The futuristic and the future

December 8, 2018

From the many requests I get, the one thing that excites people most about the future is to be presented with a futuristic picture of the future. They like the idea of seeing a different world than the one they know. Maybe it has to do with the fact that many feel unhappy with our world the way it is. Maybe they want to dream a bit or maybe they simply want to have a feeling that there is hope for a utopian world. Science fiction is full of that futuristic feeling. Sometimes it carries an optimistic feeling and sometimes it paints a brutally gloomy vision of the future.

Very often, conference organizers approach me because they would like me to present a futuristic view of food and agriculture. If all they are looking for is science fiction entertainment, I prefer to decline. Fiction is nice, but my business is about realistic and practical evolution of food and agriculture. Everyone who knows me well will tell you that I have no lack of imagination, on the contrary, but that is not what I do as a futurist. My main objective is that my audiences go home with a feeling that it is possible to evolve from today to tomorrow with feasible changes, instead of chasing dreams, which nobody can say whether they have any chance of succeeding. I believe in baby steps, and possibly quick ones.

Perhaps it is the advantage of having been around the block for quite a while, but I always take a circumspect attitude regarding futuristic visions. I am old enough to have heard that we were all going to shift away from traditional foods and that our future diet would be made of pills, one for energy, one for protein and one for God knows what else. That was the time of the Apollo space missions and of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Our future meals would be an astronaut type of diet. Well, guess what, we have passed 2001 a long time ago and meat and potatoes are still on our plates. Be careful about science fiction, because although it certainly is a great source of inspiration for exciting innovations, it also contains the word “fiction”. To me, the most realistic part of 2001: A Space Odyssey is HAL 9000, the computer. As we are eagerly working on artificial intelligence, I can very well see that we could end up with machines that can think and feel the way that HAL does. If some genius finds a way of creating an artificial ego and implant it in such an AI machine, then humans would have a problem. Anyway, we are not there yet.

Another big change in our food, presented several decades ago, was making synthetic meat out of oil (does that sound somehow familiar; you know meat from an incubator?). I started my Career at BP Nutrition, which was part of the BP oil and gas company. Apparently, BP had moved into the food business because they thought that the “oil steaks” could be a reality and be a part of their business. Of course and as usual, nobody can foresee everything and the oil crisis of the 1970s hit and that was the end of the synthetic meat, because guess what? Money matters and if the numbers do not add up, the project dies.

In more current innovations, I remember feeling a bit of the ugly duckling in a conference about the future of agriculture where one of the hottest topics was the Google glass. Maybe you remember, some sort of portable smart device that would make you feel like a cyborg. I did not see the added value of the glasses for a farmer. Apparently, I was one of the very few and you know almost not much a futurist at all for not embracing unconditionally some tech innovation. No, I do not do unconditional support. Instead, in these current days of compulsively pressing “Like” buttons, I did –and still do- this almost heretic thing: I think and exercise my critical sense. Just as a short addendum, I would like to remind you of the quote by Descartes ”I think, therefore I am”. The way, I look at things, a derivative of that quote would be “I don’t think, therefore I am nothing”

Another recent hot topic that seems to have lost steam is the 3D printer that would produce food. I remember even posting a question on a futurist’s website. It was several years ago and I am still waiting for an answer. My question related to an article with the illustration of a banana laid on the printing area of a 3D printer. I was asking two things. The first was why anyone would use resources to make the banana peel as it appears on the posted picture, as the peel is waste. The second was to know what material would be used to make the flesh of the banana (and where it would be coming from) because if it were banana flesh, that would be rather absurd. This banana example is the perfect illustration of hypes being parroted by everyone who wants to be trendy without thinking about the most basic principles, such as the one expressed by Lavoisier “Nothing is created, everything is transformed” If you want to print a banana, you need some material to print with. Everyone seems to think that it would be created out of nothing. Great way to solve famine…

If I have an issue with the banana, I do not have any about 3D printing. When it comes to food, it could certainly crate new textures and new ways to experience foods and perhaps even discover new flavors that do not pop up in traditional textures. That is an area that could be useful. If lab meat is to be a viable production system, 3D printing might be a way of making it more appealing to the market. It is worth investigating. Another area that I would hope 3D printing to be useful is the production, possibly at home, of spare parts that you and I could use when some device gets broken (instead of having to buy an entire device all together), and possibly by using recycled raw materials to make the replacement parts. That would be a great step towards sustainability and in the fight against planned obsolescence.

