Just for fun, a bit of science fiction

October 15, 2011

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.


Farming a better future by learning the lessons of the previous Green Revolution

September 27, 2010

After the facts, the Green Revolution of the 1960s has been criticized for having caused negative consequences on farmland. It is true that some intensive agricultural practices have brought serious damage to soils and water reserves, but it is also true that the actions taken have increase food production and they averted the risk of a devastating famine in India.

Today, humanity is facing another major challenge to meet agricultural production to meet the demand of an increasing population. The term “agricultural revolution” has come back in the news and this is a good opportunity to reflect on how to handle future actions.

This time, there is one major difference. With 9 billion people in sight by 2050, the consequences of our actions will have much more impact, negative as well as positive, depending on where we live. In 1950, there were “only” 2.5 billion people on Earth. Compared with today, one could argue that there was some margin for error by then. This margin for error is now gone. Therefore, it is necessary to think ahead and consider all the things that might go wrong. We must anticipate before we have to react.

What can we learn from the Green Revolution, then?

The first lesson is that when humans decide to put all their knowledge together and give themselves the means to succeed, good things happen. Food production increased and people were fed.

The second lesson is that our actions have consequences and that we need to be vigilant about what we do and how we do it.

Of course, it is always easy to criticize after the facts. Pinpointing the negative effects of the Green Revolution is only relevant to a point. Using the mistakes from then as an argument to not engage in further modernization and progress is at least as destructive as bad practices implemented without thinking. Not taking action to develop new practices, new techniques and new technologies –three very different concepts- comes down to giving up. This is not acceptable. This is not possible. To meet future food demand, farmers and all the players involved in food production will need to be innovative and daring. Being innovative and daring does not mean being reckless. We cannot accept this behavior, as the consequences could be too serious.

When looking back at the Green Revolution, the question is not so much “What did they do wrong?” as it is “Did they know something wrong would happen?”

We know today that heavy mechanization, intensive monoculture and use of chemicals caused soil erosion, loss of fertility and soil and water contamination. Is that something that the farmers and the agribusiness of that time realized was happening? Did they have a possibility to know it? Some might answer “No” and others will say “Yes, I told you so”. Could have things been done differently, and helped feeding the people while not damaging the farmland?

For the future, we need to asks ourselves similar questions and develop a plan that helps us 1) succeed, 2) limit risks and 3) have alternatives in the case problems come up.

To figure out what can go wrong, the best is to listen to the opponents of the practices, techniques and technologies considered to be used. In a very short time, it is possible to set up a whole list of potential problems. To do this, it is also important to keep an open mind, because the past has shown that often what actually goes wrong had been mentioned at some time in the debate, even it might have sounded irrelevant. “The Lorax”, the movie by Dr. Seuss gives a good representation of debate between industrialists and environmentalists. The question to answer is “What if the risks actually happen?” and to develop an extensive action plan to restore control on the situation as soon as possible. In food production, the control has to occur within a limited number of areas: soil fertility, water quality, climate (to some extent), weeds, pests, diseases, bacteria (including the good ones), insects (including the good ones), worms, all animals that live on and interact with “farmland” (on the land and in the oceans) and their habitat, genetic diversity, and ability to living organisms to reproduce.

Every time progress is made, there is a struggle between the enthusiastic and those who fear change. There is a tension between action and precaution. This is very human and normal. It is necessary to take the time to review the whole process thoroughly and accept that things do not change as fast, or not as slowly as some think they should. In the end, progress must help humanity improve and prosper, and not just on the short term.

The key is preparing ourselves, and as the saying goes: “The failure of preparation is the preparation of failure”.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Since we cannot beat Nature…

September 9, 2010

It is convenient to paraphrase the saying “if you cannot beat them, join them”. This applies to our dealing with Nature just as well.

As a species, we have been very successful in conquering our environment and exterminating what threatens us. Actually, we have been successful up to a certain point. The very success that generated the current pace in human population increase brings the next challenge. Sustainability is just as much about the population increase as about how we use the resources. In 1950, there were “only” 2.5 billion humans on Earth. Compared with almost 7 billion today and the expected 9 billion in 2050, it sounds almost like a desert. How does this relate to sustainability? When 2.5 billion people behaved badly, from an environmental point of view, it had consequences, but there was room and time to correct the situation. When 7 or even 9 billion people consume, possibly waste precious resources, damage the environment and pollute beyond what is acceptable, the consequences are a lot more serious and a lot faster to hit back at us.

