a country that does not tackle agriculture properly. According to those articles, India should be a lot more like the US, going big and industrial, instead of keeping their large rural population.

India has 1.2 billion inhabitants, and statistics indicate that 200 million people are malnourished. This implies that 1 billion people are fed reasonably. Now, let’s compare another number that rarely appears in analyses. The population density of India is 10 times higher than the American population density. This means that if the US had the same population density as India, there would be 3 billion Americans, and only 341 million of them would have food. In such conditions, they would not eat much meat, they would not suffer from obesity and they certainly would think twice before growing food to feed their cars. If India had the population density of the US, there would be only 120 million Indians. India would probably be the largest food exporter in the world.

Maybe this comparison is not the best to make. After all, the Indian diet is rather different from the American one, and India still needs imports to feed its people. Let’s try something that is closer to America in terms of eating situation: the EU.

There rarely passes a day by without some article from a US industrial agriculture supporter that criticizes Europeans to resist the American model, especially GMO crops. According to the biased pundits, Europe is losing ground because of this shortsighted stubbornness. There again, some math can help. Once again, the population density will provide us with insight. If the US had the population density of the EU, there would be 1.1 billion Americans. Once again, that is much higher than the 341 million that US farmers can feed. As far as the EU is concerned, the region is self-sufficient, and in most European countries, the yearly per capita consumption of meat is close to 100 kg. There is no food security problem in the EU. In this case, we are not comparing meat eaters and vegetarians. Just as it looked that India was doing not such a bad job at feeding its people, the EU actually delivers a nice and enviable performance.

The math shows us that the number of people fed by one farmer is not a good indicator of the actual performance of the national agriculture. I would compare it with bragging about the number of horsepower in one’s car engine without looking at how far that car can take you. Gas mileage is more important. In the case of the US, the 155 only indicates that there are very few farmers, and that they have to manage very large farms. It is not an indicator of yields. Bigger, more intensive or more technology do not necessarily mean more efficient. It has to be the right size, the optimal level of intensification and the proper use of the right type of technology.

A much more relevant number is the number of people that one hectare (or one acre) of land can feed. With this indicator, the performance of the US is average. The key is the yield. In the case of wheat, which is grown in most regions, the yield in the EU varies between 6 and 9 tons per hectare, depending on the country. In the US, the yield is of only 3 tons/hectare, which also happens to be the world average.

What the math really shows is that the world is very diverse. It is diverse from demographic, economic, sociocultural, climatic, agricultural points of view. Agriculture is not mechanics. It must consider all these parameters and be adapted to the specific environment to meet food demand optimally. There is no universal model, and there does not need to be any. We simply must focus on producing high yields in a sustainable manner, meaning that this performance can be repeated indefinitely for the generations to come. To grow food, we need good seeds, fertile soil , proper financial resources and skilled farmers!

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Investing in agriculture requires thorough research

Since the price hike of food and other commodities in 2008, agriculture is one of the hot topics in the investment community. This is also fuelled by the perception that the world might face a food crisis. For those looking at investing in the food sector, there are many possibilities, but in this sector as in many other investment types, caution is required. The investment community is a pool of sharks, and the name of the game is to sell at a profit. Beware of the salesperson!

According to Jim Rogers, a famous investor and former partner of George Soros, farmers will be the ones driving Maseratis in the future. He believes firmly that, in the future, those who actually produce the commodities, instead of brokers, will make fortunes. It is a very interesting point of view, although history tends to show that the power in food value chains is in both ends of the chain: genetics and marketing to consumers. Becoming a farmer is not an investment. It is a job, and a busy one. Farmers need to generate cash on a regular basis to provide for their families and keep the farm in business. Land is not liquid. Investing is about reaping the profit when selling at a higher valuation.

