Fear mongering does not build a solid future

Since the drought in the US of this past summer and the strong price increase of agricultural commodities, agriculture has become a favorite topic in the media. As such, this would be really good if it were not for the (potential) disaster voyeurism. There is nothing like a flavor of end of the world in the works to get the attention of the readers. After all, this is good to fill advertising space and to promote a book.

Since I started to look at the future of food and farming, I have seen an evolution on how people look at the future of agriculture. When I started, I could hear statements about the need to have two (even three and four) Earths to meet demand. Interestingly, none of those who stated this impossibility neglected to pay attention to food losses, and they were only focusing on more production. When could passing a mop under an open tap be a sensible approach? If we really come to need more than one planet, then there is only one outcome. Since that second Earth does not exist, the surplus of people would have to die so that the world can meet the demand of the survivors. I agree that it is not a cheerful thought. However, Mao Tze Tung once considered that it could be acceptable that half of his people, the poor, would die of famine to allow the other half that could afford food to be able to meet its needs. Such a morbid thought is actually more common that one would admit, and in this world of political correctness, it is repressed voluntarily. That does not stop the fear mongers, though. They just not choose to sacrifice a group to save another one. They tell us that we are all going to face our demise. That is politically correct, I suppose. Personally, I do not consider that announcing disasters is constructive. Fear is a poor adviser, and it is certainly not the proper way to communicate about problems.

There is no shortage of doomsday thinkers out there. In We Will Reap What We Sow, I address the many challenges that the doomsday thinkers bring up. Instead of taking an apocalyptic approach like they do, I chose to initiate a positive  reflection about alternatives and solutions. Scaring people is too easy, especially when they are not experts in the field of agriculture. I am not a fan of the one-eyed being king in the land of the blind. I have 20/20 vision and I want to help others to also see with both eyes. In my book, I make clear that we will live with the consequences of our actions (hence the title), but I give many reasons for hope. It is more productive then despair.

In the realm of doom and gloom, I must admit that the Post Carbon Institute wins the prize. Among the other prophets of doom, Lester Brown currently fills the stage, especially since he is promoting his latest book. I had the chance to hear him speak some 14 years ago at an aquaculture conference. I must say that he is an excellent speaker and quite a charming man. Actually, he inspired me to venture into foresight and futurism. I really believe that his talents should be used to create positive momentum instead of sowing depressive thoughts in the population. Before the summer (before the US drought that is), he had stated in an interview that “the world is only one bad harvest away from a food crisis”. I have never subscribed to that point of view. The issue of feeding the world is much more complex than that. Well, we just have had a bad harvest and there is no more food crisis than last year. Prices of agricultural commodities have gone through the roof. Yet, there have not been any riots like in 2008. It is almost a wonder considering how much fear mongering has taken place in the mainstream media. They all came with scarier scenarios the one than the other. And thanks to social media, the news spreads even faster and further. In particular, Twitter is an amazing place to be in. Anything and everything gets tweeted, retweeted many times over without the slightest critical thinking. Their symbol should not be a bird. It should be a sheep. The top of uncritical maniacal tweeting was about the writer from Australia who spoke at a conference telling the audience that agriculture needs to produce 600 quadrillion calories a day. That was all over twitter. Wow, do you fancy that, 600 quadrillion? Yes, I have to admit it is a big number. I found is so big that I had to count on my fingers. Considering that the average human being needs about 2,000 calories a day (the FAO says 1,800, but let’s keep the calculation simple!), 600 quadrillion calories corresponds to the needs of 300 trillion people. That is about more than 40,000 (yes, forty thousand) times more than the current world population. With math like this, it should be no surprise that his book is titled the Coming Famine. Regardless of the title, I would agree that one Earth could not feed any number of people remotely close to 300 trillion, but we are not there yet. When I saw that number, I could not resist tweeting about the math, and the sheeple out there realized that the numbers did not add up.

