Two legs that make humanity move forward

April 3, 2017

The tremendous progress that the human species has made since its apparition on Earth is not the result of just good luck. Two qualities have driven our success: innovation and collaboration. There is no doubt that these two characteristics will be essential for our further ability to adapt and overcome future challenges. In this regard, the current dynamics bring some good news and some- not-quite-as-good-yet news as well.

The good news is that innovation is probably livelier than it has ever been in the past. There is not a day that goes by without hearing of some new idea being brought into action somewhere in the world. They will not all succeed, but in the grand scheme of innovation that is the price to pay to benefit from the ones that will make it. Every problem and every limitation is an invitation for a solution and always better ones, too. Since the human brain started to analyse its surroundings and look for better tools to deal with it, innovation has been driven by a number of rather stable incentives:

  1. Survival or just live better and longer
  2. Reducing physical labor
  3. Increasing efficiency, which reduces waste
  4. Helping communication
  5. Increasing mobility and speed
  6. Offering more leisure and entertainment
  7. Making some people a little wealthier

Many of the future challenges fall in these categories, and number 1 and 3 are probably the most critical ones in our dealings with the environment.

If innovation is doing well, the second leg –collaboration- is not at its optimum. In this column, I have expressed my wish to see more collaboration, cooperation and exchanges, several times in the past. Although it does not always appear that way, collaboration is one of the cornerstones of life. Just look at all the examples of symbiosis. It occurs everywhere. It is what an ecosystem is all about; it is the combination of all sorts of individuals that are interdependent for their survival. In the agriculture sector, we know that collaboration happens in the soil; we know it also happens inside the roots of legumes and in the food sector we know how the bacterial interacts with our digestive system. For all these reasons, collaboration should receive as much attention and praise as innovation. After all, good innovations are usually the result of active collaboration. Many ideas come from interacting with others, by listening to what they know, to their experiences and through the feedback they give to our own knowledge and experiences. In my opinion, the risk for sub-optimal collaboration is the result of an always increasing emphasis on competition. Competition is good, as I have written here before, but the key is to find a good balance between competition and collaboration. In Nature, both coexist but with a slight difference with the human attitude. In Nature, the competition is about survival, but the winner takes only what it needs. The “always more” concept does not apply. It is just about “always enough”. If you look at it, it provides a sound basis for a sustainable system, as long as supply can follow that is. And that was the original idea of agriculture: finding a way of adjusting food supply to the needs of the community. Agriculture rebalanced the relation between collaboration and competition. This original principle is somehow too often overlooked. To look at it from the triple bottom thinking, there is another analogy with sustainability or the lack of it. The strong emphasis on competition is mostly the result for always more financial profitability. Social and environmental issues are the result of the imbalance with the other two bottom lines.

To get the best of the combination between innovation and collaboration, the altruistic approach is often the best one. Innovations succeed only if they are profitable, too. From the technical point of view, most solutions to our future challenges already exist. It is just that the numbers often do not add up. In the end, innovation must deliver an added value. Often, the added value is monetary, but not always. On some of the innovation drivers from the previous bullet points, it is clear that time, convenience or quality of life also weigh in what added value represents. Sometimes it is of a quantitative nature, sometimes it is qualitative, and sometimes it is both. The beauty of adding value to others is that their adopting your innovation will add value to the supplier, as long as the innovation is priced properly of course. Innovations that truly add value just about sell themselves. Adding value just brings the supplier in a pull marketing situation, which is much easier, fun and lucrative than the push approach.

The magic word when collaborating is “how can I help you”, mean exactly that and then deliver!

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


Curiosity: it’s where the future starts

August 17, 2016

The challenges ahead are bigger than ever before, and be assured that they will bigger in the future. The good news is that progress and new developments in science and technology are bigger and faster than ever, too. From a technical point of view, I would dare to say that the solutions to the challenges already exist or are very close. Often, the problem is that these solutions are not immediately economically viable. In such a fast-changing world, curiosity is undoubtedly one of the most desirable qualities to adapt timely and find new ways of running the business.