For those interested in owning farmland, there are possibilities to buy large acreage in many countries. A recent article published in CNBC presents some strategies.  Large private investors seem interested in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Canada. Prices of farmland have been firming up in the US. There are people advertising for Brazilian farmland who promise you a yearly guaranteed (not clear how, though) of 12%. In the former communist Eastern European countries, many farms are for sale. Net importing countries such as China, India and Arab countries choose to invest and develop farmland in Africa. For investors with a strong stomach, Africa may be a place of choice. The continent is pretty much for sale. However, the ownership of the land is not always very clear and the rules of engagements may vary. If you only wish to lease land, you might be interested in Ethiopia: the country is offering 100-year leases for $1 per acre. Although some offers may seem irresistible, buying farmland or a farm is a complex endeavour. Many factors weigh and things may not be as they seem. What is the quality of the soils? How is the climate, and in particular are there risks of floods or drought?  Is there proper access to water? What are the local regulations in the country where you are thinking of buying? How much bureaucracy should you expect? Who are the suppliers, and how they deal with their customers? Is there access to quality supplies? What are the banking facilities and what type of credit can you get? How are the infrastructures for storage and logistics? What access to markets do farmers have, and how is the marketing chain organized? Today’s situation may not be a good predictor of the future, and problems may loom ahead, as Jason Henderson, vice president and Omaha Branch executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City told in an interview to Agri-pulse.

If farming or owning farmland is not your thing, there is always the possibility to invest in commodities with futures contracts. Instead of buying the hard commodity, which would take quite some space in your garage, you just do the same but on paper only. This is a risky business though and it should be left to the pros. Originally, futures had been introduced to give farmers the possibility to fix in advance the selling price for their crops, instead of waiting for the spot market at harvest time. Futures contracts have been taken over by the Wall Street geniuses who brought us the Great Recession. Also realize that nowadays the future contracts prices reflect the supply and demand situation of paper contracts, not of the actual physical market. The result is that futures markets are all about speculation and most transactions are made with borrowed money. Speculation may be about the weather, planted acreage, expected yields or plant diseases. Any news is cause for rumours and markets may change direction without warning. If agricultural commodities interest you, you may prefer to invest in funds that include these commodities, and therefore offer a lower risk. Another possibility to get money at work in the agriculture and food sectors is by buying shares of companies involved in agricultural value chains. For instance, when commodity prices increase strongly, the logical (?) thinking of stock investors is that the next food crisis is ahead and that the world is about to run short of food, which will stimulate farmers to plant more and therefore require more inputs. Especially shares of fertilizer suppliers always shoot up in such situations, all the more so as there are just a few of them. This gives them a strong bargaining position, and they pass on sharp price increases to the farmers… which is why the margins of farmers usually suffer after a year of high commodity prices. In the agricultural sector, it is important to remember what I said about which links in the chain have the strongest position, as this will affect their bargaining position and their ability to get, or to keep, the added value. Weak links will always underperform, while the stronger ones will outperform compared with the average of the sector, that is for as long as these companies are managed properly. Investing in stocks always require a thorough financial analysis, as well as a good understanding of the quality of the management. How does the future look like for a particular company? Does it have a sustainable competitive advantage? How does the future look like for the sector of activity of this company? What is the track record of performance? Does it depend on world market prices or is it more predictable than that? How is the valuation of the company?

Another type of investment that is gathering momentum in the agri-food business is new technologies start-ups. With worries about the future of oil, and especially oil prices, and the challenge of providing enough water to produce crops, many new technologies try to find their way to market. The sector of new technologies attracts many investors, probably because it seems reminiscent of what happened in the tech sector, therefore giving hopes of high return. I come across such ventures regularly, and every time I hear enthusiastic stories from the owner or from the venture capitalists involved. In many cases, the story is about how this new technology is going to revolutionize the way food is produced, or even it will be the solution to hunger. Returns on investments always sound amazing, making one wonder why this has not been on the market for some time already. For such projects, too, it is essential to do the proper research on the claims that the owners and financiers are making. In many cases, I find difficult to get the proper background to support the financial results that they claim. In even more cases, I do not see any real thorough market research, and instead of explaining in which niche they will operate, the market story is about macroeconomics. The macroeconomics may be true, but except for the unlikely event that the particular technology would indeed take over the world within a few years, they are not a relevant description of the actual market possibilities within the foreseeable future. Of course, there are also projects that have strong cases, but they are a minority.

In all cases, a number of simple rules can save you from a very painful experience.