That has not been the end of my tweeting against the fueling of fears about food and agriculture. Another tweet that caught my attention came from Graziano da Silva, Director General of the FAO (actually his staff) stating about food prices “This is not a crisis yet. We need to avoid “panic buying””, to which I replied that a good way to do this could be to stop talking about food crisis so often. What can be more of a boon to speculators in commodities than Twitter and its instant worldwide spreading of any rumor, information or myth that indeed can create panic? There is no better way to make food prices increase than by repeating exponentially that there might be food shortages, even though it is not the case. Interestingly enough, since then, the panic button seems to have been turned off at the FAO.

Fear mongering and doomsday thinking, although morbidly attractive, will not help build a solid future. Predicting terrible disasters without giving clear clues of how to prevent and overcome them is rather useless. Actually, it is counterproductive. Those who do not know the facts or are not in a position of doing something about the problem are going to feel demotivated and there is a chance that they will not try to care anymore. Those who actually contribute to solutions will not pay much attention, as it sounds like the kid who cried wolf to them, and might miss important information in the process. There are challenges ahead. Some of them are quite serious and difficult to overcome, but not impossible. I know that and I know them. And so do many others. However, the fact that the task ahead is challenging  is no reason to undermine anyone’s morale. The amount of knowledge and of tools at our disposal is quite amazing, and we probably have more than we need to fix things. What must change is our attitude. Rambling and whining about problems have never made any disappear. It is necessary to create positive momentum among the population(s), to show them that success is possible. To achieve this, it is important to avoid the opposite of fear mongering, which is blissful optimism. It is possible to feed the world, even when it reaches 9 billion people. It can be done with one Earth. A couple of years ago, I was one of the few who claimed that it could be done. By then I felt a bit lonely, as the main thinking sounded like it could not be achieved. Maybe my blog, books and presentations have contributed to change that. Those who have read me or listened to me seem to think that my positive and practical look on the issue have contributed to changing their mindset. The thought is nice, but it is not what counts. What really matters is that gradually, more people start to see beyond the myths and the catch phrases. Not everyone does. This summer, I heard about the “Great Global Food Crisis”. So far, I had heard only about the Global Food Crisis. Apparently, fear had increased by a notch or two.  Such expressions are non-sense. If the food crisis were to be global, there would be a food crisis everywhere around the globe. That is pretty much the definition. I do not see any food crisis in many countries. Actually, a study showed that the number of overweight people was on the rise in more and more countries. What is true is that there are local food crises. Unfortunately, for the populations that suffer from it, they are not caused by global food shortages as some like to make believe, but because of armed conflict and /or by poverty and lack of infrastructure. The number of undernourished people is actually decreasing as the FAO showed in their latest State of Food Insecurity 2012. To me, everything points at progress in the fight against hunger, even though negative climatic events affect agricultural production. But just for fun, let’s get back to the Great Crisis. If the food crisis were to be global, can it get any bigger than that? What does the adjective Great add? It adds nothing except the desire to scare. Let’s face it! Some people jobs depend on cultivating the idea that something goes wrong. It is their only purpose. Personally, I prefer those who roll up the sleeves and conceive, develop and execute solutions. These are the ones who make our future world a better place. It is too bad that they do not get as much attention from the media as the fear mongers. Of course, things that go well are not as sensational as disasters, but they are more valuable. They are the success stories that need to be told, so that others can learn from them. They are the success stories that must be told so that we all eventually can realize that building a solid future is possible. It is not easy as spreading fear, but it is much more productive and useful for present and future generations!

Copyright 2012 – 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.

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.

Q&A on We Will Reap What We Sow on twitter

I will be available to answer any questions about my new book We Will Reap What We Sow on twitter. I believe this could be a good way to interact in a concise manner with readers.

The participants will have to include the hashtag #WWRWWS on their tweets to be noticed.

This will take place over three days, with two sessions of one hour each day.

