When externalities cannot be externalized anymore

March 29, 2012

Externalities are costs, or benefits, that are not included in the price charged for a product. If a cost is not included in the price, it represents a negative externality. If a benefit is not included, the externality is positive. The concept of externality is particularly important to determine whether an activity is sustainable. For instance, if an industrial activity pollutes and causes harm, there will be consequences, and costs. As it takes many years for environmental problems to become obvious, the cost of repairing the damage caused by pollution is not included in the cost of the goods produced by the industrial activity in question. However, there will be a day when it there will be no alternative but to clean the damage. That cost is the externality.

Every activity that pollutes without cleaning the contaminants is a negative externality. Everything that damages physically the environment and undermines the sustainability of food production is a negative externality. Every activity that depletes essential resources for the production of food is a negative externality. In this highly industrialized world, the consequences of economic and human activities, slowly add up. Nature’s resilience makes it possible for damage to remain unnoticed for quite some time. However, the ability of Nature to repair the damage shrinks, as the damage is continuous and exceeds Nature’s ability to cope with the problem. As the population increases, the level of human and economic activities intensifies further. There will come a time when Nature simply cannot handle the damage and repair it in a timely manner anymore. The buffer will be full. When this happens, the effect of negative externalities will manifest immediately, and it will include the cumulated damage over decades as well. It will feel like not paying the bills for a long time and then having all belongings repossessed. Humanity will feel stripped and highly vulnerable. The advisory services company KPMG published a report in 2012 stating that if companies had to pay for the environmental cost of their production, it would cost them an average 41% of their corporate earnings. These costs are currently not included in the pricing. That is how high negative externalities can be. Looking at it from the other way, companies would still deliver 59% of their current earnings. Repairing the damage and still generate profits shows that sustainability is financially achievable. On average, the profits would only be lower, but the impact would vary substantially between companies. Businesses that create high negative externalities will show much bigger drops in profits, than business that do the right thing. The only ones who would have to get over some disappointment would be Wall Street investors and all those who chase capital gains on company shares. The world could live with that. Investors should put their money only in companies that actually have a future.

All the fossil fuels that humans burn are gone forever. It is not renewable. All the water that farmers use for food production and exported away from the production region is gone forever. Exporters in arid regions will have no choice than disappear, produce only for the local markets, or if that is economically sensible, import water from surplus regions. All the minerals that are used as fertilizers and that are exported from the fields in the form of leaching or in the form of agricultural commodities are gone forever. New supplies produced either with non-renewable energy sources or from mines that are slowly depleting must replace the loss. Organic matter that is lost from soils must be replaced, or it will be gone forever. Soil that is lost through erosion and climate is gone forever, unless new soil is brought back on the land or very long-lasting repair techniques are applied. Every gene that is lost is lost forever and might be missing dearly. Every species that goes extinct is gone forever, as well as its role in the ecosystem. Every molecule of greenhouse gas that goes into the atmosphere is gone out of human control forever. It might bring a heavy cost in the future.

Since everything that becomes rarer also becomes more expensive, the externalities are going to weigh on the economics of food and agriculture, as well as in any other activity. There will be an oil price for which the current machines will be too expensive to operate, and for perishables to be too costly to truck with fossil fuels over long distances. The economics of water will change the purpose of farming in arid regions. It will alter the agricultural policies and force farmers to innovate new irrigation techniques. The economics of minerals and organic matter will change the location of animal farms and manure containment systems. No minerals will be lost. Manure will become a competitive fertilizer, as chemical fertilizers will become much more expensive to produce. The logistics of manure will change and the location of animal farms will change to allow an optimal cost efficiency of raw material for feed and access to fertilizing elements and organic matter. Farms will not have to be mixed, but the agricultural landscape will restore an integration of crop farms with animal farms.  Agriculture will be sustainable only if completes all the cycles. In the past decades, the cycles of minerals, of organic matter and of water have been open. Food has been produced in one place, and then moved over long distances and the waste and surpluses have accumulated somewhere else, while the original production areas were slowly depleting. New systems and new organization will work on closing the cycles again to bring back what agriculture needs to function. The economics of energy will change the chemical industry and its products. Everything will aim at using as little primary resources as possible and maximize the efficiency of inputs by both bringing entirely new products and application techniques. It will be true for energy, water, fertilizers, chemicals, medicines. The new focus will be about using just what is needed when it is needed and only in the dose that is needed, and no more than that. It will be all about precision agriculture, precision animal husbandry, precision packing, precision manufacturing, precision processing and precision logistics.

When externalities manifest immediately, there will not be the time discrepancy between financial results and environmental results. There will be no excuse anymore to say that there is no evidence of consequences. There will be no possibility of creating the confusion, either. When pushed to the limits of its resilience, Nature will bring the financial and the environmental at the same timeline. It will be stressful. Doing the right thing environmentally, or in other words, producing sustainably, will be the best, and only, short-term strategy for financial sustainability.

