Adapting our thinking to the future – part 1

May 3, 2013

Everybody will agree that the coming decades are presenting many new challenges. Never before have we faced such a population growth and demand for about everything, food and water being the most essential. The difference between success and failure will reside mostly in our attitude towards change and our willingness to adapt to a different new situation. For obvious reasons, the economic model of mass consumption and resources depletion that generates a mindboggling amount of waste is coming to an end one way or another. A new system needs to come and will come. Whether it will be the easy way or the hard way really depends on us all and in particular on our leaders. I like to tell that our future will be only as bright as our leaders. It is a bit of a joke, but not quite.

The circular will look linear when approached from the right angle

What does need to change in our thinking and attitude, then? In a finite world, we must understand that always more is not sustainable. This is especially true when several billion people are thinking of having the same consumption lifestyle as developed countries have had over the past 60 years or so. The pie is not big enough to allow that kind of party (and neither is the bakery that must produce the pie). This is where we seem to be stuck in our thinking. We have learnt to think linear in the past several decades. It can go only in one direction, and it has to be up, doesn’t it? God forbid of anything going down. In the field of farming when I hear the linear argument, I like to mention two things. The first one is that if farming stats must go linear, there should not be any farm left in developed countries in the not so distant future, and the same should happen in developing countries, too, just a bit later. No farm means no food. Apparently, that does not seem acceptable. There goes a crack in the linear thinking. My second argument against thinking blindly linear is that in biology and in population dynamics, there are no linear functions. All curves are curbed in some way. There are bell curves, sigmoid curves, exponential and logarithmic curves, just to name a few. None of them are linear. If we want to plan our relation with our environment in a prosperous manner, we need to leave the linear thinking and start thinking curbed, and the curve that fits the ability to renew indefinitely our access to essential resources best is the circle. Circular thinking is the never-ending linear. That is just as much of a thinking revolution as moving away from the concept of a flat earth to embrace the idea of a spherical one, or to fathom the curbed space. Shifting from linear thinking to circular thinking simply means a shift in thinking from always more to always enough. All it means is that we need to change our ways, but it certainly does not mean the end of the world. It would only mean the end of a world. With a growing population, circular thinking actually presents a lot of business opportunities, especially considering that the alternative is going nowhere eventually. There is no doubt that those who will catch these opportunities will be the winners of tomorrow.

Such a change in thinking also results in rethinking the meaning of growth. Currently, growth, and the GDP as its favorite indicator, means mostly volume and consumption. Actually consumption is probably not the correct world to describe our societies. Buying is a more correct one. Producers want consumers to buy. Consuming in this process is really optional. What counts is the act of purchasing over and over again. We think of growth as quantitative growth. Future growth will have to be a qualitative growth. With so many new people who will need employment in the decades to come, it will be crucial that future growth will have to fill a positive social role. Similarly, to have a livable planet, the future will have to contribute positively to maintaining a healthy environment. Social and environmental responsibility will become the standard. There is no escaping this. Well, that is with the angle of building a prosperous future. If not, chaos is always a possibility.

One of the most visible consequences of a growth model based essentially on quantity and mass purchasing is waste. As consumption goods became cheaper credit became easier and disposable income increased, consuming has become about buying and throwing away. The mountains of garbage in landfills around the world should be a reminder, although we seem to have located them far away from the eyes of the wealthy and in the backyard of the poor. Quite convenient. This way, consumers could forget about the consequences of their actions… and keep on buying and throwing away. Although this happens for all consumer goods, this is especially immoral when it comes to food in a world where about a billion people do not have enough to eat. It is immoral, simply because food means the difference between life and death, and wasting food is indirectly contributing to the death of others. It is also immoral because food waste is also the waste of all the inputs used for the production of food, be it water, energy or money. Waste is an indicator of the level of efficiency. Highly efficient systems generate little or no waste. Inefficient systems generate a lot of it. I will let you judge how efficient you think we are. Waste is also an indicator of our attitude. It is not just about morals, but also about discipline. Our societies waste a lot, because we still are much too lenient with ourselves, and also because in many cases the financial incentives to do the right thing are sadly lacking. We choose the path of least resistance.

As life became easier in a number of countries, people have started to lose some essential reflexes for survival. It is not necessary to go all that much back in time to see the change. My parents, grandparents and ancestors grew up in times that were not of plenty, simply because there was no consumption society, and incidentally there was the occasional war. People would not waste anything not so much out of morals, but because they simply could not afford it. Yes, mass wasting is the fruit of luxury. My elders would not waste and they were very skilled at circular thinking. They knew that nothing is created or lost, but that everything is transformed. As resources were not plenty, the right answer was to show plenty of resourcefulness. This is how things were by then.

