Future Harvests – The book is coming soon!

 

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

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

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

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

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

or click here if video does not appear

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

or click here if video does not appear

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

or click here if video does not appear

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

Uruguay, the quiet leader in beef?

Here is an interesting article about how Uruguay works towards a healthier future.

Not only does the country invests a lot in renewable energy but it works in improving its beef, too.

Uruguay’s  100%-traceable, hormone-free, grass-fed beef farming is offering many answers to the concerns of today’s consumers, and the system rewards the farmers doing the right thing, too! Read the article at http://www.benzinga.com/36898/hamburgers-in-montevideo

Not the largest producer, but certainly among the smartest.

Let’s not confuse efficiency and intensification!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Retailers take the lead in sustainability

Sustainability is a bit like quality: everyone talks about it but few give a clear definition when it comes to practical and concrete specifications. Just as importantly, leadership is badly needed to transform the talking into effective action.

The future is in our handsAs long as the lawmakers remain slow to bring up the change and the clarity to give clear directions, we will need the leadership of some of the most influential players in consumer markets to get things moving.

Even environmental organizations and sustainability bodies have some difficulties to agree with each other. For example Greenpeace does not seem to think that the guidelines from the Marine Stewardship Council offer solid enough guarantees that products brought to market according to these guidelines truly are sustainable. Clearly, this is an area in continuous evolution and the ideal concept is still in the making.

The consumer themselves are both still under informed as well as overwhelmed by all sorts of contradictory messages to know clearly which choices to make, therefore some decide of what to buy either based on philosophical or on financial reasons.

Similarly, many businesses are trying to find their green way as they can, but there again the lack of a strong regulatory frame and the uncertainty of the return on the green investment do not help them. The result is that, although the awareness about sustainability among businesses has grown substantially over the last few years, many companies have taken rather timid steps so far, limiting their actions to the least costly possible and the most PR and marketing-driven. They claim to go green, they communicate a lot about it, but the progress is slow.

Yet, some companies take more initiative, show leadership and push to make the whole supply chain evolve to sustainable production systems. A very active sector in this area is the retail. Retailers in the UK such as Tesco or Waitrose, in Canada with Loblaw’s and Overwaitea Food Group, and of course especially Wal-Mart in the USA have definitely made their choice. They clearly understand that the future cannot be anything but sustainable and they are demanding that their suppliers now come with products that meet the requirements of tomorrow. Last month Wal-Mart demanded from all their suppliers to “develop comprehensive programs to promote sustainability and transparency – or else contemplate a future without Wal-Mart as a customer” (read article).

Tesco is now indicating the carbon footprint of milk products on the labels (see article “Environmental performance on food labels”); Waitrose, Loblaw’s and Overwaitea are going for sustainable fish products, adopting for example the SeaChoice specifications as their guideline. Wal-Mart stores have already implemented a number of measures to reduce their carbon footprint by reducing the energy consumption, and they have already have made some of their suppliers introduce different product presentation. For example, they were the first to demand laundry detergent to be more concentrated and packed in smaller containers. This saved water, it saved energy used to transport useless water, and it saved plastic used for the jugs and for the pallets on which the product was transported. Today, concentrated laundry detergent in smaller jugs is the standard. Without Wal-Mart pushing for the change, we probably still would use the old product in the old packaging.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Poultry husbandry of the future

Here is an article by Bernd Meerpohl of Big Dutchman on poultry husbandry systems of the future. Not surprisingly, he did not present any revolutionary new developments for year 2034, but I miss some aspects that I believe will be important for the future.
Markets will be different, just because the consumers will not be located in the same as now. Different markets with different needs will mean further evolution in breeding strategies. We will deal with energy and environment in a different light, and this will affect production systems. Climate control, lighting systems, transportation, distance between producers and consumers, bird catching and bird processing, packaging systems will all evolve because of the need to preserve energy, food and water, as well as increase efficiencies.

The competition for the control of food has started

A couple of recent articles (Foreign cropland deals and Professional investors look toward overseas farmland) show clearly how much action there currently is about securing food sources in the future. Many players are involved, from countries buying or leasing foreign land, to investment firms and hedge funds.

