Nature will reshape food value chains

October 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Future rhymes with infrastructure

March 21, 2014

In all the talk about feeding 9 billion people by 2050, the issue of infrastructure receives too little attention. In my opinion, this is a mistake. Of course, building, repairing and maintaining roads, railways, bridges, waterways or warehouses may not appear as sexy as fantasizing about robots, drones and machines that exchange information, or fancy marketing concepts, but infrastructure is really the lifeblood of future food security. For as much as I enjoy presenting a futuristic vision of food and farming and talk about market niches of the future, I also find essential to remind my clients about the practical implications of future development for their very concrete daily activities. Infrastructure is definitely one of the important topics. Considering how much attention the topic of producing more to meet future demand has received over the past couple of years, and considering the good prices for agricultural commodities of the past few years, it is only normal that production volumes have been on the rise. It may sound obvious that logistics should grow in parallel with production volumes to be able to keep moving products. Unfortunately, when it comes to the big picture, the supply chain seems to be overlooked to some extent. One of the problems is that the agricultural world is still very much production-driven, and so is all the talk about the future of farming. As I presented in Future Harvests, there are plenty of possibilities to supply the world with more food. Although there will be challenges to overcome, the potential is there to meet the demand of 9 billion, and even for the 11 billion that the UN is forecasting for 2100. However, the key is to be able to bring the food to the consumers, and that is where action is badly needed. Post-harvest losses may be the clearest example of how important infrastructure is. Worldwide, the estimate is that about 20% of all the food that is produced is lost on the fields or between the farms and the consumers because of a deficient infrastructure. In particular, the lack of proper storage results in food that rots or gets spoilt by mold or vermin. The problem is especially serious for perishables. In particular in the case of produce, which is fragile and contains a lot of water, post-harvest losses may exceed 50% of the total production, as for instance it has been observed in India and Africa. Post-harvest losses also occur with non-perishables. In China, it has been estimated that the amount of wheat loss during transport because of a poor infrastructure amounts to the quantity that Canada exports. Since Canada is the world’s second largest exporter of wheat, this shows the magnitude of the problem. Brazil, which is one of the world’s agriculture powerhouses, also suffers from infrastructure issues. Most of the transport of agricultural commodities takes place on roads that are far from being well-paved. The result is twofold. Firstly, the poor road conditions cause the loss of significant amounts of grains between production areas and export terminals. Secondly, since road transport is the main way of transporting agricultural products, the cost of transport and the resulting carbon footprint of food supply are both higher than they could and should be if there were enough railroads and waterways to bring products to markets. A couple of years ago, I read a report about the comparison of the carbon footprint of beef production between countries and one of the surprising conclusions was that Brazil scored relatively high. Although the survey needed to be taken with a critical mind, the infrastructure situation of Brazil certainly was one of the reasons for its high footprint. The good news about Brazil is that the country recently launched an ambitious plan of $200 billion to fix its infrastructure. As its economy grows, this will be essential to secure the future. Infrastructure development is not just a matter for developing countries, though. In Canada, the shortage of rail capacity for grain transport has recently become an issue, as record crop volumes have difficulties to reach their destination. Not only is this a logistical problem, but it highlights the lack of forward thinking and of communication within the entire supply chain. Over the past few years there have been more than enough conferences in which many experts insist on the necessity to increase production, in particular though yields. The high prices of agricultural commodities of the past few years have been great incentives for farmers to do exactly that. And they certainly have delivered. Did some not pay attention? Perhaps. Unfortunately, the post-harvest links of the chain have not adjusted on time. This will be true for the US agriculture, too. American farmers are working hard on increasing yields and export possibilities are good on the long-term, but they will have to keep the ability to move enough volume to the final markets. Roads, railways and waterways need not only some revamping but also need to develop further to adjust with future volumes. In spite of all the talks about improving the American infrastructure during the deepest of the economic crisis following the financial disaster of 2008, not all that much has been done, really. Transportation infrastructure, as well as the energy grid, still needs some serious refreshment. Like anywhere else in the world, a healthy infrastructure will be the basis for a sustained economic prosperity. Beside the volume implications, a well-organized infrastructure also contributes to lower costs and improves the competitiveness of the value chains that benefit from it. In my opinion, there cannot be long-term prosperity or successful economic development without an adequate infrastructure. For the future, another area that is going to require solid planning and vision is the population boom that will take place in urban centers