Sustainability is not just about production techniques, but it is at least as much about our attitude. Sustainability is even more a moral and behavioral necessity than one of a technological nature. The natural instinct when facing a problem is to look for the fastest and easiest way of solving it. This preference of the present tends to make us forget about the long-term effects of our actions. This behavior also tends to ignore how Nature works.

The first rule to remember is that Nature simply does not care whether we exist or not. Nature was there long before us, and it will be there after us, too. The calls to “save the planet” are in fact calls to save humanity. Nature is an open field where evolving life forms compete and fill the spaces left available. This is also what mankind has done since the beginning of its existence: compete, fight and conquer new habitats.

Nature does not care whether a particular species goes extinct. Only some people do. When a species disappears, others compete to take over the vacuum left, and life goes on. Nature is all about creating balances between species. This is why when a species’ population grows fast because of favorable conditions, it always becomes victim of its success. Even insects deplete food resources beyond what could have sustained them. When the food is gone, they simply die by the millions. As far as Nature is concerned, if climate changes, if the nitrate content of drinking water is too high, if soil is eroded, it does not matter. Let the best species win!

This ability of Nature to constantly adjust to changes in populations of life forms also explains why our efforts to kill threats in agriculture and food production will never be quite successful. Farmers may kill lots of pests and weeds thanks to chemicals, pharmaceuticals and now genetically engineered crops, they also create a vacuum for others or better organism to conquer. This is why we face antibiotic-resistant bacteria or herbicide-resistant weeds. This is simply the result of natural selection and evolution happening right before our eyes. Organisms mutate constantly and when a trait helps them survive some of our techniques and products, they thrive. The problem for us is that if forces us to find more specific treatment products as we go on, and this is getting more and more difficult. Are we going to have to fight ever increasingly resistant and strong superbugs, super bacteria and super weeds? If so, we are facing an uphill battle, because we are always at least one step behind new mutations and natural selection. It is not impossible for us to keep the upper hand, though, but the margin of error when looking for solutions will become thinner and thinner.

To stay ahead of the game, farmers and all the people involved in food production need to thinks like ecologists. Science and technology will be the basis for progress, but thinking only like chemists is too limiting. Managing ecosystems is one of the underlying principles of sustainability in food production. We will succeed only by understanding the big picture and thinking like chess players, and anticipate what the several following moves will be, as well from Nature’s side as from ours. We cannot make Nature checkmate, but Nature can do that to us.

The secret ingredient is long-term responsible thinking, even if this goes against the short-term interests of shareholders.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Future Harvests – The book is coming soon!

April 9, 2010

 

The editing of my book “Future Harvests – The next agricultural revolution” is about completed. All that is left to do is developing the cover and start the publishing.

I have already received orders, even before the book is out. That is quite a good sign. And a great surprise for me.

If you wish to be updated automatically when the book is published, just subscribe in the sidebar window on the right.

To describe the topics addressed, I have posted three short promotional videos on YouTube. In previous articles (The fun of writing this book and The next agricultural revolution), I had already given an idea about the content of the book.

Video #1: The Fundamentals (duration 2:37) – Introduction to the background and fundamental principles mentioned in the book “Future Harvests – The next agricultural revolution” to achieve food security for 9 billion people in 2050. Topics such as demographics, the shift in economic power, the control of food  and food security strategies are reviewed. Sustainability, innovation, efficient market driven food production and strong leadership are required.

or click here if video does not appear

Video #2: The Actions (duration 2:12) – A short review of some of the actions mentioned in the book to achieve the objectives. Solving the water challenge, finding new land for production, urban farming, hydroponics, farming the desert, rebuilding fisheries and developing aquaculture further are all possibilities.

or click here if video does not appear

Video #3: The Questions (duration 3:08) – A sample of some of the questions raised in the book. They cover technology, land deals in Africa, improving yields, restoring soil fertility, change in consumer needs, organic farming, risks of conflicts, biofuels or meat are some of the topics presented.

or click here if video does not appear

If you know someone who could be interested by the topics on this page, please pass it on!


Let’s not confuse efficiency and intensification!

October 1, 2009

Although it may sound like a bit of semantics, the difference between these two terms is quite important when it comes to agriculture and food production.

