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

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.

Copyright 2014 – the Happy Future Group Ltd.

Precision is the future of agriculture and our future

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.

China is evolving – A look towards future consequences

Aside

Recently, interesting economic news has come from the Empire of the Middle. On the one hand, financial markets reacted worried on the softening of the Chinese economy, but on the other hand they reacted rather positively about the first corporate debt default allowed in the country. To me, all of the above is good news. If financial markets get a bit nervous for a few days, then so be it! It cannot be a complete surprise that at some point the growth of the Chinese economy would slow down. Double-digit growth cannot last forever, and growth cannot keep going on a straight line without some corrections along the way. If markets are worried about a growth of 5% for China, then how will they react when China lands into a recession, as it surely will happen at some time?

Personally, I find China’s performance over the last 30 years quite impressive to say the least. I am old enough to have seen dramatic changes about that country. When I was a kid, all the news from China was rather sad. There was a chronic situation of near-famine, and what I heard then, true or not, was that the Chinese had only one bowl of rice per person for a whole day. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution directed by Mao Zedong did not exactly spelled prosperity, by far not. After the arrival of Deng Xiaoping, things changed and a new direction took place, which had led the country to where it is today. Pragmatism took over from blind dogma. Deng Xiaoping’s quote “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice” summed it up nicely. I have to admit that I was still rather young and did not pay much attention to what happened in China. That came later during my professional life. In the early 1990s, the price of wheat increased, and this became cause for concern in the poultry industry, in which I was working by then. I remember a conversation with one of my customers. We came to the conclusion that China had decided to feed its people, and that was the sign of a new era. Since that day, I have followed with much interest the evolution of China, and until this day it has not stopped fascinating me.

Bringing a country of 1.5 billion people in 30 years from hunger to the world’s largest economy is no small deed. Western economies with a much lower population should know, since they struggle to provide enough jobs to their populations, which in many cases would fit in only one of the large Chinese cities. Chinese leaders have shown a remarkable pragmatic approach in the way they have carried out this change. They have performed an impressive balancing act to stay in power through economic development that allowed the population to not have enough reason to start a revolution, which is the only way to change a government when there are no elections. Feeding their people was definitely a sound strategy to achieve the double objective of power continuation and increasing prosperity. However, this economic success has come at a high price. China suffers from major environmental damage, and the rest of the world also undergoes the consequences. This is where the news of the past few days sends some interesting signals about the future. China is now entering a phase of optimization. Growth is not anymore just about more, but it is about better. Phase one, providing for the basic needs seems on its way to completion. Now, focusing on the quality of future growth becomes necessary, as keeping the course of the previous decades would probably soon lead to make the country hardly liveable. But allowing the pace of growth to slow down in order to get the time to improve the situation and clean some of the damage is not the only sign that shows that Chinese leaders have the confidence that the country has achieved a level of economic prosperity sufficient to absorb this slowdown. The recent debt default of the solar panel company Chaori shows that China has decided to stop to protect business from failure, as until this case, various levels of government would guarantee the debt. The message seems to be that the economy is strong enough to take such hits. This is a strong signal that China will no longer bail out businesses and that they will let market forces select the winners and the losers. That is quite the move toward liberalism. A number of Western countries do not appear this bold, lately. In the same area of a changed economic philosophy, China is also currently allowing market forces to regulate the value of its currency, which is currently weakening, even though Western countries have always put pressure on China to re-evaluate the Yuan. The ability to persevere on long-term objective and not let outsiders interfere more than necessary is one of the quality of the Chinese that I like particularly. They do what is good for China and do not allow foreigners to undermine they progress. They run their economy with the same resilience and determination as they did with the Long March. Personally, I like the approach of the Chinese leaders. They are smart, focused and pragmatic. The new generation of entrepreneurs and executive also shows these good qualities. I also am quite impressed by the enthusiasm and curiosity of young Chinese students. They have the momentum on their side and it feeds their desire to succeed.

