Sustainability: A land of confusion?

September 17, 2009

The more I read and hear about sustainability, the more confused I get about what the people making statements about it really mean, if they mean anything at all.

Very clearly, everyone now goes sustainable or green or whichever other term they choose. It is almost as if sustainability is a completely new revolutionary concept. No, it is not. That was the way people lived for ages, before we started thinking that we did not have to live by Nature’s laws. Yes, in the old times people would repair their socks instead of throwing them away. What were they thinking?

Two things really worry me about the current sustainability approach. The first one is companies appointing one person in charge of sustainability. Can sustainability be a separate entity in an organization or has what should be our most basic thinking been so forgotten that someone needs to reinvent it? I do not think so. Sustainability is everyone’s concern and if there is a CSO (S for you know what), it should be the person at the very top, imposing sustainability thinking to every employee in the company. This topic is too important to delegate. The second one is how quickly businesses that have shown some serious deficiencies in the sustainability area now come out very quickly with all sorts of announcement and even certification proving how well they are doing. Of course, on the other hand, there are the market watchers claiming that some of these claims are not true.

For instance, I am getting more and more confused by how quickly, and almost on a weekly basis, restaurants and supermarkets are able to source sustainable seafood. As such, this is great news. Yet, it makes me even wonder if there indeed was an overfishing problem. Something just does not quite add up.

There are those who seem to reduce sustainability in food production to organic or to small farms, almost as if the Amish way, with all due respect for the Amish, is the only way forward. I disagree with this rather reductionist thinking. I believe that with all the technology that we currently have, we can be sustainable and modern.

Therefore, for those who, like me, are confused about what they hear and read, here are a few statements about how I think about the subject, and I hope that they are not confusing to you.

  1. Per definition, what is not sustainable has no future. Therefore, just do it, instead of talking how you would do it.
  2. Everything that continuously depletes a source of our basic essential needs is not sustainable. Think about it before depletion reaches the point of no return!
  3. Everything that continuously increases the level of harmful components in what we breathe, drink or eat is not sustainable. Think about it before increasing water, air, soil and food pollution!

It is just this practical.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

How much can the rule of 80-20 tell us about the future?

September 3, 2009

We all have heard about this rule across all industries, including agriculture and food. Eighty percent of the food would be produced on 20% of the farms and vice-versa. If it still applies in the future, it can indicate us how our food production and supplies will look like in the future. Of course, this is always a theoretical exercise, but it is quite convenient to elaborate on our thoughts.

As the population is expected to grow quite strongly in the coming decades, especially in urban areas, this could indicate two dominant trends:
• Further size increase of the largest farms and further industrialization of agriculture and food for global markets, although the number of farms in this segment would not increase strongly.
• Strong increase of the number of small farms involved in specific value chains and strongly linked with their local economy.

Industrial agriculture
Producing more, yet in a sustainable way. That is the challenge!This group will continue to be involved in mass production of commodities for global supplies, like this is the case today.
Yet, they will face an increased pressure to adapt to the requirements of sustainability, which technically is quite possible. New systems and more efficient technologies will be the pillars of its growth and development. They will have to find ways of reducing the amount of chemicals in crops and the amount of pharmaceuticals in animal productions
The requirements for capital will be quite high and the sector will be led by increasing larger corporations, by an increasing level of capital by large private investors and, last but not least, by some governments. This agriculture will innovate further and will be developed thanks to this capital. It will use automation and mechanization to reduce the dependence on labor. Mergers & acquisitions will continue in the agricultural sector and a few large blocks will remain, dominating their sectors.
Their mandate will be about more control the natural conditions of production and about reducing to a minimum their impact on air, water and soil, by using less polluting transport methods, water preservation, effluent treatment and soil preservation. They also will have to engage in maintenance of their environment.
The role of this type of agriculture will be to bring to market large amounts of affordable food for the masses, and should play an important role in strategies around food security, which is where corporations and government will interact on a regular basis.

