My Wish List 2017

January 5, 2017

Another year just started. It is always a good time to reflect a bit. As I have focused my activities for quite a few years on how the future of food and agriculture can be shaped, I regularly come across a number of the same little flaws that, in my opinion, delay the progress we can make towards a prosperous future.

Although the expression “keep it simple” is well-known, it seems that we have a hard time doing exactly that. I am amazed by the number of situations in my work in which I meet incredibly complicated set-ups. It is almost as if we have an almost masochistic tendency to make our lives more difficult than they need to be. Let me be clear, food production is a very complex system, but why make it even more complicated than it is? Too often, the problem is that food producers carry to much old baggage within their systems. Problems happen and innovations bring solutions. Unfortunately, it often results in adding layer after layer of old baggage. Keep it simple! Once in a while, just imagine how you would set up your production if you were starting with no past history and were setting processes and systems anew with all the latest technology, knowledge and experience. Then de-clutter! It makes life a lot easier.

Common sense is one of the things I would like to see more often. I remember a customer of mine who always enjoyed to say “With Christophe, if it makes sense he will deliver it; if does not make sense, he will say no” I know I have sometime frustrated some of my customers but I always took the time to explain how persisting in error would only result in bigger problems later and they actually always praised my no non-sense style. Remember that food production is not an intellectual exercise but a practical one. A customer will not reward you for your being intellectually stimulated, but for your reliability, consistency and honesty.

For the New Year, I also wish for more critical thinking. In these times of information oversupply and even fake news, it is quite easy to be misled. Sometimes it is accidental, sometimes it is intentional. Nonetheless, it always pays off to never assume and to double check. I pay special attention to numbers. Simple calculations help verify whether claims are true or not. I am amazed by how often I see numbers presented to the public that do not add up. Some numbers look spectacular and get attention, but that is no reason not to do the math again, just to make sure.

Another wish of mine is to see more listening and empathy, and less shouting and fighting in the debate about food. Too many arguments about this topic are a bit too Pavlovian for my liking. People are not rational, but they are always logical with themselves. It pays off to find out the logic and to have candid conversations. More than fighting about who is right and who is wrong, I prefer to see a focus on improving food production in a collaborative manner. Of course, it is easier said than done but he pays off because in the end, regardless of who is wrong or right, the customer is always right. The key for such a successful exercise is to use both our brain hemispheres and help our interlocutors do the same. How we will improve food and agriculture is really a balancing act between the emotional and the rational.

Another item on my list is humility. Every day, Nature and chance bring new challenges and sometimes opportunities. It is essential to stay on our toes. It does not take much for problems to happen and it is necessary to never slip into complacency. In particular, always beware of good times. It is always tempting to see successes be the result of one’s qualities and systems and setbacks as being caused by outside factors. It is tempting but it is rarely that simple. Adversity is the true test. An area of excessive ambition that humours me is when it comes to feed the world. I gently smile at statements such as “Insects will feed the world”, “Aquaculture will feed the world”, “So and so country or continent will feed the world”, etc… I smile because it sounds like we could feed the 10 billions of 2050 several times over. I say humour because it is more about excessive enthusiasm than a lack of humility. We will feed 10 billions –and I really believe that- through the combination of many foods and many production systems all over the world. There is no magic bullet. It will take dedication, work, innovation, market orientation and visionary leadership. It is a never-ending exercise.

Copyright 2017 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Changing economics to overcome future challenges

October 21, 2016

First, a personal story

A year ago, I moved away from Vancouver to the Okanagan Valley Region some 300 miles east from Vancouver. There, I bought a property with a decent yard where I will have a garden and with a small vineyard. In some way, it is an illustration of what is necessary to foster sustainable practices. The parallel is obvious with some of the global challenges the world is facing and will continue to face in the future. For eight months of the year, the area looks and feels quite similar to the Mediterranean. Precipitations are not abundant with an annual quantity of only 337 mm. Clearly, water is scarce and needs to be preserved, even though an extensive system of lakes fed by mountain snow ensures an adequate supply of water. The region is quite agricultural with many orchards and vineyards, all thanks to irrigation. There are also many lawns in the area and the estimate is that about 25% of the water consumed in the region is just to keep the lawns green.

My plan is to install rain barrels to collect the water from rain and snow and use it for the yard. This is where the economics do not go in parallel with all the talk from politicians about sustainability. Around the house I would need five rain barrels. The lowest and best retail price I can find is of about $80 for a 200 liter barrel. To set up my water collection system, it will cost me $400 to provide me with a 1 cubic meter storage capacity. In comparison, the price for a cubic meter that the municipality charges for water is $0.30 per cubic meter. In the most ideal situation, that is if I were able to collect all the rain and snow through my five barrels, I would at most collect about 30 cubic meters per year. In money, it comes down to a saving of roughly $10 per year. To break even, I’d better hope that the barrels will last 40 years, which they might, but considering my current age, there is a fair chance I may have moved to a much smaller underground dwelling by then. Of course, my example is about quite a small investment and if the return is lousy, it will not change my life. At least, the barrels will help me save water.

The point of my story is that the comparison between cost and benefit would deter most people to consider buying rain barrels. It just does not make financial sense, if money is what matters. I always say that money talks and what it says here is to forget about being sustainable. One of my neighbours also considered installing solar panels on the roof of their house. After comparing the price of the panels plus installation and maintenance with the electricity savings, they discovered that it would last twice the life of the panels to break even. In terms of money, solar panels are a different kettle of fish than my five rain barrels. Recently I saw the price of a propane generator that produces 3650 watts for Canadian $350 while a solar panel that produces 100 watts is sold for Canadian $250. I can understand people decide to not pursue the solar option.