Copyright 2012 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd
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We Will Reap What We Sow, my next book

October 30, 2011

“We Will Reap What We Sow” is the tentative title of my next book, which I have started writing. My first book, Future Harvests, focused understanding the challenges to meet the food demand of an increasing world population, before it became trendy in the media. Future Harvests also indicated which principles would be helpful to overcome these challenges. The book also presented the many areas where food production and food supply can be improved and optimized. In the conclusion, I wrote the following sentences:

The answer to “Can we feed nine billion people by 2050?” is “Yes!” Will we feed nine billion people by 2050? That is a different question! It will all depend on everyone’s attitude.

“We Will Reap What We Sow” will focus on the human factor. Indeed, our attitude and the way we deal with problems will play an essential role in future decisions. The consequences of these decisions will shape our future world. Success or failure depends mostly on us. The current level of technology, combined with the amazing developments that we can expect in the coming decades, is not the limiting factor. Our ability to act for the common good will determine our fate.

For those who have read Future Harvests, this next book will be a useful sequel focusing on human nature, behavior and leadership. The book will start where Future Harvests ended. This new book will review the interaction between human population, and their leaders, with all other aspects that contribute to food production and prosperity of societies. Those who will not have read Future Harvests will it a stimulating ground for discussion, and hopefully a reason to read my first book, too. Anyway, they still have enough time to order Future Harvests and read it before We Will Reap What We Sow is published.

“We Will Reap What We Sow” will address the major questions that need to be answered, and discuss the pros and cons of the different points of views. It will indicate what the most likely consequences of the different scenarios might be. Human nature being what it is, the book will also focus on how to develop positive incentives and reduce the possibility of negative stimuli. There will be a balanced discussion between economic, scientific, philosophical, and moral parameters; and how they contribute in building prosperity. The book will be an exercise in foresight.

The book will also focus on leadership. It will review what expectations of leaders will be. How leaders can help humankind overcome the fear of change and make the transition to a more food secure world. Dealing with change will be a major part of building the future world. Just as much has changed over the past decades, much will change in the future. The coming changes are beyond what most of us can imagine. Yet, it will happen. We had better accept it and prepare to adapt.

Unlike most of the articles published recently about the seventh billion human on Earth, “We Will Reap What We Sow” will not look for sensationalism. Doing that is quite easy, but not productive. Just like Future Harvests, it will explore the possibilities. It will focus on solutions, not on problems. There is no point of mongering fear. Leaders are there to help people dare and succeed, not to hide afraid or give up hope. The task ahead is not easy, but it is not impossible. Only by realizing the benefits for all of responsible and collaborative action, will humanity ensure its future food security.


No shortage of action points for the future

August 5, 2011

The path to feeding the growing world population and to preserve agriculture’s ability to provide adequate volumes is paved with many challenges. Leaders will have to show how to resolve the many issues food production is facing or will face in the coming decades, and how to create a viable future.

As the population increases, the need for energy increases, too. Oil reserves are finite and new oilfields are becoming more and more difficult and expensive to exploit. It is only logical that oil will become more and more expensive in the future. This will call for more fuel-efficient equipment and vehicles. At the same time, oil that is more expensive also means that the relative price for alternative energy sources will become more competitive. In March 2011, an analyst from the bank HSBC published a report announcing that oil will no longer be available in 2060. In its future projections, the International Energy Agency (IEA) describes our energy sources as more diverse than they are now. They also mention that oil will not be the main source of energy anymore. Natural gas will take over. We should expect some significant changes in the way agriculture uses energy, the type of machinery that farmers will use and how future logistics will be organized.

The change of economics in energy will affect fertilizers, too. Especially, the production of nitrogen fertilizers uses large amounts of fossil fuel, essentially natural gas. On average, half of the nitrogen spread on fields is lost because of leaching. We can expect the focus to be on efficiency and on strategies of applications that are more efficient. This is already happening with precision agriculture techniques. Next to this, the focus of the fertilizer industry should be on developing nitrogen fertilizers that are less sensitive to leaching. Imagine a nitrogen fertilizer that may cost twice the price of the current ones, but for which there is no loss. Farmers would use only half the quantities that they currently do. The money to spend would be the same, but the use of fossil fuel to produce the fertilizer would be much less. There would be an environmental advantage to do so.

In the area of environmental issues, climate change needs to be addressed more effectively than it has been so far. Regardless whether people believe in it, or believe it is caused by human activity or it is only a natural phenomenon, the number of severe climatic events is reason to consider counter measures, just in case. The debate should not be about whether climate change is real or not. It is not about who may be responsible for it. True leaders take care of their people, and in this case, they should at least come with scenarios, contingency plans and emergency preparedness plans. That is the least we must expect from those in position of power and responsibility. In this case, the saying “the failure of the preparation is the preparation of failure” takes all its meaning.