  • Do not invest in something you do not understand.
  • Do not mind hypes and tips.
  • Take all the necessary time to do your research, and do it thoroughly.
  • When in doubt, do not invest.
  • Ask as many questions as possible. When investing, information is power, and lack of information is weakness.
  • Ask independent third parties, and never ask advice from someone who has a vested interest in your transaction.
  • Buy low, sell high.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is exactly that.
  • Investing is not mandatory, and if you miss an opportunity, there will be other bargains later again.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Future evolution of genetic engineering

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are one the most, if not the most, controversial aspects of modern food and agriculture. So far, the focus had been on offering farmers alternatives to pesticides and herbicides. The proponents of GMOs praise the progress made and they claim that agriculture production benefits from this. Opponents warn about all sorts of potential disasters in health and environment. The reality is that GMOs have been around for about a decade and a half, and they are here to stay. There is currently no sign that they would be banned from the Earth, especially since genetic engineered traits have been found outside of farm fields, as I had mentioned in a previous article.

At his juncture, and to think of how this technology –and business- will evolve, it is worth asking a few questions.

Has the use of GMOs been successful for agriculture and food production?

There are several levels in this question, actually. From the yield point of view, it is rather difficult to answer objectively, as there is little possibility to compare the respective performance GMOs and non-GMOs. From what I gather, it would appear that the Bt cotton may have delivered better results. For corn, the picture is much less clear. Actually, some varieties have proven to have rather disappointing performance. For instance, the genetically engineered corn from Monsanto failed to produce in South Africa, and recently their SmartStax variety (developed together with Dow) has had lower results than expected. This forced the company to drop the selling price per unit from US$24 down to US$8! The stock market did not appreciate. Clearly, GMO producers can make mistakes, and this is not particularly reassuring.

However, GMOS have delivered some benefits, too. In Argentina, the use of glyphosate-resistant soybean has allowed the production of soybeans to recover strongly from the brink of disaster. After many years of intensive monoculture of soybeans, the soil had been damaged to a nearly point of no-return, With the use of glyphosate-resistant plants, combined with no-tillage technique, farmers have been able to rebuild the level of organic matter in their soils. The result has been a huge increase of production, as farming conditions have been restored.

Opposite to this success story, a study from China concluded that the use of Bt cotton changed the ecosystem in such a way that pests that are naturally not sensitive to the Bt toxin thrived in cotton fields. This forced farmers to use other regular chemical pesticides to fight them, and the overall use of pesticides was actually higher than before the introduction of Bt cotton. The number of glyphosate-resistant weeds is a growing concern in many areas of the USA, and farmers need to use other methods to eliminate the weeds. Currently, the situation has come to a point that Monsanto is offering a rebate to its customers to buy and use herbicide from their competitors, so that at least they keep buying their genetically engineered glyphosate-resistant seeds, because they do not have the solution of the problem in-house. These two examples demonstrate a simple fact: genetic engineering is not a panacea that solves all the problems. It must be used as a part of a well-thought set of techniques. Producing one type of crop with the included traits without understanding the ecosystem that a field is, simply does not work. A field is not a dead zone. A biologically very active system resists constantly the attempts of humans to get it under control. Since the odds of developing a resistance for all available products is statistically close to zero, rotating herbicides and pesticides strongly increases the chances of eliminating the “super weeds” and the “super bugs”. Of course, companies would rather not promote their competitors products by advising farmers to rotate herbicides and pesticides.

Are GMOs necessary?

Considering the rather mixed results, it is quite difficult to answer this question with certainty. The technology of genetic engineering is useful because it offers the possibility to introduce desirable traits in plants. However, genetic engineering deals with genes, and the actions of the genes, as well as their interactions with other genes, are very complex. This is still a field where we have much to learn. Caution is required. Genetic engineering is only one of the many ways we have to increase and improve production. It certainly is not, as some would like to make believe, the only way. This is also important to keep in mind when it comes to developing countries. In these countries, the problem is not that all other techniques have reached their potential. Many farmers do not even have access to just good seeds. If they had, together with proper financing, access to input and adequate techniques, they would achieve much better yields. Since they are poor, how could they even afford to buy GMOs? In my previous article, Hunger is about more than just food production, I indicated how Africa could become a net exporter without GMOs. On the other hand, in developed countries, such as Europe, where farmers achieve outstanding technical results, for instance wheat yields 2.5 to 3 times as high as in the USA, what could be the incentive? Europe is food secure, actually several European countries are among the world’s largest exporters of food and agricultural products. Why would consumers be hungry for GMOs, while food is already affordable? People may not always be rational, but there is always a strong logic about why they do what they do.

Are GMO safe or not?