of Asia and Africa. Many of the mega-cities that will emerge in the coming 40 to 50 years hardly exist, yet. Nonetheless, they are coming. Urban planning that will address the challenges of these megalopolises is one thing, but organizing the supply of food, water and all other essential from production centers is another. The “unfortunate” thing about infrastructure is that it is a long-term investment. It is money that needs to be spent to get the economy flowing. The return is long-term. If done well, the positive financial return lies in economic development, more and better jobs and more people having more money to pay for goods and services as well as for taxes that can be used to ensure a good maintenance of the infrastructure. One of the issues is of course who finance infrastructure. Many stakeholders benefit from a good infrastructure. As I show in We Will Reap What We Sow, the FAO estimated the annual cost of fixing post-harvest problems in developing countries at $83 billion. Doing so provides so many upsides for all stakeholders from farms, businesses and government that the return for the entire system is actually higher than the $83 billion, and my calculation is quite conservative and cautious to say the least. There is more than enough money to fix the problem. What is $83 billion compared with the amounts spent since 2008 to bail out banks, to print money as massively as it has been done and to rescue the European countries that were in serious financial trouble? It is a drop in the ocean! Yet, fixing post-harvest losses is a painfully slow process. It is a matter of taking the right decision. How long will we accept not only to waste that food, but also all the water, the energy resources, the time and the money that have been used to produce it in the first place? Among the many projects that I have carried out, I would like to present one briefly here because it illustrates the importance of infrastructure. When I came to Canada, the previous management had signed an agreement with a First Nation community of the North Coast of British Columbia for the production of farmed salmon. When I inherited the project, I took a look at the agreement and I remember sending a memo of a page and a half that was actually a list of questions that had all to do with infrastructure. In a nutshell, how to transport fresh fish and deliver customers at least twice a week on the West Coast of the US from a remote island with no road connection, only a ferry every other week and highly unpredictable sea conditions? It was mostly unpredictable in the sense that the number of days the barge of some transport company involved in the project and run by someone who would prove later to be rather unreliable would be stuck for undetermined amount of time between that island and Vancouver where the dispatch center to our customers was. By then, nobody among those who shaped the agreement had the slightest clue about what answers to give to my questions. In the end, it all worked out fine and our customers never missed a delivery of fresh salmon. What it took was for yours truly to dive in the scrum and enjoy some Wild West type of action to get it all together, to bring materials in and send products and waste southbound using a tiny barge and connect with trucks on some unpaved wilderness road through the mountain ranges. By the way, 14 years later today and the unit is still running. That project could be a textbook case of why infrastructure is so important both to bring in stuff and take product away to consumers markets. Every time I hear or read about the need for farmers to have access to markets and of post-harvest losses in developing countries, I can totally relate to the complexity of how to set it all up. Producing without having the possibility to bring to customers is not economic development. It is economic suicide. In a business, be it a farm, a store or a manufacturing plant or any other, one rule is always true. And that is that money comes only from one end of the business: from sales. To get there, the business needs customers that they can actually serve properly in order to get paid and to retain them, because in the end, the customers are the ones who must pay for all the expenses of the business. It sounds obvious and yet it is forgotten too often. I am a strong advocate of a market-driven approach. The term market-driven already implies the value of infrastructure, as to be market-driven a proper and reliable supply chain is necessary. The other major advantage of being market-driven is that selling is easier because market-driven businesses offer what the market wants. Business is easier when all one has to do is to produce what is already sold. On the other end of the spectrum, production-driven is quite the opposite. It is the best recipe to end up painfully pushing production volumes at slashed margins and being depended on others to decide of the future of your business. For having been a market-oriented person in production-driven industries, I have seen the value of the market-driven approach. It requires a different mindset. It is about stepping out of the commodity markets rats’ race, and it is about implementing the necessary changes to deliver customers what they want while asking the price that you need. For the future, developing the agriculture of the future and being able to feed the world population will be about understanding the markets, finding the right customers and having the required infrastructure to bring to them, wherever and how far or close-by they may be, what they need. In my opinion, all agricultural development projects must start from the market end and be built backwards into adequate production volumes and structures. The organizations involved in such projects must bring in the marketing and the supply chain expertise to give local farmers the highest chances of success. All the technical and knowledge support is essential, too but they have to be aimed at supporting the implementation of the sales plan.