Agricultural commodities have become quite hot and are expected to become even hotter.

In the future, we can expect to see more of such land acquisition, we will see more alliances, like the “Black Sea Wheat Pool” in which Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are supposedly joining forces to build a strong wheat sort of OPEC. Although considering the relationship between Russia and Ukraine about natural gas, one can wonder what will happen with this.

Taking control one piece at a timeWe must expect strategies about food supplies that will remind us of what we have seen about oil supplies. Politics are going to play an increasingly important role. After all, we can live without oil, but not without food. There will be aggressive moves from countries that are not self-sufficient, first friendly like the land purchases and leases, but there probably will be a point when this might not be enough and regional conflicts will happen. Some exporting countries will also take a more aggressive stance on prices and on availability, but they also will have to be aware that too much arrogance might end up in serious tensions.

In my view, we are going to see very interesting tactics that will include food, energy, trade agreements, diplomacy and military threats as part of the whole bargaining process.

Similarly, we can expect to see more tensions between private firms involved in food and governments. Locally, we can expect nationalizations of land and factories. More regulations of the markets will take place, probably after excesses from privately owned money, investors and businesses will create another “bubble” with agricultural commodities futures contracts, that will end up destabilizing food markets in a somehow similar manner as the financial world has acted for many years before it faced a meltdown.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Will globalization lead us back to local thinking?

This might sound contradictory, but one of the effects of globalization could very well be a new impulse for the development of a local economy, with energy as the main driver.

Let’s review a few things! One driver of globalization has been the search for low wages, therefore making corporations relocating their manufacturing units to the emerging countries. Another pillar of globalization has been the ability to transport goods across the world at a low cost, as energy has been in fact quite cheap. A clear effect of the success created by the above is an economic boom in the emerging countries, where employment has risen and where the standard of living has increased, on average. Currently, we are going through this difficult economic situation, but in the future, we very likely will face an increase in the price of oil. This is the energy effect that I just mentioned. Higher energy costs and food prices will drive inflation higher, although not to alarming levels. Nonetheless, this will be pushing wages up in the emerging countries, while unemployment will stay high for a while in the West, where the main consumer markets are. Therefore, we can expect to see the wage differential between those two groups of countries shrink, while transporting goods will become more expensive. In such a situation, it is not unreasonable to think that some manufacturing will come back closer to the Western consumers market. In addition, in the same time, emerging countries should have been able to develop a middle class that will drive domestic consumption, and thus sustain a certain level of economic momentum, even if their exports decrease in relative volume. An interesting consequence of the above would then be global trend towards a more local economy. The currently emerging countries would produce to satisfy their domestic markets and exporting lower surpluses, while the Western countries would repatriate some of the production units back home since it might be cheaper to produce and to transport goods that way to satisfy their own consumers.

Agriculture has followed the same pattern as other industries, and regions have specialized for the foods that they could produce at the cheapest cost. Of course, the cost of production and of distribution to consumers depends largely on the price of inputs, such as energy, fertilizers, animal feed, etc, but from a pure financial, and also climatic, point of view, it could not make sense to try to produce everything everywhere. Thanks to cheap fuel, the model was to go to global trade and transport foods over long distances. This is quite a change compared with the local agricultural model that dominated until the nineteenth century.

This search for the lowest cost of production will not go away, for a very simple reason. The overwhelming majority of the world population has a limited budget and keeping food affordable is an absolute necessity. We have seen during the sharp food price increase of 2008 that it would not take much to create a panic and riots, because even a slight price increase is almost unbearable for most people, especially in developing countries. This is quite a contrast with the wealthy Westerners who claim that cheap food is a bad thing, and that agriculture should be local and small-scale.

Another aspect that is not addressed very often is the actual carbon footprint of food transport. In the partisan debate, most of the arguments focus on the number of miles travelled, but they rarely look at the qualitative aspect of the transport. Depending on whether we transport food by road, by rail or on water, the results vary greatly. For instance, in Brazil, only 5% of exported products were transported by waterway in Brazil, compared to 61% in the U.S. Conversely, 67% of Brazil’s exported products are transported on highways, compared to just 16% in the U.S. In the European Union, almost 90% of the external freight trade is moved by water, and short sea shipping represents 40% of trade within the European Union in terms of ton-kilometers. As you can imagine, the consequences for the environment, as well as in terms of transportation costs differ greatly.