Linked to climate to some extent, and a precious resource in all cases, water needs to be managed properly and carefully. For instance, all major river systems in Asia depend on Himalayan glaciers. If the glaciers were to disappear, which is a possibility, the source of water that sustains 2.5 billion people would be depleted, even if water used for agriculture also comes from other sources, the monsoon especially. The consequences would be catastrophic. Further, as agriculture uses 70% of all fresh water resources, growing food production will require more efficient water usage techniques. The focus must be on efficiency and on reduction of waste of water resources. Such objectives will require substantial financial resources and solid planning.

In the area of waste, food losses must be reduced as much and as diligently as possible. The moral issue of food being thrown away by the wealthy is obvious. The wealthy are not just in developed countries. In emerging countries, similar behavior is appearing. It is interesting to know that the Indian government is considering fines for those who discard edible food. It is even more interesting to notice that in Western countries where the percentage of food thrown away is the highest, governments are not investigating this possibility of fines. The other food waste scandal is the post-harvest losses. The food is produced. It is edible, but because of a lack of proper infrastructure, it is left to rot. What a waste of seeds, land, water, money, labor and all other necessary inputs. I have mentioned this problem in previous articles, as I have shown that the financial return to fix the problem is actually high and quick. There is plenty of work in this area for leaders. The first step to succeed in this is to recognize that no organization can fix this on its own. There is a need for collaborative leadership, because all the stakeholders in the food chains must participate, and they all will reap the financial benefits of fixing post-harvest problems.

Food production is not a hobby. It is of the utmost importance for the stability and the prosperity of societies. Well-fed and happy people do not riot. The need to improve infrastructure and logistics is obvious. Food must be brought to those who need it. A proper transportation infrastructure is necessary. The choice of transportation methods has consequences for the cost of food supply, and for the environmental cost as well. Road transport is relatively expensive and produces the highest amounts of greenhouse gases. Rail transport is already much better, and barge transport even better. The distance between production areas and consumption centers also needs to be looked at, together with the efficiency of logistics. Optimization will be the name of the game. Completing the cycle of food and organic matter will become even more important than today, as the world population is expected to concentrate further into urban centers. As humans are at the end of the food chain, many nutrients and organic matter accumulates where the human settlements are. These nutrients, as well as the organic matter, will have to be brought back to the land. This is essential if we want to maintain soil fertility. As phosphates mines are gradually running out, sewage and manure are going to play a pivotal role in soil fertility management. The concentration of the population in urban centers, together with the change of economics in energy, will require a very different look on economic zoning, and in urban planning in particular.

Special attention will be necessary to inform and educate consumers to eat better. Overconsumption, and the health problems that result from it, is already becoming a time bomb. Overweight is not only a Western problem. The same trend is appearing in many developing countries as well. Overweight is on the rise all over the world. The number of obesity cases in China, and even in some African countries, is increasing. The cost of fixing health is high, and it will be even more so in countries with an aging population, as age-related ailment add up to eating-habits-related problems. Healthy societies are more productive and cost less to maintain.

As the economy grows, and wealth increases in more and more countries, diets are changing. Consumers shift from carbohydrate-based meals to a higher consumption of animal products, as well as fruit and vegetables. The “meat question” will not go away. Since it takes more than one kg of feed to produce one kg of animal product, increasing animal production puts even more pressure to produce the adequate volumes of food. The question that will arise is how many animals can we -or should we- keep to produce animal protein, and what species should they be? Levels of production, and of demand, will result in price trends that will regulate production volumes to some extent, but government intervention to set production and consumption quotas cannot be excluded, either.

Similar questions will arise about biofuel production, especially the type of biofuel produced. There will be debates about moral, economic, social and practical aspects of biofuels. The consequences on the price of food and animal feed are not negligible. The function of subsidies in the production of biofuels adds to this debate and there are strongly divergent points of view between the various stakeholders.

One of the most important issues in the discussion about feeding the increasing world population is food affordability. Producing more, and producing enough, is not enough. The food produced must be affordable, too. When this is not the case, people cannot eat, and this is the main reason for malnourishment. To make food affordable, food production must be efficient. The costs of production need to be kept under control to avoid either food inflation and/or farmers bankruptcies.

In agriculture, just like in any other human activity, money always talks. Money is a powerful incentive, and when used properly, it is a powerful driver for improvement. Strategic use of financial incentive is part of policies. To meet the future challenges, leaders will have to develop the right kind of incentives. The focus will have to be on efficiency, on long-term continuity of production potential as well as on short-term performance. The financial incentives can be subsidies. Although the debates tend to make believe subsidies are all bad, there are good and useful subsidies. Another area of incentives to think about is the type of bonuses paid to executives. Just imagine what would happen if, instead of just profit, the carbon footprint per $1000 of sales was factored in the bonus? Gas emissions would be high on the priority of management teams.