Copyright 2014 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


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

October 21, 2013

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.


Food prices, one year later – Some lessons

September 16, 2013

According to the data gathered by the FAO, global food prices are on the decline. They have been so for some time. However, this good news does not seem to make the headlines. Reassuring news does not score with the mainstream media. What a difference with the past year during which all of a sudden they discovered that food might not be taken for granted after all! What have we not heard and read by then. The most absurd theories and pseudo-analyses have been spread around by some who know nothing better than copying and pasting the internet without exercizing the slightest sense of critical thinking. Of course, the fear mongers got plenty of publicity while they really did not contribute to anything productive, as I had described in a previous article (Fear mongering does not build a strong future).

What a difference a year makes! And that is a very good thing. It shows that agriculture and farmers are much more resilient and have much greater potential than some want to make believe. That confirms what I have always claimed and that I relentlessly repeat in my presentations and publications. I have lost the count of how many times I have been told that “Christophe, you are quite the optimist”, in particular about the content of Future Harvests. Frankly, I do not think that I am particularly optimistic. Actually, I can see many reasons why we will face serious crises along the way to meeting the goals of feeding a growing population. That warning is the message behind We Will Reap What We Sow. I see human nature and in particular our leadership, as serious reasons for temporary failures. But if I do not consider myself as an optimist, I definitely have a positive attitude. I truly believe we can manage and overcome future challenges, because I crunched the numbers and I have demonstrated in my literature and my talks that feeding 9 billion people in a sustainable manner is quite possible. It is possible, but it is not a given. There is work ahead. That makes it interesting and exciting.

Next to the potential and the future development that can make us overcome the coming challenges, I am also a firm believer of market forces. Market fluctuations trigger action and reaction. Nothing like high prices and solid profits get food producers increase production. Similarly, nothing like poor financial results have the ability to tamper any desire to increase production. The so-called invisible hand works. Sometimes, it holds a carrot. Sometimes, it holds a stick. It makes things move in the right direction. Over the past year, I have presented during a number of events how market forces would influence prices in different sectors in the years to come. By looking at it from the consumer demand end and by going back in the production and supply chain, I showed how the different actors would react to their own particular situations. So far, my predictions have come true, the reactions of retailers, food service, animal protein producers, crop farmers and input suppliers have been as expected. The drop in global food prices is one of these predictions. Those who attended some of my presentations know what I mean. For the others, here is a link to a video showing an excerpt my talk about the dynamics of future agricultural markets that will illustrate what I am writing about.

The past year contains many lessons. Some of them are about us, and some of them are about how to look at the future. The main lesson is probably that the situation of food and agriculture cannot be looked at in a simplistic manner and can certainly not be described or commented with scary slogans. The population is growing but so is agricultural production. The famine that is supposedly around the corner is far from happening. In a year time, the world population has increased by a few dozen million people, who on average tend to eat more food, and in particular meat. Yet, supply is able to meet demand better this year than last year, as global food prices and grain stocks indicate. Another lesson is that even though severe climatic events affect food supply negatively, there is no reason to panic. The fact that last year a severe drought depleted production numbers in one of the essential producing countries, the USA, the system was able to absorb the shock. There has been no food riot in 2012 like in 2008. The reason needs to be looked at what products were the most affected.  Supply of basic food stables remained in balance with demand. There was no particular shortage of bread or rice in sight. The commodities that were affected were business to business products, destined to the animal feed and the corn ethanol industries. Another lesson is that even though the prices of 2012 did not lead to riots, climatic events are a serious threat and need to be factored in future supply and demand scenarios to build enough of a buffer to reduce the risks of supply disruption. Another area that requires more attention is the regulation of financial markets, and in particular the regulatory aspects. It is clear that derivatives amplify market price fluctuations. By deciding who is allowed to be active on the markets of agricultural commodities and for which quantities, the functioning of markets can be more representative of the physical reality. In particular, the participation of players who have no physical production or supply functions in the food and agriculture need to be taken under strict scrutiny. As it is important to have fair market rules for a proper functioning of markets, it will be also useful to look at the functioning of crop insurance. Last year’s drought in the US cost insurance companies much money, while it appeared that US crop farmers ended up the season with the second highest profit level on record. No one will argue that farmers need to be protected from such unpredictable events.  Insurance should guarantee them a minimum income so that their future would not depend from forces out of their control. That is just fair. Opposite to that, it sounds beyond normal that, thanks to other contributors, farmers could go through such a drought without hardly feeling the slightest pinch in the wallet.

