Let’s not confuse efficiency and intensification!

October 1, 2009

Although it may sound like a bit of semantics, the difference between these two terms is quite important when it comes to agriculture and food production.

Let's not confuse efficiency and intensification!Since WWII, much progress has been made to increase food production, such as genetic improvement, production techniques and mechanization, use of fertilizers, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the development of animal nutrition, and of course government incentives. This has resulted in our ability to produce more efficiently and face a previous doubling of the world population. It has helped reduce costs and made food more affordable to more, although unfortunately not to all.

The main driver behind this evolution has been to shift from a mostly labor intensive food production to a mostly capital intensive one, and this why it had to become intensive. The labor force moved to urban centers where they could find jobs in manufacturing and later in services. Thanks to mechanization, less people were needed to work on farms. This has led to a sharp drop of the population active in agriculture from above 50% of all actives to less than 5% in Western countries within 30 years. Moreover, as the standard of living increased, labor costs increased and made a labor-intensive approach too expensive to fit in the type of society that we created, and the only, apparent, solution has been to further intensify and mechanize.

The strong development of manufacturing that went along with the rise of the consumption society increased the standard of living and the disposable income. In the same time, in constant currency, food became relatively cheaper and much more affordable. This led to a change of diet from mostly starch-based to protein-based, and we have seen recently a similar trend in emerging countries.

Clearly, all of this has improved the quality of life, maybe a little too much too fast though. Intensification has brought its share of problems as well, as it always does with progress. For instance, I can mention soil erosion and loss of organic matter, soil fertility and ground water quality affected by manure (especially minerals) surpluses, reduced genetic diversity and possibly lessened resistance to diseases, to name a few. Of course, for each of the problems, we come with a solution mostly based on technology, which usually fits in and reinforces intensification.
Unfortunately, Nature does not work that simply. All it needs is time to process and eliminate problems through its cycles in the soil and in the water. Nature can handle quite a lot, but it can handle only that much. This is where the difference between intensification and efficiency becomes obvious.

Intensification tends to continuously load and overload the system, which is why we hear so much talk about sustainable agriculture nowadays. Food production cannot be sustainable if it does not allow its natural environment to process and eliminate the contaminants. Similarly, Nature cannot replenish on its own what we take out, unless we create the conditions for this.

Efficiency, on the other hand, integrates performance and sustainability. It allows having a high production, not so much by using massive amounts of water, fertilizer, energy or other production inputs, but by using them when needed where need and just as much as needed. This way, we can grow plants or animals with the minimum amount of waste and respect the ecosystem. Efficiency also comes from optimization, and to this extent, efficiency and intensification go hand in hand, up to that particular point when any incremental input does not produce more in the same proportion. More importantly, once we produce beyond the optimum, we take the chance of creating a stress. This is very clear in animal production, when densities exceed a certain point, the animals’ organism defence becomes weak and makes them vulnerable to diseases.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Sustainability and modernity are compatible, let’s not oppose them!

September 26, 2009

From all economic activities, agriculture seems to have a different status. While most of the polluting industries with unsustainable processes or products seem to look to a cleaner future through new technology, it sounds as if agriculture can have a future only by downsizing. Everyone seems to support and praise the move to green new technology in all industrial sectors, but when it comes to agriculture, the most vocal proponents of sustainability seem to reduce the possibilities to only organic and small scale farming. This in my view is very simplistic, and may fit in the North American city baby boomer nostalgia of things that never were, but it is not the solution for the future when we look at it from a global perspective. However, it is quite clear that food is loaded with emotional and psychological symbolism.

Of course, I am not the cross-industry sustainability guru, but I do not seem to hear the requirement for most other industries to go small scale. Where are the voices to demand that we get rid of large factories, and go back to small local workshops? Yet, for instance, that would hurt the toy industry in China for sure, although it could make sense as most of the production is bought in the West.

Why don’t we hear many voices to encourage the search of better practices that fit with modern and efficient techniques? We have reached a level of scientific and technical knowledge that we never have before. This can help us having the best of both worlds by combining old empirical techniques with new high-tech ones. We can be so precise and efficient in the use of water and fertilizer to feed the plants with exactly the right amount of what they need when they need it. By combining the old and new, we can protect and improve the fertility of the soils, we can reduce the amounts of pesticides and herbicides, and we can reduce the amount of antibiotics. We can do all the things that the small scale organic farmers currently do, just on a bigger scale, because, as I have mentioned in previous articles on this website, like it or not, feeding an increasing world population will require large scale agriculture, too. The main challenge that we are facing is to figure out the right economic model. A large-scale sustainable agriculture requires a shift in how we distribute the land, the capital and the labor. The only reason why manufacturing production units moved to other countries over time is purely because of lower labor costs. It has very little to do with proximity of markets, with location of raw materials, environmental or social reasons, or any other common sense thinking. The only reason is to maximize profits.

What we lack to make the move to the future is a plan. We tend to stick to the present, and to some extent to the past, too. We need people who, like me, will ignore the emotional baggage and figure out what are solid and successful models taking into account the local situations, and consider without prejudice the best possibilities that the knowledge that we have acquired through the millennia has to offer.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.