The economics of water and energy savings that I just described can be extrapolated to the much larger picture. All through the food and agriculture value chains, many changes for more sustainable systems face the same kind of dilemma. What makes sense from an environmental point of view often does not make sense financially in the current economic environment. Demanding more sustainable production system is quite legitimate and sensible, but the conditions must also be there to make it happen. The numbers have to add up for farmers and businesses to make the switch. As usual, money is of the essence and it can come from different sides.

First, the purchase price and the cost of operation of alternatives have to come down and be competitive. Either suppliers are able to drop their prices or offer more efficient systems. Governments also can help through subsidies to ease the pain. Subsidies, being public money for the general interest, it is only fair that we all must pay if what we want is a sustainable. Subsidies must of course be set up properly and be effective

Second, the customers, which in a fair value chain would be eventually the consumers, have to pay for extra cost of the better production systems, simply because our consumption societies with their sense of entitlement have to understand that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Such a realization also means that producers also understand that mass production that only deplete resources do not fit in the long-term picture and that value will have to replace volume.

Searching for a new economic model

With the many challenges arising from a growing world population, it becomes more and more obvious that the economic model of the past six decades needs some refreshing. As such providing consumer goods at an affordable price for the masses is not a bad idea. Helping people to have a more comfortable and pleasant life is certainly welcome by most of us. The problem is that the so-called consumption society is not so much aboutpillars-of-economy consumption as it is about people buying and giving their money to someone else. In the current system, consumption is optional. Research has shown that consumers use 75 to 80% of the goods they buy no more than once.  What really matters is the act of purchasing the goods. It is good for growth and the GDP, currently the leading metrics for the state of the economy. The problem is that mass production has gradually shifted from affordability to cheapness and from value to price. It has focused mostly on volume and has not taken into account that consumers would have to get rid of what they bought after usage. Negative externalities have been kept external indeed. Short-term financial results have had the preference and long-term impact has been ignored. The system is hitting a wall and issues of greenhouse gases emissions and waste of resources are now becoming urgent matters to address. All industries will be affected one way or the other. Food and agriculture will be no exception.

The big question is how to change the system without having it implode. That is not an easy one to answer but sooner or later it will have to change. Vision and leadership are crucial to manage the transition. I wish I had seen more of it. So far, I see and hear more about pro this and anti that. It is highly insufficient and produces more noise than results.

In my opinion, the problem is not so much about growth as it is about what growth means. Over the past decades, growth has been mostly about volume numbers. It has been a quantitative growth. I believe that the best transition towards the next model is to focus on what I call qualitative growth. It is not so much about volume as it is about adding value to the buyer. For consumers and countries, qualitative growth would be to quantitative growth what EVA (economic value added) is to turn-over for a business. It is about prosperity.

For food producers, such a shift will lead to a different approach. The most valuable areas of value added for consumers and society lies probably in providing good and enjoyable nutrition, yet affordable, through advice and education. The industry will have to help consumers eat better and help them have healthy diets. It will go beyond just supply food. Consumers will also have to rediscover what proper nutrition is. Initiatives such as the Global Access to Nutrition Index can play a pivotal role in helping food producers make the transition towards quantitative growth. The food sector has also an important role to play in keeping our environment livable. The trend towards transparency is an important part of the evolution on both health and environment fronts.

Of course, such a change of economic model means that the economics must change, too. It is also essential that those who do the right thing must be rewarded. A new reward system must be introduced in the set of rules and regulations so that producers get the proper incentive to make the shift because adding the type of value that I mention to consumers also requires a different price tag in the store, or at least a different breakdown of costs and benefits along the entire chain from producers to consumers. How to distribute fairly the cost tag of the change is still open for debate. The reward system has to apply for the business activity by allowing margins to be comparatively competitive in the new situation. Consumers doing the right thing must also be rewarded. The reward system should also apply at the remuneration level. In particular, the share of qualitative improvements in companies’ bonus systems will have to increase at the expense of qualitative growth targets.  The adjustments needed in the food and agriculture sectors will not end in this sector. They will have to include other area of government. In particular the health sector will have to be involved, as the consequences of the quality of nutrition on health are obvious for individuals and society both at the personal as at the financial level.

I also believe that such a shift in economic model will mean that business partners within the value chain will have to challenge each other to carry out the transition and it will become a critical point in choosing with whom to do business in the future.

Copyright 2016 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

 

 


Precision is the future of agriculture and our future

August 22, 2014

By the end of last July, the InfoAg conference took place in St Louis, Missouri. Matt Waits, CEO of SST Software, a conference sponsor, introduced me before my presentation titled “Beyond the Farm of the Future”. In his brief introduction he told the audience that he strongly believes that precision agriculture is the future of agriculture. His statement resonated quite positively with me. I see only advantages in making agriculture more precise. Just for starters, per definition the opposite of precision agriculture would be an imprecise agriculture. That is already reason enough to become a supporter of precision agriculture.

