Who will be the farmers of the future?

November 11, 2009

While most of the discussions about the future of agriculture and food tend to focus about how to feed 9 billion people, and about whether it should be organic or industrial, one question seems to be left aside, though it is a very important one: who will be the farmers.

If the forecast of the UN is correct and by 2050 when we are 9 billion, 70% of the people will live in cities, while today this number  is only 47%, this means that in fact the rural population will decrease by about 25% from the current numbers (2.7 billion vs. 3.6 billion today). This means that there will be a lot less farmers in the future.

Farmer of the futureSo, who will they be and where will they be?

A lot of the good agricultural land is in the Northern hemisphere, and in areas where not only the population numbers  are stagnating, but these are regions where the average age of the population is increasing from an already rather high level of about 50% of the population older than 37. These regions, North America, Western Europe and Eastern Europe are not likely the countries where we can expect a surge in urban population. This will happen mostly in Africa, Asia and Arab countries.

These Northern hemisphere countries already have large commercial farming structures and, unless they train many new farmers, the concentration trend is likely to continue, meaning even less farms, and larger farms than today.

In countries where the agriculture infrastructure is more fragmented and farms are smaller, which are the countries where the urban population is going to increase the most, there clearly is a need to rationalize production and increase yields to feed this new population that will have very little possibilities to grow food where they live. This means a “revolution” in the way agriculture will have to be organized and structured. Asia and South America have already engaged in this process for a few decades, yet depending on the countries they will face different challenges, mostly about access to water and ensuring the sustainability of their environment.

The continent where agriculture has stayed the most traditional is Africa, where a large share of the land is used for subsistence. Many African countries have struggled for years with poor policies and a lack of investment to help a proper development. This has resulted in lower yields over time. As such, this also means that Africa is the continent with the highest potential for improvement, although this would have to be managed very carefully, as climatic and socio-cultural conditions are very sensitive.

Therefore, we can conclude that in the future, not only will we have fewer farmers, meaning fewer farms, but also in the same time, we will need to increase production and train a new generation. All of this will require a fair amount of capital that many farmers alone cannot afford, especially considering how their income situation usually is.

This will be no surprise to see more capital coming from large corporations, investors and governments. This is already happening in Africa with the land purchases and leases, and we can expect his to happen. There is a huge (rather captive) market where demand probably is going to outpace supply, and there is a lot of capital waiting to enter markets where money can be made in trade activities.

Farmers wanted!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Consulting Group Ltd.


When satellites assist farmers for higher yields

November 6, 2009

Satellites are the modern way of agricultural land assessment. Not only is it accurate, but it proves to be much more cost efficient than former techniques such as soil analysis.

The status of farmland at a glance!

The status of farmland at a glance!

By measuring the electro-magnetic radiation reflected from the ground, a whole region can be scanned at once, and farmers can have a review for their whole farmland area. On such maps, they can see the variations of their crop performance as well as soil and fertilization status. From there, they receive advice; they can set up their own action plan and time it with meteorological data.

Here is the link to the article of Economist.com for the whole story.


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.


The hot regions of the future

September 18, 2009
Food strategies for the world

Food strategies around the world

In this article, the term hot does not refer to climate, but to strategic and active food producing regions. Not only is the population growing, but also the demographics vary greatly between regions and this will change deeply where from and where to the trade is going. Here are, briefly, the main changes as I see them happening as we go forward.

The aging and increasingly health-conscious West will not show any increase in consumption per capita, and very likely it even will drop, as older people need less food than the youth and also because the shift from quantity to quality will continue. Of course, immigration policies in these countries might offset this somehow. The direct consequence of this is that suppliers are going to have to look for alternative markets for agricultural products. They should not have to worry too much, as there will be plenty of people to feed in other regions.

Asia, with about half of the world population is definitely a huge market, although it presents a great variety of conditions and situations.

The largest economy in the region, China, is developing a middle class with more disposable income. This results in a change of diet, with relatively more protein, especially animal protein than by the past. Although being the largest meat producing country in the world, China is struggling to feed its population, and I expect that it will remain a net food importer. Further, the country has major challenges to overcome when it comes to availability and quality of water. However, in the long run, the past one-child policy will affect the Chinese demographics and influence their need for food, as well as the dynamism of their economy at large, by the way.