After the past year, am I still an “optimist”? Yes, I do believe that farmers will meet demand in the future. For all the reasons above, I am convinced as ever that the potential is largely there and that the world can absorb tough years. But I would attach a warning to my optimism. It is not because it can be done that it will be done. It is necessary to keep thinking ahead, to come with innovative ideas, products and services to be able to plan and forecast better, to make better and faster decisions. It is also essential to pass knowledge and information better and faster, and to choose the attitude of helping others succeed before one’s particular interest. Our societies have succeeded by acting together. Nobody will be able to do it all alone. Providing help and support will be critical for success, just as much as asking for them will be. It also becomes crucial to be able to look beyond one’s area of business and to connect the dots even – or maybe actually in particular – with events and activities that have, at least apparently, several degrees of separation with agriculture in order to anticipate, adapt and be prosperous. That is the core of what I do, and I can only encourage you to take the same approach.

As markets ease, it will be quite tempting to drop the guard. In my opinion, this would be a serious mistake. The time things seem to be under control is the right time to prepare for the future and to do some foresight. Markets will change again as the bargaining power of the different links of the chain will shift. Be assured that there will be some severe price hikes again. My best guess is within five years from now. Those who will do this exercise will have a strong advantage over those who will procrastinate.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Finding your niche

April 23, 2013

One of the most common questions I get from my clients and audiences is how to find better markets. Regardless of whether I am addressing crop farmers in the Canadian prairies, food companies in the US, seafood producers in Ireland or local farmers here in British Columbia, the need to escape the undifferentiated commodity market is close to universal.

In my opinion, there is a simple reason for this. I usually explain it by joking about commodity markets being 95% price and 5% psychology, while niche markets are 95% psychology and 5% price. Of course, the percentages must not be taken literally. My point is that for commodities, since all the physical qualities of the offerings are similar, the (almost) only decision factor to choose between suppliers is price. All other arguments do not weigh much. For producers, this is often frustrating because it is a cold-hearted process in which the market decides. They feel that they have no control about the price setting, which is true for the most part. Although futures markets are there to help farmers limit the price risk, the lack of control in the actual price setting contributes to uncertainty, especially for producers in region with a relatively high production costs. In many developing countries, the disconnection between farmers and the markets presents similarities with the above. The lack of access together with the lack of control is a major impediment for the development of strong and successful farming operations.

Then, is niche marketing the way to go? Before answering this, it is useful to take a closer look at what a successful niche is about. Probably the best way to visualize it is to look at it from Maslow’s pyramid of needs, and look at which gradients we can define as we climb up the pyramid.

