Feeding the future with focus on health and environment

February 2, 2017

In my opinion, the food and agriculture sector does not receive enough praise for its performance. Over the past four decades, the world population increased by 80%, which means that farmers have been able to supply food for an additional 3.3 billion people during that same period. Unfortunately, the number of hungry people has remained about stable, around a billion people. Every person who is hungry is a hungry person too many. There cannot be any discussion about that, and there still is a lot of work to be done. This is no small feat. Clearly, there is plenty of room for improvement, especially when you consider that about a third of the food produced is wasted but that means that the potential to supply future food demand is there.

nutrition

Image created by Paula Nettleton Source: Educational Materials Center (EMC), Central Michigan University

The discussions about meeting future food demand always tend to focus on production volumes. Of course that is the minimum requirement but to meet all other challenges, it is necessary to broaden the scope beyond volumes. Production is only half the equation. The other half is consumption. There is a lot of work to help consumption patterns contribute to a balanced future between supply and demand. The ongoing increase of obesity and diabetes are at least as worrying as hunger because of the negative health, environmental and economic consequences. One of the most important roles in the future for the food and agriculture sector will be to help people feed themselves properly. There is a need for this and it goes far beyond a marketing exercise. The basis for success will have to be education about nutrition and home economics. There already is action in these areas but it will be necessary to move towards a collaborative education, centred on physiological needs and how any particular food product contributes –or not- to healthy meals. The purpose will not have to be about enticing consumers to eat more volumes but to make educated decision and pick the right ingredients. Changing the focus from always more to always enough will also require a change in which foods to produce and what their future physical and organoleptic qualities will have to be. It also will change the dynamics of markets and on which criteria farmers get paid. Collaborative education will have to be carried out by and with full involvement of all stakeholders. It will have to place human physiological needs as the primary focus. Consumer well-being will have to come first, before particular interests and before volume.

Making future food and agriculture sustainable requires that we address both production and consumption. Waste and excess do not fit in a sustainable future. Food waste is only a part of the total picture. When food is wasted, all the inputs required, such as water, energy, fertilizers, crop protection and money, are all wasted in the process. Overconsumption is not a sustainable strategy either. It takes a lot of resources to produce all the excess calories and protein than end up producing nothing else than excess human body fat. Until the rise of mass consumption, our grandparents knew what sustainability meant. It was about saving and about moderation. These two concepts vanished from the moment that consumption goods became so cheap that and consumers lost touch with scarcity and long-term negative effects, also known as negative externalities. It would be an eye opener to quantify these externalities and include them in the cost structure of consumer products. The consumer price and/or the producer margin would look different! Although it is quite a difficult exercise to quantify the externalities, just carrying it out would give some good insights about the limitations of the current economic model and in which areas it needs to change. Such a calculation would help rethink many of the existing financial incentives that drive the economics of food and agriculture, in particular many subsidies that find their origin in times where the objectives were quite different than the ones of the future. For example, health issues related to food should be considered as externalities. Many governments have calculated estimates of the cost generated by these two diseases. If society were to be able to quantify what part of the amount should be factored in food, as well as lifestyle and distributed between the entire chain from farm to patient, and to try to estimate the relative part of responsibility between the different links of that chain, it certainly would give a good indication of how to look at future economics of a healthy and satisfied society. The price of food would change but the key would be to have it change in a way that helps a better nutrition and better health while keeping good food affordable.

Copyright 2017 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


What food will be Donald Trump be serving?

November 25, 2016

trumpfarmerAfter a rather unconventional campaign and an unlikely outcome, the American people named its next president. The many controversial and vague statements of candidate Trump have left most of the world with perplexity. The presidential election gets the most attention. The fact that the Republican Party will now control both the House of Representatives and the Senate, next to the White House received much less publicity, yet it will actually shape American policies in the coming years. The Republicans have full latitude to pass any law they want, with little opposition.