The second largest economy, India, is very dependent on the monsoon for its food supplies, and climate will remain a challenge. They seem to struggle to be able to secure their self-sufficiency, rural development is still a challenge and poverty remains a concern to reach prosperity.

Emerging South Asian countries, on the other hand, for instance Vietnam, show a different picture. They have a young population and want to benefit of the economic momentum coming from China. They are actively developing agricultural and aquaculture production for export purposes, and they keep on this policy. Aquaculture is very active, as some of these countries have a very extensive shoreline, like for instance The Philippines.

Although food security in the region remains uncertain, and the scare of last year’s food price increase, some countries are trying to establish structures to protect from such risks. For instance, a number of ASEAN countries are trying to set up a rice cartel, some sort of an OPEC for rice, in order to have more control on the market and the prices. Of course, we will have to see if this will work as planned.

Another region that is showing booming demographics is the Arab world and the Middle East. Many countries in the region are wealthy thanks to oil, but also have the disadvantage to be located in desert areas. Attempts to increase food production have met their limits, and they do not guarantee food security. The main reason is the shortage of water and trying to grow more food would create a drinking water crisis. This is why some Arab countries are developing other strategies to “outsource” their food production like mentioned in the article “The Great Unseen Land Grab”. Other countries, like Qatar, are considering investing in food companies in order to secure their food supplies.

Some players are already making their moves

Some players are already making their moves

I expect stronger ties between the Middle East and former soviet republics. Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are joining forces in the “Black Sea Wheat Pool”, another agricultural OPEC. Although we will see how this combination works. Another area that I see booming in the future is the Mediterranean region, which is the interface between Africa and Europe. Although immigration has been a hot issue in the past, there is a great potential for a win-win situation for both sides if managed properly. The idea of creating an Economic Zone around the Mediterranean has already been brought forward and considering the demographics of the region, it makes quite a lot of sense.

Africa, although plagued by many problems, be it natural, social, political, humanitarian or health, as a huge untapped potential. The plans of Arab and Asian countries to lease land on this continent and develop agriculture for their needs, could give the necessary impulse to develop African economies. I also believe that South Africa has the potential to be the driver of the economic surge for the continent.

Last but not least. South America and Brazil in particular, is going to play a major role in agricultural production. They have an amazing potential, but also many issues to solve, especially on the environmental and political level. Their position of producers of basic commodities as well as high value products like meat gives them a strategic role in the international food trade, and the upcoming merger between JBS and Pilgrim’s Pride in the US and between JBS and Bertin is another step in the creation of agribusiness giants, following the merger between Perdigao and Sadia.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Bringing cities to the countryside: Infrastructure will help rural development

September 16, 2009

Although the title of this article many sound a contradiction in terms, agriculture (in which I include aquaculture as well) needs cities and vice-versa. Rural development is more than just agricultural activities; it is about creating and improving a cluster of many economic activities that are necessary for the proper functioning of a community.

As such, this should not be a surprise, because in the history of man, human settlements always have been linked to drinking water and sufficient food supplies. By developing agriculture, the very first “farmers” created the conditions for sedentarism, instead of continuous migrations. On these sedentary communities, other activities developed later to cover the needs of the locals. Maslow's pyramid of needs - Picture WikipediaThe hierarchy of the needs that we must fill can be easily identified according to the pyramid of Maslow: food and water, shelter and physical safety. Once this is achieved, adding other activities become more natural and simple.

This is why developing large urban centers is no guarantee of prosperity. Like all things in life, the key is about balance. Of course, over the last 150 years, the focus has been about growing the industrial capabilities and this has been the engine for a massive migration of population from the countryside to the cities. Although the conditions were far from stellar, many companies in the early industrial development were providing their employees with housing. Their ways may not always have been very social, but they were showing some level of social responsibility.

With the ups and downs of industries, cities have increasingly faced a problem of poverty, as the development did not include a sense of community anymore and company loyalty towards their employees disappeared as the workforce became expendable and factories could move to other countries.

This industrialization and urbanization have also affected the rural areas and the agricultural world. Many rural areas have faced and are still facing isolation and poverty. Although in many cases there have been many efforts made to improve this situation, the situation has not always improved.

Yet, we now see the challenges of feeding an ever-increasing population, we all recognize that we will need to cultivate more land and water, but this still does not seem to make things turn around.