I can name other hypes that have never impressed me. Remember the “new economy” that was going to make the old economy obsolete? Well, the result was the dotcom crash (bubbles are made out of hot air usually) and the good old-fashioned economy came back with a vengeance, as the good old care for our living environment will. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies were going to make existing currencies obsolete. Guess what? It is bursting simply because these are currencies that do not have any really economic roots. They are artificial with nothing to sustain them but hype, so poof goes the bubble. In the area of something more useful, I have not been impressed by blockchain either. I found it artificially inflated for something actually quite simple and basic. By the time, they complete it, if that ever happens, it will already be replaced by something more useful and effective. And I could go on with a list of things that would revolutionize our world and that nobody remembers.

To me, the main difference between the future and the futuristic is that the latter finds its source in imagination while the former is about practical and economical feasibility. We need both, but it is essential to make the distinction because it is difficult to find our way with a blurred vision. The virtual is not the real but it can become it under the right circumstances.

Similarly, we must not think that innovation is only about technology and that technology is only about high-tech. High tech is very sexy and the fact that teenagers can become billionaires overnight is very appealing but, in the grand scheme of things, that part is only a drop in the ocean of problems to solve for the future. I am convinced that many solutions will actually be low tech and inspired by old-fashioned wisdom. Innovation must address the causes of the problems it solves, not just the symptoms. Morphine can be very useful for cancer patients but it does not cure the disease. Another misconception is also to think that innovation is the same as progress. There is a difference. It may appear that way on the short term, but progress is also a relative concept. What seems progress today might appear as a disaster a few decades from now. I will let you think for yourselves of some examples for “progress” from the 19th and 20th centuries that hurt us today to illustrate my point.

A similar kind of confusion is to think that science and knowledge are the same. Indeed, good science is, but through the centuries people have known many facts even though they had not been scientifically proven. Here, I will only mean knowledge and not beliefs, as beliefs very often rest on non-proven concepts, and in some cases possibly improvable but beliefs are not about knowledge. They are about creating a system of values that help making sense of what we do not know or do not control. Therefore, beliefs and knowledge are two distinct things. Bordering on knowledge and science, but quite abundant in bad science is another confusion: statistics and facts. Anyone who has studied statistics knows that one must first make a hypothesis and then test it. If the test is negative, one must reject the hypothesis. That is the easy, and non-confusing, part. If the test result is positive, one can only say that one cannot reject the hypothesis and that is all. One cannot conclude that the hypothesis is correct. No, all one can say is that the hypothesis may just not be incorrect. But that subtle -yet essential- difference is never a problem for those who want to push their point of view and they will merrily go as far as using to claim the absence of evidence as being the evidence of absence. So much for intellectual integrity. Further, depending on which statistical test you chose, you may come to a different result about the same hypothesis. It can be a bit complicated, can’t it? That is the conundrum of research and science when they are not independent anymore, not to mention when they are funded by groups who are after making a profit of their “findings”, but that is the way human nature goes.

For a successful future, futuristic ideas are important but critical thinking, a solid dose of common sense, a practical approach and the ability to make the money work are essential. If we lose grip on reality or, worse, if we ignore it, it will catch up with us, a bit the way HAL 900 does in the movie. Dreaming is good as it feeds the human machine, but a strong sense of reality is essential to go in the right direction. It is a bit like both the legs and the brain when riding a bicycle.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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What is food -and implications for the future?

September 21, 2018

I recently realized that in the almost 10 years that I have been active with the topic of the future of food, one question has never been asked. I never brought it up, either -until now. Yet it is an important one, especially in a time where food start-ups are popping up like we were living in the dotcom era all over again, presenting all sorts of new foods with huge investments to back them up. The question is: what is food?