The dates and times are June 13 – 14 – 15 2012 at:

  • 2.00 pm EST = 7.00 pm in England = 8.00 pm in Western Europe
  • 7.00 pm EST = noon in Sydney, Australia = 7.30 am in Mumbai

It is also possible to ask questions outside of these times, but I will answer them only when I am available again.

The Food Futurist is three years old

And what exciting three years these have been!

The reason for me to start The Food Futurist was my frustration about getting clear answers on the ability of agriculture to produce sustainably and to keep meeting future demand. Unlike today, there were not many articles about feeding the world by 2050, simply because food was cheap and the world seemed to experience a never-ending economic boom. Things changed and a couple of food price increases got the attention of many who did not pay attention, while they should have. The few organizations that were addressing the topic did not publish anything satisfactory to me. The doom and gloom messages of we need two Earths (three or even four for some) did not really bring any useful response.

This is why I started this blog. I wanted to write down some of my thoughts and sort out the information that I could find. At the beginning, I had no master plan about what it could become. Then, I started to see the traffic on this website grow by the day. I realized that the future of food and agriculture mattered to many people, and that happened all around the world. This led me to write Future Harvests in the winter and spring of 2010. At that stage, it felt a little lonely, in the sense that my investigations did not support many of the mainstream thinking. Very quickly, it became very clear to me that hunger was about much more than just food production. I also could deduct from numbers that the world already produced enough to feed 9 billion with a sufficient and balanced diet, even 40 years before the mythic year of 2050. When I make that statement, I can see eyebrows rise. This fact still is little known, even within a number of organizations involved in food and agriculture. I am always surprised by their surprise. The good news is that, nowadays, more and more people and reporters bring it up. Feeding the world gets easier once some myths fall. In an article, I had indicated that world agriculture has the potential to feed 12 billion. Needless to say that I was pleased to read that same number on the FAO website a few months later.

What I discovered was the scandal of food waste, the relative lack of action to fix it, while the numbers show that it is quite feasible and not that expensive at all. By then, the issue was a matter within rather confidential circles. The economic crisis, especially in the USA, has opened the eyes of the aberrant behavior of consumers in rich countries. Considering that 30% of food is lost and wasted, this issue could not stay under the radar. I have raised it every time I could, and I hope it contributed somehow to an increased awareness of the problem.

Similarly, through my preliminary research, it became obvious to me how large the potential of Africa is for food production. A couple of years ago, I was one of the few who were claiming that Africa could and should feed itself, as well as it has the potential to become a net exporter. I got the same risen eyebrows and skeptical looks from my interlocutors. By then, reports about Africa were about all the usual negative stories. The only story about African agriculture was the so-called land grab, with the emphasis on making it a neo-colonialism. None of the articles I could read even bothered estimating the potential of food production. For the sake of rejecting this neo-colonialism, the only stance was apparently to consider the status quo, poverty and hunger, the better choice. How pathetic was that? A couple of years later, everyone is talking enthusiastically about the great potential of Africa, and how much the world needs it. My words in Future Harvests were “what happens in Africa will affect us all, for better or worse”. I am glad that more and more people see this. Nowadays, there is a lot of enthusiasm about Africa. To that, I would warn that there also still are many challenges to overcome.

To me, what made Future Harvests different from other publications was the fact that it was comprehensive and non-partisan. In particular, the comprehensive character of Future Harvests makes the book a cut above from other publications. Usually, reports, articles and books about the topic of feeding a growing population are focusing on a particular area or with a particular bias to try to influence the thinking about future decisions. There is none of this in Future Harvests. I looked at all areas, the land, the desert, the cities and the oceans. As many systems are no longer workable for the future, I reviewed many innovations to see if there were alternatives. The section of Future Harvests dedicated to innovation presents an abundance and diversity of ideas being developed. It is not exhaustive because the list would be too long. My purpose was to give an idea about the resourcefulness available to fix problems. Those who read the book confirmed that such creativity gives a lot of hope. In the book, I also emphasized the need for pragmatism. Too many articles try to advocate for either big large-scale industrial agriculture or for all natural, small-scale subsistence-like farming. None of them is a universal answer. Anyone with knowledge of agriculture knows that farmers must adapt to their natural, political, social and economic environments. The right production systems derived from a harmonious balance between these components. Dogmatism is rigid and rigidity is an impediment to the ability to adapt.