If the way executives are paid matters, the type of financial structure of businesses could influence the way they operate, too. Now, it may sound surprising, but in the future, expect the question whether food companies should be listed on the stock exchange to arise. Short-term focus on the share price can be quite distracting from the long-term necessities. If we find that elected officials are short-term-oriented because elections take place every four or five years, how short-term quarterly financial results to the stock markets influence CEOs? The pressure by investors on companies’ Executive Boards to deliver value is high. They expect some results within a relatively short period, while what happens to the companies, their employees and long-term effect on the environment after they took their profits is irrelevant to them. This brings the question of the functioning of financial markets as a whole. What derivatives are acceptable? Who should be allowed to have access to which ones? What quantity could they be allowed to buy and sell? Many questions will arise more and more loudly every time food prices will jump up again the future, and as social unrest may result from it.

To prepare the future, it is important to prepare the generations of the future. Education will play a critical role in the success of societies. Only by helping future generations to have access to knowledge, to develop skills and to train to fill in the jobs of the future, will countries develop a strong middle class. Thanks to education, people can get better paying jobs. This allows them to buy adequate quantities of food for themselves and their families. Education is an investment to fight poverty and hunger. In the agricultural sector, it will be important to attract more young people to work in the food and agricultural sector. In many countries, farmers are getting old and replacement is scarce.

These are just a few of the issues that the current and future leadership will have to solve, if we want the feed and preserve the world. There will be many discussions about which systems are the best suited to ensure prosperity and stability. The respective roles of governments, businesses, non-profits and of the people will certainly be reviewed with scrutiny.

During the writing of Future Harvests, it became obvious to me how crucial the role of leadership is for our chances of success. In the course of a number of assignments with my company, this observation has grown even stronger.

For these reasons, I have decided to start writing another book focused on the role of leadership to develop long-term development of food production and food supply. It will be a reflection about the tough calls that leaders need to make. The final objective is to ensure viable food production systems and proper infrastructure, while ensuring the continuity of food supply in the long-term, through a successful interaction between all stakeholders.

Tentatively, the publication date is fixed for the summer or the fall of 2012.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Believing in the future

June 24, 2011

The recent economic crisis gives an example of how the perception of the future can change, and how the level of economic security affects our behavior.

While before the economic crisis, many people preferred to spend rather than save, since the economic perspectives have changed, so has the behavior. A similar behavior, but at business level, is the reluctance of companies to hire when the economic outlook is uncertain.

Readiness to act to build the future depends greatly on people’s perception of what that very word means to them. Some have such comfortable lives that they actually do not think much about the future. They consider it a given, and take the current situation for granted. They have not much incentive to change. They might be in for a surprise someday, though. On the opposite end of this, there are those who have no expectation of the future. For them, life is so insecure because of famine, disease or violence, that all that matters is the here and now. Thinking ahead is almost impossible, and all that matters is the immediate. The future is irrelevant.

For those who live between these two extremes, the goal is to see life conditions improve. However, how this can be achieved, and whether it seems realistic depends greatly on the resources available.

Although many areas of the food and agriculture value chain need to be improved and can be improved, it is important to notice how much resistance many food security plans are facing during their execution. Obviously not all participants agree on the objectives and on the steps to follow. This is especially important in developing countries where  many problems affect food security, such as limited financial resources, limited water availability, post-harvest losses or difficult access to market to name a few.

To get people to believe in “the” future, the first step is to connect to their sense of how far the future is. When you are 20 in a country where the life expectancy is 80, thinking about the future is quite normal, and the life expectancy gives an indication of the period that the privileged ones have in mind. In regions where life prospects are dire, thinking even a couple of years ahead will probably be irrelevant to many. When presenting a vision of the future, one must consider this way of thinking. The acceptance and the commitment to implement actions will depend largely on whether the timeline is perceived as reasonable. People are more inclined to participate when they think that they will be able to see the results in their lifetime.

On the way to the future, actions are always more convincing than words. Positive results need to appear soon. Otherwise, the momentum in favor of the promised changes might slow down. This is why a good strategy is to start with the simplest and the easiest projects. They will deliver results faster. As success breeds success, they will generate more enthusiasm for the more difficult projects that require more time and more resources to be completed. This approach is a good way to build credibility and defuse criticism. Another advantage is that the participants will become more aware of what they can achieve as they achieve success. This gain in confidence will boost the morale to pursue with the further improvements. Often, this creates very healthy bottom-up dynamics that generates newer ideas on how to achieve the goals better and faster, or even exceed them.

Clearly, increasing confidence requires actions at many different levels. In the case of food security, the scope needs to go beyond agricultural development alone. Producing more food will not feed people if the hungry ones still do not make enough money to pay for food. Agriculture is only one of the economic sectors, and it will not produce miracles if it is not included in a more ambitious and broader goal.