Perhaps, it is because a lot of my work is about finding as much information and gathering as much knowledge as possible about all sorts of technologies, facts, systems, science and experiences that I find curiosity quite natural. Perhaps it is also because I have a curious nature. In my daily activities, I find that people are relatively not curious enough. I also can see that the ones who have that quality are always ahead of the pack. What is really amazing is how much is already out there. The trick is to find it and to know about it. Often, the information originates from very different business sectors or comes from other parts of the world or is available in a different language. I can see regularly a lot of organizations busy reinventing the wheel, going through the pain of setting up research and spending vast amounts of time, money and resources to find out results that are already available and that they could have taken over and adjusted to their particular situations. Curiosity can deliver huge savings.

Curiosity is quite time consuming. That is a fact and its main drawback. This may be the reason why it does not happen enough. The quest does not always deliver, although for those who have a proper strategy, the yield is quite good. Curiosity, for a business, cannot be a random activity. It has to be structured and carried out with discipline. There is quite a similarity between curiosity and access to food. There are those who know where to find the tasty mushrooms in the woods and those who get lost in the forest. It is the same thing when going out there to find knowledge. Some are talented and find it often and fast and others just wander endlessly without spotting anything significant. Just as it is important to know the right spots to find food when hunting and gathering, there are some places where the good knowledge is. As with food, it is important to know the supplier and know the origin of the knowledge. To pursue the comparison with mushrooms, some knowledge is good and some can be toxic. The supply chain is just as important, especially considering how fast and far social media can replicate and distribute information. When it comes to knowledge, the reliability, seriousness and quality of the sources is of utmost importance. A discerning knowledge consumer must be critical about what they find. A solid critical sense is of the utmost importance. Regardless of whether the knowledge is found through a hunting/gathering activity or comes from a knowledge farm, it is essential to double-check its validity. The packaging can be deceiving.

Next to focused curiosity activities, it is also important to encourage what I would call open curiosity, in which there is no particular objective but just letting new findings lead to new discoveries. There is no business discipline involved. It more often research you would do in your free time. One piece of information generates interest to know more and you just follow. It is similar to a child-like exploration in which each answer triggers the next “why?” question. It is pure learning. There is no way to tell when or even whether the new learned knowledge will be useful, but there is no such thing as too much knowledge. The trick is to be able to retrieve it when it is needed.

Another important aspect of curiosity is to link experience to knowledge. Usually, knowledge is the result of certain protocols. The knowledge itself takes its full dimension and value only through the use we make of it. Some people make good use and others do not. When gathering new knowledge, it is essential to also learn about the lessons from the experience of those who used it. Why did certain things work in certain conditions and others did not? Which factors influenced the outcome and how would different conditions or a different environment affect the outcome? Getting the big picture is a very important part of curiosity. Expanding the scope and seeing how the pieces of the puzzle come together are the foundation of future successful strategy and adaptation.

Curiosity is a great asset when it comes to face and prepare the future. It is not the whole story, though. Food and agriculture are not intellectual exercises. They must deliver concrete products and results. It is nice to be curious but what do you do with that? The answer to this question is quite simple: action.

According to the saying, knowledge is power. Knowledge is true power only when it is active and circulates. Knowledge that remains in a brain or in a drawer is not very useful for the greater good. The first step that I advise curious people to do is to share what they learn. It is even easier today with the Internet, and there is a lot of knowledge out there. By sharing, I do not mean simply copy and paste or click the share button. Before sharing, it is essential to make sure that what you share is quality. There is too much information that is spread on social media while clearly not critically reviewed, not to say not even read, as it is quite often the case. The mindset here is a mix of enthusiasm, critical thinking and practical service orientation. The knowledge must be correct and the message must come over. It also must be useful to the recipients. It must connect to their needs and add value to them. The final result has to be better food through more efficient and sustainable systems that are financially viable. In the food and agriculture sector, it must lead to always more collaboration and knowledge transfer in all directions within the entire value chain. Often, the weakness of communication is that it stays too long in the same circle and other links, consumers in particular, are kept too long out of the loop. It results too often in misunderstanding, distrust and erroneous perception.