The question may sound simple, but the answer might not be as obvious as you might think. Food covers many dimensions, the importance of which varies greatly, depending on whom you are asking. The most essential dimension of food is nutrition. Living organisms need nutrients to live. Without food, they die. Food is what provides the nutrients. It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Considering the high percentage of overweight people, nutrition clearly is not a discipline that many really master. One of the reasons for this health disaster lies in the psychological dimension of food. Let’s face it, how many of you ever build a meal solely on good rational nutritional logic? No, we eat what we like and we do not eat what we do not like. The reasons for our taste preferences are plenty. They have to do with the way our parents have taught us about food, with cultural preferences, with experiences in early life, with religious beliefs and with all sorts of beliefs that have nothing to do with religion just as well. We all have our own particular systems of reference when it comes to food.

To illustrate my point, here are a few anecdotes. Being French from birth, I will start with frogs and snails. As most people know, the French have a reputation for their cuisine, although some ingredients have shocked some of their neighbours for ages. Snails and frogs legs are among the typical clichés of French food, to the great disgust of the Brits who, besides snails and frogs, are not too keen on rabbit and, even more shocking, on horse meat. In turn, the French have quite the low appreciation about typical British cuisine. Tastes differ. If snails have been a disgusting thought, they seem to turn into a desirable delicacy as soon as they are served as “escargots” (the French translation of “snails”). Yes, food is a lot about psychology. Another example of the psychological aspect of food that has always baffled me is why vegetarian products have to mimic meat. It sounds contradictory, but that is the way it is.

When I moved to the Netherlands, where I spent 13 wonderful years, one of my first visits to a grocery store included buying eggs. It might sound like the simplest thing in the world. Think again! I walked around and around in the store looking for eggs and I could not see any. I finally spotted someone from the store and asked if they had eggs. He pointed right behind me and said: there they are! I turned around and it took me a couple of seconds to finally see them, and there they were indeed: an entire stack about as tall as I am. I passed by the stack of eggs several time during my search and did not “see” them. There was a simple reason for that: the eggs were white and all I had seen in my life were brown eggs, although I knew about white eggs. My brain simply did not make the connection. All I could see was a huge stack of what I genuinely thought were ping-pong balls, because the packaging was also different from what I was used to.

When it comes to food, taste is important but many other physical qualities influence what we like or don’t like such as colours, smells, texture, how it feels when touching. Food is really something that involves our senses, except maybe for sound, which is more useful when hunting, I suppose. It is not just about number of calories, grams of protein or fat. It is how we experience it from the moment we see it and inspect it with our noses, mouths and hands.

Our senses, and how they have been trained, decide what we perceive as desirable or as repugnant. This part is not in the realm of rationality, yet it is not about being irrational, either. The irrational part is more in the domain of our system of reference and beliefs. For how irrational they may seem to those who do not share these beliefs, they are quite logical and true beliefs for those who adhere to them. In the always controversial conversation about food and agriculture, it is quite important to acknowledge these beliefs and accept that different people have different views about food. Without this acknowledgement, there cannot be much of a constructive conversation, which then always evolves into a fight.

The question “What is food?” is only part of the equation when looking forward. The other –often neglected- question is: Do people know what food is? The answer to this one is really simple: it is a resounding NO!!! I can see that every day around me, and it is appalling. With urbanization comes the detachment from agriculture and Nature. Often what is left is some vague recollection or stories from previous generations that have been gradually altered and turn into beliefs of all sorts. The result is a lot of misconceptions, prejudices and dogmas, and this on all sides regardless of people are pro this or anti that. Every tribe now has its own mythology when it comes to food and agriculture, picking half-truths and only the facts that conveniently support those half-truths. Nonetheless and regardless of what beliefs they follow, most people have only a skewed knowledge of food at best, and most have none whatsoever. One of a side effects is the old adage that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king. Problem is that the one-eyed is not always ruling with integrity and truth in mind but more from a power and money point of view.