In all objectivity, there is no certain answer to this question, either. Until this day, there has not been any proven disaster linked to GMOs. Since in biology things may take a long time to come out, there cannot be any certainty that something is not already changing, either. This debate is between those who think that progress always brings some new uncertainties that should accept, and those who think that we should not take chances. Genetic engineering is still a young science, and 15 years is a very short period in ecological terms.

A related question about this is: “Is there a moral issue about GMO?” There certainly is something about morals in the debate. There is the theme of playing to be God. There is the theme of corporate profits vs. people and environment. There is the theme of the control of food by a select few, and that is about power. There is the theme of secrecy vs. transparency. This is also about a certain vision of the world, and about which values should prevail. There is the New World set of values vs. the “Old World’s”. None of these themes has much to do with science, but they are quite important to many people, and they will remain so for a long time. The controversy and the debate are far from over. The food retailers, such as the giant Carrefour, are now entering the debate. A new interesting element is the awakening of the US consumers who start to question food production; while until recently, they were rather passive in that area. Many things will happen and change. At this stage, it is rather difficult to say what will emerge.

What is at stake?

Next to the themes that I have just mentioned, the most at stake is money, and a lot of it. This industry would never have developed if they had not been granted the possibility to apply for patents and collect royalties on their intellectual property (IP). Without IP, there are no GMOs. Patenting life is in itself a controversial topic. This is especially more so when a whole plant becomes private property while only a tiny part of it has been altered. The original whole plant was the collective property of humanity. Without asking permission to mankind, and not even offering to pay a rent for this collective property, GMO producers have managed to become the owners. For many people, there is a feeling of wrong entitlement.

The key element is IP. This is understandable, because most GMO companies are spin-offs from molecule makers, from the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Their business has always been about investing large amounts of money in R&D to put new molecules on the market. Their philosophy behind GMO production is the same. They think like molecule makers, not like farmers. The objective is to develop products for which they can collect royalties to pay back for the R&D expenditure. The driver for this is the need to develop high margin products to satisfy the expectations of the shareholders. This is why GMOs were a logical step to replace gradually the chemical herbicides and pesticides, for which margins have been eroding. Something else needed to be developed to bring out solid financial results and future prospects. With the patent period ending soon, the existing GMOs will become generic products that will no longer be IP. This forces the producers to think of new traits to include, thus generating more IP for royalties. This leads to a new generation of GMOs

What will be the next phase?

We will see two different paths for genetic engineering. One is a market-driven genetic engineering aimed at solving actual problems that farmers need to overcome. This will not be so much about IP and royalties, but it will be about practical and affordable solutions. This area will be taken over gradually by plant breeders and to some extent with government support. They will focus on issues such as drought resistance, flood resistance, ability for plants to grow in saline soils, and ability to transform solar energy more efficiently into food by enhancing photosynthesis processes. An interesting case to follow is China. Over there, the government is already leading a nationwide restructuring of the currently fragmented seed industry to make it more efficient, and deliver solutions that will help the country improve its food self-sufficiency. Since China is quite involved in farming investments in Africa, we can expect to see Chinese seed producers become more aggressive on that continent, too. China has also clearly expressed that genetic engineering is a part of their new approach.

The molecule makers, as I like to call them, will choose a different path. They will look for sophisticated products for which they can receive a high margin in the market. Their objective will be to introduce as many traits as they can in plants and help them produce… molecules. They are more interested to produce high-tech novelties. They will become the Apple of biology. Chemical synthesis will be replaced by biotechnology. Their areas of interest will be pharmaceutical production and health, more than agriculture. The industry will introduce genes in plants to produce medicines that can be used to treat all sorts of diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, possibly Aids, and many others. They will also focus on the development of healthy nutritional components, such as high Omega-3 fatty acids content in oil seeds and the elimination of allergic components in current foods.

This next phase will see a change in the landscape of GMOs. Companies will make strategic choices about which segment they want to operate. There will be divestment of activities, and there will be new Mergers & Acquisitions, too. It is very likely that GMO producers will focus on biotech and sell their herbicides and pesticides activities to the companies that will choose to specialize in chemicals only. Pharmaceutical companies will get closer to GMO producers, and we can expect to see a new generation of biotech start-ups that will aim at being taken over by larger corporations. Some companies will choose for business-to business, while others will choose for consumer products. For pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals, companies will subcontract farmers, while remaining in charge of the marketing of the molecules.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Helping farmers produce better

Meeting food demand depends for a large part on the ability of farmers to produce adequate quantities of the food products of the right quality. To achieve such an objective, farmers depend on their business partners. To feed an increasing world population, helping farmers succeed is not an option; it is a necessity.