Through collaboration and brainstorming, curiosity helps create a more accurate and achievable vision of the future, on which action can further be carried out to shape the future. From this angle, it makes no doubt that collaboration between all stakeholders is an ongoing process. This is especially true with technology. There are new developments all the time and it certainly takes a curious mind to be able to keep up with novelties. It actually takes many curious minds, considering how huge the quantity of knowledge and information is. It also takes minds that can connect all the dots, and also connect with each other. Although time consuming, the back and forth collaboration, together with ongoing feedback about performance and new demands, allows all links of the chain to know better what the objectives are and how to foster ongoing improvement. As many new technological developments come from outside the food and agriculture sectors, I believe it is critical that the food producers be proactive in the development of technologies and applications, but stating clearly what they expect from technology suppliers and tell them what they expect from them. It is never too early to let them know what your problems, limitations and/or objectives are, so that they can work on it as soon as possible. Being proactive will help speed up the development of the right products, systems and applications.

In this process, leadership is of the essence. Leadership is essential to create the right dynamics to make knowledge transfer happen, fast and well. The role of leaders here is to make knowledge transfer attractive and stimulating for others, so that more stakeholders participate in the development of innovation. The more pressure they will be on suppliers to bring better solutions to the food sector, the higher the chances it happens, indeed. Leaders must also foster connections and networking across the disciplines, even or actually especially with partners outside of the food and agriculture sector. A vision that includes the bigger picture will have more chances of stimulating the cross-discipline and cross-sector collaboration. At the same time, it is crucial to stay practical. The goal is to produce food, and that must be in the minds of all participants.

Curiosity is really the starting point. It feeds an entire chain of ideas and decisions that are the basis for improvement. There is no doubt that fortune favors the bold. In the never-ending quest towards better foods and better agricultural practices, such a process becomes an illustration of “the best way to predict the future is to create it”. This saying may have not been so true as today. Progress and food security depend on it.

 

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


Beyond just technology… the human factor

August 6, 2015

Early July the SeaFest 2015 event was held in Ringaskiddy, Co. Cork, Ireland. The Our Ocean Wealth conference was aimed at showing the potential of the sea as part of a successful economic development for Ireland. I had been invited by BIM (Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Irish Seafood Development Agency) as a speaker and my presentation was about future technologies and how they will change seafood production, both in fisheries and aquaculture. One of my previous articles, “Robots, sensors, drones and big data are coming to the sea, too” had caught some attention.

From left to right: Joe Gill (Goodbody Stockbrokers), Susan Steele (SFPA), Kieran Calnan (BIM), Donal Maguire (BIM), Helen Brophy (UCD Smurfit Business School), Eddie Power (Green Isle Foods), Øyvind Oaland (Marine Harvest) and Yours Truly

From left to right:
Peter Marshall (RS Standards), Joe Gill (Goodbody Stockbrokers), Susan Steele (SFPA), Kieran Calnan (BIM), Donal Maguire (BIM), Helen Brophy (UCD Smurfit Business School), Eddie Power (Green Isle Foods), Øyvind Oaland (Marine Harvest) and Yours Truly (Photo: BIM)

The agricultural sector is currently implementing many new technologies at an amazing pace. The comparison with precision agriculture is quite useful for the seafood sector. The development of robotics, sensors, satellite imaging and analysis, unmanned vehicles such as drones and driverless tractors, data software, artificial intelligence and interconnected devices are already revolutionizing many sectors of food production and it is just the beginning. The picture of the future that I have in mind is amazing and the possibilities seem almost endless. Imagine if fishing vessels do not need operators anymore. Would they need to float or should they operate as submarines? What would the effect it be on their size, their shape and the way they fish? Imagine robots equipped with sensors replacing divers on fish farms, executing the current tasks and at the same time being able to inform about water quality and other production conditions, presence of contaminants or diseases. Imagine fish farms being connected to such robots and to global satellite and data collection systems making them move or change configuration to get to better production conditions or to avoid negative interaction with wild marine life, thus constantly optimizing production performance and reducing –maybe eliminating- long-lasting environmental impact. Carrying out an “Imagine Exercise” is not only useful but it is fun.