The first reason why a precise agriculture is the way to go is the necessity to manage finite resources more efficiently. Precision agriculture means sustainability. The philosophy behind precision agriculture is to use only what is needed where it is needed when it is needed in the mount that is needed by crops. In practical terms, this means that every molecule of input in agricultural production has to be transformed into food and not end up in the environment. Precision agriculture reduces waste. When I was writing my first book on the future of agriculture in 2009, the estimated worldwide amount of nitrogen loss due to leaching was of about 50%. The example of nitrogen shows what reducing waste can mean. In an ideal world where nitrogen would be used much more efficiently, it could be possible theoretically to use only half of the nitrogen we have been using, or in other terms, the current amount of nitrogen used should help produce twice as much food. Considering that the FAO claims that between 2010 and 2050, agricultural output should increase by 70%, it means that in an ideally precise agriculture, the world could meet the demand for agricultural products by using 15% less nitrogen than it did in 2010, theoretically. Also considering that the production of chemical nitrogen fertilizers represents about half the use of fossil fuels in agriculture, the positive impact on the carbon footprint of agriculture would be substantial. Similar calculations can be done on other inputs, such as water and crop protection products. By bringing just the right quantities at the right time at the right place, the consumption of water and chemicals will be reduced substantially, too. As recent droughts have reminded us how precious water is, precision watering is also becoming more important than ever. Water is precious, but in many cases, its price has not emphasized this enough. The main reason for wasting is always the result of economics. If inputs appear cheap, the low price is always implicitly perceived as a sign of abundance and of negligible value. Such a perception goes against the reflex of sustainability. Our elders did not waste anything (candle bits, soap bits, socks, you name it). They were frugal simply because the cost of replacement was too high, and at least was higher than the cost of repairing and saving. When a government subsidies inputs to make them cheaper, the users end up wasting much more. It is sad because such subsidies always have a well-meant starting point. The idea is to make it affordable to poor farmers so that they can increase their production. The result is when the less poor ones get the subsidies, they do not see the new price as affordable anymore but they see it as cheap instead. Managing for sustainability really is about managing the fine line between affordable and cheap. That is not easy, because the difference is not just about the price of inputs; it is also about the financial situation of the subsidy’s recipient. Subsidies should not be aimed at just price, but at more at efficient use of inputs and should be based on achievable yields. If governments wish to spend money, it should not result in farmers overusing and wasting water and production inputs. That is counterproductive. These governments, which often are in developing countries where resources are scarce and access to inputs difficult, had better spend money on helping farmers being more precise. The math is simple: efficiency is the ratio output/input, and the difference between what comes out and what got in the field in the first place is what is wasted – or lost. A precise agriculture reduces the waste, and therefore increases the ratio. This means that precision is the way toward increased efficiency.

As I mention developing countries, here is another important point to bring up: precision agriculture is not just for large farms but can be implemented everywhere. The development of precision agriculture goes parallel with the development of new technologies. At first, it would seem that such technologies are too expensive for small and/or poor farmers. If the point of view were to be that every farmer should own all the precision equipment, the answer is: yes, it is only for the large and wealthy, but looking at precision agriculture from that angle would be rather dull. Satellite imagery, drones, sensors, robots and other big data software can also be shared. In the era of the cloud and social media which are all about sharing, so can new technologies. Just like ownership of agricultural machine has also been shared through equipment coops for instance, so can these new devices. After all, it does not matter so much who owns them, as long as those who need it to do a good job can have access to them. Mobile communications have changed how farmers everywhere can get the latest information on markets. Smart phones have become affordable to the point that there are about as many mobile phones as people on the planet. Similarly to mobile communications, precision agriculture will also become more affordable in the future. If precision agriculture tools can monitor, map and help make fast decisions on farms of tens – and even hundreds – of thousand acres, they just as well can look after an area of the same size even if it is divided between many farms. It is just a matter of management and coordination between farmers. In poorer regions, it could very well be that the authorities be the owner of the equipment and proactively communicate with farmers through extension services to help the groups of farms manage the region efficiently for higher output. Such tools will help developing agriculture, in a sustainable manner. The benefits will be many. It will help increase farmers revenues, create economic activity, enhance social stability and help reduce the waste of water, energy and all other inputs. It will pay off in the long run and actually probably in the not-so-long run at all. Agricultural development requires financing and investments. Precision agriculture is in my opinion a very good place to put money at work.

In the future, the key for these technologies will be to also help see the bigger picture, not just the field and not just production data. The potential for applications and interfaces seems almost endless. By connecting all the devices and allowing sharing information of all events taking place on farms, these technologies are going to help reconcile the interests of all stakeholders much more effectively than it has been the case in the past. By monitoring production parameters as well as environmental parameters, proactive action will help anticipate instead of reacting. Actions will be targeted timely. One of the difficulties to manage sustainability is one of timelines. It is possible to monitor financial performance on a second to second basis, even faster actually, in the case of financial markets where algorithms can execute millions of transactions in less than a second. Environmental impact does not manifest immediately. It takes decades to notice the impact of a particular type of activity. With this time discrepancy between financial performance and environmental performance, it is only logical that money has trumped environment, even though there is a price to pay some day. That is the dilemma of externalities: how to factor such externalities when the exact cost is unknown. The future generations of technologies to monitor and map agriculture and environment will bring solutions. Once the focus widens from the field to the level of regions, countries and the entire planet, then it is possible to envision monitoring systems for all resources, environmental impact of agriculture and production output. It is only logical to expect dynamic information systems that could look like Google Earth, but with many editions, such as, the aquifer status edition, the nutrient edition, the crop yield edition, the soil erosion/restoration edition, the pest edition, the contaminants edition, and so on and so on. With such dynamic systems, it will be possible to not only monitor but to also produce simulations and test different scenarios. It would become possible to have an idea of how long resources can last, depending on different production techniques. It could be possible to make estimates and develop policies to adapt agriculture timely and ensure that future practices will maintain sustainable production systems. With such tools, precision agriculture, it will possible to develop worldwide policies and strategies to coordinate agricultural production. It also will help make markets much more transparent, as such dynamic systems would take into account consumption demand, worldwide stocks and production updates. Such transparency will reduce risks of speculation as the system would present a continuous update on the most likely scenario. Let’s face it! The computers will eventually replace the market places or agricultural commodities.