Niche &MaslowClick on the picture to view enlarged chart

The first one that comes to mind is that the bottom of the pyramid represent the need for generic cheap commodities and the top the exclusive luxury niches. The second one is directly derived from the previous one and from the content of the pyramid. It is the amount of emotion and psychology involved in the customer’s choice. This means that the level of quality also must increase as we go up the pyramid. Similarly, the level, and the quality, of service are also more important, as the target group lies higher in the pyramid. These differences clearly mean different way to conduct business. A solid niche is difficult to enter. If it is not, then many followers will rush into it, commoditize it and destroy it in no time. The difficulty can have very different reasons. It can be technical. It can be organizational. It can be commercial. It can be a matter of logistics or of planning. Whichever the reason may be, the message is clear for the producers: they must have the specific know-how to serve the niche well. They need to have the right set and the right combination of skills in-house. If done well, the development of a niche will also result in higher and more predictable margins, as well in the short term as in the long term. This has a lot of value to food producers, because they can plan ahead much better. Another important aspect of a solid niche is its growth potential. A good niche will grow. Of course, it will not become a commodity market, but that is what the producers want to avoid. If the niche has no growth potential, then as a producer you will be stuck and will need to find other solutions somewhere else for your business. This is why a niche has to be market-driven. There is no way that a production-driven approach will develop a niche successfully in the long term. It might work for a while, but putting production first will weaken the concept eventually.  Good niche management requires a deep connection between the producer and the customers. Developing a niche is not a marketing gimmick. It is not wrapping the old product or service in a new packaging. It is easy to make claims about sustainability, social responsibility or other concerns of consumers, but a good niche is not about the superficial stuff. It is about mutual dependence and shared value. To succeed in niche business, producers must be passionate about what they offer. They must believe in their vision, in their product and in their customers. They must commit to them and engage in a true partnership. If this is not the case or if it is not mutual, the honeymoon will be short-lived. Beyond the common vision and goals, what really counts is to speak the same language. Speaking the language of the customer is not enough. A good niche is one where customers want to buy from you, not having you hounding them for more sales. Good niche marketing rests on collaborative planning with the customers.

Although the comparison with Maslow’s pyramid of needs is useful, it is also important to realize that it does not necessarily means that a niche be tiny. Niche marketing is not the same as local and/or micro business. Especially in a world where purchasing power is evolving and where a huge middle-class with increasing disposable income, as well as a growing upper-class, are rising in populated emerging countries, niches may actually be quite large in comparison with the traditional Western markets.

Because there is such a need for niche developement, I am offering a specific program here at my company to help producers who want to walk the niche path. In my professional life, I have had many jobs and projects that were about getting away from the undifferentiated market and develop specialty markets that generate higher margins. The reason is that the production units where in countries with so-called uncompetitive production costs. Despite that, I successfully turned around difficult situations by setting up adequate strategies that capitalized on the strengths of the businesses and took them away from their areas of weakness.

Developing successful niches takes time and perseverance. For instance, it took me three years to get the poultry company I was working for to be approved as a supplier to Marks & Spencer. It also took some painful human resources decisions to turn around the sales activities I inherited in Germany. It took a lot of energy to lead for change here in British Columbia in an organization that was all about production and with no marketing skills, just as it took a lot of energy to convince the market that our new strategy would work (focusing on Chinook salmon instead of Atlantic Salmon) because many tried before and finally gave up. Yet, we did it and in half the time from what was stated in our supposedly very ambitious plan, and both the company and the customers benefited greatly from this move. I must also state clearly that to achieve such outcomes, I had set up teams with the mix of the right skills and talents to execute my vision. Nobody can do everything alone. That is valid for yours truly just as well. I am quite thankful for the great people who joined me in these endeavours and made it happen.

The difficulty to enter the niche protects you from the competition, but you also must pass the hurdle yourself. This means that you need to have the capacity to be stronger than your competitors. If you are not, realize that you will have difficulties to stay in business anyway.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


What more demand for meat means for the future

October 21, 2012

Here is an excerpt from We Will Reap What We Sow, the book I published in May 2012. The recent difficult climatic conditions for agriculture and their impact of agricultural markets have made the issue quite relevant. Here it is then:

As the economy in emerging countries is improving, their population becomes wealthier. Just as it happened in Western countries during the 20th century, the increase in wealth translates into dietary changes. The consumption of animal protein, especially the consumption of meat, increases.

To realize what the consequences of a higher consumption of meat might be, it is interesting to make calculations for China. When 1.5 billion people eat on average one more kg of chicken meat per person, world production needs to increase by about 750 million chickens. That represents about 2% of the world’s production. Similarly, when each Chinese consumes on average one more kg of pork, the world must produce 15 million more pigs. That number represents 1.5% of the world pig production. For beef, an increase of consumption of one kg per capita per year means the need for a production of 2.4% higher than today.