Hope is certainly better than the doom and gloom people out there. It is sad to read sometimes how negative they are. It feels like they are trying to demotivate people who have positive energy, for God knows what purpose really. One rather famous expert in the field of environment and agriculture, who actually has been an inspiration for me to get in this food and agriculture foresight business has become a disappointment to me. Statements such as “we are only one poor harvest away from a food crisis” or “the urban poor will be the most affected by high food prices” do not tell anything that anyone with half a brain already knows. Everyone can push to an open door. It does not take an expert. However, the media love this kind of depressing and scary stuff.

Now, The Food Futurist has reached its third anniversary. This work has brought me a lot of satisfaction. Future Harvests sold nicely, although I hardly advertised for it. I have done work for large organizations in the field of food and agriculture about the topic of the future, and the demand keeps coming in. The interesting part is that I really do not advertize at all, except for what I write on this website. My customers appreciate much more than the knowledge I bring. They like the fresh angle from which I look at the subject. My being independent is conducive to candid discussions without the tension that some of the controversies in food and agriculture usually cause. We review what is best for the future. The criticism is positive and always focuses on developing viable solutions.

Three years after I started writing and speaking about the future of food and agriculture, every newspaper is publishing a story on the topic, every company or non-profit in the food sector is posting a YouTube video about it. Unfortunately, most of them are rather incomplete and tend to repeat the common myths. Many of them, not all of them, seriously overlook the number of dots that need to be connected, and the complexity of the entire system. The risk is that we might end up barking at the wrong trees and address problems sub-optimally because of that. Anyway, they bring the issue to a larger audience. That is what counts the most. It is also very humbling to see groups of a couple of hundreds of scholars and experts from all over the world spend a couple of years to publish reports on the subject, and to see that, so far, I have not forgotten anything in my books.

Since I like to be ahead of the pack instead of following it, I am bringing out more material. Soon, I will publish my next book “We Will Reap What We Sow”. This book will focus on two areas that are rather neglected, yet essential to succeed in balancing food demand and supply. They are human nature and leadership. Human nature’s little flaws make it a fascinating subject, while they certainly raise reasonable concerns about humanity’s ability to do the right thing. Leadership has the role to alleviate these flaws. It has the duty to make society function properly by enforcing the values that ensure long-term sustainable prosperity. The book mixes number crunching and rational elements with a more philosophical reflection on how humans can work together to produce the food they need, while at the same time maintaining the capacity to do so for the generations to come. Diets, functioning of markets, influence of prices on people’s decisions are all presented in We Will Reap What We Sow. As the title suggests, the book indicates clearly that, although we are free to make the decisions that are best for us, we cannot escape the consequences of our actions. In these three years, I have gathered so much material and knowledge, that I will publish soon a third book which will be a quick overview of which parts have potential for which food production. Tomorrow’s powerful nations are the ones that have something the world needs, and food is one of these things. That will be the theme of that last book.

Rise of the Asian middle class and the competition for animal protein

The complete story about this topic and how it will influence the future markets can be found in my book We Will Reap What We Sow.

The size of the world population is among the most significant changes for the future. There are many challenges, as the media tell us on a daily basis, but there are opportunities. The first and the main of these opportunities is the population increase itself. In the coming four decades, there will be two billion more people to feed. Never before, has humanity seen such a demand increase. This means that farmers and food suppliers do not have to worry about a lack of market opportunities. Not only the number of people will increase, but the consumption pattern will change, too.