I agree with Matt Waits, precision agriculture will be the agriculture of the future. I also believe that the technologies that agriculture will use will play a role at a much larger scale and beyond just agriculture to shape the way we deal with our planet and our societies. Precision agriculture will play a crucial role in ensuring food security and prosperity.

Copyright 2014 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Future rhymes with infrastructure

March 21, 2014

In all the talk about feeding 9 billion people by 2050, the issue of infrastructure receives too little attention. In my opinion, this is a mistake. Of course, building, repairing and maintaining roads, railways, bridges, waterways or warehouses may not appear as sexy as fantasizing about robots, drones and machines that exchange information, or fancy marketing concepts, but infrastructure is really the lifeblood of future food security. For as much as I enjoy presenting a futuristic vision of food and farming and talk about market niches of the future, I also find essential to remind my clients about the practical implications of future development for their very concrete daily activities. Infrastructure is definitely one of the important topics. Considering how much attention the topic of producing more to meet future demand has received over the past couple of years, and considering the good prices for agricultural commodities of the past few years, it is only normal that production volumes have been on the rise. It may sound obvious that logistics should grow in parallel with production volumes to be able to keep moving products. Unfortunately, when it comes to the big picture, the supply chain seems to be overlooked to some extent. One of the problems is that the agricultural world is still very much production-driven, and so is all the talk about the future of farming. As I presented in Future Harvests, there are plenty of possibilities to supply the world with more food. Although there will be challenges to overcome, the potential is there to meet the demand of 9 billion, and even for the 11 billion that the UN is forecasting for 2100. However, the key is to be able to bring the food to the consumers, and that is where action is badly needed. Post-harvest losses may be the clearest example of how important infrastructure is. Worldwide, the estimate is that about 20% of all the food that is produced is lost on the fields or between the farms and the consumers because of a deficient infrastructure. In particular, the lack of proper storage results in food that rots or gets spoilt by mold or vermin. The problem is especially serious for perishables. In particular in the case of produce, which is fragile and contains a lot of water, post-harvest losses may exceed 50% of the total production, as for instance it has been observed in India and Africa. Post-harvest losses also occur with non-perishables. In China, it has been estimated that the amount of wheat loss during transport because of a poor infrastructure amounts to the quantity that Canada exports. Since Canada is the world’s second largest exporter of wheat, this shows the magnitude of the problem. Brazil, which is one of the world’s agriculture powerhouses, also suffers from infrastructure issues. Most of the transport of agricultural commodities takes place on roads that are far from being well-paved. The result is twofold. Firstly, the poor road conditions cause the loss of significant amounts of grains between production areas and export terminals. Secondly, since road transport is the main way of transporting agricultural products, the cost of transport and the resulting carbon footprint of food supply are both higher than they could and should be if there were enough railroads and waterways to bring products to markets. A couple of years ago, I read a report about the comparison of the carbon footprint of beef production between countries and one of the surprising conclusions was that Brazil scored relatively high. Although the survey needed to be taken with a critical mind, the infrastructure situation of Brazil certainly was one of the reasons for its high footprint. The good news about Brazil is that the country recently launched an ambitious plan of $200 billion to fix its infrastructure. As its economy grows, this will be essential to secure the future. Infrastructure development is not just a matter for developing countries, though. In Canada, the shortage of rail capacity for grain transport has recently become an issue, as record crop volumes have difficulties to reach their destination. Not only is this a logistical problem, but it highlights the lack of forward thinking and of communication within the entire supply chain. Over the past few years there have been more than enough conferences in which many experts insist on the necessity to increase production, in particular though yields. The high prices of agricultural commodities of the past few years have been great incentives for farmers to do exactly that. And they certainly have delivered. Did some not pay attention? Perhaps. Unfortunately, the post-harvest links of the chain have not adjusted on time. This will be true for the US agriculture, too. American farmers are working hard on increasing yields and export possibilities are good on the long-term, but they will have to keep the ability to move enough volume to the final markets. Roads, railways and waterways need not only some revamping but also need to develop further to adjust with future volumes. In spite of all the talks about improving the American infrastructure during the deepest of the economic crisis following the financial disaster of 2008, not all that much has been done, really. Transportation infrastructure, as well as the energy grid, still needs some serious refreshment. Like anywhere else in the world, a healthy infrastructure will be the basis for a sustained economic prosperity. Beside the volume implications, a well-organized infrastructure also contributes to lower costs and improves the competitiveness of the value chains that benefit from it. In my opinion, there cannot be long-term prosperity or successful economic development without an adequate infrastructure. For the future, another area that is going to require solid planning and vision is the population boom that will take place in urban centers of Asia and Africa. Many of the mega-cities that will emerge in the coming 40 to 50 years hardly exist, yet. Nonetheless, they are coming. Urban planning that will address the challenges of these megalopolises is one thing, but organizing the supply of food, water and all other essential from production centers is another. The “unfortunate” thing about infrastructure is that it is a long-term investment. It is money that needs to be spent to get the economy flowing. The return is long-term. If done well, the positive financial return lies in economic development, more and better jobs and more people having more money to pay for goods and services as well as for taxes that can be used to ensure a good maintenance of the infrastructure. One of the issues is of course who finance infrastructure. Many stakeholders benefit from a good infrastructure. As I show in We Will Reap What We Sow, the FAO estimated the annual cost of fixing post-harvest problems in developing countries at $83 billion. Doing so provides so many upsides for all stakeholders from farms, businesses and government that the return for the entire system is actually higher than the $83 billion, and my calculation is quite conservative and cautious to say the least. There is more than enough money to fix the problem. What is $83 billion compared with the amounts spent since 2008 to bail out banks, to print money as massively as it has been done and to rescue the European countries that were in serious financial trouble? It is a drop in the ocean! Yet, fixing post-harvest losses is a painfully slow process. It is a matter of taking the right decision. How long will we accept not only to waste that food, but also all the water, the energy resources, the time and the money that have been used to produce it in the first place? Among the many projects that I have carried out, I would like to present one briefly here because it illustrates the importance of infrastructure. When I came to Canada, the previous management had signed an agreement with a First Nation community of the North Coast of British Columbia for the production of farmed salmon. When I inherited the project, I took a look at the agreement and I remember sending a memo of a page and a half that was actually a list of questions that had all to do with infrastructure. In a nutshell, how to transport fresh fish and deliver customers at least twice a week on the West Coast of the US from a remote island with no road connection, only a ferry every other week and highly unpredictable sea conditions? It was mostly unpredictable in the sense that the number of days the barge of some transport company involved in the project and run by someone who would prove later to be rather unreliable would be stuck for undetermined amount of time between that island and Vancouver where the dispatch center to our customers was. By then, nobody among those who shaped the agreement had the slightest clue about what answers to give to my questions. In the end, it all worked out fine and our customers never missed a delivery of fresh salmon. What it took was for yours truly to dive in the scrum and enjoy some Wild West type of action to get it all together, to bring materials in and send products and waste southbound using a tiny barge and connect with trucks on some unpaved wilderness road through the mountain ranges. By the way, 14 years later today and the unit is still running. That project could be a textbook case of why infrastructure is so important both to bring in stuff and take product away to consumers markets. Every time I hear or read about the need for farmers to have access to markets and of post-harvest losses in developing countries, I can totally relate to the complexity of how to set it all up. Producing without having the possibility to bring to customers is not economic development. It is economic suicide. In a business, be it a farm, a store or a manufacturing plant or any other, one rule is always true. And that is that money comes only from one end of the business: from sales. To get there, the business needs customers that they can actually serve properly in order to get paid and to retain them, because in the end, the customers are the ones who must pay for all the expenses of the business. It sounds obvious and yet it is forgotten too often. I am a strong advocate of a market-driven approach. The term market-driven already implies the value of infrastructure, as to be market-driven a proper and reliable supply chain is necessary. The other major advantage of being market-driven is that selling is easier because market-driven businesses offer what the market wants. Business is easier when all one has to do is to produce what is already sold. On the other end of the spectrum, production-driven is quite the opposite. It is the best recipe to end up painfully pushing production volumes at slashed margins and being depended on others to decide of the future of your business. For having been a market-oriented person in production-driven industries, I have seen the value of the market-driven approach. It requires a different mindset. It is about stepping out of the commodity markets rats’ race, and it is about implementing the necessary changes to deliver customers what they want while asking the price that you need. For the future, developing the agriculture of the future and being able to feed the world population will be about understanding the markets, finding the right customers and having the required infrastructure to bring to them, wherever and how far or close-by they may be, what they need. In my opinion, all agricultural development projects must start from the market end and be built backwards into adequate production volumes and structures. The organizations involved in such projects must bring in the marketing and the supply chain expertise to give local farmers the highest chances of success. All the technical and knowledge support is essential, too but they have to be aimed at supporting the implementation of the sales plan.