Is the Trump presidency something to worry about? It is difficult to say at this stage. It is probably a matter of hoping for the best and be prepared for the worst. Since his election, Donald Trump has sent mixed signals. He seems to realize that things are more complex than he presented during the campaign and on a number of issues he put some water in his wine, but at the same time some of his nominations to key positions in his future cabinet and staff raise question marks. It is always tempting to try to predict the future from a subjective angle but considering the show he put on during his entire campaign, it would be easy to jump to wrong conclusions. I prefer to look at his character instead. To me, Donald Trump shows a number of characteristics than I believe will define his presidency more than the controversies of the campaign.

As his victory in the election shows, Donald Trump is a fighter who does not give up and who is willing to fight dirty. He will be a tough opponent to deal with. Toughness is an asset but his weakness may lie in his black and white view of the world. For him, you win or you lose. Win-win may be a foreign concept to him and instead he might achieve more lose-lose outcomes. He also appears to be a pragmatic. He does not seem to have problems changing his mind if he finds out that some things are better than he initially thought, as he admitted about Obamacare for instance. Pragmatic does not mean that he will change is agenda, though. Clearly, he is a proud American and he will always put the interests of the USA and of Americans and of American companies first. There is also a bit of an idealist in Donald Trump. His campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again” reflects that. I believe that he has nostalgia of the America in which he grew up and that used to be the dominant force and culture in the world. Donald Trump is a smart man. He also appears to be a bit short-fused. The question is will he try to achieve his ideal by turning back at the risk of isolating his country and stagnating or will he create a new momentum and try to achieve a new leadership through excellence? Different approaches deliver different results

Regardless of these character traits, he is a hard-nosed businessman. He has clearly indicated that he will create a tax-friendly business environment and he will simplify regulations, which is not quite the same as deregulating, though. He will lead pro-business policies. In food and agriculture, this will probably lead to two consequences. First, the so-called Big Ag will get a push in the back from his policies. Donald Trump made a number of comments that indicate he has a problem with what he calls environmental extremists. The second consequence will be to see how he manages a pro-business stance with his expressed statements of also caring for the American consumers. Food fights have been vivid in the US for a while, in particular because of a distrust of Big Ag by many consumers. At this stage, it is difficult to say how Donald Trump will manage both the interests of corporations with the desires of consumers. I expect food fights to go on with the same determination as they do today. I also expect that the role and the mandate of the Environmental Protection Agency will be revised and weakened.

Altogether, for food and agriculture, I expect rather traditional conservative republican policies both in the US and abroad. America will try to get what it wants and will make it difficult for others to compete against them, as usual.  The world is a big place and new developments happen everywhere. Depending on America’s stance, the rest of the world will adapt its strategies accordingly. Some projects will be killed, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership. Other agreements and partnerships will be sealed both with and without the US. As I like to say when I have the opportunity: the future will be as bright as our leaders and we have the leaders we deserve.

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


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.

 

 


Nature will reshape food value chains

October 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Maybe a different approach of climate change conferences would help

December 16, 2014

The climate conference COP20 has ended in Lima. As usual, there was lots of hype and fear mongering beforehand. Then, after lots of false hope press releases and fun hobnobbing, the conclusion was exactly the same as usual and as expected: a few vague statements meaning about nothing and no agreement except the one to meet next year in Paris, because having to cancel two weeks in the City of Light… oh la la quel malheur!

As COP20 indicates, that was the 20th time that such a conference was organized, and that was the 20th time that the outcome and conclusion were so predictable. One can wonder why it is so difficult to make significant progress. Is there really a problem? If so, why is this charade going on and what do the world leaders waiting for. Well, maybe it is just because they have no vision for an alternative economic model. That could be a problem, indeed.

This repetitive failure is frustrating. Sometimes, I think that the conference participants should be locked in the conference center with no air conditioning (or maybe on at full blast is another option) and only 80% of the food and water necessary to make it through the duration of the event. It might be more stimulating. But I admit this is not a politically correct proposition. As an alternative I give you here an excerpt of my second book, We Will Reap What We Sow that I published in 2012. In this excerpt, I had written some of my thoughts about how to do it differently.