Meat consumption in China has already passed the milestone of 50 kg per capita per year, and projections indicate that it should reach 80 kg per capita per year in 2030. Clearly, consumption will increase by much more than just one kg.

An increase of 10 kg of chicken meat per capita per year in China means that the world’s chicken production would have to increase by 20% to meet the new demand! This represents almost the entire US chicken production volume, and more than Brazilian production. In the case of pork, an increase of consumption of 10 kg per capita means that the world’s pig production would have to increase by 15%. That is five times the current pig production of Iowa, USA. That is 60% of the EU production. For beef, the world’s production would have to increase by 24% to meet an increase of 10 kg per capita per year! This number also represents about 125% of the current total US beef production.

Different animal productions have different feed conversion ratios (FCR). The FCR is the quantity of feed needed to produce 1 kg of meat. For chicken meat, the FCR is of 1.8. For pig meat, the FCR is about 3. For beef, depending on the proportion of grass in the cattle’s diet, the amount of grain used to produce 1 kg of beef varies. With an average FCR of 3 for the various types of meat productions, an increase of meat consumption of 30 kg in China would result in the need to produce three times 30 kg times 1.5 billion. Depending on the consumption of which type of meat will grow the fastest, the need for feed, excluding grass, would vary between 100 and 150 million tons.

The world’s second largest population, the Indian population, is still largely vegetarian. Although India is among the countries with the lowest meat consumption, with less than 4 kg per capita per year, Indians are gradually changing their eating habits. Meat consumption is increasing in India, too, but not in proportions as dramatic as in China. Nonetheless, with a growing population, any incremental meat consumption will have physical consequences. Some simple math can show the magnitude of the higher demand for meat.

Between 2010 and 2050, the world’s population will increase by 2.2 billion, from 6.8 billion to nine billion. If everything stays equal, the consumption would increase by about a third (2.2/6.8). According to the FAO, the average consumption of meat per capita in the world in 2010 was of about 47 kg. The population growth alone would represent a meat consumption increase of 2.2 billion times 47, or 103 million tons. This number represents about a third of the 2010 meat consumption.

In the example of China mentioned earlier, the predicted increase of 30 kg per person represented an increase in meat consumption of 45 million tons.

Even if the world average meat consumption per capita remained stable between 2010 and 2050, the need for additional meat production would be of 2.3 (103/45) times the numbers in the China example. This represents an additional need for animal feed, excluding grass, of between 230 and 345 million tons compared with 2010.

The situation becomes even more interesting when the average consumption per capita increases. For every 10 kg increase of individual consumption, the need for additional meat production increases by nine billion times 10 kg, or 90 million tons of meat. For each 10 kg increase of average meat consumption, an additional volume of 600 to 900 million tons of animal feed is necessary. The following table presents the effect of the population increase to nine billion people and its meat consumption on production volumes.

Average individual meat consumption increase from 2010 (kg/capita/year)

0

10

20

30

40

50

Average individual meat consumption(kg/capita/year)

47

57

67

77

87

97

Total meat consumption(million tons)

423

513

603

693

783

873

Total meat consumption increase from 2010 (million tons)

103

193

283

373

463

553

Percentage of increase from 2010

32%

61%

89%

117%

145%

173%

An average meat consumption of 97 kg per capita per year would be about the current average of developed countries. If the average meat consumption per capita per year in the world were to meet such a number, meat production would have to almost triple from 2010 volumes.

Most of the gloomy scenarios about the challenge of feeding the world are based on the assumption that the diet model would have to be the Western diet, and in particular the American diet. This is far from certain. Actually, it probably will not be the case. As the world’s population increases, one of the sensitive issues, especially in the overfed world, will be what to eat and how much of it. Higher food prices will also force people to indulge less. It is important to understand the difference between nutritional needs and consumer desires. Today, the world produces enough calories and protein to meet the actual nutritional needs of nine billion people. If the nine billion people expected for 2050 all want to have a Western diet, the amount of calories needed would be equivalent to the nutritional calorie needs of 17.5 billion people.