To take the example of food waste, they would make sure that leftovers would be on the table the next day. They would most certainly not end up in the garbage. They would feed the pigs with what they could not eat themselves. Actually, they were turning low value products such as potato peels in high value protein in the form of pork. When I was in the agricultural university, my animal nutrition teacher once told a joke that I have never forgotten, especially considering that I have spent a substantial part of my professional life in animal production. He told us that modern animal husbandry was the art of turning high value protein into cheap fat. Not quite untrue, and so much the contrast with the pork made out of table scraps. This contrast is very much present in the ongoing debate about meat production systems.

We can find many answers for the future by looking at the past. In our current times of science-based facts obsession, many seem to look down at words such as experience, wisdom and philosophy. This is not wise. Our elders might not have known all the scientific background of what they were doing, but they knew what was best for them to survive. They knew how to manage a finite world of finite resources to sustain themselves. Passing on that knowledge, experience and wisdom was an essential part of survival. There was no conflict between modernity and that knowledge, experience and wisdom. They integrated the new and the old to build a better world. Although, there is still a lot of work to eradicate poverty, let’s not forget that the result has been the emergence of prosperous societies in which a record number of people are living now.

(Part 2 of this topic will be published soon)

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Dealing with complexity

February 1, 2013

Looking at the future of food and farming goes far beyond agriculture. It comes down to looking at the future of humankind. Balancing future supply and demand of food is an exercise that includes many disciplines and dimensions, probably more so than any other human economic activity. Anything that affects life and its level of prosperity must be taken into account. Feeding the world is not just a matter of production. Of course, the ability to produce and to keep producing enough food is paramount, but there is more to it than that. The consumption side is just as important. Demand will depend on the diet, which also depends on how much money people have available to pay for food.

Total future food demand is a combination of which foods and food groups people in the various regions of the world will buy and eat. This is a function of demographic, economic, cultural, religious and ethical factors. If future demand is about consuming according to the nutritional needs of a human being, clearly the situation will be different than if people demand twice as many calories and protein as the actual nutritional needs. The relative share of animal products in the total diet will also change the situation in terms of production and of production systems. Food production must adjust to the demand and do its best to meet it, but not at all costs. Therefore, it is essential to optimize food production at the global level so that the largest quantity of food can be produced at the lowest environmental cost. At the local level, production depends of course on natural conditions, but also on economic, political and cultural conditions as well. This may be the most profound change that we must deal with: feeding the world of the future is a global exercise. As more and more people worldwide have more and more money to spend on food, demand is now global, and therefore production plans must also be global. The times of producing food simply for the own people and exporting surpluses is over. Markets will now react to any event that will affect production or consumption somewhere else. Borders do not make this shift in thinking easy. It is always tempting to think that having one’s house in order is enough, but it is not. What happens in other countries on the other side of the world will affect us just as well. Why is that? Just one word to explain it: markets. There used to be a time, not so distant when if there was a drought in Russia, China or Brazil, markets would not react as strongly, and anyway not so much in the media, as we have seen over the past few years. This was the case because only a minority of the world was consuming large quantities and that minority did not have competition. Now the competition is wide open. Markets will keep reacting on this and the relative price levels of various foods will influence how much of what is consumed and where. We will see eating habits change because of this economical aspect of food supply.

At the same time, food production is also adapting to a changing environment, and to face its future challenges. The amount of new developments in technology, access to information and knowledge and in decision-making tools is amazing. Innovation is flourishing everywhere to solve environmental issues, to cope with new energy and water situations. The dominant themes are the reduction waste of all sorts, as well food as agricultural inputs and by-products, and the prevention of the release of harmful contaminants. Innovation is developing towards better and more efficient systems that must ensure the future continuity of food production and, at the same time, keeping food affordable for consumers. Interestingly enough, many innovations that will be useful for agriculture do not originate from the food sector. Food producers will need to be curious and look beyond the field to prepare for the farming of the future.

Clearly, the number of factors affecting both consumption and supply are many. To add to the complexity, many of these factors are not of an agricultural nature. Many of them originate from the population, its activities and its needs for all sorts of goods. I mentioned earlier that what happens in one region affects others, but the natural resources markets, such as energy, metals and minerals, that must meet demand for non-food consumer goods also affects agriculture and its production costs. Although many see rising costs first as a threat, I tend to welcome them, as they always stimulate innovative solutions to increase efficiency and reduce waste. Two examples show that it works. One is the car market in the USA that shifted from gas-guzzlers to high gas mileage vehicles since gas at the pump became much more expensive than it was only 5 years ago. The second one is food markets. Had you heard as much about food prices, food security or food waste before the food price hikes of 2008 and 2012?

In my work, I always try to make my clients and audiences aware of how everything that has to do with food is interconnected with many other sectors, and how economic, demographic and political events are linked to food security or how they might affect it in the future. That is an underlying them in my books.