With all these points in mind, the question that needs to come next is what will food be about in the future? What will be the future beliefs, because they will play at least as important a role to define future foods as rational nutrition will? In fact, I believe that the psychology of food will largely prevail over rationality in what will be on our plates in the future, just like today. There are currently many popular topics.

One of them is insects. Insects are common foods in Asia and Africa, the two continents with the largest population growth for the future, unlike Western countries where insects are not really part of the food culture. So, is it a good idea to try to push insects into westerners’ mouths or would it be better to focus on markets where insects have a much more positive image? Insects remind me of the snails story. Originally, the French were not eating snails because it was fancy. Snails were a seasonal source of protein in times when protein was not abundant. The French simply used their cooking skills to make something rather unappealing to a delicacy. Another food that can be used as an example about insects is lobster. Lobster was not always a delicacy, on the contrary. Times change and so did the lobster’s image. If you like lobster and feel repulsed by insects, just think about what a lobster really looks like: a giant insect!

Another popular topic is plant-based protein. In my opinion, that is really not a novelty in the sense that people used to not eat that much meat and most of their protein used to come from plants: beans, peas, lentils and the entire family of legumes have always been a great source of protein. Also, textured soy burgers have been around for decades. In the future will such products made from these ingredients but processed and transformed into meat-like products really take over meat? I do not have the answer. Just with any new trend, the question is what will be short term and what will be long term. In times when processed industrial products have a poor image and are blamed for a number of nutrition-related health issues, one contradiction that I see, but food consumers are full of contradictions, is whether processed industrial products will be an appealing solution for the future.

Speaking of processed foods, a number of food start-ups that claim to re-invent food, are working on developing foods that sound more like synthetic foods. Perhaps some science-fiction writers from the 1950s and 60s had an amazing sense of foresight, or perhaps they are just a source of inspiration for producers who want to bring new products on the market. How will these foods of the future compare with our current system of reference? It is difficult to say. While currently, consumers long for authentic and natural, how do manufactured and synthetic answer their desire? And how will consumers’ desires evolve in a couple of decades from now? I have my views on it. The future will tell.

Another currently popular topic regarding the future of food is lab meat or clean meat or incubator meat. Although the claims that such products will be competitive with meat coming from an animal that has been slaughtered, the dollar numbers still are quite far from being so. When I wrote Future Harvests, the Dutch company that was at the front end of lab meat claimed it would be competitive and on the market in five years. That has clearly not materialized, yet. The same thing is true about the price at point of sale for incubator blue fin tuna flesh, which a start-up is developing. But maybe those products are only aimed at the 1% richest people. Regardless of those considerations, the big issue with these innovative protein products is the name. There is already a growing debate about the names “meat” and “milk”. Of course, it is convenient to use those names because it creates enough a confusion to lure meat and dairy eaters to alternative products. Of course, the producers of the “real thing” will argue that the alternative products are not meat or milk. After all, soy or almonds do not indeed have udders and nipples… Here, too, similar question as “What is food?” need to be asked:  What is meat? What is milk? In an environment where most people could not answer what food is, it is easy to imagine the confusion between traditional century old ways of looking at food and new concepts. Let’s face it, the debate will not be over any time soon and many clashes are on the way, not so much because the outcome is complicated to reach. It will be difficult because, both sides will want to win the debate instead of looking at it as just more alternatives in the market. All sides of the debates will want to win because they will be so afraid that losing the debate could mean their end as food businesses. That is the price to pay when truth matters less than perception.

However, it is also important to not forget that unlike food innovation, human physiology, human metabolism and human biochemistry have barely changed over the past few dozens of thousands of years. The needs for nutrients and the mechanics of food inside the body will still have to meet the same physical specific requirements. Food is a unique connector between humans and Nature, even though many seem to have lost the awareness of this connection, often to their detriment. Like it or not, we come from Nature and Nature rules over us. The foods of the future must not ignore our biological nature if they want to be beneficial. They must not ignore all the psychological, culture and social roles that food fulfils and are a source of happiness and mental health as well.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


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)