Since we cannot beat Nature…

September 9, 2010

It is convenient to paraphrase the saying “if you cannot beat them, join them”. This applies to our dealing with Nature just as well.

As a species, we have been very successful in conquering our environment and exterminating what threatens us. Actually, we have been successful up to a certain point. The very success that generated the current pace in human population increase brings the next challenge. Sustainability is just as much about the population increase as about how we use the resources. In 1950, there were “only” 2.5 billion humans on Earth. Compared with almost 7 billion today and the expected 9 billion in 2050, it sounds almost like a desert. How does this relate to sustainability? When 2.5 billion people behaved badly, from an environmental point of view, it had consequences, but there was room and time to correct the situation. When 7 or even 9 billion people consume, possibly waste precious resources, damage the environment and pollute beyond what is acceptable, the consequences are a lot more serious and a lot faster to hit back at us.

Sustainability is not just about production techniques, but it is at least as much about our attitude. Sustainability is even more a moral and behavioral necessity than one of a technological nature. The natural instinct when facing a problem is to look for the fastest and easiest way of solving it. This preference of the present tends to make us forget about the long-term effects of our actions. This behavior also tends to ignore how Nature works.

The first rule to remember is that Nature simply does not care whether we exist or not. Nature was there long before us, and it will be there after us, too. The calls to “save the planet” are in fact calls to save humanity. Nature is an open field where evolving life forms compete and fill the spaces left available. This is also what mankind has done since the beginning of its existence: compete, fight and conquer new habitats.

Nature does not care whether a particular species goes extinct. Only some people do. When a species disappears, others compete to take over the vacuum left, and life goes on. Nature is all about creating balances between species. This is why when a species’ population grows fast because of favorable conditions, it always becomes victim of its success. Even insects deplete food resources beyond what could have sustained them. When the food is gone, they simply die by the millions. As far as Nature is concerned, if climate changes, if the nitrate content of drinking water is too high, if soil is eroded, it does not matter. Let the best species win!

This ability of Nature to constantly adjust to changes in populations of life forms also explains why our efforts to kill threats in agriculture and food production will never be quite successful. Farmers may kill lots of pests and weeds thanks to chemicals, pharmaceuticals and now genetically engineered crops, they also create a vacuum for others or better organism to conquer. This is why we face antibiotic-resistant bacteria or herbicide-resistant weeds. This is simply the result of natural selection and evolution happening right before our eyes. Organisms mutate constantly and when a trait helps them survive some of our techniques and products, they thrive. The problem for us is that if forces us to find more specific treatment products as we go on, and this is getting more and more difficult. Are we going to have to fight ever increasingly resistant and strong superbugs, super bacteria and super weeds? If so, we are facing an uphill battle, because we are always at least one step behind new mutations and natural selection. It is not impossible for us to keep the upper hand, though, but the margin of error when looking for solutions will become thinner and thinner.

To stay ahead of the game, farmers and all the people involved in food production need to thinks like ecologists. Science and technology will be the basis for progress, but thinking only like chemists is too limiting. Managing ecosystems is one of the underlying principles of sustainability in food production. We will succeed only by understanding the big picture and thinking like chess players, and anticipate what the several following moves will be, as well from Nature’s side as from ours. We cannot make Nature checkmate, but Nature can do that to us.

The secret ingredient is long-term responsible thinking, even if this goes against the short-term interests of shareholders.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Nobel Prize of Economics: Back to the basics

October 16, 2009

This year’s Nobel Prize of Economics to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson seems to have attracted more attention than previous years, and by reading the comments, I have the feeling that everyone saw signs of what they find important. I believe that the reason for this is that both recipients worked on broad subjects, that have become mainstream, thanks to the climate change issue and the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

The title in this week’s The Economist is “The bigger picture”, and the subtitle is “This year’s Nobel prize has rewarded the use of economics to answer wider questions”. This sounds to me like common sense having turned into some revolutionary concept for some people.

Per definition, economy is the management of natural and human resources to sustain human population. Therefore, it is the very essence of economy to address wider questions and the big picture indeed. To that extent, their receiving the Nobel Prize definitely makes a lot of sense, especially in a time when common sense (aka wisdom) has been widely forgotten and economy has been reduced to just money and profits. What we forgot in our drive for instant gratification is the long-term consequences, and the costs associated to those.

The definition of economy tells it all: it is about the Earth, money and people and it is sustainable. Well, this sounds a lot like the triple bottom line concept, doesn’t it?

Triple bottom line and sustainability are not ideological concepts, and those who try to make it so, are probably making as big a mistake as those who ignore them. Needless to say that reducing such concepts to PR and to marketing are even bigger mistakes, because such an approach only serves the short-term.

