The futuristic and the future

December 8, 2018

From the many requests I get, the one thing that excites people most about the future is to be presented with a futuristic picture of the future. They like the idea of seeing a different world than the one they know. Maybe it has to do with the fact that many feel unhappy with our world the way it is. Maybe they want to dream a bit or maybe they simply want to have a feeling that there is hope for a utopian world. Science fiction is full of that futuristic feeling. Sometimes it carries an optimistic feeling and sometimes it paints a brutally gloomy vision of the future.

Very often, conference organizers approach me because they would like me to present a futuristic view of food and agriculture. If all they are looking for is science fiction entertainment, I prefer to decline. Fiction is nice, but my business is about realistic and practical evolution of food and agriculture. Everyone who knows me well will tell you that I have no lack of imagination, on the contrary, but that is not what I do as a futurist. My main objective is that my audiences go home with a feeling that it is possible to evolve from today to tomorrow with feasible changes, instead of chasing dreams, which nobody can say whether they have any chance of succeeding. I believe in baby steps, and possibly quick ones.

Perhaps it is the advantage of having been around the block for quite a while, but I always take a circumspect attitude regarding futuristic visions. I am old enough to have heard that we were all going to shift away from traditional foods and that our future diet would be made of pills, one for energy, one for protein and one for God knows what else. That was the time of the Apollo space missions and of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Our future meals would be an astronaut type of diet. Well, guess what, we have passed 2001 a long time ago and meat and potatoes are still on our plates. Be careful about science fiction, because although it certainly is a great source of inspiration for exciting innovations, it also contains the word “fiction”. To me, the most realistic part of 2001: A Space Odyssey is HAL 9000, the computer. As we are eagerly working on artificial intelligence, I can very well see that we could end up with machines that can think and feel the way that HAL does. If some genius finds a way of creating an artificial ego and implant it in such an AI machine, then humans would have a problem. Anyway, we are not there yet.

Another big change in our food, presented several decades ago, was making synthetic meat out of oil (does that sound somehow familiar; you know meat from an incubator?). I started my Career at BP Nutrition, which was part of the BP oil and gas company. Apparently, BP had moved into the food business because they thought that the “oil steaks” could be a reality and be a part of their business. Of course and as usual, nobody can foresee everything and the oil crisis of the 1970s hit and that was the end of the synthetic meat, because guess what? Money matters and if the numbers do not add up, the project dies.

In more current innovations, I remember feeling a bit of the ugly duckling in a conference about the future of agriculture where one of the hottest topics was the Google glass. Maybe you remember, some sort of portable smart device that would make you feel like a cyborg. I did not see the added value of the glasses for a farmer. Apparently, I was one of the very few and you know almost not much a futurist at all for not embracing unconditionally some tech innovation. No, I do not do unconditional support. Instead, in these current days of compulsively pressing “Like” buttons, I did –and still do- this almost heretic thing: I think and exercise my critical sense. Just as a short addendum, I would like to remind you of the quote by Descartes ”I think, therefore I am”. The way, I look at things, a derivative of that quote would be “I don’t think, therefore I am nothing”

Another recent hot topic that seems to have lost steam is the 3D printer that would produce food. I remember even posting a question on a futurist’s website. It was several years ago and I am still waiting for an answer. My question related to an article with the illustration of a banana laid on the printing area of a 3D printer. I was asking two things. The first was why anyone would use resources to make the banana peel as it appears on the posted picture, as the peel is waste. The second was to know what material would be used to make the flesh of the banana (and where it would be coming from) because if it were banana flesh, that would be rather absurd. This banana example is the perfect illustration of hypes being parroted by everyone who wants to be trendy without thinking about the most basic principles, such as the one expressed by Lavoisier “Nothing is created, everything is transformed” If you want to print a banana, you need some material to print with. Everyone seems to think that it would be created out of nothing. Great way to solve famine…

If I have an issue with the banana, I do not have any about 3D printing. When it comes to food, it could certainly crate new textures and new ways to experience foods and perhaps even discover new flavors that do not pop up in traditional textures. That is an area that could be useful. If lab meat is to be a viable production system, 3D printing might be a way of making it more appealing to the market. It is worth investigating. Another area that I would hope 3D printing to be useful is the production, possibly at home, of spare parts that you and I could use when some device gets broken (instead of having to buy an entire device all together), and possibly by using recycled raw materials to make the replacement parts. That would be a great step towards sustainability and in the fight against planned obsolescence.