While the previous generation of automation was about adding muscle to operators, the new technologies are adding extensions to the operator’s senses and creating a nervous system. The muscle era was about strong, big and fast, but it required an operator. The nervous system era is about smart, adaptable, much faster, and decision and action will be taken without human intervention.

By combining the possibility to monitor production parameters with the ability to detecting faster than ever before the environmental impact of production activities, new technologies will play a prominent role in helping food production become more efficient and more sustainable. They will help reduce the use of resources and save money. The interconnection of databases for both production and environmental monitoring will allow many possibilities for forecasts, simulations and comparison of scenarios. They will be outstanding tools for decision making and policy making. New technologies are going to offer a platform for collaboration between all stakeholders, be it businesses, governments and NGOs. Similarly, as the data will be made available, all the links of food value chains will be able to access and exchange information like never before. The potential to reconnect consumers and producers is amazing. Transparency and interaction are the way of the future and the tools that are coming will make it so easy. The global village is going to be exactly that. Virtually, everybody will have the possibility to know about everything they need to know about everybody else. Just like in old-fashioned villages, keeping secrets will be quite difficult and social control will prevail. Just see the reactions to inappropriate statements on social media to realize that this trend is already on. Communication and behavior of food producers will have to adapt to this new form of relationship, because there always will someone watching and telling.

Adjusting to a new technological world is a necessity. Food producers need to approach the future with the right mind. After all, technology is only as useful and effective as those who use it. I like to illustrate that statement with the example of gun powder. When the Chinese invented it, they used it for fireworks and entertainment. When the Europeans discovered it, they decided for quite a different use: weapons and killing people. Current technologies and future ones will also depend on who will use it and how. In my work, I always wish to make my clients realize the importance of the human factor on the future outcome of technologies and innovation. The outcome will depend on the intentions behind the development and the use of technology, but even if the intentions are pure, the outcome will depend on the skill of the users. Continuous training is essential to get the most out of technology. As I wrote in my first book, Future Harvests, there are several recurrent drivers of innovation:

  • Reducing physical labor.
  • Helping us live better and longer.
  • Increasing efficiency.
  • Helping communication.
  • Increasing mobility.
  • Offering more leisure and entertainment.
  • Making some people a little wealthier.

However, these drivers are not sufficient by themselves. An essential part of successful innovation lies in its practical use. I always insist in my presentations on practicality of technology. Innovation is not an intellectual exercise. When it comes to business, innovation must actually fulfil one or more of the drivers mentioned above and it must also be financially viable and advantageous. In other words, to be adopted, innovation and technology must add value. Although they may be fun, cute and exciting, gadgets do not really belong in that category.

For the future, we need to look beyond just technology. Giving the proper importance to the human factor and focusing on the practical side of new developments are two essential aspects of success. This is why the second book I published, We Will Reap What We Sow, is subtitled “Reflections on Human Nature and Leadership and Feeding a Growing Population”. Getting people to do the right things right through clear vision and solid leadership is what will eventually make the difference between prosperity and trouble. A number of qualities will help a long way towards a successful future.

Curiosity will be an invaluable quality. Innovation is taking place is all areas and many innovations can offer useful applications. It is necessary to follow what is happening elsewhere. In the past, innovations came from the own sector. It is no longer the case. Now it happens in start-ups that have nothing to do with food. The potential lies in creating applications for a particular purpose. There is much to learn from other food sectors, but also from the military, the medical sector, the tech sector, and not just in Silicon Valley. Another essential quality will be pragmatism and openness. Disruptive technologies will bring disruptive solutions. Tomorrow’s way will be different, technologically and philosophically. It will be useful to regularly brainstorm and review how things should be if they were to be set up from scratch all over again, by using all the latest knowledge and also from the experience, successes and mistakes from the past. To tackle the challenges of the future effectively with new technologies, it will be crucial to be practical. Applications must serve a purpose and deliver the solutions to the problems we face. It is not an intellectual exercise. A spirit of collaboration will be one of the keys for future success. Nobody can solve future problems alone. Wanting to help others succeed and not being shy to ask for solutions to succeed will get us a long way. Even though we seem to live in a world where pointing fingers, blaming and punishing is the preferred choice to deal with problems, it is necessary to approach the future with a 180 degree angle and reward and praise those who do things right and solve problems.

