Changing economics to overcome future challenges

October 21, 2016

First, a personal story

A year ago, I moved away from Vancouver to the Okanagan Valley Region some 300 miles east from Vancouver. There, I bought a property with a decent yard where I will have a garden and with a small vineyard. In some way, it is an illustration of what is necessary to foster sustainable practices. The parallel is obvious with some of the global challenges the world is facing and will continue to face in the future. For eight months of the year, the area looks and feels quite similar to the Mediterranean. Precipitations are not abundant with an annual quantity of only 337 mm. Clearly, water is scarce and needs to be preserved, even though an extensive system of lakes fed by mountain snow ensures an adequate supply of water. The region is quite agricultural with many orchards and vineyards, all thanks to irrigation. There are also many lawns in the area and the estimate is that about 25% of the water consumed in the region is just to keep the lawns green.

My plan is to install rain barrels to collect the water from rain and snow and use it for the yard. This is where the economics do not go in parallel with all the talk from politicians about sustainability. Around the house I would need five rain barrels. The lowest and best retail price I can find is of about $80 for a 200 liter barrel. To set up my water collection system, it will cost me $400 to provide me with a 1 cubic meter storage capacity. In comparison, the price for a cubic meter that the municipality charges for water is $0.30 per cubic meter. In the most ideal situation, that is if I were able to collect all the rain and snow through my five barrels, I would at most collect about 30 cubic meters per year. In money, it comes down to a saving of roughly $10 per year. To break even, I’d better hope that the barrels will last 40 years, which they might, but considering my current age, there is a fair chance I may have moved to a much smaller underground dwelling by then. Of course, my example is about quite a small investment and if the return is lousy, it will not change my life. At least, the barrels will help me save water.

The point of my story is that the comparison between cost and benefit would deter most people to consider buying rain barrels. It just does not make financial sense, if money is what matters. I always say that money talks and what it says here is to forget about being sustainable. One of my neighbours also considered installing solar panels on the roof of their house. After comparing the price of the panels plus installation and maintenance with the electricity savings, they discovered that it would last twice the life of the panels to break even. In terms of money, solar panels are a different kettle of fish than my five rain barrels. Recently I saw the price of a propane generator that produces 3650 watts for Canadian $350 while a solar panel that produces 100 watts is sold for Canadian $250. I can understand people decide to not pursue the solar option.

The economics of water and energy savings that I just described can be extrapolated to the much larger picture. All through the food and agriculture value chains, many changes for more sustainable systems face the same kind of dilemma. What makes sense from an environmental point of view often does not make sense financially in the current economic environment. Demanding more sustainable production system is quite legitimate and sensible, but the conditions must also be there to make it happen. The numbers have to add up for farmers and businesses to make the switch. As usual, money is of the essence and it can come from different sides.

First, the purchase price and the cost of operation of alternatives have to come down and be competitive. Either suppliers are able to drop their prices or offer more efficient systems. Governments also can help through subsidies to ease the pain. Subsidies, being public money for the general interest, it is only fair that we all must pay if what we want is a sustainable. Subsidies must of course be set up properly and be effective

Second, the customers, which in a fair value chain would be eventually the consumers, have to pay for extra cost of the better production systems, simply because our consumption societies with their sense of entitlement have to understand that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Such a realization also means that producers also understand that mass production that only deplete resources do not fit in the long-term picture and that value will have to replace volume.

Searching for a new economic model

With the many challenges arising from a growing world population, it becomes more and more obvious that the economic model of the past six decades needs some refreshing. As such providing consumer goods at an affordable price for the masses is not a bad idea. Helping people to have a more comfortable and pleasant life is certainly welcome by most of us. The problem is that the so-called consumption society is not so much aboutpillars-of-economy consumption as it is about people buying and giving their money to someone else. In the current system, consumption is optional. Research has shown that consumers use 75 to 80% of the goods they buy no more than once.  What really matters is the act of purchasing the goods. It is good for growth and the GDP, currently the leading metrics for the state of the economy. The problem is that mass production has gradually shifted from affordability to cheapness and from value to price. It has focused mostly on volume and has not taken into account that consumers would have to get rid of what they bought after usage. Negative externalities have been kept external indeed. Short-term financial results have had the preference and long-term impact has been ignored. The system is hitting a wall and issues of greenhouse gases emissions and waste of resources are now becoming urgent matters to address. All industries will be affected one way or the other. Food and agriculture will be no exception.