Here it is:

“The reason behind the resistance and the denial of climate change is actually very mundane. It is about money. Climate change is an incremental process. It takes years to show significant effects. Opposite to this, the effect of tougher legislation is immediate. The negative impact on costs and on jobs manifests quickly. The negative short-term impact is even more sensitive in a time of economic hardship. In such conditions, it becomes more difficult to gain acceptance for long-term sacrifices while there is no viable alternative to generate at least an equivalent profit and employment in the short term. Of course, subsidies can alleviate the pain and make the transition acceptable, but they are difficult to justify in times when government deficits take alarming proportions everywhere around the world.

The path of least resistance and the preference of the short-term prevail. The leaders choose not to be courageous. Such a conclusion is common, and it is a simplistic one. Is the failure to take courageous decisions only the responsibility of the leaders? To answer this question, one must wonder how many people in polluting industries would accept to sacrifice their jobs, their livelihoods to save the next generation. If there is no viable alternative, the answer will be a loud “No!” without the shadow of a doubt. Similarly, one can wonder if consumers would be willing to stop buying products that contribute to climate change. Would they give up their cars and switch to bicycles? Unless the alternative would be much more painful, it is likely that they would answer “No!” to that question, too. In the current economic model based on consumption, asking people to cut back on consumer goods to live lives that are more frugal would cause a deep recession.

Such a proposal will never receive the support of the political and business deciders, even if it would keep the world livable for the coming generations. The truth is that everybody is responsible for the problem, not just the leaders. Everybody enjoys the convenience and the comfort created by mass consumption. Very few would be willing to give it up voluntarily. The lack of political will, as it is called, showed by the world leaders is only a reflection of the collective inertia. While many people are contributing to the problem, nobody feels responsible for it. It is always someone else’s fault. Climate change can be seen as an illustration of Jean Paul Sartre’s quote “Hell is other people”. It is difficult to hope to see a solution to the problem as long as nobody is willing to acknowledge responsibility and take action so drastic that others will feel compelled to follow the example. The world leaders skillfully dodge their opportunity to state whether they think climate change is a problem or not. It would be nice to hear from the different countries how they feel about the issue. It would also make it easier to understand why they act the way they do. Climate change is a problem or it is not a problem. The leaders who think that climate change is not a problem should say so. Those who think it is should do the same. Of course, those who would state that it is a problem will have to develop their plan to show what they want to do about it.

Failure to do so would look strange. Another reason why talks about climate change make so little progress is the lack of vision for the future. The international conferences try to address greenhouse gases emissions without addressing the economic model of the consumption society at the same time. In such a model, where people are supposed to buy more and more goods that are cheaper and cheaper, that are made and delivered with massive amounts of energy and natural resources, there is simply no climate-friendly alternative. There will probably never be any climate-friendly alternative in the future, either. There is no point in being hypocritical and in trying to make believe that the economy can grow forever. It is not possible to increase the use of finite resources in a finite system indefinitely. It is physically impossible, but it is possible to deny it.

In this case, humanity will reap what it will have sowed. However, it is possible to debate and find out where the point of no return is. Even if some countries have higher emissions than others do, pointing fingers at them is not productive. Greenhouse gases emissions may be produced locally, but their effects extend much farther than the national borders. The solutions must be global and developed by all countries as a team. They need to have a vision and a plan to reduce the effects globally. As different sources of energy have different effects on the level of greenhouse gases emitted, the focus should be more on how to produce the required energy than on where the problem originates. The conferences should offer brainstorming sessions about solutions and concrete funding measures for cleaner energy production. The approach should be one of a global contest to offer systems that solve the problem. It would be interesting to change the discussion from one focusing on by how much which country should reduce greenhouse gases emissions into one focusing on developing a vision for energy production, both quantitative as qualitative. The next step is how to produce the amount of energy needed in the future while producing this energy below a global limit that all parties must define. Since money plays a central role in political decisions, it could be a good idea to organize a different type of conference. This time, the participants would have to present all the scenarios that would be possible if they did not consider the short-term economic consequences. It would be stimulating to hear how the problem can be solved from a technical point of view. The solutions would have to review all the possibilities for all industries, starting by the most polluting, to produce more with fewer emissions. Once this part would be completed, the next question would have to address how much these scenarios would cost, and to elaborate a plan that would fund the winning solutions. Nowadays, economic decisions seem to be based on the too-big-to-fail-bailout concept. Then, why not apply the same approach to humanity and climate? Pumping as much money as necessary to ensure the transition in order to create the energy production of the future and save humanity from much costlier consequences sounds reasonable. It would be interesting to compare it with the amount of money printed and the amount of debt created to alleviate the effect of the Great Recession of 2008 that still lingers in many regions today.”