As I mentioned earlier, a couple of decades ago China decided to feed its people, mostly to avoid social unrest that could get out of control. In the area of food security, China has, like in the rest of its economy, achieved impressive results, but at a high cost, too. I believe that part of the current shift in economic philosophy can be looked at from the perspective of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. The objective number one for China has been to meet the basic needs: food, shelter, safety. Although there is still a part of the population living in poverty, the basic needs, from a collective point of view, are more or less met, as the majority of the population has now entered the middle class or better and the rest seems to follow in that direction. In the first phase, it is clear that environmental damage was under little scrutiny, as the end justified the means. After all, hungry people are not picky about what they eat, if it means surviving. In the today’s Chinese society, just eating what is available is no longer the only priority. Once the basic needs are met, the emotional takes gradually over from the biological. Consumers start to think and to question. It is not anymore about surviving today only, but about living in the future. The population is expressing its discontent of the quality of life and against the environmental recklessness of businesses more and more often. If food was used to be considered a potential source of unrest, now the problem has shifted to air and water. Heavy air pollution, contaminated water and the sight of thousands of dead pigs floating in the river that flows through Shanghai, as was the case a few months ago, are no longer tolerated by the population.

China Food Map (Photo: Zhang Yanlin/Asianewsphoto)The phase of optimization is also going to take place in food and agriculture. The situation about corn is a good indicator. Until 2012, China was self-sufficient for corn. With the increasing demand for meat as a result of economic improvement of the population, China has now become a net importer. The type of demand for the various food groups, together with the environmental toll of pursuing the objective of food self-sufficiency has reached its limits. It is important to acknowledge the performance of the Chinese agriculture, though. Even is the cost of achieving food security is high, one needs to remember that China is the world’s largest producer of rice, wheat, pork, eggs, fruit and vegetables, and cotton. It is the second largest producer of corn, behind the US. Considering the size of the country, being the main producer for all those commodities is quite an achievement. Yet China, announced last February that it was changing its objective, and that grain self-sufficiency was no longer sacred. It makes very good sense. The long term is as important as the present. China needs to work hard now to protect and restore its soils and its fresh water. On other area where the country can also achieve substantial results is by fixing post-harvest losses. Infrastructure will be developed further. Optimization of the food value chains will also take place, largely in the form of a consolidation of businesses. The seed sector will be interesting to follow in this regard, as many small seed producers will either disappear or be absorbed by larger entities. Considering the crucial role of genetics for crop yield, this rationalization of the sector should also contribute to a further improvement of the Chinese agriculture.

With land purchases abroad, world agricultural production up, international trade and a more astute food stocks strategy, China does not need to try to produce all its food itself. The bulk of the basic needs is covered. Now, it is time to optimize and repair without having to fear shortages. The focus is going to be more on waste reduction and efficiency than before. It definitely will be about doing more with less, to use a commonly used expression. An example of this tightening of standards is the so-called Green Fence for the recycling goods that China imports. Now the recycling materials need to be cleaned to enter the country. China simply does not want to use its energy and water resources. They want the waste producers to do that in their own countries. That is wise.

Another area for optimization is food safety and food quality. In a previous article , I wrote about a strategic shift towards speeding up the learning curve to meet higher standards. The shift from quantity to quality is a reflection of the pyramid of needs. When people have enough to eat, as is the case in large Chinese urban centers, they start to look at how food is produced and question what they do not like. Food security is for most no longer a worry, as the alarming rise in overweight and diabetes shows. When food security is no longer a worry, the focus shifts to food safety. That is quite normal.

My expectation is that China is no longer in the logic of just copying and producing cheap low quality. Although this reputation is still quite alive in Western countries, in my opinion it is incorrect. But after all, similar prejudices lived long about Japan, too, until the time that Americans realized that Japanese goods were of a better quality and Japanese companies were better run than their domestic counterparts. We will see the same thing about China. Some people will wake up too late. The Chinese are quite awake. Don’t worry for them.