Copyright 2014 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Tree oils can fuel economic development by integrating different agricultural activities

January 13, 2014

Over the past few years, agriculture has been a hot center of attention and rightly so. In my line of work, I am always interested in finding new and innovative ways of growing production more efficiently, more sustainably and in a way that offers viable jobs and attractive livelihoods. Recently, I got acquainted with Mr. Sreenivas Ghatty, from India, and Dr. John Wightman, from Australia. They both are involved in the production of tree oils for the production of a renewable alternative to diesel oil. Mr. Ghatty founded Tree Oils India Ltd and owns a plantation of 3,000 oil trees. Dr. Wightman is actively promoting the development of similar projects in Australia, USA, Africa and South Asia. The story of the tree oil interested me right away for several reasons. First, it reminded me of the Sahara Forest Project that I had mentioned in Future Harvests, but with this difference that the tree oils projects are already there. Secondly, and more importantly, it is a great example of a project that can generate many economic activities, while filling an environmental and social function by calling upon a collaborative approach like what I discussed in We Will Reap What We Sow. As several projects have already reached the production stage, the gentlemen have the numbers to present a case to interested investors.

Seven year old Pongamia trees at the TOIL (Tree Oils India Ltd) R&D farm

Seven year old Pongamia trees at the TOIL (Tree Oils India Ltd) R&D farm

In India and Australia, the species farmed is Pongamia. It is an indigenous tree to India that used to provide oils for various applications, of which fuel. However, with the rise of cheap fossil fuels, its use regressed to some extent but in the second half of the 20th century, the Mumbai commodity market traded one million tonnes of Pongamia oil per year. The purpose of this production is to develop land that would otherwise have no agricultural use, because of the arid climate. Some of the current projects are aimed at using waste lands around former mines, as is already the case in some parts of Queensland in Australia. It is a way of regenerating a landscape and agricultural production by fixing carbon and producing a renewable fuel that emits less greenhouse gases than fossil fuel. Pongamia is a rustic species that is well-suited in such regions. To understand what this production can create, it is important to put it in a broader context than oil alone, and that is why I find it particularly interesting.