Of all activities carried out to improve food security, I find the Chinese policies rather interesting. They are a long-term oriented culture. They are very patient and persistent, as many episodes of their history demonstrate. Their development activities in Africa are comprehensive. Next to all their work to develop agricultural production, they also invest heavily in the development of small businesses. They are working to develop the local economy beyond simply food production. Possibly, they experience of the last 30 years in developing the economy in China explains their approach. They know that social stability depends on people having at least the bare necessities. In the 1990s, I remember when we, in Europe, started to realize that China’s goal was to feed its people first. Imports of agricultural commodities into China started to increase. In particular, their demand for wheat and for what Europeans considered animal by-products was strongly on the rise. They seem to have a similar approach with Africa. They understand that their food supply will be more secure if the countries where they invest are economically and socially stable. It is worth noting that China invests more money in Africa than all G8 countries together do. It would appear that, to follow through with these policies, not having elections every few years allows them to execute a long-term vision without having to sacrifice it through short-term distraction.

On the other end of the spectrum, in terms of making people lose faith in the future, I could mention Libyan land purchases in Mali. The farmers, who had been working the land for themselves, although the land did not belong to them, have received notice that they will have to leave at the end of this year. This is exactly the kind of practice that could lead a country into civil war.

Businesses and non-profits that are active to develop food production need to take into account the same aspects that increase confidence in the execution of their plans. The owners, shareholders and fund providers must take a long-term approach to succeed. In such projects, the day-to-day share price on the stock exchange is not relevant. Such projects are long-term investments that will deliver a return only after many years. Among the most important investments, I would give a special mention to health and education. Without them, people can simply not get any fulfilling occupation, and economic development will be stuck in low gear.

At my modest level, I once inherited a project to get a fish processing plant operational. This project was a taking place in one of British Columbia’s Central Coast First Nations communities, which was plagued by a staggering 80% unemployment rate. Apart from the fact that there had been no budget allocated, I faced another problem. The local Economic Development Corporation in charge of their end of the project was never carrying out what they were supposed to do. Being my old little me, I never accepted this situation as a reality, and I made sure that all parties would do what they agreed to do. Only after a couple of years did I get the explanation for their dragging their feet. Many projects had taken place in this community before, but they all failed. The locals had concluded that no project would ever succeed, and they were not adamant to invest much in the future. The initial agreement had been signed between the salmon farming company and the leaders of the community, but time was necessary to get the lower levels of the village to be convinced. At some point in time, I was told that if it had not been for my indestructible faith in the project’s success, my persistence and my sometimes quasi-obnoxious insistence, this project would have had the same fate as the other previous ones. I had to deal with many heated discussions, a small social upheaval and death threats, but I quite alive to say proudly that, 11 years after I started it, the plant still is operational today, for the benefit of the community and its residents!

Long-term vision, empathy, sharing the value, strong leadership (even some dose of benevolent dictatorship) are all critical elements to make developing nations believe in the future.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Food security in Paradise

June 20, 2011

Many Hawaiian residents express their concern about their dependence on food that comes from far away. Actually, there are more and more conferences and workshops about the topic of food security for Hawaii. With this in mind, I went to the Big Island of Hawaii for a vacation last April. I certainly would recommend to everyone to do the same if they ever have the chance.

Since Hawaii is part of the USA, food security will be guaranteed from the mainland. However, looking at the situation as if Hawaii was an independent country makes the debate about food dependence from other
regions quite interesting. The Islands of the State of Hawaii are isolated, as they lay in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away from any significant continental mass.

During my stay, I was reminded about food security and environmental issues in several occasions. On Earth Day, I came across an event that was interesting in many regards. Apart from the more militant speeches about mostly the big bad oil, and the fact that “Lady Green” touched me with a sunflower, I spent some time engaging in conversations with a number of exhibitors, from government organizations to renewable energy systems (solar makes a lot of sense in Hawaii to me). One booth where I spent more time was
the one of the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Aquaculture& Coastal Resources Center. There, I had a good conversation with PACRC’s Director Kevin Hopkins, a very knowledgeable man with extensive experience in aquaculture, not only in the USA, but also in Asian and African countries. Thanks to him, I got a better idea of the challenge to integrate a sustainable aquaculture in the Hawaiian environment. Living in Vancouver, BC, and having worked in the salmon farming industry, this is not a new topic for me. Aquaculture faces similar concerns in both places.