Economy, triple bottom line and sustainability are about just one thing: life and survival of our species; and that requires integrating the long-term vision of our societies. If we ignore the future, we will not have any. It is all back to the basics.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Will globalization lead us back to local thinking?

June 22, 2009

This might sound contradictory, but one of the effects of globalization could very well be a new impulse for the development of a local economy, with energy as the main driver.

Let’s review a few things! One driver of globalization has been the search for low wages, therefore making corporations relocating their manufacturing units to the emerging countries. Another pillar of globalization has been the ability to transport goods across the world at a low cost, as energy has been in fact quite cheap. A clear effect of the success created by the above is an economic boom in the emerging countries, where employment has risen and where the standard of living has increased, on average. Currently, we are going through this difficult economic situation, but in the future, we very likely will face an increase in the price of oil. This is the energy effect that I just mentioned. Higher energy costs and food prices will drive inflation higher, although not to alarming levels. Nonetheless, this will be pushing wages up in the emerging countries, while unemployment will stay high for a while in the West, where the main consumer markets are. Therefore, we can expect to see the wage differential between those two groups of countries shrink, while transporting goods will become more expensive. In such a situation, it is not unreasonable to think that some manufacturing will come back closer to the Western consumers market. In addition, in the same time, emerging countries should have been able to develop a middle class that will drive domestic consumption, and thus sustain a certain level of economic momentum, even if their exports decrease in relative volume. An interesting consequence of the above would then be global trend towards a more local economy. The currently emerging countries would produce to satisfy their domestic markets and exporting lower surpluses, while the Western countries would repatriate some of the production units back home since it might be cheaper to produce and to transport goods that way to satisfy their own consumers.

Agriculture has followed the same pattern as other industries, and regions have specialized for the foods that they could produce at the cheapest cost. Of course, the cost of production and of distribution to consumers depends largely on the price of inputs, such as energy, fertilizers, animal feed, etc, but from a pure financial, and also climatic, point of view, it could not make sense to try to produce everything everywhere. Thanks to cheap fuel, the model was to go to global trade and transport foods over long distances. This is quite a change compared with the local agricultural model that dominated until the nineteenth century.

This search for the lowest cost of production will not go away, for a very simple reason. The overwhelming majority of the world population has a limited budget and keeping food affordable is an absolute necessity. We have seen during the sharp food price increase of 2008 that it would not take much to create a panic and riots, because even a slight price increase is almost unbearable for most people, especially in developing countries. This is quite a contrast with the wealthy Westerners who claim that cheap food is a bad thing, and that agriculture should be local and small-scale.

Another aspect that is not addressed very often is the actual carbon footprint of food transport. In the partisan debate, most of the arguments focus on the number of miles travelled, but they rarely look at the qualitative aspect of the transport. Depending on whether we transport food by road, by rail or on water, the results vary greatly. For instance, in Brazil, only 5% of exported products were transported by waterway in Brazil, compared to 61% in the U.S. Conversely, 67% of Brazil’s exported products are transported on highways, compared to just 16% in the U.S. In the European Union, almost 90% of the external freight trade is moved by water, and short sea shipping represents 40% of trade within the European Union in terms of ton-kilometers. As you can imagine, the consequences for the environment, as well as in terms of transportation costs differ greatly.

There are also significant differences between transporting fresh foods or frozen foods. A study carried out by Astrid Scholz, Ulf Sonesson and Peter Tyedmers on salmon showed that consuming frozen salmon transported by sea was the better environmental choice for salmon. To illustrate this, their conclusion was “If seafood-loving Japanese consumers, who get most of their fish via air shipments, were to switch to 75 percent frozen salmon, it would have a greater ecological benefit than all of Europe and North America eating only locally farmed or caught salmon.”

Another important parameter in the environmental impact of the distribution of food is the filling rate of the transportation unit. An efficient fleet of trucks that organize back transport for other goods is more efficient than a small truck used by a farmer to bring his products to the city’s farmers’ market 400 kilometers away and who drives back empty.

As you can see, in the choice between global or local, we need to think in pragmatic terms because the reality is more complex than it may seem at first.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Sustainability: As Natural As Balance

June 2, 2009

With the increasing awareness about climate change and our endangered environment, sustainability has become a widespread concept through all industries and the food value chains have embraced it like everyone else.

Yet, I do not quite understand why sustainability seems to be such a “revelation”, or even almost a revolutionary idea. Sustainability is the way that our societies have lived for thousands of years, probably because scarcity of goods made conserving and recycling a necessity of survival. Only over the last 50 years or so have we seemed to forget about it, because of our consuming frenzy and the abundance of goods that we thought to be about infinite.