It takes the Pongamia tree four years to start producing its oil-rich seeds and once in production, it will keep producing at a steady level for a hundred years or more. To give an idea of the production potential, a conservative yield estimate that Mr. Ghatty and Dr. Wightman gave me was of 1,000 liters per acre of Pongamia plantation. Although the harvest is not all year-round, the seeds can easily be stored and the oil production capacity can be organized evenly all through the year to optimize the oil production capacity. The oil is suitable for diesel engines without any particular further refining. The oil provides a source of fuel to run the farms and when acreage is large enough, it could cover the needs of local communities, too. The by-products from the oil production, such as the seed cake that is of good agronomic value, can be used as a fertilizer or mulch to return to the land, and thus enrich it as production goes. They can also be used as fodder for cattle, as a complement for other feed sources.

Pigeonpea growing between rows of 3 yr old Pongamia trees on the TOIL farm

Pigeonpea growing between rows of 3 yr old Pongamia trees on the TOIL farm

Next to storing oil in its seed, Pongamia is a tree legume, and therefore it can fix nitrogen and help enrich the soil where it grows. It also has nematicide and fungicide qualities. Pongamia production can be the basis for a multi-level and complex agricultural activity. With its agronomic qualities, Pongamia is quite suitable for an agro-forestry production system. The combination of the shade provided by the trees with soil enrichment by nitrogen fixing and seed cake fertilizer and the moisture retention that results from these new local conditions creates a suitable environment for the production of vegetal crops for food production. For instance, on the Tree Oils India Ltd farm, they grow pigeonpea between the Pongamia rows. Further development of optimal combination and rotation of crops will be enhanced as the system will enrich itself over time. It is also possible to combine the tree plantation with extensive grazing cattle. The Pongamia plantation helps the production of grass and in return the cattle fertilize the soil with manure.

Agro-forestry can be combined with extensive cattle grazing to restore soil and agriculture potential

Agro-forestry can be combined with extensive cattle grazing to restore soil and agriculture potential

The combination of the various possible productions also offers different possibilities of cooperation. Not all activities need to be done by the same farmer. There is always the possibility to offer land for use for vegetal crops or grazing. The partners can decide of which form the cooperation can work, between ownership, renting, sharing of land or of harvest or any other form that can create a harmonious cohabitation. Such different possibilities allow the integration of local rural communities to access production potential as the plantation creates the condition and the potential for both vegetal and animal productions such as meat, milk or wool. By generating different farming activities, the Pongamia production has the potential to create several agricultural value chains for all the productions involved as well as processing, storage and marketing. It can have a snowball effect beyond simply agriculture. When the local communities develop livelihoods, they also will need access to other products and services to function. The combination of all these activities allows creating sustainable production systems, as all the products and by-products can be used locally and thus, closing the loops. However, the system does not have to be a closed one. Productions can be used locally or sent to markets elsewhere, and the same is true for inputs, but integrating all the activities allows monitoring and managing the production systems in a sustainable manner. Closing loops is a key phrase in regard to such integrated production systems. In this case, the loops cover carbon, nutrients, moisture and organic matter.

Oil press used for Pongamia oil production in India (TOIL R&D project)

Oil press used for Pongamia oil production in India (TOIL R&D project)

Like many economic development projects, a leading project is necessary to create the necessary momentum upon which other activities can connect and grow along. Pongamia production has this potential but as always for such projects, the need for investment is critical in the early stages. It must start somewhere and the return is not immediate. There is always a chance to take. Because it takes several years for the Pongamia tree to enter production, the early years do not generate revenue from oil, and only the crops generate income. However after the trees start producing, income increases substantially. Over a period of ten year after planting the trees on the plantation, the return allows farmers to have a good income. Economic development requires long-term commitment from the shareholders. As many activities and also economic benefits are the objectives, all stakeholders that can benefit in the long term should also be shareholders. Success cannot be the responsibility of the plantation investor alone. When stakeholders are shareholders, they become owners of the project as well; and owners are more determined than spectators to turn a project into a success. Many jobs can be created in farming, in different activities of oil processing, logistics, trade, and in the different activities of the different value chains that can spin off from Pongamia. It is also not just a matter for businesses only, but governments also would benefit. More economic activity means more taxes down the road, as well as less need for financial support of rural communities once they can generate a solid local economy.Every project would have to adjust to the local conditions. If the projects in India and Australia are developed on mining grounds, other regions may offer different types of land for development. The available land might decide the size of the plantations and the production volumes. From there, each project will have to list the potential other activities that can be combined with the plantations, and how many jobs in which activities may be created. By reviewing the entire production potential with the socio-economic potential, it will give clarity to the different stakeholders of what their individual return would be. Then, they can determine how big a share of the project they want or how much they can contribute to the development of such integrated activities. If, for now, tree oil projects are more advanced in India and in particular in Australia, they certainly could be quite instrumental to help develop economic development in particular in arid parts of Africa. It is possible as a number of success stories with agro-forestry have already demonstrated there. This type of integrated agriculture has good potential to recreate productive vegetal landscape in former deforestation areas like for instance in Brazil.

If you wish to know more about Pongamia oil, feel free to contact Dr. John Wightman or Mr. Sreenivas Ghatty

(Photos: courtesy of Mr. Sreenivas Ghatty and Dr. John Wightman)


Food prices, one year later – Some lessons

September 16, 2013

According to the data gathered by the FAO, global food prices are on the decline. They have been so for some time. However, this good news does not seem to make the headlines. Reassuring news does not score with the mainstream media. What a difference with the past year during which all of a sudden they discovered that food might not be taken for granted after all! What have we not heard and read by then. The most absurd theories and pseudo-analyses have been spread around by some who know nothing better than copying and pasting the internet without exercizing the slightest sense of critical thinking. Of course, the fear mongers got plenty of publicity while they really did not contribute to anything productive, as I had described in a previous article (Fear mongering does not build a strong future).