Although the food industry, like all industries, resents criticism, it is actually the sign of a developed society. Basic standards do not satisfy anymore. People look for the something extra, and that is where opportunities arise. Those who listen to consumers and offer them what they want increase their chances of capturing the high-margin market positions. Let’s face it; markets for undifferentiated commodities are attractive mostly because of the large volumes they represent. In China, too, health and environment will be the drivers of future food supply. This will definitely offer good possibilities in the future. The Chinese will also take a look at their diet, and the per capita consumption of meat, just like economic growth, will not keep increasing forever. In the same way as it did in Western countries, it will reach a plateau, probably in 10 years from now, and later will gradually decline, for the same reasons as it is doing in the West, and also because the population of China is expected to decrease to 1.4 billion by 2050 and to 1.1 billion by 2100. That decrease represents a lot of consumers. It will be important to notice this change of trend on time. When consumption of certain food items in Western countries reached that plateau, most companies did not anticipate it. As usual in such situations, denial is the first reaction. First the change of trend is considered a temporary hiccup. Investments to increase capacity have often been made on the expectation of continuous growth, causing an overcapacity of production, and the production capacity needs to be used fully to be economically efficient. This creates a lack of flexibility and all producers enter the difficult times with the same cost profitability concerns. When the stagnation appears to last, producers like to think that indeed there will be a consolidation of the sector, but they usually all seem to think that they will weather the storm and will not be affected. Of course, it never works that way. Bad things do not happen only happen to others. Then, the crisis follows and usually a vigorous restructuring takes place. I have seen this many times and it is amazing to see how history repeats itself. There is no doubt that when food consumption will have reached its top, the same mechanism will show. This time, the problem will be quite robust, though. To supply China, production volumes will be much higher than previous similar scenarios of stagnation in the various Western regions. Further, just as much any marginal increment of consumption per capita multiplied by 1.5 billion means large volumes, any decrease of consumption will represent significant pain. This point is not here, yet. There are years of growth for most food groups ahead, but it is time to start thinking, and especially start planning, about a change of strategy. When the plateau appears, differentiation will become the main theme, and niches will be the place to be. Considering that the Chinese culture is long-term oriented and that relationships are a fundamental element of business in China, I would recommend starting paving the path for this shift sooner than later. After all, 10 years pass quite fast.

Copyright 2014 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Food prices, one year later – Some lessons

According to the data gathered by the FAO, global food prices are on the decline. They have been so for some time. However, this good news does not seem to make the headlines. Reassuring news does not score with the mainstream media. What a difference with the past year during which all of a sudden they discovered that food might not be taken for granted after all! What have we not heard and read by then. The most absurd theories and pseudo-analyses have been spread around by some who know nothing better than copying and pasting the internet without exercizing the slightest sense of critical thinking. Of course, the fear mongers got plenty of publicity while they really did not contribute to anything productive, as I had described in a previous article (Fear mongering does not build a strong future).

What a difference a year makes! And that is a very good thing. It shows that agriculture and farmers are much more resilient and have much greater potential than some want to make believe. That confirms what I have always claimed and that I relentlessly repeat in my presentations and publications. I have lost the count of how many times I have been told that “Christophe, you are quite the optimist”, in particular about the content of Future Harvests. Frankly, I do not think that I am particularly optimistic. Actually, I can see many reasons why we will face serious crises along the way to meeting the goals of feeding a growing population. That warning is the message behind We Will Reap What We Sow. I see human nature and in particular our leadership, as serious reasons for temporary failures. But if I do not consider myself as an optimist, I definitely have a positive attitude. I truly believe we can manage and overcome future challenges, because I crunched the numbers and I have demonstrated in my literature and my talks that feeding 9 billion people in a sustainable manner is quite possible. It is possible, but it is not a given. There is work ahead. That makes it interesting and exciting.

Next to the potential and the future development that can make us overcome the coming challenges, I am also a firm believer of market forces. Market fluctuations trigger action and reaction. Nothing like high prices and solid profits get food producers increase production. Similarly, nothing like poor financial results have the ability to tamper any desire to increase production. The so-called invisible hand works. Sometimes, it holds a carrot. Sometimes, it holds a stick. It makes things move in the right direction. Over the past year, I have presented during a number of events how market forces would influence prices in different sectors in the years to come. By looking at it from the consumer demand end and by going back in the production and supply chain, I showed how the different actors would react to their own particular situations. So far, my predictions have come true, the reactions of retailers, food service, animal protein producers, crop farmers and input suppliers have been as expected. The drop in global food prices is one of these predictions. Those who attended some of my presentations know what I mean. For the others, here is a link to a video showing an excerpt my talk about the dynamics of future agricultural markets that will illustrate what I am writing about.