Copyright 2014 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

 


Robots, sensors, drones and big data are coming to the sea, too – Fishermen and aquaculturists: be prepared!

December 2, 2014

There is not a day that goes by without articles about new technologies in agriculture. I enjoy seeing the excitement because I believe it is will revolutionize how farmers produce food. When I started The Food Futurist in 2009, I saw right away that this was coming. I have to say that I am even happier to see the interest for all the drones, robots, driverless tractors and sensors as when I was telling about it in my presentations until probably just 18 months ago, the audience would look amused. They would love to hear my “Star Trek” story. That is how my topic was referred to. It was entertaining. They liked the story but they reacted as if I had a bit too much of imagination. For sure I never come short of that but to me, it was no fantasy. It was going to happen. And I do not see why it would not happen at sea just as well.

The arrival of new technologies is interesting far beyond simply the technological aspect. The possibilities are many if we decide to use them to their full potential, by linking them with each other and with the management of farms and of the environment.

Just like in agriculture, so far mechanization had been mostly about adding muscle to the operators. It was about performing physical tasks faster with less manual labor. The new technologies are of a different nature. They are about creating a nervous system. With the new technologies, the ability to monitor, collect data, analyze, make decisions will not only be faster, it has the potential to be autonomous, but under supervision of the farmer. It will provide more precise information, reduce the possibility of errors and will fix mistakes mush faster when they happen.

Just like on the land, new devices will be available. Satellites, drones and sensors will be able to be the eyes and the senses of the operator. Data processing software and artificial intelligence will be able to monitor in real time and 24/7 any event on the fish farm and in its environment. It will be able to report and initiate relevant actions. Robots will carry tasks that used to be done by the farmers. Fish robots are being developed. Fish robot MITFor instance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has created a soft body fish robot. The development of such fish robots is aimed at carrying out research on fish schools in the oceans, but there is no reason why similar robots could not be made to swim between the fish on farms, to monitor them and to record and report information about proper feeding, fish growth and fish health. From a technical point of view, nothing stops us from adding biometrics software in the fish robot that could be used for ongoing sampling to estimate the size of the fish in production, and the size distribution as well. It would replace static cameras and the need to dive in the nets. The “vision” of robot fish would probably be better than the human eye. Of course, the information collected by the robot would be sent to the computer to continuously determine technical production results and readjust feeding and harvest schedules. Sensors inside and outside the nets would allow to monitor environmental conditions such as water quality, in particular oxygen content. Biosensors could monitor levels of plankton and risks of algae blooms as well as the presence or the level of pathogens. All that information would be linked to the computer and fed to the central nervous system assisting the farmer. Satellites and aerial drones can also help monitor events inside the pens and provide further production information to complement what originates from the fish robots. They also can give a bird’s eye view of the farm environment. This would work in two directions. One is the prevention of harmful events to enter the nets. The other is the monitoring of the environmental impact of farms to prevent any pollution or take corrective action at once. Sensors at the bottom of the ocean and aquatic drones could also take continuous sample of the environment around the farm to detect any potentially harmful component for the environment. This would help making fish farms more environmentally friendly. In such a design, the farm becomes part of the nervous system. It can be managed even from a distance. After all, some people have already built a number of houses that are connected in such a way these houses can send tweets to the owner to tell them of any event inside or outside, even if someone is at the door. It is also possible to think of linking the system to the nets and have the net size adjusting automatically to the production conditions inside and the need of the proper volume based on water quality data. The farms could also move –horizontally and/or vertically if needed, depending on water quality, but also to avoid harmful interaction with wild fish, which is always a contentious issue between fish farming and commercial fisheries. Such mobile cages already exist. With all these systems, the farmer could actually follow several sites, instead of one, at the same time on interactive screens and interact with the machine and the systems.