It would be normal to expect feed conversion efficiency to improve in the future. Nonetheless, the production for animal feed would then increase with 3,000 to 4,500 million tons above the volumes necessary in 2010. Since a third of grain production goes to animal feed, a tripling of meat production means that grain production would have to double, just because of the desire for more meat.

Clearly, the challenge of feeding the world will depend increasingly on meeting the demand for meat. The challenge for producers of agricultural commodities will be to keep up with the demand for animal feed. As demand for meat increases, there is no doubt that more and more questions will arise about how much meat the world can afford to eat. The world food situation will depend on how much meat people want to eat, not on calorie count.

How much meat should we eat?…

The rest of the text for this topic and much more is in the book.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Fear mongering does not build a solid future

October 13, 2012

Since the drought in the US of this past summer and the strong price increase of agricultural commodities, agriculture has become a favorite topic in the media. As such, this would be really good if it were not for the (potential) disaster voyeurism. There is nothing like a flavor of end of the world in the works to get the attention of the readers. After all, this is good to fill advertising space and to promote a book.

Since I started to look at the future of food and farming, I have seen an evolution on how people look at the future of agriculture. When I started, I could hear statements about the need to have two (even three and four) Earths to meet demand. Interestingly, none of those who stated this impossibility neglected to pay attention to food losses, and they were only focusing on more production. When could passing a mop under an open tap be a sensible approach? If we really come to need more than one planet, then there is only one outcome. Since that second Earth does not exist, the surplus of people would have to die so that the world can meet the demand of the survivors. I agree that it is not a cheerful thought. However, Mao Tze Tung once considered that it could be acceptable that half of his people, the poor, would die of famine to allow the other half that could afford food to be able to meet its needs. Such a morbid thought is actually more common that one would admit, and in this world of political correctness, it is repressed voluntarily. That does not stop the fear mongers, though. They just not choose to sacrifice a group to save another one. They tell us that we are all going to face our demise. That is politically correct, I suppose. Personally, I do not consider that announcing disasters is constructive. Fear is a poor adviser, and it is certainly not the proper way to communicate about problems.

There is no shortage of doomsday thinkers out there. In We Will Reap What We Sow, I address the many challenges that the doomsday thinkers bring up. Instead of taking an apocalyptic approach like they do, I chose to initiate a positive  reflection about alternatives and solutions. Scaring people is too easy, especially when they are not experts in the field of agriculture. I am not a fan of the one-eyed being king in the land of the blind. I have 20/20 vision and I want to help others to also see with both eyes. In my book, I make clear that we will live with the consequences of our actions (hence the title), but I give many reasons for hope. It is more productive then despair.

In the realm of doom and gloom, I must admit that the Post Carbon Institute wins the prize. Among the other prophets of doom, Lester Brown currently fills the stage, especially since he is promoting his latest book. I had the chance to hear him speak some 14 years ago at an aquaculture conference. I must say that he is an excellent speaker and quite a charming man. Actually, he inspired me to venture into foresight and futurism. I really believe that his talents should be used to create positive momentum instead of sowing depressive thoughts in the population. Before the summer (before the US drought that is), he had stated in an interview that “the world is only one bad harvest away from a food crisis”. I have never subscribed to that point of view. The issue of feeding the world is much more complex than that. Well, we just have had a bad harvest and there is no more food crisis than last year. Prices of agricultural commodities have gone through the roof. Yet, there have not been any riots like in 2008. It is almost a wonder considering how much fear mongering has taken place in the mainstream media. They all came with scarier scenarios the one than the other. And thanks to social media, the news spreads even faster and further. In particular, Twitter is an amazing place to be in. Anything and everything gets tweeted, retweeted many times over without the slightest critical thinking. Their symbol should not be a bird. It should be a sheep. The top of uncritical maniacal tweeting was about the writer from Australia who spoke at a conference telling the audience that agriculture needs to produce 600 quadrillion calories a day. That was all over twitter. Wow, do you fancy that, 600 quadrillion? Yes, I have to admit it is a big number. I found is so big that I had to count on my fingers. Considering that the average human being needs about 2,000 calories a day (the FAO says 1,800, but let’s keep the calculation simple!), 600 quadrillion calories corresponds to the needs of 300 trillion people. That is about more than 40,000 (yes, forty thousand) times more than the current world population. With math like this, it should be no surprise that his book is titled the Coming Famine. Regardless of the title, I would agree that one Earth could not feed any number of people remotely close to 300 trillion, but we are not there yet. When I saw that number, I could not resist tweeting about the math, and the sheeple out there realized that the numbers did not add up.