Click on picture to enlarge

With this in mind, I continued my vacation. At the Kaloko-Honokohau Historic Park, I found a sign showing a comparison of food security between today and 300 years ago. By then, there were 150,000 inhabitants on the Big Island of Hawaii, 100% of the food was produced on the island, 0% was imported, and they were producing 300,000-500,000 lbs. of fish in stone fishponds. Today, for a similar population, only 18% of the food is produced locally, and the Kaloko fishponds do not produce any fish at all (see picture). Of course, these numbers do not take the number of tourists to feed into account. Moreover, the current food consumption per capita is probably substantially richer in calories than 300 years ago, too. However, this history could be a good basis for more constructive discussions about aquaculture. Clearly, aquaculture was a traditional way of improving food security for ancient Hawaiians. The old fishponds were made of walls built with the volcanic rocks, and the fish was passing though a gate made of vertical bars. The small fish could enter, but as they grew bigger, they were unable to pass the gates and leave. This system made me think of a hybrid form of closed containment. In BC, where many discussions are about producing salmon on land, the Hawaiian fishponds are actually a quasi-closed containment on the seabed. It does not require all the land-based infrastructure and equipment, as is the case for land-based closed containment systems. What I saw at this park tells me that the useful could meet the historical, cultural and the modern just to help develop a responsible and productive aquaculture to increase food self-sufficiency for Hawaii. In a region where the ocean space available is as vast as this is the case around Hawaii, I am convinced that there have to be plenty of locations where aquaculture can be conducted without harming the environment, and there have to be more than enough adequate production techniques to do it right.

In the same park, there were remnants of pits in which rocks were set up in many individual planters. In these planters, called mala’ai, the ancient Hawaiians used to grow food plants. This is an ingenious system, because in that area, the fields are covered by lava. There is no soil to be used for open field crops, such as wheat, for instance. On the other hand, there would be plenty of acreage to set up such planters. This would be labor intensive, though.

At the Kaimu-Kalapana black sand beach, I read on a sign that ancient Hawaiians used to harvest seaweed and that apparently, their methods were sustainable. It is only after commercial harvesting by European settlers started that the seaweed quantities plummeted because of excessive harvest volumes. Just like for fish production, researchers from all sides should work on restoring such a seaweed production in a sustainable manner. This example, like all other examples of unsustainable human practices, simply demonstrates that we must produce or harvest what we can, instead of trying to produce or harvest always more while ignoring the signals that we are passing a breaking point.

I spent time only on the Big Island, and I did not visit the other islands. Probably, I do not have the whole picture, especially considering that more than two-thirds of Hawaii’s population lives in the State capital, Honolulu. According to the latest US population census, Hawaii’s total population is of about 1.3 million people, out of which more than 900,000 live in Honolulu. To get a more accurate picture of how much food needs to be produced to meet demand, it is necessary to add the visitors. Per year, the number of visitors is about 7.4 million people, who stay on average 9.15 days. This number expressed in average outside visitors staying in Hawaii per year is 7.4 x 9.15 / 365 = 186,000 people. To simplify, I will estimate the number of mouths to feed at 1.5 million.

For the Hawaiians concerned by the food security or, better said, the low food self-sufficiency of their state (less than 15 %!), what are the possibilities?

Just like in most of the rest of the USA, the local food movement is growing. More and more people are trying to grow some food on their balconies. Of course, this will not be enough to reverse the situation, but it will contribute. Farmers’ markets are gaining in popularity, and I have to say rightly so. Unlike what I am used to in my neighborhood, the food sold on the farmers markets that I came across on the Big Island offer many affordable and actually cheaper foods than in the large supermarket chains. At the farmers markets, I could notice that many more generic vegetables such as onions, tomatoes or bell peppers were shipped from the West Coast of continental US, mainly Washington State. On the other hand, I found quite interesting to notice that the big retailers are also trying to source local products. I only visited a Wal-Mart and a Safeway. From what I have been told, the selling of local products at their outlets is a recent change.

This is interesting, because these retailers will try to be able to source larger volumes, and they actually maybe in a position to stimulate more local food, agriculture and aquaculture production.

The quality of the local food is quite good, although when on vacation everything tends to taste better for some reason. Although I am not much of a beef eater, I was tempted by a “Hawaiian” local grass-fed beef burger recipe, and I have to admit this was the best burger that I ever tasted. It was so good that we went back to the same pub the next evening and I had another burger, while my spouse had a steak. Her steak was simply stunning. And the price was actually cheaper than similar generic beef dishes here in Vancouver.

When it comes to justifying more local food production, I have seen very interesting numbers about the amount of money that Hawaiians spend on food, and therefore to producers outside of their state. According to the same studies, local production would also result in more local jobs. However, I would not develop a plan based on such numbers, not because I doubt them, but because the business must be financially viable as well. I find all the reports that I have read too general or too academic for my liking. Moreover, I am not convinced that the politicians are committed to take the necessary steps to increase food self-sufficiency in Hawaii. They give it quite some lip service, but I miss signs that this topic might be on top of their priority list.

Personally, my first step to see what needs to be done would be to look at how many farms are required to produce what is needed: how many eggs, how much milk, how many chickens, how many pigs, how much fish, how many fruit and vegetables, how much wheat, rice, potatoes, and so on. Once I would have identified the size of the local market for all the food items, I would calculate how many farms are needed to meet that demand. After all, there cannot be food security if there are not enough farms.