Even, within the food and farming sectors, organizations do not realize enough how their future will be influenced by other food productions and vice-versa. I always get reactions of surprise at the magnitude of the interconnection and the interdependence with these factors, and how they affect their activities indirectly. It is a normal reaction, as most people tend to focus on what has a direct connection with their activities. After all, that is why I do what I do: to help them see and decipher this complexity, and understand what actions to take to adapt and prosper. I never shy away from show the complexity. My audience needs to get a flavor of the any dimensions and many layers involved. However, I always take a practical approach and show them that complexity is not the same as complicated. Deconstructing the complexity actually works well to show the many levels of actions there are. It helps my clients connect the dots between their activities and what will affect them and how. It gives them a level of confidence in how to deal with the future and take action. I also like to warn against oversimplifying, which is another tendency that I observe from time to time. The mainstream media is rather good at that. But I also get questions that sound like those who ask hope that I have a magic wand and will be able to give them a foolproof recipe for success. That simply does not exist.  If preparing the future were easy, nobody would even talk about it. It would be done. It it was easy, I guess many of the organizations that have been involved in agricultural development and food aid for decades would have already succeeded, and they would not exist anymore. Yet, they still have to keep up with their work.

Feeding the world is work in progress. Developing the right actions is complex, but not as complicated as it sounds. However, the true difficulty is in the execution, and in particular bringing other stakeholders with different agendas and different views on board to contribute to the success.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Thinking of a better agriculture in a better world

August 11, 2012

Recently, I joined a group on LinkedIn called “Future of Agriculture”. One of the discussion topics, which caught my attention, was “What’s your dream for the world with agriculture as a theme?” Of course, this is quite a broad topic. I decided I would write here my thoughts about the discussion as concisely as possible. Therefore, here is what I believe is important for the agriculture of the future.

Agriculture must provide food today and tomorrow. Keeping the potential to feed the world for future generations is not an option; it is a necessity. Agriculture must produce in a sustainable manner. It must meet both the demand for food, but also be able to continue meeting future demand. It must take all necessary actions to ensure there will be enough water, enough soil, enough organic matter and enough nutrients to keep producing. It must also make sure that it does not contaminate the water and the soil. Agriculture must be sustainable from an environmental point of view, but it also must prove sustainable financially and socially. Without agriculture, there cannot be prosperous societies. To have agriculture, the world needs farmers. Farming must be an attractive occupation that allows those who practice it to make a decent living. This is more important today and in the future than it has ever been before.

Future food production must be innovative. Innovation is essential to solve current and future problems. It is the main trait of the human genius. Finding new ways of doing a better job and meeting all the future needs is a must if humanity wants to succeed in feeding its growing population. However, innovation is not the same as high-tech. Innovations do not need to be complicated and expensive. Innovation must integrate science, experience, common sense and practicality. Innovation does not oppose the past and the present or the future. It comes for the search of the best of all worlds. Innovation is useful only when it solves actual problems. It is not a doctrine of its own. The purpose of innovation is not about R&D for the sake of new products that help boost sales of those who market them. Its primary purpose is really about helping others succeed. Innovation must start from the market. What does the customer need to do a better job? The answer will be much more successful and better accepted if it starts from the market end, instead of being pushed onto the customers. This leads me to the next point: the necessity of being market-oriented.

Market orientation is the best approach for any type of business activity. It is true for R&D, but it is true for farming, too. Developing and producing by investing large amounts of money are much more effective and cost-efficient when the markets and the infrastructure are there. Offering what customers need has a much higher level of success than trying to convince buyers who are not very interested. The prices and the margins are always higher in a pull strategy. Market orientation also means that the infrastructure to bring the goods to the final users exists and that it actually works. One of the main scandals in today’s agriculture supply chain is the postharvest losses. It is outrageous that food that has been produced at the high cost of money, labor, water, energy, inputs and the farmers’ time rots in the fields or in deficient storage while it is good for consumption. It is the responsibility of all partners in production, supply chain and government to co-operate by organizing operations, so that food reaches those who need it.

The agriculture of the future needs to be developed in a pragmatic manner. There is no fix-it-all agricultural system. Food production depends on climate, landscape, soil types, water availability, need for sustainability, land rights, as well as the cultural, social, economic and political environment. The types of crops and animal production will depend on these factors. If systems cannot always be transferred from one place to another, knowledge and skills can be. Human intelligence and sharing is what spread progress. If farmers and all players in food production must be pragmatic and choose among the arsenal of tools and techniques what fits best in a particular situation, there are no boundaries in helping others to succeed. The energy must be spent to level up performance, not on defending a system for ideological or mercantile reasons. If the agriculture of the future succeeds, all of humanity will succeed. If it fails, humanity will have to deal with unrest, riots, hunger and possibly wars. Pragmatism is what will help the farmers of the future optimize food production around the world by making decisions that are in the best interest of all the partners from farm to table. Pragmatism is also what will deliver the highest financial return for them. However, for pragmatism to beat partisanship, bias and short-term interests, outstanding leadership will be paramount.