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


Precision is the future of agriculture and our future

August 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2014 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Tree oils can fuel economic development by integrating different agricultural activities

January 13, 2014

Over the past few years, agriculture has been a hot center of attention and rightly so. In my line of work, I am always interested in finding new and innovative ways of growing production more efficiently, more sustainably and in a way that offers viable jobs and attractive livelihoods. Recently, I got acquainted with Mr. Sreenivas Ghatty, from India, and Dr. John Wightman, from Australia. They both are involved in the production of tree oils for the production of a renewable alternative to diesel oil. Mr. Ghatty founded Tree Oils India Ltd and owns a plantation of 3,000 oil trees. Dr. Wightman is actively promoting the development of similar projects in Australia, USA, Africa and South Asia. The story of the tree oil interested me right away for several reasons. First, it reminded me of the Sahara Forest Project that I had mentioned in Future Harvests, but with this difference that the tree oils projects are already there. Secondly, and more importantly, it is a great example of a project that can generate many economic activities, while filling an environmental and social function by calling upon a collaborative approach like what I discussed in We Will Reap What We Sow. As several projects have already reached the production stage, the gentlemen have the numbers to present a case to interested investors.

Seven year old Pongamia trees at the TOIL (Tree Oils India Ltd) R&D farm

Seven year old Pongamia trees at the TOIL (Tree Oils India Ltd) R&D farm

In India and Australia, the species farmed is Pongamia. It is an indigenous tree to India that used to provide oils for various applications, of which fuel. However, with the rise of cheap fossil fuels, its use regressed to some extent but in the second half of the 20th century, the Mumbai commodity market traded one million tonnes of Pongamia oil per year. The purpose of this production is to develop land that would otherwise have no agricultural use, because of the arid climate. Some of the current projects are aimed at using waste lands around former mines, as is already the case in some parts of Queensland in Australia. It is a way of regenerating a landscape and agricultural production by fixing carbon and producing a renewable fuel that emits less greenhouse gases than fossil fuel. Pongamia is a rustic species that is well-suited in such regions. To understand what this production can create, it is important to put it in a broader context than oil alone, and that is why I find it particularly interesting.

It takes the Pongamia tree four years to start producing its oil-rich seeds and once in production, it will keep producing at a steady level for a hundred years or more. To give an idea of the production potential, a conservative yield estimate that Mr. Ghatty and Dr. Wightman gave me was of 1,000 liters per acre of Pongamia plantation. Although the harvest is not all year-round, the seeds can easily be stored and the oil production capacity can be organized evenly all through the year to optimize the oil production capacity. The oil is suitable for diesel engines without any particular further refining. The oil provides a source of fuel to run the farms and when acreage is large enough, it could cover the needs of local communities, too. The by-products from the oil production, such as the seed cake that is of good agronomic value, can be used as a fertilizer or mulch to return to the land, and thus enrich it as production goes. They can also be used as fodder for cattle, as a complement for other feed sources.

Pigeonpea growing between rows of 3 yr old Pongamia trees on the TOIL farm

Pigeonpea growing between rows of 3 yr old Pongamia trees on the TOIL farm

Next to storing oil in its seed, Pongamia is a tree legume, and therefore it can fix nitrogen and help enrich the soil where it grows. It also has nematicide and fungicide qualities. Pongamia production can be the basis for a multi-level and complex agricultural activity. With its agronomic qualities, Pongamia is quite suitable for an agro-forestry production system. The combination of the shade provided by the trees with soil enrichment by nitrogen fixing and seed cake fertilizer and the moisture retention that results from these new local conditions creates a suitable environment for the production of vegetal crops for food production. For instance, on the Tree Oils India Ltd farm, they grow pigeonpea between the Pongamia rows. Further development of optimal combination and rotation of crops will be enhanced as the system will enrich itself over time. It is also possible to combine the tree plantation with extensive grazing cattle. The Pongamia plantation helps the production of grass and in return the cattle fertilize the soil with manure.