To put the importance, and the obvious need for sustainability, let’s just look at its definition. What is not sustainable disappears. There is no need for any further philosophical or political discussion. Survival can (note that I only say can) come only from sustainability. All processes in nature that deal with life are all about recycling of organic matter in one form or another, and about balance. If the environment is favorable for a particular species, you will see this species thrive and its population grow quite strongly, to the point that it exceeds its abilities to provide for itself in its original ecosystem. Then, it starts to use more and other resources that nature can replace at the natural pace and this always results in a strong reduction of the population, as the weakest cannot find food and perish, or as the population density helps the spreading of diseases much faster than it would otherwise. Does this sound somehow familiar?

The soil that feeds usThere are many discussions in scientific, economic and political circles about whether we have reached such a stage either regarding pandemics or regarding food supplies. The specter of pandemics recently raised its head with the “swine flu” originating from Mexico. Last year, there were severe disruptions of food supplies in some parts of the world, not as much as the result of an actual shortage, but as the result of prices skyrocketing and fears that food would run out.

Are we about to run out of food? Malthus was warning about such a risk in the early nineteenth century, but since then, the world population has increased far further than he estimated was possible. Today, we probably are not in that dire a situation, yet the main food supply issue is more one of distribution between geographic regions. Some parts of the world are underfed while others die of all sorts of ailments related to overfeeding. This is more a matter of politics than purely of agricultural (including seafood) potential.

Sustainability is about allowing nature to do its work at its own pace. This is all about staying in balance and keeping natural cycles complete their courses. Since you cannot live without eating much more than 2 months, you cannot live without drinking for much more than 2 days and you cannot live without breathing for much more than 2 minutes, these cycles can be reduced to just a few critical areas for life:

  1. The cycle of air, necessary to remove, or to help nature remove the contaminants, so that air remains breathable.
  2. The cycle of water, necessary to remove, or to help nature remove, the contaminants that can make it undrinkable.
  3. The cycle of soils, necessary to preserve the fertility of the soils, and thus allow a continuous agricultural/livestock production to feed people.

Agricultural challenges aheadThis is why, with a growing human population, agriculture and food production at large, managed in a sustainable manner, will become increasingly strategic in the future, and sensible management of water resources will be a key factor for the success of agriculture as well.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Biofuels may be a non issue

May 23, 2009

Biofuels is a topic that divides many people. To some, it is a solution to reduce dependence on oil, and to others it is an insane idea.
I do not think that biofuels will be a discussion topics for very long, and here is why.
Very likely, the future of cars will be electricity. Inevitably, at some point oil prices will rise again to very painful levels and stay there. This is what will make alternative energy sources economically interesting, even without government subsidies.
One of the major opposition to the electric car is being handled in a very smooth way by the Obama administration. General Motors and Chrysler were strong opponents of the electric car, and helped send it to the landfill for a while, but neither company is around anymore. The Obama administration just put an end to the outdated automobile gas guzzler model once and for all, with the new regulations on gas mileage and car emissions. Fact is that an important page has been turned for good.
Just realize that if all US cars have a similar mileage as their Europeans counterparts, the gasoline use would reduce to substantial amounts, in the vicinity of an equivalent of 80-100 million cars less (old US mileage standards). Normally, this should make the price of oil drop, therefore reducing the need for biofuels. And when oil prices increase again, then electricity will take over.
Other signs that biofuels do not have that much of a future is the lack of excitement from the investment community for it. Wind energy attracts investors (for instance think of Boone Pickens’s energy plan). Solar energy attracts investors. But biofuels? The main party that seems to be pushing for it is Brazil, for internal reasons mostly.
The fundamentals do not look good for biofuels, either. They score negatively on all three bottom line criteria.
As such, this is good news for food supplies. If biofuels made out of edible grains do not have much of a future, the situation is different when it comes to biofuels made out of cellulose. These probably have a decent future, as they do not compete with human consumption, and can be a good way of using and recycling materials that further would be of little interest.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Recycling and cleaning: the economic drivers of tomorrow?

May 21, 2009

Here is an article I wrote a little more than a year ago.

With an increasing population, years of throwaway goods consumption, landfills full of garbage, the pollution of our drinking water reserves and a deteriorating of our air and atmosphere, there is no doubt that our survival will largely depend on our ability to clean and to recycle the waste we produce.

The recycling business has already been developing for quite some years already and the next step should be an increasing part of their products and services as the main source of raw materials for many industries.

What indeed would be the point of trying to get resources in more and more difficult conditions and at higher and higher costs and with more and more energy use while we are sitting on a mountain of metals, plastics, glass, wood, paper, etc… Those are available in many places literally in the open air. The raw materials for the raw materials industries are there. All it takes it to sort them all.