Until recently, most of the consumption took place in industrial countries, mostly the USA, the EU and Japan. For the coming decades, food consumption in these areas will not increase. There are simple reasons for this. One is the demographic stagnation of industrialized regions. Another reason is that people of these regions already eat too much. They have no room for more consumption. At best, they can replace one food by another. Before the economic crisis of 2008, the average daily intake of calories per American was on average of 3,800. This amount is about 50% more calories higher than a normal human being needs on a daily basis. Nobody should be surprised that in such conditions a third of Americans are obese.

In emerging countries, the economic growth results in the rise of a new middle class. A change of diet is the first change that takes place when the standard of living increases. People switch from staple foods such as rice or wheat to higher quantities of animal protein and more fruit and vegetables. The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) looked at the future evolution of the respective shares of consumption by the middle class, between different regions of the world. Their study was for consumption goods at large. The graph is simply amazing.

Click on the picture see the enlarged version

The relative consumption of Western countries will shrink dramatically. While the USA represented about 5% of the world population in 2000 and consumed about 25% of the world resources, they will represent only about 4% of the population and consume about 4% as well. A similar evolution will take place in the EU and in Japan. China and India show the opposite trend. With a share of the total world consumption close to negligible percentages a few years ago, their economic development and the size of their middle classes will transform markets dramatically. Estimates are that the middle class from China and India combined will represent about 45% of the world middle class by 2030! Market demand and therefore world prices will be dictated by the demand from these two countries and not by Western countries anymore.

While the graph covers all consumption items, the situation for food alone might show some differences, but the trend would show a similar pattern. The demand for food in emerging countries will grow strongly. This will not affect only the consumption volumes but also the type of food. The change of the type of food that consumers of the middle class of emerging countries will demand will go beyond switching from a starch-based diet to an animal-protein-rich diet. The type of animal protein that they will eat will change, too. A couple of decades ago, China would import many of the low quality animal products that Western consumers did not want to eat. China used to import products such as chicken feet, chicken wingtips, sow uteri or fish heads. The new middle class is no longer much hungry about those products. They want the prime cuts, too. Instead of being complementary, emerging markets and developed countries will be in competition with each other for the better animal products. This will have profound consequences for the future. It will make the sale of the low-quality products more difficult and affect negatively the profitability of meat producers. At the same time, it will make the demand for prime products literally explode, pushing prices up. Western consumers and Western markets used to set the prices. In the future, Western consumers will have to buy food based on the price set in Asia. Their alternative will be to not have access to these prime products anymore and have a choice between changing their diets or eat less animal products.

This change will make producers and buyers look at business opportunities in a completely different manner than they currently do. All emerging countries show the same trend. Brazil now sees domestic demand for chicken meat increase faster than export markets. Brazilians eat more meat because they become wealthier. Chilean salmon farmers see growing possibilities in the Brazilian market. While their traditional market for Atlantic salmon was the US market, this may change. Since air transport from Chile to the USA is quite expensive, at least more expensive than transport to Brazil, the flow of trade will change from the past. Norwegian salmon might become a better alternative, but the Chinese are now buying increasing quantities. American buyers must prepare themselves to pay much more than in the past to get salmon products.

It becomes clear that the challenge of feeding the world depends for a large part on future consumption of animal protein.

To understand the effect of the increase of consumption of meat in China, a few numbers are helpful. When 1.5 billion people eat on average 1 kg more of chicken meat, world production needs to increase by about 750 million chickens. That represents about 2% of the world production. Similarly, when the Chinese consume on average 1 kg of pork more, the world must produce 15 million pigs more. That number represents 1.5% of the world pig production. The meat consumption in China has already passed the milestone of 50 kg per capita per year, and projections indicate that it would reach 8o kg per capita per year in 2030. Clearly, consumption increase will be much more than just 1 kg. An increase of 10 kg of chicken meat per capita per year in China means that chicken production would have to increase by 20% to meet the new demand! This represents almost the US chicken production volume, and more than Brazilian production. In the case of pork, an increase of consumption of 10 kg per capita means that world pig production would have to increase by 15%. That is 5 times the current pig production of Iowa. That is 60% of the EU production. For beef, the world production would have to increase by 24% to meet an increase of 10 kg per capita per year! This number also represents about 25% more than the current total beef US production.