Agro-forestry can be combined with extensive cattle grazing to restore soil and agriculture potential

Agro-forestry can be combined with extensive cattle grazing to restore soil and agriculture potential

The combination of the various possible productions also offers different possibilities of cooperation. Not all activities need to be done by the same farmer. There is always the possibility to offer land for use for vegetal crops or grazing. The partners can decide of which form the cooperation can work, between ownership, renting, sharing of land or of harvest or any other form that can create a harmonious cohabitation. Such different possibilities allow the integration of local rural communities to access production potential as the plantation creates the condition and the potential for both vegetal and animal productions such as meat, milk or wool. By generating different farming activities, the Pongamia production has the potential to create several agricultural value chains for all the productions involved as well as processing, storage and marketing. It can have a snowball effect beyond simply agriculture. When the local communities develop livelihoods, they also will need access to other products and services to function. The combination of all these activities allows creating sustainable production systems, as all the products and by-products can be used locally and thus, closing the loops. However, the system does not have to be a closed one. Productions can be used locally or sent to markets elsewhere, and the same is true for inputs, but integrating all the activities allows monitoring and managing the production systems in a sustainable manner. Closing loops is a key phrase in regard to such integrated production systems. In this case, the loops cover carbon, nutrients, moisture and organic matter.

Oil press used for Pongamia oil production in India (TOIL R&D project)

Oil press used for Pongamia oil production in India (TOIL R&D project)

Like many economic development projects, a leading project is necessary to create the necessary momentum upon which other activities can connect and grow along. Pongamia production has this potential but as always for such projects, the need for investment is critical in the early stages. It must start somewhere and the return is not immediate. There is always a chance to take. Because it takes several years for the Pongamia tree to enter production, the early years do not generate revenue from oil, and only the crops generate income. However after the trees start producing, income increases substantially. Over a period of ten year after planting the trees on the plantation, the return allows farmers to have a good income. Economic development requires long-term commitment from the shareholders. As many activities and also economic benefits are the objectives, all stakeholders that can benefit in the long term should also be shareholders. Success cannot be the responsibility of the plantation investor alone. When stakeholders are shareholders, they become owners of the project as well; and owners are more determined than spectators to turn a project into a success. Many jobs can be created in farming, in different activities of oil processing, logistics, trade, and in the different activities of the different value chains that can spin off from Pongamia. It is also not just a matter for businesses only, but governments also would benefit. More economic activity means more taxes down the road, as well as less need for financial support of rural communities once they can generate a solid local economy.Every project would have to adjust to the local conditions. If the projects in India and Australia are developed on mining grounds, other regions may offer different types of land for development. The available land might decide the size of the plantations and the production volumes. From there, each project will have to list the potential other activities that can be combined with the plantations, and how many jobs in which activities may be created. By reviewing the entire production potential with the socio-economic potential, it will give clarity to the different stakeholders of what their individual return would be. Then, they can determine how big a share of the project they want or how much they can contribute to the development of such integrated activities. If, for now, tree oil projects are more advanced in India and in particular in Australia, they certainly could be quite instrumental to help develop economic development in particular in arid parts of Africa. It is possible as a number of success stories with agro-forestry have already demonstrated there. This type of integrated agriculture has good potential to recreate productive vegetal landscape in former deforestation areas like for instance in Brazil.

If you wish to know more about Pongamia oil, feel free to contact Dr. John Wightman or Mr. Sreenivas Ghatty

(Photos: courtesy of Mr. Sreenivas Ghatty and Dr. John Wightman)


Food prices, one year later – Some lessons

September 16, 2013

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.


My futurism

April 16, 2013

The future has had the same intriguing appeal since the dawn of time. The reason is simple. Trying to predict the future is simply about reducing uncertainty. Looking into the future is about anticipating change. It is about preparing to adapt. Regardless of whether the motivation is fear, greed, pride, power or any other reason, the urge to foresee the things to come is really about one goal only: survival.