The past year contains many lessons. Some of them are about us, and some of them are about how to look at the future. The main lesson is probably that the situation of food and agriculture cannot be looked at in a simplistic manner and can certainly not be described or commented with scary slogans. The population is growing but so is agricultural production. The famine that is supposedly around the corner is far from happening. In a year time, the world population has increased by a few dozen million people, who on average tend to eat more food, and in particular meat. Yet, supply is able to meet demand better this year than last year, as global food prices and grain stocks indicate. Another lesson is that even though severe climatic events affect food supply negatively, there is no reason to panic. The fact that last year a severe drought depleted production numbers in one of the essential producing countries, the USA, the system was able to absorb the shock. There has been no food riot in 2012 like in 2008. The reason needs to be looked at what products were the most affected.  Supply of basic food stables remained in balance with demand. There was no particular shortage of bread or rice in sight. The commodities that were affected were business to business products, destined to the animal feed and the corn ethanol industries. Another lesson is that even though the prices of 2012 did not lead to riots, climatic events are a serious threat and need to be factored in future supply and demand scenarios to build enough of a buffer to reduce the risks of supply disruption. Another area that requires more attention is the regulation of financial markets, and in particular the regulatory aspects. It is clear that derivatives amplify market price fluctuations. By deciding who is allowed to be active on the markets of agricultural commodities and for which quantities, the functioning of markets can be more representative of the physical reality. In particular, the participation of players who have no physical production or supply functions in the food and agriculture need to be taken under strict scrutiny. As it is important to have fair market rules for a proper functioning of markets, it will be also useful to look at the functioning of crop insurance. Last year’s drought in the US cost insurance companies much money, while it appeared that US crop farmers ended up the season with the second highest profit level on record. No one will argue that farmers need to be protected from such unpredictable events.  Insurance should guarantee them a minimum income so that their future would not depend from forces out of their control. That is just fair. Opposite to that, it sounds beyond normal that, thanks to other contributors, farmers could go through such a drought without hardly feeling the slightest pinch in the wallet.

After the past year, am I still an “optimist”? Yes, I do believe that farmers will meet demand in the future. For all the reasons above, I am convinced as ever that the potential is largely there and that the world can absorb tough years. But I would attach a warning to my optimism. It is not because it can be done that it will be done. It is necessary to keep thinking ahead, to come with innovative ideas, products and services to be able to plan and forecast better, to make better and faster decisions. It is also essential to pass knowledge and information better and faster, and to choose the attitude of helping others succeed before one’s particular interest. Our societies have succeeded by acting together. Nobody will be able to do it all alone. Providing help and support will be critical for success, just as much as asking for them will be. It also becomes crucial to be able to look beyond one’s area of business and to connect the dots even – or maybe actually in particular – with events and activities that have, at least apparently, several degrees of separation with agriculture in order to anticipate, adapt and be prosperous. That is the core of what I do, and I can only encourage you to take the same approach.

As markets ease, it will be quite tempting to drop the guard. In my opinion, this would be a serious mistake. The time things seem to be under control is the right time to prepare for the future and to do some foresight. Markets will change again as the bargaining power of the different links of the chain will shift. Be assured that there will be some severe price hikes again. My best guess is within five years from now. Those who will do this exercise will have a strong advantage over those who will procrastinate.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Adapting our thinking to the future – part 2

At the end of part 1 of this article, I had mentioned how our elders used to make progress by blending the modern with the traditional. It is quite important to keep this way of looking at our life environment quite alive. How we evolved to where we are today determines very much why we have the current possibilities available. They are the direct result of our history. Whether we like it or not, our future has its roots in our past. The art is to improve what we have, and to improve, we need to learn from the mistakes of the past. Rejecting solutions for the simple reason that they are old-fashioned or not based on science is really excluding diversity, while diversity is the fuel of progress. Reducing diversity comes down to reducing options to move forward. As someone who looks toward the future and tries to find out what is likely to come as well as what is desirable to create, I find this balance between past and future especially interesting. I often am surprised to see how many people are actually busy reinventing the wheel, while they think that they are busy innovating. Many projects and research that I see taking place have actually already been carried out in some way either in another place or in another industry. I regularly have to tell some of my contacts about similar projects that took place years and sometimes even decades ago. This is why I always insist on the need to be curious. For the future, curiosity is an asset. I could never urge anyone enough to have an open mind for anything that happens anywhere and in any industry. Maybe, I am doing some sort of transfer about this and I wished others would be as curious and eager to learn as I am, but this is so helpful to foresee the changes to come, that anyone who is interested in the future should be wired like that. Unfortunately, I find most people to not be really curious. They seem to be interested in what will serve them directly in the short term, but much less for what may serve others now but also in the future. Until someone can tell me that it is better to limit one’s perception and understanding of the world and of its possibilities, I will keep being curious and open-minded.