Local food value chains
Closer to natureThis sector should undergo a strong growth and be build in a market-driven approach. These are the farmers that produce specialty products aimed at serving either a very specific segment of the retail or foodservice market.
This trend, which has been already initiated around concepts such as organic or authentic, will evolve into a more integrated local economy, and the initial concepts will probably become less differentiated as food production in general, be it industrial or traditional, will use more sustainable techniques.
Contrarily to the common belief, this agriculture will be developed thanks to very efficient techniques, but will be centered relatively more about labor and relatively less about capital. In this case, efficiency does not necessarily mean intensification.
We must not underestimate the significance of this part of the food production, as it will play an important role. However, we must not expect this type of agriculture to be the solution to feed the world, and this is not the purpose of the farmers involved in such food production chains.

This type of farming will grow in two different environments:

  •  In “developed” countries to serve a increasing, but aging, population more demanding about the origin and the production methods, and who is ready to pay a premium for the perceived better quality. The angle will be about quality, transparency, sustainability, traceability and as close to zero a use of chemicals and pharmaceuticals. In some areas, it could help strengthening a local economy and local communities.
  • Developing a local economy thanks to agriculture (Picture: FAO) In emerging countries, the development of a local agriculture, and aquaculture, will be a key driver of economic development for under industrialized and/or under urbanized regions. It also will be a way of slowing down the migration of population to urban centers and limit social problems, by creating satisfying economic conditions and by securing food supplies locally. This farming will be about basic needs, before marketing.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Sustainability: As Natural As Balance

June 2, 2009

With the increasing awareness about climate change and our endangered environment, sustainability has become a widespread concept through all industries and the food value chains have embraced it like everyone else.

Yet, I do not quite understand why sustainability seems to be such a “revelation”, or even almost a revolutionary idea. Sustainability is the way that our societies have lived for thousands of years, probably because scarcity of goods made conserving and recycling a necessity of survival. Only over the last 50 years or so have we seemed to forget about it, because of our consuming frenzy and the abundance of goods that we thought to be about infinite.

To put the importance, and the obvious need for sustainability, let’s just look at its definition. What is not sustainable disappears. There is no need for any further philosophical or political discussion. Survival can (note that I only say can) come only from sustainability. All processes in nature that deal with life are all about recycling of organic matter in one form or another, and about balance. If the environment is favorable for a particular species, you will see this species thrive and its population grow quite strongly, to the point that it exceeds its abilities to provide for itself in its original ecosystem. Then, it starts to use more and other resources that nature can replace at the natural pace and this always results in a strong reduction of the population, as the weakest cannot find food and perish, or as the population density helps the spreading of diseases much faster than it would otherwise. Does this sound somehow familiar?

The soil that feeds usThere are many discussions in scientific, economic and political circles about whether we have reached such a stage either regarding pandemics or regarding food supplies. The specter of pandemics recently raised its head with the “swine flu” originating from Mexico. Last year, there were severe disruptions of food supplies in some parts of the world, not as much as the result of an actual shortage, but as the result of prices skyrocketing and fears that food would run out.

Are we about to run out of food? Malthus was warning about such a risk in the early nineteenth century, but since then, the world population has increased far further than he estimated was possible. Today, we probably are not in that dire a situation, yet the main food supply issue is more one of distribution between geographic regions. Some parts of the world are underfed while others die of all sorts of ailments related to overfeeding. This is more a matter of politics than purely of agricultural (including seafood) potential.

Sustainability is about allowing nature to do its work at its own pace. This is all about staying in balance and keeping natural cycles complete their courses. Since you cannot live without eating much more than 2 months, you cannot live without drinking for much more than 2 days and you cannot live without breathing for much more than 2 minutes, these cycles can be reduced to just a few critical areas for life:

  1. The cycle of air, necessary to remove, or to help nature remove the contaminants, so that air remains breathable.
  2. The cycle of water, necessary to remove, or to help nature remove, the contaminants that can make it undrinkable.
  3. The cycle of soils, necessary to preserve the fertility of the soils, and thus allow a continuous agricultural/livestock production to feed people.

Agricultural challenges aheadThis is why, with a growing human population, agriculture and food production at large, managed in a sustainable manner, will become increasingly strategic in the future, and sensible management of water resources will be a key factor for the success of agriculture as well.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.