The leaders of the future will identify the right actions and execute them. They will cut the rhetoric and focus on delivering result on all fronts: financial, social and environmental. They will crystallize the energies around the objectives that serve all on the short term and on the long term. This will not be an easy task as the reasons to choose the path of least resistance are many. It will take courage, vision and the ability to convince the opposition. In history, great leaders have always sacrificed their personal interests, their personal safety and comfort for the good of the group. Such leaders are rare, but they exist, at all levels of society. They need to rise and improve the way we currently do things. They will succeed only if the average person is willing to make the right changes, too. This is not an easy task, either, but the alternative is even worse. The great leaders of the future will show the rest of us how things can be. They will give others the courage to implement the change and make them believe in the future. They will have to lead by example. They will have to reconcile instead of dividing and polarizing. When it comes to food production, they will not only help develop an efficient and sustainable agriculture, but they also will make sure that consumers change their eating habits where it is needed. They will help educate consumers about proper nutrition and moderation, while keeping food a positive experience, as well for the senses as for it social purpose. They will ensure that proper nutrition protects the health of their people. They also will give agriculture its rightful place in society and ensure that producing food is a respected and attractive occupation. They will take all actions to help food producers to succeed. They will reconcile urban and rural areas. They will make sure that people understand where food comes from and what it takes to feed for prosperity. They will work against waste.

Every waste is a loss of efficiency. With a population of 9 billion coming in the next few decades, waste will not be an option anymore. As the number of people increases and their needs have to be filled, the margin for error will shrink. The consequences of 9 billion behaving badly will be much worse that when there were only 3 billion people on Earth doing that. Every waste of resources will be quite costly, financially, socially and environmentally. The only way to reduce waste will be by being more efficient.  This will be true for food, as well as for water, for energy, for agricultural inputs, for soil, for organic matter and for biodiversity. Preserving and replenishing will protect humanity from a situation of depleting resources, which is where it is currently heading. The consumption and depletion society has no future. Future food production and consumption must be aimed at maintaining and preserving the potential of agriculture.

Those who are familiar with my work know that sustainability, innovation, market orientation, pragmatism, leadership and efficiency are the 6 principles that I had gathered under the acronym of SIMPLE in my first book, Future Harvests. In my second book, We Will Reap What We Sow, I developed and discussed the characteristics of proper leadership and the vision required to rethink food and farming to succeed in the future.

Even if future solutions need to be adapted to their specific local situations, these 6 principles apply everywhere and need to be implemented in a concerted manner by all regions.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


When externalities cannot be externalized anymore

March 29, 2012

Externalities are costs, or benefits, that are not included in the price charged for a product. If a cost is not included in the price, it represents a negative externality. If a benefit is not included, the externality is positive. The concept of externality is particularly important to determine whether an activity is sustainable. For instance, if an industrial activity pollutes and causes harm, there will be consequences, and costs. As it takes many years for environmental problems to become obvious, the cost of repairing the damage caused by pollution is not included in the cost of the goods produced by the industrial activity in question. However, there will be a day when it there will be no alternative but to clean the damage. That cost is the externality.

Every activity that pollutes without cleaning the contaminants is a negative externality. Everything that damages physically the environment and undermines the sustainability of food production is a negative externality. Every activity that depletes essential resources for the production of food is a negative externality. In this highly industrialized world, the consequences of economic and human activities, slowly add up. Nature’s resilience makes it possible for damage to remain unnoticed for quite some time. However, the ability of Nature to repair the damage shrinks, as the damage is continuous and exceeds Nature’s ability to cope with the problem. As the population increases, the level of human and economic activities intensifies further. There will come a time when Nature simply cannot handle the damage and repair it in a timely manner anymore. The buffer will be full. When this happens, the effect of negative externalities will manifest immediately, and it will include the cumulated damage over decades as well. It will feel like not paying the bills for a long time and then having all belongings repossessed. Humanity will feel stripped and highly vulnerable. The advisory services company KPMG published a report in 2012 stating that if companies had to pay for the environmental cost of their production, it would cost them an average 41% of their corporate earnings. These costs are currently not included in the pricing. That is how high negative externalities can be. Looking at it from the other way, companies would still deliver 59% of their current earnings. Repairing the damage and still generate profits shows that sustainability is financially achievable. On average, the profits would only be lower, but the impact would vary substantially between companies. Businesses that create high negative externalities will show much bigger drops in profits, than business that do the right thing. The only ones who would have to get over some disappointment would be Wall Street investors and all those who chase capital gains on company shares. The world could live with that. Investors should put their money only in companies that actually have a future.