What a difference a year makes! And that is a very good thing. It shows that agriculture and farmers are much more resilient and have much greater potential than some want to make believe. That confirms what I have always claimed and that I relentlessly repeat in my presentations and publications. I have lost the count of how many times I have been told that “Christophe, you are quite the optimist”, in particular about the content of Future Harvests. Frankly, I do not think that I am particularly optimistic. Actually, I can see many reasons why we will face serious crises along the way to meeting the goals of feeding a growing population. That warning is the message behind We Will Reap What We Sow. I see human nature and in particular our leadership, as serious reasons for temporary failures. But if I do not consider myself as an optimist, I definitely have a positive attitude. I truly believe we can manage and overcome future challenges, because I crunched the numbers and I have demonstrated in my literature and my talks that feeding 9 billion people in a sustainable manner is quite possible. It is possible, but it is not a given. There is work ahead. That makes it interesting and exciting.

Next to the potential and the future development that can make us overcome the coming challenges, I am also a firm believer of market forces. Market fluctuations trigger action and reaction. Nothing like high prices and solid profits get food producers increase production. Similarly, nothing like poor financial results have the ability to tamper any desire to increase production. The so-called invisible hand works. Sometimes, it holds a carrot. Sometimes, it holds a stick. It makes things move in the right direction. Over the past year, I have presented during a number of events how market forces would influence prices in different sectors in the years to come. By looking at it from the consumer demand end and by going back in the production and supply chain, I showed how the different actors would react to their own particular situations. So far, my predictions have come true, the reactions of retailers, food service, animal protein producers, crop farmers and input suppliers have been as expected. The drop in global food prices is one of these predictions. Those who attended some of my presentations know what I mean. For the others, here is a link to a video showing an excerpt my talk about the dynamics of future agricultural markets that will illustrate what I am writing about.

The past year contains many lessons. Some of them are about us, and some of them are about how to look at the future. The main lesson is probably that the situation of food and agriculture cannot be looked at in a simplistic manner and can certainly not be described or commented with scary slogans. The population is growing but so is agricultural production. The famine that is supposedly around the corner is far from happening. In a year time, the world population has increased by a few dozen million people, who on average tend to eat more food, and in particular meat. Yet, supply is able to meet demand better this year than last year, as global food prices and grain stocks indicate. Another lesson is that even though severe climatic events affect food supply negatively, there is no reason to panic. The fact that last year a severe drought depleted production numbers in one of the essential producing countries, the USA, the system was able to absorb the shock. There has been no food riot in 2012 like in 2008. The reason needs to be looked at what products were the most affected.  Supply of basic food stables remained in balance with demand. There was no particular shortage of bread or rice in sight. The commodities that were affected were business to business products, destined to the animal feed and the corn ethanol industries. Another lesson is that even though the prices of 2012 did not lead to riots, climatic events are a serious threat and need to be factored in future supply and demand scenarios to build enough of a buffer to reduce the risks of supply disruption. Another area that requires more attention is the regulation of financial markets, and in particular the regulatory aspects. It is clear that derivatives amplify market price fluctuations. By deciding who is allowed to be active on the markets of agricultural commodities and for which quantities, the functioning of markets can be more representative of the physical reality. In particular, the participation of players who have no physical production or supply functions in the food and agriculture need to be taken under strict scrutiny. As it is important to have fair market rules for a proper functioning of markets, it will be also useful to look at the functioning of crop insurance. Last year’s drought in the US cost insurance companies much money, while it appeared that US crop farmers ended up the season with the second highest profit level on record. No one will argue that farmers need to be protected from such unpredictable events.  Insurance should guarantee them a minimum income so that their future would not depend from forces out of their control. That is just fair. Opposite to that, it sounds beyond normal that, thanks to other contributors, farmers could go through such a drought without hardly feeling the slightest pinch in the wallet.

After the past year, am I still an “optimist”? Yes, I do believe that farmers will meet demand in the future. For all the reasons above, I am convinced as ever that the potential is largely there and that the world can absorb tough years. But I would attach a warning to my optimism. It is not because it can be done that it will be done. It is necessary to keep thinking ahead, to come with innovative ideas, products and services to be able to plan and forecast better, to make better and faster decisions. It is also essential to pass knowledge and information better and faster, and to choose the attitude of helping others succeed before one’s particular interest. Our societies have succeeded by acting together. Nobody will be able to do it all alone. Providing help and support will be critical for success, just as much as asking for them will be. It also becomes crucial to be able to look beyond one’s area of business and to connect the dots even – or maybe actually in particular – with events and activities that have, at least apparently, several degrees of separation with agriculture in order to anticipate, adapt and be prosperous. That is the core of what I do, and I can only encourage you to take the same approach.

As markets ease, it will be quite tempting to drop the guard. In my opinion, this would be a serious mistake. The time things seem to be under control is the right time to prepare for the future and to do some foresight. Markets will change again as the bargaining power of the different links of the chain will shift. Be assured that there will be some severe price hikes again. My best guess is within five years from now. Those who will do this exercise will have a strong advantage over those who will procrastinate.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Adapting our thinking to the future – part 1

May 3, 2013

Everybody will agree that the coming decades are presenting many new challenges. Never before have we faced such a population growth and demand for about everything, food and water being the most essential. The difference between success and failure will reside mostly in our attitude towards change and our willingness to adapt to a different new situation. For obvious reasons, the economic model of mass consumption and resources depletion that generates a mindboggling amount of waste is coming to an end one way or another. A new system needs to come and will come. Whether it will be the easy way or the hard way really depends on us all and in particular on our leaders. I like to tell that our future will be only as bright as our leaders. It is a bit of a joke, but not quite.