Let's not confuse efficiency and intensification!Since WWII, much progress has been made to increase food production, such as genetic improvement, production techniques and mechanization, use of fertilizers, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the development of animal nutrition, and of course government incentives. This has resulted in our ability to produce more efficiently and face a previous doubling of the world population. It has helped reduce costs and made food more affordable to more, although unfortunately not to all.

The main driver behind this evolution has been to shift from a mostly labor intensive food production to a mostly capital intensive one, and this why it had to become intensive. The labor force moved to urban centers where they could find jobs in manufacturing and later in services. Thanks to mechanization, less people were needed to work on farms. This has led to a sharp drop of the population active in agriculture from above 50% of all actives to less than 5% in Western countries within 30 years. Moreover, as the standard of living increased, labor costs increased and made a labor-intensive approach too expensive to fit in the type of society that we created, and the only, apparent, solution has been to further intensify and mechanize.

The strong development of manufacturing that went along with the rise of the consumption society increased the standard of living and the disposable income. In the same time, in constant currency, food became relatively cheaper and much more affordable. This led to a change of diet from mostly starch-based to protein-based, and we have seen recently a similar trend in emerging countries.

Clearly, all of this has improved the quality of life, maybe a little too much too fast though. Intensification has brought its share of problems as well, as it always does with progress. For instance, I can mention soil erosion and loss of organic matter, soil fertility and ground water quality affected by manure (especially minerals) surpluses, reduced genetic diversity and possibly lessened resistance to diseases, to name a few. Of course, for each of the problems, we come with a solution mostly based on technology, which usually fits in and reinforces intensification.
Unfortunately, Nature does not work that simply. All it needs is time to process and eliminate problems through its cycles in the soil and in the water. Nature can handle quite a lot, but it can handle only that much. This is where the difference between intensification and efficiency becomes obvious.

Intensification tends to continuously load and overload the system, which is why we hear so much talk about sustainable agriculture nowadays. Food production cannot be sustainable if it does not allow its natural environment to process and eliminate the contaminants. Similarly, Nature cannot replenish on its own what we take out, unless we create the conditions for this.

Efficiency, on the other hand, integrates performance and sustainability. It allows having a high production, not so much by using massive amounts of water, fertilizer, energy or other production inputs, but by using them when needed where need and just as much as needed. This way, we can grow plants or animals with the minimum amount of waste and respect the ecosystem. Efficiency also comes from optimization, and to this extent, efficiency and intensification go hand in hand, up to that particular point when any incremental input does not produce more in the same proportion. More importantly, once we produce beyond the optimum, we take the chance of creating a stress. This is very clear in animal production, when densities exceed a certain point, the animals’ organism defence becomes weak and makes them vulnerable to diseases.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Ecosystem-based management approach gains importance

August 23, 2009

Here is an article from fis.com illustrating what I had written in previous articles in this blog (enter “ecosystem” in the search window to have the list of these articles) and mentioned in my presentation Twelve trends for the future of food production.
It also illustrate my claim that for environmental organizations and industry need time has come to co-operate.
After all, food production is a biological process and so are our lives, so that is no wonder that we need to look at this issue in its broad and complete scope.


Rebuilding fisheries is a must for the future

August 5, 2009

Rebuilding fish stocks will be good for us allAs everyone knows, fish stocks have been depleted to levels that are not acceptable. This is the result of short-term thinking combined with highly efficient but stupid fishing methods. Not only fish is a high value food source, but oceans are complex ecosystems that we cannot afford to lose. Although aquaculture claims to be the way to compensate the supply of wild fish, this is only true within limits, as some aquaculture species are fed with fish meal and fish oil, and replacement of these products is also limited by the quantities that agricultural crops can supply, and consequently their price.

As one of the points that I mention in my presentation “Twelve trends for the future of food production” (under Presentations tab), we can expect that programs will be set up to rebuild wild fish stocks and bring the volumes back to levels with which sustainable fishing methods and quotas will help provide us with more secure supplies. This will be some sort of a stimulus plan for seafood with all stakeholders involved: government, fishermen, aquaculture industry, retailers, food service and consumers.

A recent report published by the Pew Charitable Trusts has reviewed the possibilities and the economic impact of rebuilding fisheries in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean, as well as the downside of doing nothing. A Canadian research has worked in a similar direction and tend to show that rebuilding fish populations is possible, citing a number of successful cases (see article).

All that comes out from these reports is that the situation, although quite serious, is far from lost, but it requires political will and organization to make it happen. This is exactly why all parties involved from whichever country concerned will have to act in a coordinated manner.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.