People really need to expand their horizons. Not only is it useful to be prepared for the future, the main reason is that it is incredibly fun to learn to know new things and new people. For the sake of humanity, it is time to open up towards others. The attitude of future business will not be about pushing new products and services to others, but to have a “what can I do for you “ and “how can I help you” mindset. The business of the future is the one that delivers solutions. In the future, successful products will be at least as much about the service included as it is about the actual physical product. This is what circular thinking will deliver. In a future where others are really what matters the most, the social perception will also change. “Old boys clubs” (which are nowadays just as much girls clubs) and other clans are not really the most dynamic organizations. There is no doubt that they are incredibly comfortable, because they are basically made out of clones. Everyone thinks the same, shares the same values, comes from the same university or social group, lives in the same country or region, has the same feeling of importance, and looks to the outsiders just as such: outsiders. There is a lack of diversity; therefore there is a lack of progress. A new interesting development that, to me, shows the quality of networks has appeared recently on LinkedIn. They visualize how much of your network belong to which organizations. I recently have seen some of the apparently very social individuals that have close to 40% of their network linked to only one company, and the second organization in his network only 1%. To me, that does not spell open network. And I thought that the main organization in my LinkedIn network was already high at 5%. Personally, I prefer by far those who have a balanced distribution of their networks. The chances are much higher that people who have a more balanced distribution of their networks have been exposed to more diversified experiences, and are likely to be more open and more flexible to different or challenging ideas. For a successful future, we must not think in terms of networks, but we all should be interconnected in the same one that would be the complete integration and interaction of all the ones that exist. My customers have demonstrated this to me. About all of my business has come from my being on the web with this blog and my books. They caught my customers’ attention who decided to get in contact with me. None of them knew me personally beforehand. The result has been business. Actually, I have not prospected once for the Food Futurist services. I just found a way of being visible beyond any limitation of network boundaries. The Food Futurist has become part of that global web.

One of the main differences between nowadays and yesterday lies in how intricate our world has become. In the past, things used to be more compartmented. Today, the whole world has opened. Knowledge travels fast and is accessible from almost anywhere on the planet. The level of interaction between industries and technologies is much higher now than it used to be. Most innovation that will help progress in food and agriculture in the future will not originate from the food and agriculture community, but from many different fields such as robotics, nanotechnologies, telecommunications, software development or medicine, just to give a few examples. Although technology will definitely play a major role in improving what we do, it will be important to not see technology as a panacea with dictatorial tendencies. I always underline the importance of the balance that we must maintain between technology and steering human nature for the best. In the end, technology is only as good and useful as the way we use and master it. Just take the example of gun powder. When the Chinese started to use it, they made fireworks for entertainment purposes. The “white man” chose to use it to kill others. Clearly, a similar technology used with different philosophies of life will serve different purposes. This is still true with today’s technology and it will be true with tomorrow’s. It will depend on the leadership. Technology needs to pass the test of morals and ethics, unless we accept that it might serve to be used against us. Technology and leadership go together, just like science and philosophy do. It is important to not forget it. If curiosity is an asset for the future, clearly, so is having a critical mind for the reasons just presented. It is essential to keep control on what we do and that we address concerns. Of course, this may delay some valuable financial objectives for some, but the quality of the future will depend on us doing the right things. The debate that results from critical thinking may be time-consuming, but open debate is an integral part of the democratic process. Open debates protect us from going back to dark ages. Looking back how what such ages have caused in human history, and unfortunately still do in some parts of the world, the need to learn from the past is clearly essential for a prosperous future.