I can name other hypes that have never impressed me. Remember the “new economy” that was going to make the old economy obsolete? Well, the result was the dotcom crash (bubbles are made out of hot air usually) and the good old-fashioned economy came back with a vengeance, as the good old care for our living environment will. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies were going to make existing currencies obsolete. Guess what? It is bursting simply because these are currencies that do not have any really economic roots. They are artificial with nothing to sustain them but hype, so poof goes the bubble. In the area of something more useful, I have not been impressed by blockchain either. I found it artificially inflated for something actually quite simple and basic. By the time, they complete it, if that ever happens, it will already be replaced by something more useful and effective. And I could go on with a list of things that would revolutionize our world and that nobody remembers.

To me, the main difference between the future and the futuristic is that the latter finds its source in imagination while the former is about practical and economical feasibility. We need both, but it is essential to make the distinction because it is difficult to find our way with a blurred vision. The virtual is not the real but it can become it under the right circumstances.

Similarly, we must not think that innovation is only about technology and that technology is only about high-tech. High tech is very sexy and the fact that teenagers can become billionaires overnight is very appealing but, in the grand scheme of things, that part is only a drop in the ocean of problems to solve for the future. I am convinced that many solutions will actually be low tech and inspired by old-fashioned wisdom. Innovation must address the causes of the problems it solves, not just the symptoms. Morphine can be very useful for cancer patients but it does not cure the disease. Another misconception is also to think that innovation is the same as progress. There is a difference. It may appear that way on the short term, but progress is also a relative concept. What seems progress today might appear as a disaster a few decades from now. I will let you think for yourselves of some examples for “progress” from the 19th and 20th centuries that hurt us today to illustrate my point.

A similar kind of confusion is to think that science and knowledge are the same. Indeed, good science is, but through the centuries people have known many facts even though they had not been scientifically proven. Here, I will only mean knowledge and not beliefs, as beliefs very often rest on non-proven concepts, and in some cases possibly improvable but beliefs are not about knowledge. They are about creating a system of values that help making sense of what we do not know or do not control. Therefore, beliefs and knowledge are two distinct things. Bordering on knowledge and science, but quite abundant in bad science is another confusion: statistics and facts. Anyone who has studied statistics knows that one must first make a hypothesis and then test it. If the test is negative, one must reject the hypothesis. That is the easy, and non-confusing, part. If the test result is positive, one can only say that one cannot reject the hypothesis and that is all. One cannot conclude that the hypothesis is correct. No, all one can say is that the hypothesis may just not be incorrect. But that subtle -yet essential- difference is never a problem for those who want to push their point of view and they will merrily go as far as using to claim the absence of evidence as being the evidence of absence. So much for intellectual integrity. Further, depending on which statistical test you chose, you may come to a different result about the same hypothesis. It can be a bit complicated, can’t it? That is the conundrum of research and science when they are not independent anymore, not to mention when they are funded by groups who are after making a profit of their “findings”, but that is the way human nature goes.

For a successful future, futuristic ideas are important but critical thinking, a solid dose of common sense, a practical approach and the ability to make the money work are essential. If we lose grip on reality or, worse, if we ignore it, it will catch up with us, a bit the way HAL 900 does in the movie. Dreaming is good as it feeds the human machine, but a strong sense of reality is essential to go in the right direction. It is a bit like both the legs and the brain when riding a bicycle.

Copyright 2018 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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Since we cannot beat Nature…

September 9, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Science taken hostage (cont’d) – The genetically engineered vines

August 27, 2010

Another example of what I had presented in my previous post about the “killer canola” is the case of the genetically engineered vines in France.

Last week, a group of opponents to GMOs went into a trial field of the French Agricultural Research INRA and pulled out vine plants. Two associations reacted strongly to this act of vandalism. The French Association for Scientific Information and the French Association for Plant Biotechnology stated that this act demonstrated that “science and technology are the targets” of such action groups. Of course, this statement is “colored” with some bias, and a little bit of paranoia always adds to the dramatic effect. What I see here is just that instead of a constructive debate about the use of genetic engineering, the rhetoric slides into partisanship and name-calling. Clearly, science does not really weigh much in this. The reality is that two groups with different views on how the world’s future should like oppose each other. The debate is more about politics than science. The people who pulled out the vines just do not want GMOs. Period. Nothing will convince them otherwise. The scientists and technicians see such an act as a threat to their jobs and to their beliefs as well. They will fight back. You can find more details in the article from the French agricultural magazine La France Agricole.