That has not been the end of my tweeting against the fueling of fears about food and agriculture. Another tweet that caught my attention came from Graziano da Silva, Director General of the FAO (actually his staff) stating about food prices “This is not a crisis yet. We need to avoid “panic buying””, to which I replied that a good way to do this could be to stop talking about food crisis so often. What can be more of a boon to speculators in commodities than Twitter and its instant worldwide spreading of any rumor, information or myth that indeed can create panic? There is no better way to make food prices increase than by repeating exponentially that there might be food shortages, even though it is not the case. Interestingly enough, since then, the panic button seems to have been turned off at the FAO.

Fear mongering and doomsday thinking, although morbidly attractive, will not help build a solid future. Predicting terrible disasters without giving clear clues of how to prevent and overcome them is rather useless. Actually, it is counterproductive. Those who do not know the facts or are not in a position of doing something about the problem are going to feel demotivated and there is a chance that they will not try to care anymore. Those who actually contribute to solutions will not pay much attention, as it sounds like the kid who cried wolf to them, and might miss important information in the process. There are challenges ahead. Some of them are quite serious and difficult to overcome, but not impossible. I know that and I know them. And so do many others. However, the fact that the task ahead is challenging  is no reason to undermine anyone’s morale. The amount of knowledge and of tools at our disposal is quite amazing, and we probably have more than we need to fix things. What must change is our attitude. Rambling and whining about problems have never made any disappear. It is necessary to create positive momentum among the population(s), to show them that success is possible. To achieve this, it is important to avoid the opposite of fear mongering, which is blissful optimism. It is possible to feed the world, even when it reaches 9 billion people. It can be done with one Earth. A couple of years ago, I was one of the few who claimed that it could be done. By then I felt a bit lonely, as the main thinking sounded like it could not be achieved. Maybe my blog, books and presentations have contributed to change that. Those who have read me or listened to me seem to think that my positive and practical look on the issue have contributed to changing their mindset. The thought is nice, but it is not what counts. What really matters is that gradually, more people start to see beyond the myths and the catch phrases. Not everyone does. This summer, I heard about the “Great Global Food Crisis”. So far, I had heard only about the Global Food Crisis. Apparently, fear had increased by a notch or two.  Such expressions are non-sense. If the food crisis were to be global, there would be a food crisis everywhere around the globe. That is pretty much the definition. I do not see any food crisis in many countries. Actually, a study showed that the number of overweight people was on the rise in more and more countries. What is true is that there are local food crises. Unfortunately, for the populations that suffer from it, they are not caused by global food shortages as some like to make believe, but because of armed conflict and /or by poverty and lack of infrastructure. The number of undernourished people is actually decreasing as the FAO showed in their latest State of Food Insecurity 2012. To me, everything points at progress in the fight against hunger, even though negative climatic events affect agricultural production. But just for fun, let’s get back to the Great Crisis. If the food crisis were to be global, can it get any bigger than that? What does the adjective Great add? It adds nothing except the desire to scare. Let’s face it! Some people jobs depend on cultivating the idea that something goes wrong. It is their only purpose. Personally, I prefer those who roll up the sleeves and conceive, develop and execute solutions. These are the ones who make our future world a better place. It is too bad that they do not get as much attention from the media as the fear mongers. Of course, things that go well are not as sensational as disasters, but they are more valuable. They are the success stories that need to be told, so that others can learn from them. They are the success stories that must be told so that we all eventually can realize that building a solid future is possible. It is not easy as spreading fear, but it is much more productive and useful for present and future generations!

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.