The circular will look linear when approached from the right angle

What does need to change in our thinking and attitude, then? In a finite world, we must understand that always more is not sustainable. This is especially true when several billion people are thinking of having the same consumption lifestyle as developed countries have had over the past 60 years or so. The pie is not big enough to allow that kind of party (and neither is the bakery that must produce the pie). This is where we seem to be stuck in our thinking. We have learnt to think linear in the past several decades. It can go only in one direction, and it has to be up, doesn’t it? God forbid of anything going down. In the field of farming when I hear the linear argument, I like to mention two things. The first one is that if farming stats must go linear, there should not be any farm left in developed countries in the not so distant future, and the same should happen in developing countries, too, just a bit later. No farm means no food. Apparently, that does not seem acceptable. There goes a crack in the linear thinking. My second argument against thinking blindly linear is that in biology and in population dynamics, there are no linear functions. All curves are curbed in some way. There are bell curves, sigmoid curves, exponential and logarithmic curves, just to name a few. None of them are linear. If we want to plan our relation with our environment in a prosperous manner, we need to leave the linear thinking and start thinking curbed, and the curve that fits the ability to renew indefinitely our access to essential resources best is the circle. Circular thinking is the never-ending linear. That is just as much of a thinking revolution as moving away from the concept of a flat earth to embrace the idea of a spherical one, or to fathom the curbed space. Shifting from linear thinking to circular thinking simply means a shift in thinking from always more to always enough. All it means is that we need to change our ways, but it certainly does not mean the end of the world. It would only mean the end of a world. With a growing population, circular thinking actually presents a lot of business opportunities, especially considering that the alternative is going nowhere eventually. There is no doubt that those who will catch these opportunities will be the winners of tomorrow.

Such a change in thinking also results in rethinking the meaning of growth. Currently, growth, and the GDP as its favorite indicator, means mostly volume and consumption. Actually consumption is probably not the correct world to describe our societies. Buying is a more correct one. Producers want consumers to buy. Consuming in this process is really optional. What counts is the act of purchasing over and over again. We think of growth as quantitative growth. Future growth will have to be a qualitative growth. With so many new people who will need employment in the decades to come, it will be crucial that future growth will have to fill a positive social role. Similarly, to have a livable planet, the future will have to contribute positively to maintaining a healthy environment. Social and environmental responsibility will become the standard. There is no escaping this. Well, that is with the angle of building a prosperous future. If not, chaos is always a possibility.

One of the most visible consequences of a growth model based essentially on quantity and mass purchasing is waste. As consumption goods became cheaper credit became easier and disposable income increased, consuming has become about buying and throwing away. The mountains of garbage in landfills around the world should be a reminder, although we seem to have located them far away from the eyes of the wealthy and in the backyard of the poor. Quite convenient. This way, consumers could forget about the consequences of their actions… and keep on buying and throwing away. Although this happens for all consumer goods, this is especially immoral when it comes to food in a world where about a billion people do not have enough to eat. It is immoral, simply because food means the difference between life and death, and wasting food is indirectly contributing to the death of others. It is also immoral because food waste is also the waste of all the inputs used for the production of food, be it water, energy or money. Waste is an indicator of the level of efficiency. Highly efficient systems generate little or no waste. Inefficient systems generate a lot of it. I will let you judge how efficient you think we are. Waste is also an indicator of our attitude. It is not just about morals, but also about discipline. Our societies waste a lot, because we still are much too lenient with ourselves, and also because in many cases the financial incentives to do the right thing are sadly lacking. We choose the path of least resistance.

As life became easier in a number of countries, people have started to lose some essential reflexes for survival. It is not necessary to go all that much back in time to see the change. My parents, grandparents and ancestors grew up in times that were not of plenty, simply because there was no consumption society, and incidentally there was the occasional war. People would not waste anything not so much out of morals, but because they simply could not afford it. Yes, mass wasting is the fruit of luxury. My elders would not waste and they were very skilled at circular thinking. They knew that nothing is created or lost, but that everything is transformed. As resources were not plenty, the right answer was to show plenty of resourcefulness. This is how things were by then.

To take the example of food waste, they would make sure that leftovers would be on the table the next day. They would most certainly not end up in the garbage. They would feed the pigs with what they could not eat themselves. Actually, they were turning low value products such as potato peels in high value protein in the form of pork. When I was in the agricultural university, my animal nutrition teacher once told a joke that I have never forgotten, especially considering that I have spent a substantial part of my professional life in animal production. He told us that modern animal husbandry was the art of turning high value protein into cheap fat. Not quite untrue, and so much the contrast with the pork made out of table scraps. This contrast is very much present in the ongoing debate about meat production systems.

We can find many answers for the future by looking at the past. In our current times of science-based facts obsession, many seem to look down at words such as experience, wisdom and philosophy. This is not wise. Our elders might not have known all the scientific background of what they were doing, but they knew what was best for them to survive. They knew how to manage a finite world of finite resources to sustain themselves. Passing on that knowledge, experience and wisdom was an essential part of survival. There was no conflict between modernity and that knowledge, experience and wisdom. They integrated the new and the old to build a better world. Although, there is still a lot of work to eradicate poverty, let’s not forget that the result has been the emergence of prosperous societies in which a record number of people are living now.

(Part 2 of this topic will be published soon)

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.