All the fossil fuels that humans burn are gone forever. It is not renewable. All the water that farmers use for food production and exported away from the production region is gone forever. Exporters in arid regions will have no choice than disappear, produce only for the local markets, or if that is economically sensible, import water from surplus regions. All the minerals that are used as fertilizers and that are exported from the fields in the form of leaching or in the form of agricultural commodities are gone forever. New supplies produced either with non-renewable energy sources or from mines that are slowly depleting must replace the loss. Organic matter that is lost from soils must be replaced, or it will be gone forever. Soil that is lost through erosion and climate is gone forever, unless new soil is brought back on the land or very long-lasting repair techniques are applied. Every gene that is lost is lost forever and might be missing dearly. Every species that goes extinct is gone forever, as well as its role in the ecosystem. Every molecule of greenhouse gas that goes into the atmosphere is gone out of human control forever. It might bring a heavy cost in the future.

Since everything that becomes rarer also becomes more expensive, the externalities are going to weigh on the economics of food and agriculture, as well as in any other activity. There will be an oil price for which the current machines will be too expensive to operate, and for perishables to be too costly to truck with fossil fuels over long distances. The economics of water will change the purpose of farming in arid regions. It will alter the agricultural policies and force farmers to innovate new irrigation techniques. The economics of minerals and organic matter will change the location of animal farms and manure containment systems. No minerals will be lost. Manure will become a competitive fertilizer, as chemical fertilizers will become much more expensive to produce. The logistics of manure will change and the location of animal farms will change to allow an optimal cost efficiency of raw material for feed and access to fertilizing elements and organic matter. Farms will not have to be mixed, but the agricultural landscape will restore an integration of crop farms with animal farms.  Agriculture will be sustainable only if completes all the cycles. In the past decades, the cycles of minerals, of organic matter and of water have been open. Food has been produced in one place, and then moved over long distances and the waste and surpluses have accumulated somewhere else, while the original production areas were slowly depleting. New systems and new organization will work on closing the cycles again to bring back what agriculture needs to function. The economics of energy will change the chemical industry and its products. Everything will aim at using as little primary resources as possible and maximize the efficiency of inputs by both bringing entirely new products and application techniques. It will be true for energy, water, fertilizers, chemicals, medicines. The new focus will be about using just what is needed when it is needed and only in the dose that is needed, and no more than that. It will be all about precision agriculture, precision animal husbandry, precision packing, precision manufacturing, precision processing and precision logistics.

When externalities manifest immediately, there will not be the time discrepancy between financial results and environmental results. There will be no excuse anymore to say that there is no evidence of consequences. There will be no possibility of creating the confusion, either. When pushed to the limits of its resilience, Nature will bring the financial and the environmental at the same timeline. It will be stressful. Doing the right thing environmentally, or in other words, producing sustainably, will be the best, and only, short-term strategy for financial sustainability.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd

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.


No shortage of action points for the future

August 5, 2011

The path to feeding the growing world population and to preserve agriculture’s ability to provide adequate volumes is paved with many challenges. Leaders will have to show how to resolve the many issues food production is facing or will face in the coming decades, and how to create a viable future.

As the population increases, the need for energy increases, too. Oil reserves are finite and new oilfields are becoming more and more difficult and expensive to exploit. It is only logical that oil will become more and more expensive in the future. This will call for more fuel-efficient equipment and vehicles. At the same time, oil that is more expensive also means that the relative price for alternative energy sources will become more competitive. In March 2011, an analyst from the bank HSBC published a report announcing that oil will no longer be available in 2060. In its future projections, the International Energy Agency (IEA) describes our energy sources as more diverse than they are now. They also mention that oil will not be the main source of energy anymore. Natural gas will take over. We should expect some significant changes in the way agriculture uses energy, the type of machinery that farmers will use and how future logistics will be organized.

The change of economics in energy will affect fertilizers, too. Especially, the production of nitrogen fertilizers uses large amounts of fossil fuel, essentially natural gas. On average, half of the nitrogen spread on fields is lost because of leaching. We can expect the focus to be on efficiency and on strategies of applications that are more efficient. This is already happening with precision agriculture techniques. Next to this, the focus of the fertilizer industry should be on developing nitrogen fertilizers that are less sensitive to leaching. Imagine a nitrogen fertilizer that may cost twice the price of the current ones, but for which there is no loss. Farmers would use only half the quantities that they currently do. The money to spend would be the same, but the use of fossil fuel to produce the fertilizer would be much less. There would be an environmental advantage to do so.

In the area of environmental issues, climate change needs to be addressed more effectively than it has been so far. Regardless whether people believe in it, or believe it is caused by human activity or it is only a natural phenomenon, the number of severe climatic events is reason to consider counter measures, just in case. The debate should not be about whether climate change is real or not. It is not about who may be responsible for it. True leaders take care of their people, and in this case, they should at least come with scenarios, contingency plans and emergency preparedness plans. That is the least we must expect from those in position of power and responsibility. In this case, the saying “the failure of the preparation is the preparation of failure” takes all its meaning.