There are also significant differences between transporting fresh foods or frozen foods. A study carried out by Astrid Scholz, Ulf Sonesson and Peter Tyedmers on salmon showed that consuming frozen salmon transported by sea was the better environmental choice for salmon. To illustrate this, their conclusion was “If seafood-loving Japanese consumers, who get most of their fish via air shipments, were to switch to 75 percent frozen salmon, it would have a greater ecological benefit than all of Europe and North America eating only locally farmed or caught salmon.”

Another important parameter in the environmental impact of the distribution of food is the filling rate of the transportation unit. An efficient fleet of trucks that organize back transport for other goods is more efficient than a small truck used by a farmer to bring his products to the city’s farmers’ market 400 kilometers away and who drives back empty.

As you can see, in the choice between global or local, we need to think in pragmatic terms because the reality is more complex than it may seem at first.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The transition from a consumption society towards a maintenance society

The days of our consumption society are numbered. We are going to have to find another economic system to prosper in the future as it is part of solving the climate change and CO2 emission issue. Over the last 60 years, all our economy has been based in encouraging consumer demand for goods that have been produced with relatively very cheap energy, very cheap raw materials and as cheap labour as possible, with as cheap credit as possible. This has lead us where we are, which is a group of very wealthy nations wasting very precious resources, to the point of exhaustion and suffocation. If well maintained, Earth will last longAlthough some still try to resist and deny the obvious, this system is no longer sustainable and we must rethink what should drive our economy. In an earlier article, I made a reference of how previous generations used to be very cautious about what and how they consumed. The positive side of the last 60 years has been the incredible progress we have made in science, knowledge and technology, which offers possibilities unthinkable for the previous generations I was referring to. We understand our world and how it functions like never before. We have all the technological solutions to solve the climate issue, but the key is the will and the determination to change and to act. This cannot happen as long as we keep thinking the economy in terms of growth only. Growth will not go on for ever, simply because our space and our resources are limited. As there are more and more people needing more and more energy, food and other goods, the law of offer and demand will rule. Prices will inevitably go up and consumption will slow down. A new time has come. The priority must now be quality, not quantity, we must think about having enough, not having always more. This thinking is not a nostalgia to a past that also had its limitations. It is not about rejecting a market-based economy. It is about looking at the market that has always been here, but that has been pushed in the background for the easier approach of just producing more and selling it. What we will have to bring to market is not so much products as services. These services are the ones that are directly related to making all the natural and industrial cycles run harmoniously in a durable way. Just to name a few examples, I would mention all activities that are related to cleaning the damage we have caused, and recycling activities will become more and more important in our whole economy. In the same way, water treatment is going to be a crucial activity, even more so than it has been so far. Clean industries producing durable goods and services will prevail. This change will also make some jobs disappear and some appear or even reappear. As usual change always brings opportunities. It is to us to recognize them and to take them. The time has come to make the transition from this consumption society, based on wasting resources, and with no future, to a maintenance society, where wealth, and not growth, will be the economic success indicator. By acting today, we can ensure this process to happen in a smoother way than if we wait until we have no choice anymore.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

If we are what we eat, what will we eat in the future?

The past 50 years have seen, at least in the Western world, the development of the consumption society. The emphasis has been on consuming always more, by having an apparently unlimited quantity of increasingly cheaper consumption goods available. This trend happened in the agriculture and food sectors just as well, and followed a rather simple patter, actually. Mass consumption has been coupled to mass production, thanks to intensification, technical and technological progress and, last but not least, marketing.

Junk foodTechnical progress improved yields and productivity, while marketing was aimed at creating more, and new, needs. Our food has become standardized, industrialized, and processed in a wide variety of forms. As the emphasis moved to lifestyle and convenience, which came along with the rise of mass distribution, cheap energy and suburbia, we lost the connection between ourselves, the origin of our food and nature. Food became just things you buy at the supermarket, already packed in plastic and cardboard.