This potentially offers many jobs opportunities as the value of this waste will increase as a result of a growing population’s demand. More machinery will also become necessary to handle this waste in a faster and more importantly safer manner. Images of kids browsing on landfills in order to get a miserable income to feed their siblings and parents are not acceptable, and I bet that one day they will do this in better conditions and for decent wages, as we will have grown from a waste gathering approach to a structured and systematic waste treatment and recycling.

Down this chain, new industries will develop in the area of processing the sorted waste. Some will have as a function to clean, others to recover the main raw material, and others to transform it into semi-finished products or even reprocessed into finished goods. Most of such industries already exist, either as active waste processors or as goods producers that will over time have to adapt and just change the origin of their raw materials and use recycled products instead of “first production” raw materials.

The other main area of need is water treatment. More and more of our water reserves are being polluted by increasing industrial activity and by more intensive agriculture and animal husbandry. In many areas, water is no longer suitable for infants as the mineral content has reached dangerous level.

The level of pollution has created a strategic need to insure health and safety, and thus preserve the sustainability of the populations depending on these water supplies.
A growing need is in sight for water treatment facilities, either for large scale centralized ones as also for smaller scale even individual local solutions. Further, industries will need to provide us with more solutions on how to use less water. There already are many systems on the market to reduce water use in kitchens and toilets. Although, these systems have brought some solutions and relief, more must be done.
Just to name one example, I would like to make you think on how ridiculous, and therefore unacceptable, the amount of water that we flush in the bathroom every time compared with the amount of liquid we produce when we visit those premises. Clearly, this is out of balance, and imagine that by saving a gallon of flush water a day, we save more than our individual need for drinking water!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Food production: the balancing act

May 19, 2009

Since the beginning of times, feeding a population has always been about balance.

When mankind was still in the stage of hunting, fishing and gathering, survival was about keeping resources at a level that would allow the group to keep on feeding from its close environment.
When agriculture started, followed by the domestication of what became farm animals, the idea was clearly to have more control on the resources and insure that they would be available on a more regular basis. Of course, there were times when this did not happen, but the principle has remained.
For many centuries, agriculture was a local activity. Farmers would grow a diversified group of products that insured a sustainable balance at local level. The different products were a reflection of seasons and of land diversity. They also would offer different activities, and some revenue, through the different times of the year.
Their productions were part of a cycle. For instance, farm animals would eat crops coming from the farm to produce meat, milk, eggs which are all related to the reproduction cycle and the continuation of their species. What would not be digested, as well by the farm animals as by the local human population would return to the land as manure (usually mixed with a crop by-product such as straw to provide and insulating litter), fertilizing the next round of crops. So basically, what was extracted from the Earth was returning to it, thus insuring the continuity of the system, for as long as the climate would support it.
With the growth of world population and the increasing mobility and later globalization of markets, this very local and sustainable system has evolved. Products are sold far away from their area of production; many farms have specialized and replace the manure cycle by purchase of fertilizers. Animals are fed with raw materials originating from the over side of the world. Genetics, crop engineering, technical progress have also allowed yields to sharply increase as well as the speed of the production of foodstuffs, vegetal and animal. This has benefited mankind on the shorter term because it provided more food at relatively cheaper prices, so more accessible to a larger group. This has benefited trade and business, but it has brought its toll on the balance that is the cornerstone of any biologically related activity.
For example, intensive animal husbandry was developed in poor regions, allowing farmers to have a decent revenue in areas were they could not have stayed, but as the animals were fed with non-indigenous feedstuffs, they produced massive amounts of manure that were much higher than the local ground could process. This has led to loss of soil fertility, as a result of excess phosphates in the ground, among other things. Water resources have been polluted with high level of minerals, such as nitrates making it risky to use for infants and pregnant women. The exclusive use of chemical fertilizers in crop areas, as a result of the disappearance of a mixed farming also led to lower levels of organic matter (which is crucial to fix minerals and make them fully available for plants) and has caused some severe erosion of very fertile soils. While these problems were growing in the West as we were putting too much back on the land, on the other side of the world the opposite situation was happening with an exhaustion of soils to produce crops aimed for export only, which resulted in taking more out of those soils and not returning it in the right form. Further, these regions developed very often these commercial crops on land that had been won from ecosystems such has tropical forests, which have very sensitive soils to rain, erosion and oxidation of metals such as aluminum and iron.
By bringing the natural cycles out of balance, we have weakened the Earth from providing us optimally with what feeds us. Our future and our sustainability will depend of our ability to manage this balancing act. As usual, what seems a challenge can also offer new opportunities!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.