The material I offer focuses on how the future will affect my customers and what they can do to adapt and thrive. My approach to futurism is centered on how my clients can turn future changes into a competitive advantage for themselves. One of my main objectives is to show them how their activities are actually interconnected with developments that seem out of their daily world. It is quite easy to overlook these connections, but they exist nonetheless and will have an effect. Bringing the big picture helps create awareness and stimulates critical thinking, curiosity and questions. It makes the experience active and lively. The big picture broadens the scope away from the tech gadgets innovation part. It includes the human dimension, and the interactions between people and technology. It initiates a reflection about what to do and to use, as well as what not to do and what not to use.

In that regard, I could describe my form of futurism as practical and applicable. I do not limit my presentations and seminars to storytelling. Setting up a science-fiction-like story is rather easy to do. In very little time, anyone can gather the latest news about technological advances by going on internet and doing a search on these topics for agriculture and food. It probably will make this very website pop up high on the list. I have to admit that presenting scenarios that sound like science fiction always appeals to audiences. It has the mystique of an ideal world in the making where all problems will be solved by science and new technologies. Such an approach of futurism is fine for entertainment purposes. Journalists, writers and performers will excel in this kind of exercise. It is true that technology has brought many new possibilities. It has helped overcome many challenges, as well as it has open new frontiers. However, technology alone is not enough to describe the future. Especially not in an activity that depends so much on nature’s laws and nature’s forces as agriculture and food.

My Futurism

As a futurist, I often get the question of whether I have a crystal ball. It could be useful to have one, but so far I have not heard of any futurist predicting that crystal balls will ever exist. Ironic, isn’t it? Especially more so when some predict things as bold as plants will communicate to each other, as I read recently. If we can insert some sort of a nervous system in plants, I am sure crystal balls have to be in the realm of possibilities. Futurist can’t support that. I suppose it would put them out of business. I do believe that artificial intelligence will help replace them, as the technology will help create machines that can analyze faster, better and without interference from emotions and bias. One tempting pitfall to fall into is to try to make exact quantified predictions on market components, in particular prices and volumes. Until this day, I have seen many of such predictions fail quite sadly. After all, even computer models must contain in a factor of uncertainty. Personally, I do not try to give exact numbers, but I explain the trends and the dynamics behind to show in which range such specifics would land. Since food production and consumption can be influenced by many factors on which we have relatively little control, it is always good to remind audiences of such uncertainties. Although my approach may not appear particularly bold, my predictions are of rather good quality (click here to some of my past predictions).  For instance, when I started giving presentations or participating in panels, I crossed skeptical looks when I was telling that Africa is a region that has tremendous agricultural potential and that opportunities abound there. It has been ice since then hearing some of my apparently skeptical clients now seeing that continent as a key one for the future and theirs as well. Similarly a few years ago, I received amused smiles when I was mentioning the rise of robots, drones, sensors and other futuristic devices that would help farmers make better and faster decisions, and that in a time when I hardly ever heard any of the futurists talk about them. Now, most of them bring up this same topic. Yet, the information had been there all along. It was rather easy to know what was in the works. By then, agriculture had not reached the level of fancy it has lately. That will pass and practical analysis will replace entertainment. I also prefer to not make many predictions, which saves me from ending up tongue in cheek. I always give the preference to the sensible and the prudent. Until this day, it has helped my predictions to be accurate and valuable to my business partners.

Another important thing for me is to stick to a sector that I know and understand. I do not believe it is possible to have enough insights in everything. The more sectors one wants to follow thoroughly, the thinner the outer layer of practical and applicable knowledge he/she can bring over. The risk, in my view, is to fall back being the storyteller with the nice tech gadgets of the future. It is entertaining, but with little direct use for my public. I follow many sectors, always with the angle of what it might mean to food and agriculture. I am convinced that many developments that will help food production progress in the future will originate in other areas, but I am not going to pretend I am an expert in all these sectors. I stick to food and that is already vast enough a domain.

From my end, what I want is that the members of my audiences can go back home with several concrete points that are important to their work and that will affect them one way or the other during their professional life span, not in 50 years. Ideally, I wish they can start using my material the next morning to build a better future for themselves. Considering the lines of people who wish to speak to me after my presentations and the number of contacts that I receive afterwards, I believe that I reach both my goal and theirs.

With this philosophy in mind, I will add soon several programs that will be useful for my customers to envision, shape and build the future.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.