It gets even more interesting by looking from further away and higher up. By having robots and aquatic drones roaming the oceans, it will become easier to have a full monitoring of ocean ecology, environmental conditions, sources of pollution, stocks of the different seafood species and all other life forms present. It would make fisheries’ management easier and more effective. It would address sustainability issues both for fisheries and for aquaculture. It would not only help seafood producers, but it would provide fact-based support to make policies -locally and globally- and to manage an important part of food production in better harmony.

The use of new technologies does not stop at the farm or in the ocean, though. Seafood processing, like any other food production, is also going to use robots more and more. Quality will also be monitored through new technologies and reports will be produced automatically. Robotics and data collection will ensure production and quality system that can take corrective action automatically. By connecting all the data produced along the entire production chain, traceability and transparency will be improved further. If used well big data can help improve food quality, sustainability and cooperation between the different stakeholders. It will help manage more efficiently. It also will be a tool to increase trust in the way food is produced and allow a closer connection between producers and consumers.

Here is a presentation about new technologies I did recently at a Precision Agriculture Conference. If you invite me to a Seafood conference, I will be happy to talk about the future with your audience.

Copyright 2014 – the Happy Future Group Ltd.


Precision is the future of agriculture and our future

August 22, 2014

By the end of last July, the InfoAg conference took place in St Louis, Missouri. Matt Waits, CEO of SST Software, a conference sponsor, introduced me before my presentation titled “Beyond the Farm of the Future”. In his brief introduction he told the audience that he strongly believes that precision agriculture is the future of agriculture. His statement resonated quite positively with me. I see only advantages in making agriculture more precise. Just for starters, per definition the opposite of precision agriculture would be an imprecise agriculture. That is already reason enough to become a supporter of precision agriculture.

The first reason why a precise agriculture is the way to go is the necessity to manage finite resources more efficiently. Precision agriculture means sustainability. The philosophy behind precision agriculture is to use only what is needed where it is needed when it is needed in the mount that is needed by crops. In practical terms, this means that every molecule of input in agricultural production has to be transformed into food and not end up in the environment. Precision agriculture reduces waste. When I was writing my first book on the future of agriculture in 2009, the estimated worldwide amount of nitrogen loss due to leaching was of about 50%. The example of nitrogen shows what reducing waste can mean. In an ideal world where nitrogen would be used much more efficiently, it could be possible theoretically to use only half of the nitrogen we have been using, or in other terms, the current amount of nitrogen used should help produce twice as much food. Considering that the FAO claims that between 2010 and 2050, agricultural output should increase by 70%, it means that in an ideally precise agriculture, the world could meet the demand for agricultural products by using 15% less nitrogen than it did in 2010, theoretically. Also considering that the production of chemical nitrogen fertilizers represents about half the use of fossil fuels in agriculture, the positive impact on the carbon footprint of agriculture would be substantial. Similar calculations can be done on other inputs, such as water and crop protection products. By bringing just the right quantities at the right time at the right place, the consumption of water and chemicals will be reduced substantially, too. As recent droughts have reminded us how precious water is, precision watering is also becoming more important than ever. Water is precious, but in many cases, its price has not emphasized this enough. The main reason for wasting is always the result of economics. If inputs appear cheap, the low price is always implicitly perceived as a sign of abundance and of negligible value. Such a perception goes against the reflex of sustainability. Our elders did not waste anything (candle bits, soap bits, socks, you name it). They were frugal simply because the cost of replacement was too high, and at least was higher than the cost of repairing and saving. When a government subsidies inputs to make them cheaper, the users end up wasting much more. It is sad because such subsidies always have a well-meant starting point. The idea is to make it affordable to poor farmers so that they can increase their production. The result is when the less poor ones get the subsidies, they do not see the new price as affordable anymore but they see it as cheap instead. Managing for sustainability really is about managing the fine line between affordable and cheap. That is not easy, because the difference is not just about the price of inputs; it is also about the financial situation of the subsidy’s recipient. Subsidies should not be aimed at just price, but at more at efficient use of inputs and should be based on achievable yields. If governments wish to spend money, it should not result in farmers overusing and wasting water and production inputs. That is counterproductive. These governments, which often are in developing countries where resources are scarce and access to inputs difficult, had better spend money on helping farmers being more precise. The math is simple: efficiency is the ratio output/input, and the difference between what comes out and what got in the field in the first place is what is wasted – or lost. A precise agriculture reduces the waste, and therefore increases the ratio. This means that precision is the way toward increased efficiency.