For instance, every 10 kg consumption per capita of chicken meat means a production volume of 1.5 million x 10 kg = 15 million kg of chicken. As a chicken weighs about 2 kg, this would correspond to 7.5 million chickens per year. With an average of six flocks per year in a chicken house, this would mean a production capacity of 1.250 million places. This represents about 60 chicken houses. Depending on the size of the farm, my guess would be that 10 to 20 farms are necessary to cover a consumption of 10 kg per capita per year. If consumption were 40 kg per capita per year, Hawaii would potentially need up to 80 farms. Do they have the farmers and the locations for all of them? That is what I would like to determine.

Similarly, in the case of marine fish farms, every 10 kg consumption per capita per year of fish requires 15 million kg of fish, or close to 30,000 tons of live fish. If we were to imagine the containment system from Hawaii Oceanic Technology that I mentioned in “High-tech fish farm”, it almost could be produced on one farm. Of course, it would not be wise to put all the eggs in the same basket. If production volumes were comparable to a salmon farm, the 30,000 tons could require 10 farming sites. This is just theoretic in order to give an idea of the production space needed. There would be different species produced, but the calculation method remains the same for each of them.

With such an approach, for all the relevant food products, it can appear very quickly if being self-sufficient for the various food items is realistic or desirable.

The final exercise, which is also the most important, is the business plan per farm, to assess the viability of the individual projects. Even local, food production must be competitive. The example of Hawaiian sugar cane shows that this is not necessarily the case.

Next to farmers, food producers and market outlets, the Hawaiian government can stimulate more local production if it wishes to do so by setting the appropriate policies. Developing such a thorough review of how to reduce food dependency on outside sources in a market-driven and viable manner for the long term would be quite enjoyable to carry out in paradise!

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The fertilizer of the future?

March 12, 2011

Among the many challenges that the agriculture of the future faces, soil fertility ranks high on the list of priorities.

Originally, most farms were mixed. They had land to grow crops and they had animals for milk, eggs and meat. Markets were mostly local, and food was consumed in the villages and towns near the farms. Food waste was fed to farm animals; the manure produced was mixed with straw and returned to the fields where the crops had been grown. Over time, farming has evolved. Agriculture has become much larger scale, global and specialized. This evolution has been driven by the use of oil, mechanization, and by the development of mineral fertilizers.

That model, which has been greatly based on cheap energy and resources, needs to be looked at critically as the economic environment changes. Energy is no longer cheap and, like oil, the resources used for the production of fertilizers have been depleted. New solutions are required to be able to produce optimally.

The production of nitrogen fertilizers requires a lot of energy. According to estimates, it uses 5% of the world’s natural gas production, and half the fossil fuels used in agriculture. Because nitrogen is quite mobile when dissolved, as this happens when it rains, a large amount of these high-energy-consumption compounds are lost. An estimated 50% of the nitrogen spread on crops leaches through the soil. It ends up in the water system. The reserves of phosphates, another important mineral fertilizer, are facing depletion. This might happen in 20 years from now. With the development of precision agriculture, the waste of minerals can be reduced. With the development of satellite imaging indicating the mineral status of a field, and the local variations within the field, it has become possible for farmers to bring just the right amount of the right mineral at the right time and at the right place. This follows somehow a similar thinking as fertilizing plants in hydroponics operations where crops are produced without soil and fed a mineral solution drop by drop.

A consequence of the specialization between crop farms and intensive animal farms is the rupture of the organic matter cycle. Large monoculture farms have suffered soil erosion because of a lack of organic matter, among other reasons. In soils, the presence of organic matter increases moisture retention, increases minerals retention and enhances the multiplication of microorganisms. All these characteristics disappear when the quantity of organic matter decreases. A solution to alleviate this problem is the practice of no-tillage together with leaving vegetal debris turn into organic matter to enrich the soil. This has helped restore the content of organic matter in the soil, although one can wonder if this practice has only positive effects. Tillage helps eliminating weeds. It also helps break the superficial structure of the soil, which can develop a hard crust, depending on the precipitations and the clay content of the soil. Possibly, in the future the use of superficial tillage could become the norm. Deep tillage, as it has been carried out when agriculture became mechanized, has the disadvantage of diluting the thin layer of organic matter in a much deepen layer of soil. This dilution seriously reduces the moisture and mineral retention capacity of soils, thus contributing to erosion as well, even in organic matter-rich soils.

The removal of farm animals from specialized crop farms requires the systematic use of mineral fertilizers because farmers do not have access to manure and the minerals it contains, even though most of these minerals originate from the crops farms.

At the other end of this interrupted cycle of manure, intensive animal farms do not suffer a lack of organic matter and minerals. They have the opposite problem. They have too much of it, and not enough acreage, if any, where to spread it. This leads to accumulation of manure and other related problems, such as stench, high concentrations of minerals in the soil and eventually in the waterways and drinking water reserves.