Linked to climate to some extent, and a precious resource in all cases, water needs to be managed properly and carefully. For instance, all major river systems in Asia depend on Himalayan glaciers. If the glaciers were to disappear, which is a possibility, the source of water that sustains 2.5 billion people would be depleted, even if water used for agriculture also comes from other sources, the monsoon especially. The consequences would be catastrophic. Further, as agriculture uses 70% of all fresh water resources, growing food production will require more efficient water usage techniques. The focus must be on efficiency and on reduction of waste of water resources. Such objectives will require substantial financial resources and solid planning.

In the area of waste, food losses must be reduced as much and as diligently as possible. The moral issue of food being thrown away by the wealthy is obvious. The wealthy are not just in developed countries. In emerging countries, similar behavior is appearing. It is interesting to know that the Indian government is considering fines for those who discard edible food. It is even more interesting to notice that in Western countries where the percentage of food thrown away is the highest, governments are not investigating this possibility of fines. The other food waste scandal is the post-harvest losses. The food is produced. It is edible, but because of a lack of proper infrastructure, it is left to rot. What a waste of seeds, land, water, money, labor and all other necessary inputs. I have mentioned this problem in previous articles, as I have shown that the financial return to fix the problem is actually high and quick. There is plenty of work in this area for leaders. The first step to succeed in this is to recognize that no organization can fix this on its own. There is a need for collaborative leadership, because all the stakeholders in the food chains must participate, and they all will reap the financial benefits of fixing post-harvest problems.

Food production is not a hobby. It is of the utmost importance for the stability and the prosperity of societies. Well-fed and happy people do not riot. The need to improve infrastructure and logistics is obvious. Food must be brought to those who need it. A proper transportation infrastructure is necessary. The choice of transportation methods has consequences for the cost of food supply, and for the environmental cost as well. Road transport is relatively expensive and produces the highest amounts of greenhouse gases. Rail transport is already much better, and barge transport even better. The distance between production areas and consumption centers also needs to be looked at, together with the efficiency of logistics. Optimization will be the name of the game. Completing the cycle of food and organic matter will become even more important than today, as the world population is expected to concentrate further into urban centers. As humans are at the end of the food chain, many nutrients and organic matter accumulates where the human settlements are. These nutrients, as well as the organic matter, will have to be brought back to the land. This is essential if we want to maintain soil fertility. As phosphates mines are gradually running out, sewage and manure are going to play a pivotal role in soil fertility management. The concentration of the population in urban centers, together with the change of economics in energy, will require a very different look on economic zoning, and in urban planning in particular.

Special attention will be necessary to inform and educate consumers to eat better. Overconsumption, and the health problems that result from it, is already becoming a time bomb. Overweight is not only a Western problem. The same trend is appearing in many developing countries as well. Overweight is on the rise all over the world. The number of obesity cases in China, and even in some African countries, is increasing. The cost of fixing health is high, and it will be even more so in countries with an aging population, as age-related ailment add up to eating-habits-related problems. Healthy societies are more productive and cost less to maintain.

As the economy grows, and wealth increases in more and more countries, diets are changing. Consumers shift from carbohydrate-based meals to a higher consumption of animal products, as well as fruit and vegetables. The “meat question” will not go away. Since it takes more than one kg of feed to produce one kg of animal product, increasing animal production puts even more pressure to produce the adequate volumes of food. The question that will arise is how many animals can we -or should we- keep to produce animal protein, and what species should they be? Levels of production, and of demand, will result in price trends that will regulate production volumes to some extent, but government intervention to set production and consumption quotas cannot be excluded, either.

Similar questions will arise about biofuel production, especially the type of biofuel produced. There will be debates about moral, economic, social and practical aspects of biofuels. The consequences on the price of food and animal feed are not negligible. The function of subsidies in the production of biofuels adds to this debate and there are strongly divergent points of view between the various stakeholders.

One of the most important issues in the discussion about feeding the increasing world population is food affordability. Producing more, and producing enough, is not enough. The food produced must be affordable, too. When this is not the case, people cannot eat, and this is the main reason for malnourishment. To make food affordable, food production must be efficient. The costs of production need to be kept under control to avoid either food inflation and/or farmers bankruptcies.

In agriculture, just like in any other human activity, money always talks. Money is a powerful incentive, and when used properly, it is a powerful driver for improvement. Strategic use of financial incentive is part of policies. To meet the future challenges, leaders will have to develop the right kind of incentives. The focus will have to be on efficiency, on long-term continuity of production potential as well as on short-term performance. The financial incentives can be subsidies. Although the debates tend to make believe subsidies are all bad, there are good and useful subsidies. Another area of incentives to think about is the type of bonuses paid to executives. Just imagine what would happen if, instead of just profit, the carbon footprint per $1000 of sales was factored in the bonus? Gas emissions would be high on the priority of management teams.