As I mention developing countries, here is another important point to bring up: precision agriculture is not just for large farms but can be implemented everywhere. The development of precision agriculture goes parallel with the development of new technologies. At first, it would seem that such technologies are too expensive for small and/or poor farmers. If the point of view were to be that every farmer should own all the precision equipment, the answer is: yes, it is only for the large and wealthy, but looking at precision agriculture from that angle would be rather dull. Satellite imagery, drones, sensors, robots and other big data software can also be shared. In the era of the cloud and social media which are all about sharing, so can new technologies. Just like ownership of agricultural machine has also been shared through equipment coops for instance, so can these new devices. After all, it does not matter so much who owns them, as long as those who need it to do a good job can have access to them. Mobile communications have changed how farmers everywhere can get the latest information on markets. Smart phones have become affordable to the point that there are about as many mobile phones as people on the planet. Similarly to mobile communications, precision agriculture will also become more affordable in the future. If precision agriculture tools can monitor, map and help make fast decisions on farms of tens – and even hundreds – of thousand acres, they just as well can look after an area of the same size even if it is divided between many farms. It is just a matter of management and coordination between farmers. In poorer regions, it could very well be that the authorities be the owner of the equipment and proactively communicate with farmers through extension services to help the groups of farms manage the region efficiently for higher output. Such tools will help developing agriculture, in a sustainable manner. The benefits will be many. It will help increase farmers revenues, create economic activity, enhance social stability and help reduce the waste of water, energy and all other inputs. It will pay off in the long run and actually probably in the not-so-long run at all. Agricultural development requires financing and investments. Precision agriculture is in my opinion a very good place to put money at work.

In the future, the key for these technologies will be to also help see the bigger picture, not just the field and not just production data. The potential for applications and interfaces seems almost endless. By connecting all the devices and allowing sharing information of all events taking place on farms, these technologies are going to help reconcile the interests of all stakeholders much more effectively than it has been the case in the past. By monitoring production parameters as well as environmental parameters, proactive action will help anticipate instead of reacting. Actions will be targeted timely. One of the difficulties to manage sustainability is one of timelines. It is possible to monitor financial performance on a second to second basis, even faster actually, in the case of financial markets where algorithms can execute millions of transactions in less than a second. Environmental impact does not manifest immediately. It takes decades to notice the impact of a particular type of activity. With this time discrepancy between financial performance and environmental performance, it is only logical that money has trumped environment, even though there is a price to pay some day. That is the dilemma of externalities: how to factor such externalities when the exact cost is unknown. The future generations of technologies to monitor and map agriculture and environment will bring solutions. Once the focus widens from the field to the level of regions, countries and the entire planet, then it is possible to envision monitoring systems for all resources, environmental impact of agriculture and production output. It is only logical to expect dynamic information systems that could look like Google Earth, but with many editions, such as, the aquifer status edition, the nutrient edition, the crop yield edition, the soil erosion/restoration edition, the pest edition, the contaminants edition, and so on and so on. With such dynamic systems, it will be possible to not only monitor but to also produce simulations and test different scenarios. It would become possible to have an idea of how long resources can last, depending on different production techniques. It could be possible to make estimates and develop policies to adapt agriculture timely and ensure that future practices will maintain sustainable production systems. With such tools, precision agriculture, it will possible to develop worldwide policies and strategies to coordinate agricultural production. It also will help make markets much more transparent, as such dynamic systems would take into account consumption demand, worldwide stocks and production updates. Such transparency will reduce risks of speculation as the system would present a continuous update on the most likely scenario. Let’s face it! The computers will eventually replace the market places or agricultural commodities.

I agree with Matt Waits, precision agriculture will be the agriculture of the future. I also believe that the technologies that agriculture will use will play a role at a much larger scale and beyond just agriculture to shape the way we deal with our planet and our societies. Precision agriculture will play a crucial role in ensuring food security and prosperity.

Copyright 2014 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.