The big question is how to change the system without having it implode. That is not an easy one to answer but sooner or later it will have to change. Vision and leadership are crucial to manage the transition. I wish I had seen more of it. So far, I see and hear more about pro this and anti that. It is highly insufficient and produces more noise than results.

In my opinion, the problem is not so much about growth as it is about what growth means. Over the past decades, growth has been mostly about volume numbers. It has been a quantitative growth. I believe that the best transition towards the next model is to focus on what I call qualitative growth. It is not so much about volume as it is about adding value to the buyer. For consumers and countries, qualitative growth would be to quantitative growth what EVA (economic value added) is to turn-over for a business. It is about prosperity.

For food producers, such a shift will lead to a different approach. The most valuable areas of value added for consumers and society lies probably in providing good and enjoyable nutrition, yet affordable, through advice and education. The industry will have to help consumers eat better and help them have healthy diets. It will go beyond just supply food. Consumers will also have to rediscover what proper nutrition is. Initiatives such as the Global Access to Nutrition Index can play a pivotal role in helping food producers make the transition towards quantitative growth. The food sector has also an important role to play in keeping our environment livable. The trend towards transparency is an important part of the evolution on both health and environment fronts.

Of course, such a change of economic model means that the economics must change, too. It is also essential that those who do the right thing must be rewarded. A new reward system must be introduced in the set of rules and regulations so that producers get the proper incentive to make the shift because adding the type of value that I mention to consumers also requires a different price tag in the store, or at least a different breakdown of costs and benefits along the entire chain from producers to consumers. How to distribute fairly the cost tag of the change is still open for debate. The reward system has to apply for the business activity by allowing margins to be comparatively competitive in the new situation. Consumers doing the right thing must also be rewarded. The reward system should also apply at the remuneration level. In particular, the share of qualitative improvements in companies’ bonus systems will have to increase at the expense of qualitative growth targets.  The adjustments needed in the food and agriculture sectors will not end in this sector. They will have to include other area of government. In particular the health sector will have to be involved, as the consequences of the quality of nutrition on health are obvious for individuals and society both at the personal as at the financial level.

I also believe that such a shift in economic model will mean that business partners within the value chain will have to challenge each other to carry out the transition and it will become a critical point in choosing with whom to do business in the future.

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

 

 

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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.


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.


The fertilizer of the future?

March 12, 2011

Among the many challenges that the agriculture of the future faces, soil fertility ranks high on the list of priorities.

Originally, most farms were mixed. They had land to grow crops and they had animals for milk, eggs and meat. Markets were mostly local, and food was consumed in the villages and towns near the farms. Food waste was fed to farm animals; the manure produced was mixed with straw and returned to the fields where the crops had been grown. Over time, farming has evolved. Agriculture has become much larger scale, global and specialized. This evolution has been driven by the use of oil, mechanization, and by the development of mineral fertilizers.

That model, which has been greatly based on cheap energy and resources, needs to be looked at critically as the economic environment changes. Energy is no longer cheap and, like oil, the resources used for the production of fertilizers have been depleted. New solutions are required to be able to produce optimally.

The production of nitrogen fertilizers requires a lot of energy. According to estimates, it uses 5% of the world’s natural gas production, and half the fossil fuels used in agriculture. Because nitrogen is quite mobile when dissolved, as this happens when it rains, a large amount of these high-energy-consumption compounds are lost. An estimated 50% of the nitrogen spread on crops leaches through the soil. It ends up in the water system. The reserves of phosphates, another important mineral fertilizer, are facing depletion. This might happen in 20 years from now. With the development of precision agriculture, the waste of minerals can be reduced. With the development of satellite imaging indicating the mineral status of a field, and the local variations within the field, it has become possible for farmers to bring just the right amount of the right mineral at the right time and at the right place. This follows somehow a similar thinking as fertilizing plants in hydroponics operations where crops are produced without soil and fed a mineral solution drop by drop.