If the way executives are paid matters, the type of financial structure of businesses could influence the way they operate, too. Now, it may sound surprising, but in the future, expect the question whether food companies should be listed on the stock exchange to arise. Short-term focus on the share price can be quite distracting from the long-term necessities. If we find that elected officials are short-term-oriented because elections take place every four or five years, how short-term quarterly financial results to the stock markets influence CEOs? The pressure by investors on companies’ Executive Boards to deliver value is high. They expect some results within a relatively short period, while what happens to the companies, their employees and long-term effect on the environment after they took their profits is irrelevant to them. This brings the question of the functioning of financial markets as a whole. What derivatives are acceptable? Who should be allowed to have access to which ones? What quantity could they be allowed to buy and sell? Many questions will arise more and more loudly every time food prices will jump up again the future, and as social unrest may result from it.

To prepare the future, it is important to prepare the generations of the future. Education will play a critical role in the success of societies. Only by helping future generations to have access to knowledge, to develop skills and to train to fill in the jobs of the future, will countries develop a strong middle class. Thanks to education, people can get better paying jobs. This allows them to buy adequate quantities of food for themselves and their families. Education is an investment to fight poverty and hunger. In the agricultural sector, it will be important to attract more young people to work in the food and agricultural sector. In many countries, farmers are getting old and replacement is scarce.

These are just a few of the issues that the current and future leadership will have to solve, if we want the feed and preserve the world. There will be many discussions about which systems are the best suited to ensure prosperity and stability. The respective roles of governments, businesses, non-profits and of the people will certainly be reviewed with scrutiny.

During the writing of Future Harvests, it became obvious to me how crucial the role of leadership is for our chances of success. In the course of a number of assignments with my company, this observation has grown even stronger.

For these reasons, I have decided to start writing another book focused on the role of leadership to develop long-term development of food production and food supply. It will be a reflection about the tough calls that leaders need to make. The final objective is to ensure viable food production systems and proper infrastructure, while ensuring the continuity of food supply in the long-term, through a successful interaction between all stakeholders.

Tentatively, the publication date is fixed for the summer or the fall of 2012.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


What a waste!

April 12, 2011

Nobody can have missed it. The hot topic of the past month was the so-called global food crisis. If you believe the media, the conventional ones as well as the social media, we are facing food shortages. For those who follow my articles, it will be no surprise that I am inclined to challenge such statements.

When 40% of all the food produced is wasted and lost, it is not possible to talk about food shortages. As I had explained in “Hunger is about more than just food production”, there is plenty of potential to increase food availability. Currently, and with this extremely sloppy 40% food waste, the world agriculture feeds quite reasonably six billion people. Unfortunately, this is not the case for one billion hungry people. By eliminating the waste, we could supply enough food to feed nine billion people. Not in 2050, but today already! That is not ideology or political agenda. It is simple math. Interestingly enough, the amount of the 40% food waste corresponds with the 70% more food the FAO says we should produce to feed nine billion. The more food we will save, the less we will need to push production up.

Unfortunately, the food waste issue receives little attention in the media. This is surprising because there would be some sensational articles to write about it. A little bit of guilt here, a little bit of horror there. That should sell some newspaper or get people watching TV. If this does not happen, it is probably because the food situation is not dire. From time to time, I receive requests from journalists. Sadly, the stories that interest them have to be scary, such as doomsday scenarios including food shortages and the imminence of food riots everywhere, to be followed of course by World War III. I do not do that. Other type of topics that journalists love is science fiction stuff, such as meat artificially grown in labs and anything related with high-tech, or freaky stuff like eating insects and worms.

The food crisis was not so about shortages. If it had been the case, we would have seen pictures of people fighting for food. It did not happen. Actually, it is a price crisis. The price increase of commodities futures results from the depreciation of the dollar (as I was predicting in “The danger of a weakening US dollar”), and the strategy of what the financial media likes to call hedging against inflation. The later is really smart stuff, as investors rush into buying commodities to hedge against potential future inflation. The high demand for commodities results in price increase. That is the best guarantee to get inflation. Brilliant!

The media attention has been interesting to follow, though. Every newspaper wanted to have a piece about the subject. And they really published a lot. Everyone became a food security expert, from restaurant critics, to balcony gardeners and other economy reporters. Depending on the sources they wanted to use, the sponsors, and of course their paying audience, everybody could find about anything and everything about the subject. Some made a bit of sense, but many reports were sadly erroneous.

For some pundit, we are just one bad harvest away from a global food crisis. That was true 10,000 years ago, that was true just before the Irish famine, and it will be true as long as farmers do not control the weather. Is that worth receiving coverage? For many, it has been an opportunity to push their respective agendas. For some, the only way is high-tech big agriculture. Hmm is that so? For others, only small-scale organic farming will save us. Hmm again. For others, eating meat is responsible for all the problems. Did I say hmmm already?

In this frenzy of food apocalypse reporting,  I simply have not seen one article dedicated to food waste, just like I have not seen any sensible research about how the price of commodities is set, either. When the total market for financial derivatives is US$ 600 trillion, while the world GDP is only US$ 60 trillion, something is a little out of balance, would not you think? The daily trading volumes of commodities largely exceeds the actual physical daily consumption of these commodities. Are all the traders only adding costs in the food chain?