Thinking ahead like a chess playerOther advantages of critical thinking are that it stimulates reflection and is a source of ideas. It is also important to make clear that critical thinking is not about criticizing but about questioning. Sterile boring criticism is just as useless for our future as not thinking at all. Let’s face it, critical thinking is not easy. It requires emotional distance. It is about accepting that what we may have believed appears to be wrong, or that they are better ways and beliefs. To be a good critical thinker, one needs to have enough confidence to overcome disappointment and to accept to change the course. Not that many people are willing to deal with such challenges. Yet, if we want to prepare for a prosperous future, we will have to accept that exercise, because, the future will be quite different, and in particular our interaction with our environment and the world will change and evolve further. Critical thinking actually requires a rather Zen mindset. One needs to have the calm and openness to observe and listen before speaking. One needs to accept being wrong as the debate that arises from the exercise will also show the value of other people’s points of views. Critical thinking is an exercise in humility. Humility is a highly valuable, yet often neglected quality. Yet, it is essential to be humble when thinking about the future. The challenges are quite serious and dealing with natural forces that may or may not be about to unleash upon us will not be an easy task. We will need to understand our relationship with Nature and accept the idea that, in spite of all our cool technologies, we are vulnerable and mortal. One of the arts of future thinking will be about pushing the system while knowing where the limits are that we must not transgress. That is what sustainability really is about. We really do not want to open Mother Nature’ Pandora’s Box. To be equipped properly to face the future, we need leaders that will think like chess players. We need leaders in all areas of society that can understand how the consequences of their decisions and of their vision will trickle down through the system. They must be able to foresee what may happen when they make their moves. Many already hardly can foresee what comes next. Those we need are the ones who can visualize what happens two, three, four and more degrees ahead, so that they can adjust their choices and already develop alternatives before troubles arise. A good plan A always includes a plan B, and preferably even a plan C. Plans that lack alternatives are not plans, they are merely wish lists.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Adapting our thinking to the future – part 1

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

The circular will look linear when approached from the right angle

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Part 2 of this topic will be published soon)

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Dealing with complexity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Thinking of a better agriculture in a better world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Rio+20, Riots+30?

The Rio+20 conference is over. Announced with much publicity, accompanied with many tactically timed media articles and other conferences about sustainability, it has been the occasion for many to demonstrate their apparent concern about the future of the planet. A couple of weeks after the conference, the excitement has faded away, and the tweets that were so abundant on the subject have become rare. This is rather symptomatic of the current behavior of short attention span. Much has been written about Rio+20 and the dominant conclusion is that it has not achieved much, as expected.

For obvious reasons, I followed the part about agriculture and food security with special attention. Since I did not expect anything, I was not disappointed. To me, this conference has left me with the impression that the world leaders are resigned. The text was written before they would meet and it was far from bold. I read it and I could only shake my head. To me it looked like a very politically correct list of commitments that would fit nicely in typical New Year’s resolutions. The principles and statements mentioned in the text are noble but who can seriously think that effective action will follow? Just like world peace, everybody will agree on the principle of a sustainable livable planet where hunger does not exist. The reality is different. Human nature is not that noble and our many flaws hinder us to achieve such goals. In We Will Reap What We Sow, I wrote among others a chapter dedicated to the human weaknesses and how they affect our ability to deliver what we all secretly want. In the book, I also discuss how we can overcome these weaknesses and work toward a successful change. The theme of Rio+20 was “The future we want”. It was not clear to me who we might be, and whether it should be about wanting. Is what we want the same as what we need? The theme should have been “The future we need”. That would have been more precise and more relevant.

I also followed the webcasts dedicated to food and agriculture of the conference, and they disappointed me. I would have loved to see people clearly expressing their frustration about the resistance our world faces to go in the right direction. I would have expected strong calls on the leaders for effective action. I would have expected to see clear action points with clear and non-negotiable deadlines. I would have expected clarity about who should be responsible to do what. I did not get these. Instead, I saw some well-rehearsed PowerPoint presentations carried out by speakers who were rather satisfied with the work of their countries or organizations and who sounded like they found that at least their contribution was excellent and so would it be in the future. I am always suspicious when I hear people justifying themselves while nobody is asking for justifications. I believe that the overwhelming majority of people who work in agriculture to produce more and better food in a better manner do a good job. Most people go to work with the desire to do something good. Such presentations did not add much to the objectives of producing more food in a sustainable manner.

What would I have liked to see happening at the Rio+20 conference, you might ask? Very simple: I would have liked to see people arguing quite vividly and even getting angry, even leaving the negotiation room and slamming the door. This would have been the sign that the right questions had been asked. Considering the complexity of growing more food and at the same time maintain the potential of agriculture to keep producing for generations to come, difficult issues and really annoying questions are inevitable. I really would have liked to see the likes of a Nikita Khrushchev who in the UN took off his shoe to bang it on his desk in the 60s. Although his behavior was somehow out of line and by today’s political correctness standards totally unthinkable, it would be good to have leaders engaging in robust arguments. After all, if the survival of humanity is indeed at stake, this would be a cheap price to pay. Instead of that, the leaders came only to pay lip service, show up on the group picture and went back home knowing that the conference did not address the issues as it should have. At least everybody felt good about a text that was not threatening for anyone, that did not ask for any significant sacrifice and thus life can go on. As soon as they left the building, they returned to business as usual. All the principles listed in the text are correct as such. The only problem is that it is written as if the UN expects world leaders to become altruistic, long-term oriented and good-hearted. It is a bit naive. They are politicians! Yes, in a perfect world, there is no doubt that the world would feed itself sustainably, just as it would not cause climatic change and there would be no poor and hungry people, either. In a perfect world, there would be no need for the UN or the FAO.