Now, we have come to the realization that this high production of waste, be it packaging material, be it blemished product that do not look good anymore while still perfectly edible, be it the overproduction of manure and its minerals, or be it the massive use of antibiotics and pesticides is not sustainable. Of course, much progress has already done to reduce this waste and there is a growing trend towards organic and traceable, but at this stage it not clear yet whether this is a true change in our behavior or whether it has more to do with a social status and marketing issue.

However, what the current situation might be, the fact that we understand that we cannot keep on intensifying and wasting the way we did, will inevitably bring a more fundamental change in how we consume in the future.

Some people predict such changes as the astronaut diet made out of pills, the use of a computer to tell us what and how much of it we should eat based on our activity level, or the tissue culture to replace meat, and many other scenarios. Will any of those ever happen? Who knows?

Personally, I believe that food as a very strong psychological connotation. We associate food with experiences and, although there are differences between cultures, that emotional bond will stay.

Clearly, the consumption society with all its excesses is coming to its end, and maybe the current economic crisis, which also originated in the excess of having it all at any cost, could very well be the turning point.

The next evolution is probably going to be a balanced approach between consumption, which we need to some extent, and the necessity of preserving what keeps us alive. There will be different graduations of this balance between geographic regions, but sustainability is the only way forward, as I mentioned in my previous article (Sustainability: as natural as balance).

Intensification is showing its limitations, waste of manure and of packaging are also hitting a wall, energy is getting more expensive and makes the production and the transport of food more expensive, too. This will reshape how we want to consume our food, how and where it is produced, how it is presented to us.

Cattle feedlotWe still are in a society where some people get obese by eating lots of food as quickly as they can, while they have less physical activity than the previous generations, thanks to automation. That food is produced on intensive farms and feedlots where the animals grow and fatten as quickly as possible, as they eat lots of food, while not having much physical activity. Similarly, in our society meat producers use hormones to boost growth and carcass quality, while body builders and sport professionals use steroids and growth hormone to boost their performance. Interesting similarities, don’t you think? We are indeed what we eat.

So, in a conservation society, should we expect the farms to be led by the need to preserve? This almost sounds like the farms we had at the beginning of the twentieth century. I think that there will be some of it, but the efficiency of production as well as the efficiency of preserving the environment will be much better, thanks to new technologies. We will have high yields, and at the same time, we will have highly efficient systems to use water, to recycle waste and preserve the fertility of our soils and the balance of our oceans.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Biofuels may be a non issue

Biofuels is a topic that divides many people. To some, it is a solution to reduce dependence on oil, and to others it is an insane idea.
I do not think that biofuels will be a discussion topics for very long, and here is why.
Very likely, the future of cars will be electricity. Inevitably, at some point oil prices will rise again to very painful levels and stay there. This is what will make alternative energy sources economically interesting, even without government subsidies.
One of the major opposition to the electric car is being handled in a very smooth way by the Obama administration. General Motors and Chrysler were strong opponents of the electric car, and helped send it to the landfill for a while, but neither company is around anymore. The Obama administration just put an end to the outdated automobile gas guzzler model once and for all, with the new regulations on gas mileage and car emissions. Fact is that an important page has been turned for good.
Just realize that if all US cars have a similar mileage as their Europeans counterparts, the gasoline use would reduce to substantial amounts, in the vicinity of an equivalent of 80-100 million cars less (old US mileage standards). Normally, this should make the price of oil drop, therefore reducing the need for biofuels. And when oil prices increase again, then electricity will take over.
Other signs that biofuels do not have that much of a future is the lack of excitement from the investment community for it. Wind energy attracts investors (for instance think of Boone Pickens’s energy plan). Solar energy attracts investors. But biofuels? The main party that seems to be pushing for it is Brazil, for internal reasons mostly.
The fundamentals do not look good for biofuels, either. They score negatively on all three bottom line criteria.
As such, this is good news for food supplies. If biofuels made out of edible grains do not have much of a future, the situation is different when it comes to biofuels made out of cellulose. These probably have a decent future, as they do not compete with human consumption, and can be a good way of using and recycling materials that further would be of little interest.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.