In my view, the problem is that, too often, we restrict rural development to agricultural development, and by looking at this part in a separate way, instead of focusing on integrating agriculture in the development of the whole local economy, we just do not create strong enough chances of success. Having large urban centers with their problems on the one hand, and remote and depopulated rural areas with their problems on the other hand, should be the clear sign for all of us that our economic model is out of balance. There can be life outside a huge metropolis where everyone has become an anonymous person, resulting is a dislocated social fabric. What has made the success of our species has been our ability to act as groups. As isolated creatures, we probably would not have survived very long.

To rebuild the necessary social fabric in rural areas, we must create the conditions to have balanced and complementary activities. This is why, while some see the future of agriculture as urban farming, I believe that it has to be urbanizing the countryside, not with large impersonal cities, but with human size settlements where we can provide for all the needs.  Isolated farmers with no direct connection with their markets and not getting the value for their products to make a decent living will look for alternatives. If we want more people to produce food, we must understand that they must make enough money to want to keep producing food. By creating a proper infrastructure around agricultural areas, we can create a more local market that will drive production. A profitable market for the farmers’ products also means more money in their pockets, which in turn means more spending power to develop demand for other business, be it for products or services. This is how we will be able to grow local economies and communities. This is not about a romantic or idealistic back to nature movement, or creating local farmers markets purely for marketing purposes, but this is a thorough and integrated process embracing modernity. In the current rural areas and probably in other regions, the future will about bringing the economy to the people before bringing people to the economy.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


How much can the rule of 80-20 tell us about the future?

September 3, 2009

We all have heard about this rule across all industries, including agriculture and food. Eighty percent of the food would be produced on 20% of the farms and vice-versa. If it still applies in the future, it can indicate us how our food production and supplies will look like in the future. Of course, this is always a theoretical exercise, but it is quite convenient to elaborate on our thoughts.

As the population is expected to grow quite strongly in the coming decades, especially in urban areas, this could indicate two dominant trends:
• Further size increase of the largest farms and further industrialization of agriculture and food for global markets, although the number of farms in this segment would not increase strongly.
• Strong increase of the number of small farms involved in specific value chains and strongly linked with their local economy.

Industrial agriculture
Producing more, yet in a sustainable way. That is the challenge!This group will continue to be involved in mass production of commodities for global supplies, like this is the case today.
Yet, they will face an increased pressure to adapt to the requirements of sustainability, which technically is quite possible. New systems and more efficient technologies will be the pillars of its growth and development. They will have to find ways of reducing the amount of chemicals in crops and the amount of pharmaceuticals in animal productions
The requirements for capital will be quite high and the sector will be led by increasing larger corporations, by an increasing level of capital by large private investors and, last but not least, by some governments. This agriculture will innovate further and will be developed thanks to this capital. It will use automation and mechanization to reduce the dependence on labor. Mergers & acquisitions will continue in the agricultural sector and a few large blocks will remain, dominating their sectors.
Their mandate will be about more control the natural conditions of production and about reducing to a minimum their impact on air, water and soil, by using less polluting transport methods, water preservation, effluent treatment and soil preservation. They also will have to engage in maintenance of their environment.
The role of this type of agriculture will be to bring to market large amounts of affordable food for the masses, and should play an important role in strategies around food security, which is where corporations and government will interact on a regular basis.

Local food value chains
Closer to natureThis sector should undergo a strong growth and be build in a market-driven approach. These are the farmers that produce specialty products aimed at serving either a very specific segment of the retail or foodservice market.
This trend, which has been already initiated around concepts such as organic or authentic, will evolve into a more integrated local economy, and the initial concepts will probably become less differentiated as food production in general, be it industrial or traditional, will use more sustainable techniques.
Contrarily to the common belief, this agriculture will be developed thanks to very efficient techniques, but will be centered relatively more about labor and relatively less about capital. In this case, efficiency does not necessarily mean intensification.
We must not underestimate the significance of this part of the food production, as it will play an important role. However, we must not expect this type of agriculture to be the solution to feed the world, and this is not the purpose of the farmers involved in such food production chains.