Since nothing is lost, what has happened to the minerals from fields and from fertilizers? They have been transferred to other places via the global trade of agricultural commodities. Many of these commodities are used to produce animal feed. Phosphate in European pig manure may come from Asian manioc farms. Therefore, the best way to find out where the minerals are is to look at where intensive animal husbandry farms are. As mentioned earlier, nitrogen is washed away into the water system because of its mobility. Unlike nitrogen, phosphates are not mobile in the soil. They will accumulate, which also leads to a loss of soil fertility, eventually. The other area of concentrations of these minerals is in city sewers, and in the soil of slums. Since the purpose of agriculture is to produce food, and since consumers are increasingly concentrated in urban centers, the exportation of minerals is actually gathering momentum out of rural areas.

In the future, we are going to see a new look at fertilization. The economics of agriculture will change. This is inevitable, because the cost of inputs will increase. This will be a direct consequence of the increase of the price of oil, and of the depletion of phosphates reserves. This change of economics will drive renewed interest for manure, and for sewage. These sources will become attractive and competitive, as they contain large amounts of minerals directly available. Because of their nature, they have a high content of organic matter. One of the most efficient ways to remove nitrates from water is to grow plants with it. One of the main sources of phosphates will be manure.

There is little indication that the human population will return to the land, but animal farms can be moved rather easily. After all, they already are segregated from vegetal production. The increased need for manure will call for a relocation of animal productions. In an expensive-energy economy, having the “fertilizer factory” on site, or at least much closer than today makes a lot of sense. This is especially true because manure contains a lot of water, although there are substantial differences between productions. Transporting water is expensive. Mixing crops and animal productions again on farms will also allow the inclusion of vegetal debris together again with the feces and urine, producing a higher dry matter content, with limited transport costs between the field and the “fertilizer factory”. Regardless of the size of the farms, I expect to see a relocation of animal production units on agricultural land. They will be spread more evenly in the landscape than today. This will decrease the density of farm animals in currently high-density areas to levels that will allow a better control of environmental issues, as well as reduce partly the risks of transmission of animal diseases. Animal production units will reappear in areas where they had disappeared because of the fertilizer that they will provide.

This evolution will also come together with a new approach of manure storage and treatment. Open-air lagoons like those that we know today will simply cease to exist. The changed economics of energy will make the capture of gases financially attractive. Manure storage units will be covered; the biogas will be collected to be used for energy purpose, for the farm and the local communities. The solid and the liquid fractions of the manure will be processed and transformed to provide organic matter and the fertilizing minerals necessary for crop production. The location of the “manure units” will be influenced by the type of animal production, and therefore by the physical quality of the manure. There will be a logistic optimization of manure collection to the crop farms. It will be based on efficiency and optimization of resources. Therefore, the new farm structure will be efficient, as much financially as environmentally. Similarly, open-ocean fish farms that currently do not collect the feces will see the financial value in recuperating the fish waste and sell it. In cities, there will be an increasing interest to recycle the sewage. The purpose will be to recuperate the organic matter and the minerals it contains. A similar approach for human waste will apply as for animal production units as I described above. This will also be integrated in the future approach of urban farming, as it will provide the necessary nutrients for an efficient urban food production. It will be a source of revenue to the cities.

In rural areas and in urban areas, organic matter and fertilizing minerals will become strategic activities. They will serve the purpose of feeding sustainably the world population.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


An Interview with The Food Futurist: 100 Answers about the Future of Agriculture

February 14, 2011

Following up on the recent publication of the report “100 Questions of Importance for the Future of Global Agriculture” by a group of experts from all over the world under the lead of Jules Pretty of the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, I wanted to react candidly and spontaneously on every of these 100 questions.

Since giving extensive answers would represent several months, if not years, of work for a single individual, I chose for the interview format. I gave myself just a couple of minutes to say what came to my mind.

The result is this document: 100 Answers – An interview with the Food Futurist

I hope it will be as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to write. I hope that it will trigger reactions, as this is more a first attempt to initiate a forum discussion.

The questions were quite interesting. However, I missed a few elements tat I believe to be quite important in the challenge of feeding a population of nine billion by 2050. The initial report did not raise enough questions about the issue of water. Water is essential to agriculture, and the challenge of accessing enough water is even more urgent and more critical than improving food availability. Similarly, the initial report did not reflect much on urban farming. Estimates of today’s urban food production are of 15-20% of the total world food production. Considering that about 50% of the population lives in cities, this means that 30-40% of all the food consumed in cities is produced in urban centers. This is far from negligible. As the urban population is expected to double by 2050, urban farming will be an essential part of our food supply. I had also expected more attention to aquaculture, which is the fastest growing food production.

The initial report focuses more on production aspects and systems than it does focus on the human factor. Population increase, distribution and especially the quality of leadership will be crucial for the way food security strategies can be set up. As I mention in one of my answers, our future will be as bright as our leaders.

Writing this document, and reacting to questions asked by highly qualified experts, was a good way of assessing the book “Future Harvests” that I published in August 2010. I was quite happy to see that the book addresses all the concerns of the thinkers and policymakers.

I wish you happy reading.