Interestingly enough, the French Minister of Research spoke during an interview about the matter. One of the arguments she brought up was that the “vandals” should be fined the value of all the work involved, meaning all the materials and salaries of the researchers. INRA is a state-owned research institute. As such, that is an interesting idea. Although, she is the Minister and she could use her position to press charges. However, there is no mention of such action from her part, at least explicitly. Would her indignation be only for political reasons? Another interesting aspect of this story is that France, although conducting research on GMOs is one of the fiercest opponents of the use of GMOs in agriculture. Where does science fit in all this?

The thing with science is that it does not take sides. Science is not biased. The same statements apply to Nature, too. It only serves to explains why things are the way they are. Technology, on the other hand is man-made, and therefore assists their users to pursue their agenda and goals. Another aspect about science, especially research is its cost. Conducting research is quite expensive and requires large amounts of funding. Since getting funding is quite similar in its process as selling a service or a product, researchers need to convince. Using drama and even fear works rather well and “polishing” scientific results and conclusion to get the yes to funding is not an unusual practice. The “climategate” story using the emails from researchers telling that they overstated the consequences of climate change is just an example of what extremes scientists sometimes need to go to be able to continue their research and in some cases keep their jobs. Sometimes, scientists are just so convinced about their own conclusions that they also report slightly beyond the truth. Mendel, the “father” of modern genetics supposedly “improved” the results he got with the crossing of his peas to demonstrate how characteristics were passed on through genes.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Is science being taken hostage? The “killer canola” example

August 11, 2010

In the debate between environmentalists and industry, science is a word that comes regularly in their arguments. However, scientific “evidence” seems to be used to support an agenda instead of making us all wiser.

The recent example of the “killer canola” that has been widely spread in the media over the past week illustrates the concerns we should have about the use of science for non-scientific purposes.

To sum up the story about canola, researchers from the University of Arkansas found herbicide-resistant genetic traits included in the plants through genetic engineering in canola growing in the wild in North Dakota. They even found traits from two different GMO producers. This does not exist in commercial varieties. They claimed that they demonstrated these GMO escaped into the USA.

Of course, all media, internationally, with a bias against GMOs jumped on the occasion to make their point about the risks of genetic engineering.

Very quickly, media favourable to the GMO industry, actually funded by that industry reacted to undermine the finding of the researchers. In particular, I enjoyed this column in AG Network. To counter the results of the researchers, the author claims that most scientists reject their theory. He names only two, one in the UK and one in Canada. Is a sample of two scientifically representative? I think not. He does not review the protocol of the research. Does that mean it was in order? I would tend to think so; otherwise, he would surely have attacked it. His main argumentation is about canola not being able to thrive in the wild; therefore, the “gene escape” is about a non-event, so let’s not talk about it anymore. Case closed.

What really disappoints me in this process is the bias. The opponents of GMO see this research as a proof of their point of view without really looking into the research and challenging it, or at least asking a few questions to the researchers. The proponents of GMOs, at least this one, elude the conclusions of the research by shifting the debate to the survival chances of wild canola. The real questions that arises from this survey is to find out how a genetic trait introduced by people (therefore, not the result of natural evolution and selection) can spread outside of our control (nature does not care about intellectual property), and what can be done to have more control on this. What all participants in this debate should do is to join their science and collaborate. It deserves the necessary attention.

The purpose of science is to help us understand our world so that we can take the proper measures to stay in control of what we created. If science tells us something that we do not like, that is too bad, but what we can learn is for our best interest. In the end, it would serve nobody to take chances with food security. The long-term interests must come before the short-term ones. The example of the canola is just one out of many. I could have chosen other food production sectors with similar cases.

Selectively picking the science that suits one’s agenda is not scientific. It does not serve anyone on the long run. On this blog, I posted a poll asking what should come first between morals and science. Although, this poll has no scientific value, it shows an interesting trend that I had not expected.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


What should come first: Morals or Science?

March 7, 2010

In the debate about agriculture and production systems, critics and lobbyists of all sides claim both morals and science in their attempts to gain support of the public opinion.

What do you think more important: morals or science?