The Indian population, although still largely vegetarian, is also changing its eating habits. Meat production is increasing there, but not in such dramatic proportions as in China. Nonetheless, with a population of 1.2 billion people, any incremental meat consumption will have consequences.

Different animal productions have different levels of feed efficiency. It takes about 1.8 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of chicken meat. It takes about 3 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of pig meat. For beef, depending on how much grass the animals are fed, the amount of grain used to produce 1 kg of beef varies. With a population of 1.5 billion, an increase of meat consumption of 30 kg would result in the need to produce 3 times 30 times 1.5 billion. The need for feed, excluding grass, would be between 100 and 150 million tons of grains.

Human consumption of grains increase rather limited. Considering that in 2011, animal feed uses about a third of all grains produced, more production of animal protein will put much more pressure on the markets of agricultural commodity. Producing enough to meet the desires of a more affluent world population is actually about allowing the luxury of more meat than people really need. There is no doubt that the “meat question” will become more and more vivid in the future.

My next book, We Will Reap What We Sow, will get in depth about this topic and many others, and discuss the pros and cons of different future scenarios. Stay tuned!

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd

We Will Reap What We Sow, my next book

“We Will Reap What We Sow” is the tentative title of my next book, which I have started writing. My first book, Future Harvests, focused understanding the challenges to meet the food demand of an increasing world population, before it became trendy in the media. Future Harvests also indicated which principles would be helpful to overcome these challenges. The book also presented the many areas where food production and food supply can be improved and optimized. In the conclusion, I wrote the following sentences:

The answer to “Can we feed nine billion people by 2050?” is “Yes!” Will we feed nine billion people by 2050? That is a different question! It will all depend on everyone’s attitude.

“We Will Reap What We Sow” will focus on the human factor. Indeed, our attitude and the way we deal with problems will play an essential role in future decisions. The consequences of these decisions will shape our future world. Success or failure depends mostly on us. The current level of technology, combined with the amazing developments that we can expect in the coming decades, is not the limiting factor. Our ability to act for the common good will determine our fate.

For those who have read Future Harvests, this next book will be a useful sequel focusing on human nature, behavior and leadership. The book will start where Future Harvests ended. This new book will review the interaction between human population, and their leaders, with all other aspects that contribute to food production and prosperity of societies. Those who will not have read Future Harvests will it a stimulating ground for discussion, and hopefully a reason to read my first book, too. Anyway, they still have enough time to order Future Harvests and read it before We Will Reap What We Sow is published.

“We Will Reap What We Sow” will address the major questions that need to be answered, and discuss the pros and cons of the different points of views. It will indicate what the most likely consequences of the different scenarios might be. Human nature being what it is, the book will also focus on how to develop positive incentives and reduce the possibility of negative stimuli. There will be a balanced discussion between economic, scientific, philosophical, and moral parameters; and how they contribute in building prosperity. The book will be an exercise in foresight.

The book will also focus on leadership. It will review what expectations of leaders will be. How leaders can help humankind overcome the fear of change and make the transition to a more food secure world. Dealing with change will be a major part of building the future world. Just as much has changed over the past decades, much will change in the future. The coming changes are beyond what most of us can imagine. Yet, it will happen. We had better accept it and prepare to adapt.

Unlike most of the articles published recently about the seventh billion human on Earth, “We Will Reap What We Sow” will not look for sensationalism. Doing that is quite easy, but not productive. Just like Future Harvests, it will explore the possibilities. It will focus on solutions, not on problems. There is no point of mongering fear. Leaders are there to help people dare and succeed, not to hide afraid or give up hope. The task ahead is not easy, but it is not impossible. Only by realizing the benefits for all of responsible and collaborative action, will humanity ensure its future food security.

What a waste!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The fertilizer of the future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.