A consequence of the specialization between crop farms and intensive animal farms is the rupture of the organic matter cycle. Large monoculture farms have suffered soil erosion because of a lack of organic matter, among other reasons. In soils, the presence of organic matter increases moisture retention, increases minerals retention and enhances the multiplication of microorganisms. All these characteristics disappear when the quantity of organic matter decreases. A solution to alleviate this problem is the practice of no-tillage together with leaving vegetal debris turn into organic matter to enrich the soil. This has helped restore the content of organic matter in the soil, although one can wonder if this practice has only positive effects. Tillage helps eliminating weeds. It also helps break the superficial structure of the soil, which can develop a hard crust, depending on the precipitations and the clay content of the soil. Possibly, in the future the use of superficial tillage could become the norm. Deep tillage, as it has been carried out when agriculture became mechanized, has the disadvantage of diluting the thin layer of organic matter in a much deepen layer of soil. This dilution seriously reduces the moisture and mineral retention capacity of soils, thus contributing to erosion as well, even in organic matter-rich soils.

The removal of farm animals from specialized crop farms requires the systematic use of mineral fertilizers because farmers do not have access to manure and the minerals it contains, even though most of these minerals originate from the crops farms.

At the other end of this interrupted cycle of manure, intensive animal farms do not suffer a lack of organic matter and minerals. They have the opposite problem. They have too much of it, and not enough acreage, if any, where to spread it. This leads to accumulation of manure and other related problems, such as stench, high concentrations of minerals in the soil and eventually in the waterways and drinking water reserves.

Since nothing is lost, what has happened to the minerals from fields and from fertilizers? They have been transferred to other places via the global trade of agricultural commodities. Many of these commodities are used to produce animal feed. Phosphate in European pig manure may come from Asian manioc farms. Therefore, the best way to find out where the minerals are is to look at where intensive animal husbandry farms are. As mentioned earlier, nitrogen is washed away into the water system because of its mobility. Unlike nitrogen, phosphates are not mobile in the soil. They will accumulate, which also leads to a loss of soil fertility, eventually. The other area of concentrations of these minerals is in city sewers, and in the soil of slums. Since the purpose of agriculture is to produce food, and since consumers are increasingly concentrated in urban centers, the exportation of minerals is actually gathering momentum out of rural areas.

In the future, we are going to see a new look at fertilization. The economics of agriculture will change. This is inevitable, because the cost of inputs will increase. This will be a direct consequence of the increase of the price of oil, and of the depletion of phosphates reserves. This change of economics will drive renewed interest for manure, and for sewage. These sources will become attractive and competitive, as they contain large amounts of minerals directly available. Because of their nature, they have a high content of organic matter. One of the most efficient ways to remove nitrates from water is to grow plants with it. One of the main sources of phosphates will be manure.

There is little indication that the human population will return to the land, but animal farms can be moved rather easily. After all, they already are segregated from vegetal production. The increased need for manure will call for a relocation of animal productions. In an expensive-energy economy, having the “fertilizer factory” on site, or at least much closer than today makes a lot of sense. This is especially true because manure contains a lot of water, although there are substantial differences between productions. Transporting water is expensive. Mixing crops and animal productions again on farms will also allow the inclusion of vegetal debris together again with the feces and urine, producing a higher dry matter content, with limited transport costs between the field and the “fertilizer factory”. Regardless of the size of the farms, I expect to see a relocation of animal production units on agricultural land. They will be spread more evenly in the landscape than today. This will decrease the density of farm animals in currently high-density areas to levels that will allow a better control of environmental issues, as well as reduce partly the risks of transmission of animal diseases. Animal production units will reappear in areas where they had disappeared because of the fertilizer that they will provide.

This evolution will also come together with a new approach of manure storage and treatment. Open-air lagoons like those that we know today will simply cease to exist. The changed economics of energy will make the capture of gases financially attractive. Manure storage units will be covered; the biogas will be collected to be used for energy purpose, for the farm and the local communities. The solid and the liquid fractions of the manure will be processed and transformed to provide organic matter and the fertilizing minerals necessary for crop production. The location of the “manure units” will be influenced by the type of animal production, and therefore by the physical quality of the manure. There will be a logistic optimization of manure collection to the crop farms. It will be based on efficiency and optimization of resources. Therefore, the new farm structure will be efficient, as much financially as environmentally. Similarly, open-ocean fish farms that currently do not collect the feces will see the financial value in recuperating the fish waste and sell it. In cities, there will be an increasing interest to recycle the sewage. The purpose will be to recuperate the organic matter and the minerals it contains. A similar approach for human waste will apply as for animal production units as I described above. This will also be integrated in the future approach of urban farming, as it will provide the necessary nutrients for an efficient urban food production. It will be a source of revenue to the cities.

In rural areas and in urban areas, organic matter and fertilizing minerals will become strategic activities. They will serve the purpose of feeding sustainably the world population.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.