What can happen if the economic model derails and collapses if it does not make the right choices to become sustainable? That is not very difficult to figure out. A number of events from the last few years can give us some clues. The riots that took place when the price of food increased sharply in 2008, affecting the lives of many people in developing countries, show that food will play a crucial role for the stability of many regions. It will not take much for such riots to happen again. Because of the economic crisis, a number of heads of states in democratic countries have been defeated during recent elections. The people clearly asked for a different leadership. In Arab countries, a similar demand has been met through social unrest, riots and near civil wars, and the process is still ongoing. The people asked for a different leadership. The intensity of the economic crisis has actually been reduced substantially by the massive printing of money and the large amounts of debts that many countries have had to issue to keep their economies from stopping abruptly. If money printing has softened the short-term impact of the financial meltdown, it also will lengthen its duration quite significantly. Considering the amount of debt and the demographics of Western countries, it will take generations before the debt can be paid back entirely, if that ever even happens. To restore a sound ratio of debt on GDP, most of these countries would actually need a new baby boom to ensure a growth that matches the challenges. Of course, another approach could be to allow immigration numbers to increase strongly, but that does not seem to be on any of these countries’ plans. Moreover, a growth based on the same economic model of consumption society does not appear sustainable and before the right numbers would be met, one can wonder if our species would have survived.

I often tell that the difference between the effects of the financial, the social and the environmental parts of the economy manifest at different speed. Anyone can follow share prices live on the stock market, anyone can follow his/her bank account on a second-by-second if desiring to do so. Social consequences can take months or longer to manifest, and environmental effects can take decades to manifest. The financial crisis has been the result of postponing actions to ensure that the money world could be sustainable. It is still far from being there and the financial crisis is not over, but at least there was the possibility to print money and to emit debt. That entertains the illusion. When it comes to environmental sustainability, our leaders are also postponing actions to ensure that our physical world be sustainable. The main difference is that there is no printing of Nature possible. Printing of wheat, rice, beans or other essential food items is not an option. If we lose the ability to produce enough, there will be fights for food. That is inevitable.

An unsustainable economic model, and in particular an unsustainable agriculture, will result in shortages, not just local but everywhere and anywhere to some extent. It will result in large numbers of people left with few options to survive. Some cultures might deal with it in more orderly manner than others might, but overall, the result will be social unrest that could have the potential to turn into riots and probably even into regional conflicts. A quick look at the world map gives an idea of where it can happen and the potential risks. The Rio+20 conference should have presented prospective scenarios of what will happen if we do not act properly and timely, and it should have asked the leaders on solutions. Leaving a conference handling such a sensitive and complex problem without a genuine brainstorming and a solid and courageous action plan made by the leaders for the world in order to preserve peace and stability comes short of leadership.

Considering the pace of economic, social and environmental change, this was the least that should have been done. Are we going to wait another 20 years for the following conference? Will it be as lame as this one? Will the result of Rio+20 be Riots+30, or +40? I tend to think so more and more. I am increasingly convinced that only a really scary crisis affecting the rich will shake the lethargy. I think that political change will come from the street before it comes from leaders who have apparently already given up. In the food and agriculture sectors, I also expect salvation to come from the ones who are the most involved in production: the farmers, the food producers and the food distributors, simply because their livelihoods will depend directly on an agriculture that is sustainable. Politicians will only follow later, when they and their constituents become food insecure.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The Sustainability Dilemma

Although almost everyone seems to agree that our world needs to be sustainable (what is the alternative anyway?), making it happen seems much more challenging. The good intentions have difficulties to turn into action. The reason is simple. To make human activities sustainable, we will need to accept some serious trade-offs. That is where it hurts. There is the dilemma. Are we willing to change and sacrifice on the superfluous today to have a bright future, or do we want to keep instant gratification as the way of life and risk to lose it all later? Even though the answer to this question is obvious, it is only human to choose the short term. The issue in the background is one of change, not so much one of a choice about sustainability. To understand why this is so, one needs to realize that fear of change is not about change. It is about the fear of loss. This fear is even stronger when there is little certainty about what will come next.