There is no argument against producing better. A market-driven and more efficient production reduces the amount of waste, and it increases the amount of food available for consumers. It reduces the impact on the environment and it actually reduces the cost of production. However, it is important to realize that actions to produce better often are investments, as the effect is not always immediate.

From a value chain point of view, efficient production starts with high-quality ingredients. If the world wants farmers to produce higher volumes, they must have access to good genetics. Seeds that have the potential to deliver high yields, or farm animals that can produce and grow fast, while using feed and water efficiently, are an absolute necessity. Genetics and agriculture must also take genetic diversity and sustainability into account, but with poor genetics, farmers will not be able to meet food demand, and they will not be financially viable for the long-term. Vision and proper strategy are the elements to deal with this dilemma.

Farming inputs, such fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and animal feed, must help plants, and farm animals, to express as much of their genetic potential as possible. Suppliers can play a very important role in helping farmers use the proper products in the right amounts, in the right place, and at the right time. The same principle applies for food processors and distributors. It is their role to help farmers deliver what the market needs when it needs it. They must encourage this by rewarding financially the farmers who do things right. This is in the interest of all the parties involved. Farmers make more money with their products. Processors get products that are more efficient to process, thus saving on costs. Distributors gain market share because they offer the right product to their customers, thus increasing customer satisfaction, appeal and loyalty. The advantage of doing things right is that it becomes more difficult for business partners to switch to a competitor. By being the best partner in business, the need for complicated contractual and legal agreements becomes a little less relevant. It is about loyalty and mutual security.

To achieve this kind of ideal situation requires a lot of effort, commitment and communication. Market needs must be translated in clear product specifications. The knowledge on how to be able to meet the required standards needs the proper channels to be transferred to farmers. Access to information has become much easier with the development of communication tools such as Internet and cell phones. Smart phones are helping further, and now farmers, anywhere in the world, have much faster access to market and technical information than by the past. This helps them make faster and better decisions. However, better technologies and better communication tools are not enough. Extension services are crucial. In my book, Future Harvests, several examples show how positive this is for food production. One is the policy of the Ugandan government that resulted in a boom in rice production, making the country a net exporter of rice. The second example is about the extension services of a food corporation, McCain Foods, in India, that helped farmers produce a better quality of potatoes, meeting market requirements, and earning substantially more this way. Another illustration of the positive effect of knowledge transfer is about the farming leader in Burkina Faso who helped increase food production with simple techniques, and stopped the exodus of population. Proper education and on-going training is part of the food production of the future. The human factor in knowledge transfer is as important as ever. Only people can know what the specific situation of a farmer is. Knowing the farmer is the best way to help them set up plans and strategies to improve their technical and financial performance. A farmer being independent business owners, their main concern is to generate enough revenue to stay in business, and to offer a decent standard of living and a secure future for their families. Helping them in these objectives is the way to get their attention and loyalty. Extension services need to offer the most effective solutions by taking into account the level of skills of the farmers, as well as their financial situation. Some farmers can afford and use high-tech solutions easily. Others may have money, but lack the skills to use certain techniques or technologies. Others may be technically savvy, but may lack the money. Extension service people are the ones who can help farmers make the best choices. They also must assist farmers to get the proper financing if this is the limiting factor, for as long as the money would used to deliver the proper return.

As Cicero stated, “The sinews of war are… endless money”. This tends to be overlooked by many who talk about increasing food production. If farmers do not have access to enough money to be able to produce the food the world needs, they simply will not. Developing agriculture requires serious investments, either from individuals or from governments. Asian and Arab countries know this and this is why they spent massive amounts of money in African and Asian countries, and even in Brazil and Argentina. If farmers cannot buy the basics to produce efficiently, they will have poor harvests. If farmers cannot be profitable, they will stop farming. This is important to realize that being a farmer must be attractive financially, too, if we want to motivate the next generation to be in agriculture. Money is important, but just for food production, more is not necessarily better. To get good results, we must ensure to have the right amount of money at the right time at the right place for the right purpose. The money must be aimed at producing for the market. Financing agriculture is about meeting food demand, not to produce blindly. Just like there is a need for efficient market-driven precision agriculture, the future of agriculture financing must evolve to efficient food-market-driven precision financing.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.