However, let’s come back to the waste part. What the math I presented at the beginning of this article shows, is that the future is not so much about producing more, but about producing better and smarter, consuming better and smarter, and organizing the supply chain more effectively to ensure that food indeed reaches consumers.

The waste issue is rather simple to sum up. In rich countries, and also increasingly among the wealthier in emerging countries, the food waste occurs at the consumer end of the chain. In developing countries, the waste occurs at the post-harvest level. Food rots before it had a chance to reach consumers. In these countries, food losses are the result of an insufficient infrastructure. Another area of major food waste is fisheries. Because of (ironically) highly efficient trawlers, many fish species, as well as large quantities of edible fish are lost as they are crushed in fishing nets

Retailers are working on improving their part. For instance, Wal-Mart has initiated a large program to offer food to food banks, as part of their zero-waste strategy. European retailers did something similar several years ago. Consumers must do their part, too. Throwing food away is inexcusable for people who have refrigerators at home. People need to get some basics of household management. When I was a kid, there were classes about this at school, but it disappeared somewhere in the 1960s. Throwing away food is bad economics. Although nobody would think of throwing away coins and bank notes in the garbage, throwing away food is exactly that. That money could be used for better purposes.  Throwing food in the garbage, or as I have recently read in a local paper here in Vancouver throwing it in the toilet pot, is pretty much an immoral act, especially when so many lack food. Of course, not throwing away food in North America will not solve hunger in Africa, but there are other consequences to think about. Producing food requires a lot of energy (for production of fertilizers, for transport, for agriculture machines, packing plants etc..) and water. Wasting food means that the water and energy have been used for nothing! It is pure waste. Some may think that this is not relevant in Europe or North America. Do not be so sure, because for instance California is struggling with water scarcity, while exporting its water to other regions in the form of produce and other perishables. The gas emissions created for the wasted food will have been for nothing. Not wasting food actually reduces the environmental impact of agriculture, and this particular impact is the consumers’ responsibility. They need to know about this, because their behaviour influences the quality of the environment.

In rich countries, there is no food shortage, but we could use more leadership in informing and educating consumers to do the right thing. This is not only a matter for retailers or food service, but for all levels of the society. Rising awareness about the cost of wasting food should be on the agenda of all community leaders. Schools, parents, religious and political leaders should all address this topic in their respective circles. Food waste is where economics meet morals.

The post-harvest losses in developing countries are also both about economy and morals. The moral part is about their populations who already have so many difficulties to afford enough food, while almost half of it rots because of poor storage and infrastructure. The economic part is about the waste beyond the food losses. In many developing countries, water is scarce and most of them use large amounts of this water to irrigate food crops. Many developing countries already struggle to have clean drinking water, yet almost half the water used for irrigation is wasted together with the food. This is not acceptable, morally and economically. Moreover, some governments subsidise water for farmers to irrigate. Yet half of these subsidies are wasted with the food. Some governments also need to subsidize food for low-income families and to counter food inflation, simply to allow their people to buy food. If food availability were about to almost double by fixing the infrastructure, this would have some very positive consequences. Today, close to half the food receives zero money for revenue, while the production costs have been made to produce all of it, the eaten food as well as the wasted food. By eliminating the post-harvests losses, the currently lost quantities would create revenue that is currently missing. Considering the volumes of food involved, the total amount of new revenue generated in all these countries would be astronomic. Everybody would win. Retailers and wholesalers would increase their sales substantially. Farmers would make more money. Storage companies would have a business. Transport companies would have more business as there would be much more food to bring to market. More food available would also mean less inflationary pressure on food prices. This new activities would create jobs. This would help more people have a better income and be able to afford food a bit more easily. Governments would not have to spend as much money to subsidize food. A population that eats better would not be as tempted into social unrest as a hungry mob. At the production level, less food waste would mean less waste of water, energy and inputs. This would alleviate water problems, and increase the efficiency of the use of energy. All of this has a positive impact on the environment. According to the FAO, the cost of fixing the post-harvest losses in developing countries is about US$81 billion. Considering the quantities of extra food involved available “almost for free” since it has already been produced, the US$81 billion sound like a bargain. Indeed, agriculture represents 5.8% of the world GDP (source: CIA Factbook), or roughly US$ 3.5 trillion! Therefore, saying that post-harvest losses must be in the neighborhood of US$ 1 trillion is probably conservative. One would expect to see the payback time for infrastructure investments to be rather short. Someone needs to crunch the numbers, to take the lead and to show to all parties involved what their advantage will be. I certainly would be happy to do that. All actors of the food chain will have to participate, private sector as well as public sector. The return will be high in all respects, financially of course, especially once the current social and environmental externalities will be eliminated as the result of an efficient supply chain.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.