Making the move towards sustainability presents many short-term challenges. There is a lot of money at stake, but this is not just about the financial aspects of the economy. There is a social cost, too. Changing the economic model into a sustainable one means that many jobs will be threatened. In these times of economic hardships, the fear of unemployment and of the social unrest that would result from it is reason for many politicians to be reluctant to take drastic action. They also think about their jobs. Sustainability is about the long term. It is about later and somewhere else. On the contrary, personal consequences of the change are here and now. There is no need to look any further to understand why there is resistance and inertia. In the debate about sustainability, shortcomings appear in several areas.

A first area is the lack of strong vision from the leaders about which alternative to offer to the current consumption society. Actually, consumption society is not an accurate description. The purpose is not so much about consumption as it is about buying stuff, use them or not, throw them away and buy new stuff instead. Clearly, with more people having more disposable income, this is going to hit a wall. As more people want to have a piece of the shrinking pie, and as finite resources deplete gradually, excessive consumption and waste are not going to last for much longer. It is simple math and it is common sense. Supply and demand will readjust markets by sending prices up. High prices will make consumption slow down, and so will the world economy. Regardless of which one between market forces or the environment will cause the current system to collapse, the economic model will change. The time has come to bring a clear vision for an alternative system. The alternative must ensure that the economy is prosperous, that people have work that pays well enough for them to cover their needs and to ensure that human societies can have a future for generations to come. Until this day, nobody has come with a vision and a road map that make the change acceptable here and now. This is why all international conferences lead to little action. As long as this is the case, the only thing that will force a change in attitude is a major crisis in which the wealthy are at risk of losing what they have. As long as crises touch only the poor and the powerless, nothing really changes, unfortunately.

A second area of weakness is the lack of collaborative action. Every group of stakeholders look at its interest first, while the proper approach would have to be altruistic and empathic. This is another case of the here and now vs. the elsewhere and later. If we want to succeed, it is necessary to transcend differences and borders. We need to find ways of going beyond simple accountability, and impose co-responsibility. This is much easier said than done.

A third area to address is the numbers. In the end, it is about money and jobs. Actions to make the world sustainable must also work financially. If change is not sustainable financially, change will not happen. If businesses go bankrupt and if people are at risk of losing their livelihoods, they will not go for the change. The new economic model needs to consider this. The transition towards a better world needs to consider it, too. The externalities need to be internalized in some way, but the new model must be robust as well, otherwise all efforts would be for nothing.

A fourth area is about definitions. What is sustainability? How can we monitor and measure all human activities to know which ones are within sustainable limits and which ones have no future? How and where to draw the line, and how to enforce it? In the case of agriculture, every particular activity has its own specific impact. Depending on the nature of the environment, the nature of the impact and the range of sustainability vary, too. Monitoring must be tailor-made to each particular situation.

A fifth area is the consumer’s behavior. It is impossible to address sustainability without addressing consumption habits, and in particular excessive consumption and waste. As long as consumers will not eliminate the use of products that have an unsustainable effect on the environment, very little will improve. Putting the emphasis on production only is not enough. Production methods certainly can improve, but a substantial share of the damage is the result of consumers wanting more of what is not so good. Consumers are the largest group of influence. They are the people. What and how they consume is democracy in action. Businesses and governments follow their lead to quite some extent. When the majority chooses for a different economic model, things will change fast, but for now, the majority is still choosing for the old model.

Whether our world will move towards sustainability or choose a more hazardous way depends on us all. It depends on how we want to solve the dilemma that we face. The choice is not easy, but it is essential. There are many questions still unanswered, simply because they have not been asked. These important questions are mostly of a practical nature. They are more about how to make the system work not only environmentally and socially, but also financially. If businesses tend to focus mostly on financial aspects, environmental and social movement tend to neglect it too much. Like everything else in life and nature, it is about balance.

In my latest book, We Will Reap What We Sow, I address in much more details many of these questions and discuss the value of possible alternatives in relation with our future ability to feed a growing population.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.