This type of farming will grow in two different environments:

  •  In “developed” countries to serve a increasing, but aging, population more demanding about the origin and the production methods, and who is ready to pay a premium for the perceived better quality. The angle will be about quality, transparency, sustainability, traceability and as close to zero a use of chemicals and pharmaceuticals. In some areas, it could help strengthening a local economy and local communities.
  • Developing a local economy thanks to agriculture (Picture: FAO) In emerging countries, the development of a local agriculture, and aquaculture, will be a key driver of economic development for under industrialized and/or under urbanized regions. It also will be a way of slowing down the migration of population to urban centers and limit social problems, by creating satisfying economic conditions and by securing food supplies locally. This farming will be about basic needs, before marketing.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The future price of meat and fish: up

July 17, 2009

With a world population increasing strongly and an agricultural area that will not grow accordingly, the law of offer and demand clearly indicates that agricultural prices will increase in the future. This is true for agricultural commodities such as grains, but the increase will be even stronger for animal products, such as meat, poultry, dairy and fish.
This will be the result of an increasing and very likely quite aggressive competition between the need to feed people with the basic commodities, the need to feed farmed animals and possibly for some time the need to produce biofuels.
Since it takes more than one and even several kilograms of animal feed to produce one kilogram of meat, the feed conversion ratio (FCR) will affect by which factor the price of the various animal products will increase.
Efficient productions like chicken will be successful and will remain quite competitive pricewise against other sources of animal proteins, thanks to its low FCR, to its low water use and to the good agricultural value of its manure. In the aquaculture sector, efficient productions such us tilapia and pangasius have a bright future ahead, as they can help feed a large population for an affordable price. In general, aquaculture has the opportunity to fill the huge gap left by depleted wild fish stocks, although it will have to solve some issues in order to be successful (see my article titled “The lessons of intensive animal husbandry to aquaculture“). In terms of price, the scarcity of wild fish will make these quite expensive for the future.
Less efficient species such as pigs and beef cattle will see the price of their products increase relatively much more. Pigs also have the disadvantage of producing low quality manure, which will limit the level of intensification. However, pork plays an important role in some cultures, and therefore, it will still show a reasonable volume growth, with geographical variations.
A high FCR species such as beef cattle will probably undergo the most dramatic change. Higher feed costs, linked to a relatively high capital need will probably push a number of farmers to shift to other more efficient productions. Highly intensive systems such the feedlots will also undergo major changes, as regulations on the use of antibiotics and hormones will make them financially inefficient. Further, their high impact on the environment because of the manure will also work against them. I do not expect the 99-cent beef burger to be here for all that much longer, burgers will continue to exist, but just quite a bit more expensive. On the other hand, I can see good possibilities for specialty beef products, such as grass-fed beef, but customers will have to pay the right price for it. Grass is the animal feed that we all seem to underestimate, yet it covers vast areas of very often fragile soil, and cattle is one of the few species that can transform it into high value protein.
In the aquaculture sector, a carnivore species such as salmon will also meet its own limitations. Although, salmon feed has shifted from mostly fish oil and fishmeal to a much more complex mix of vegetal oils, this production will see its production costs rise strongly. I expect salmon to become a luxury product again.

Consumption per capita will decreaseWhat will a higher price mean?
There again, simple economics tell us that this will influence the level of consumption per capita. The price increase will moderate the level of consumption and the price differential between the type of protein, as well as health concerns, will cause a shift between the respective consumption of the different products. In Western countries, people consume quantities of animal products that are substantially higher than what they actually need, and this has led to many health issues. The decrease in consumption will help make people healthier, and reduce the burden of health costs in that part of the world.
In developing countries, the situation is different, as consumption trends show an increase of consumption of animal products, from rather low levels, though. In these countries, consumption per capita will increase, but will not reach the levels that Western countries have shown, simply because prices will be too high to get to such levels.
The decrease of consumption per capita that we will see in developed countries does not mean that the meat industry will get into trouble.  Less average consumption per capita in the West will be more than compensated by the growth in emerging countries, where population numbers are significantly higher, and this will lead to a higher global demand of animal products. The main change is that the consumers will be distributed geographically rather differently than they are today. This also means that production will be located in different areas than today.

Just as a teaser: if Western countries consumers were to reduce their meat consumption to just the necessary maintenance needs, it would free volumes enough to cover the maintenance needs of meat for the whole population of China!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.