Tomorrow’s grocery shopping

Grocery shopping has undergone deep changes over the last 100 years and, like anything else, it will do the same in the future. The current Covid-19 pandemic is contributing to this evolution. Regardless of whether it will be over soon or not, one thing is sure: it has forced us to make adjustments and in a way, the virus has just accelerated changes that were already in the works. Here is how I see what to expect.

First of all, Covid-19 has changed how we live, and therefore how we shop. Online retail was growing but then it became almost a necessity for grocery stores to jump on board and engage in online sales. It was not always smooth. It took time for many outlets to organize taking orders, preparing them and get the orders ready for pick-up or for delivery. There was a lack of staff. The staff was not trained properly and there were all sorts of logistics issues to fix. Without getting in details, stores have been able to get a better presence online and ensured a better and smoother service over time, and rightly so, because many people have discovered the convenience of shopping at the time of their choice, not having to drive to the store, not having to be in the herd, which was already a pain in the neck before the pandemic, and not having to wait in line to check out. It saves them time and stress. These are the main reasons why I expect online grocery sales to stay and grow further. The offering and the navigability of online stores will have to improve as for now, it is still a tedious experience. The execution of orders is still a challenging area. More staff is needed and at the moment, this part of the business is the busiest and currently the largest employment opportunity at Wal-Mart. Amazon has also hired large numbers of new staff. Yes, it takes time and manpower to fill orders. It is nothing new. I used to do that part at my parents butcher’s shop. I used to prepare orders and deliver them to the customers who required it. Of course, my parents’ store was a relatively small operation and our phone and my brain (and my legs and arms, too) were all it took to get things done. The volume of business of modern grocery store is such that it could just be a family thing. My point is that preparing orders and executing them is nothing new and actually not all that complicated, and it is a pillar of good customer care.

Here is where I see more changes in the future. Having to manage so many new people to fill order –or to be personal shoppers to put it in fancier words- is a complex task. Such staff is usually paid little, not particularly motivated and always looking for better job opportunities, not to mention they can get sick or absent. Of course, the numbers and he economics will have to adapt, but I believe that in the future, order filling staff will be replaced by robots, connected to order software. The robots will manage orders, prepare and pack them. There are already robot waiters in some restaurants, so it is not so far-fetched. The robots also will be connected with the warehouse and the inventory management software. They will re-order for the warehouse, ensure first in first out, eliminate loss and waste and know exactly where to pick what and complete the entire job much more efficiently than humans and that on a 24/7 basis, and not require being unionized. I believe that corporations will like that.

Another area where I see potential for change is the sharing of online platforms. French retailer Carrefour offered that possibility to small retailers who had to close because of the Covid -19 lockdown in France. Thus, small stores did not have to venture and spend on developing their own online presence, which could have been challenging, not to mention stressful considering the circumstances. Further, cashing in fees for a online platform can be a business, too. What Carrefour offered is in fact the same as large online retailers like Amazon and Alibaba have done for independent sellers for years now. It is also not all that different from an EBay type of concept. Sharing of online platform will be a way of making the jump for small stores and from, there they will decide whether to keep using such platforms or build their own.

Order pick-up will certainly be a solution of choice for quite some time. Home delivery will have to evolve further, simply because it can be costly, except for outlets that can offer free deliveries for a minimum purchase amount, which is already the case. Deliveries might also be carried out by driverless vehicles in the future, such as Kroger has been testing for some time. Of course, there is always the possibility for restaurant delivery organizations to make the move to help retailers. After all, many of them want to be listed on the stock market and that will mean the necessity for them to keep growing always more and that will mean going beyond restaurants as per today. Here, the key will be to drop their fees. What these organizations charge for meal deliveries is rather brutal for pop-and mom restaurants and volume will have to take over fee based on bill percentage.

Retail will evolve further and there is no shortage of possibilities. Although everyone claims to collect data and know their customers, I think that it is more something in the realm of talk than actual effective execution. I have loyalty cards but I never get any shopping advice. My shopping news is either through the generic flyer that I find in my mail box like all other shoppers. And if I take a look online to see what is attractive, I have the exact same online flyer, as the paper one, with absolutely nothing specific or special about my own particular needs. I thought they would know what I buy and don’t buy and help me accordingly, but no, none of that ever happens and I do not have the feeling that is in the works. Hello, retailers! One the most daunting thing that shoppers go through is to make the bloody weekly shopping list. What do we need? What are we going to eat? What do they have on ad for us? Should we buy at retailer A or retailer B? No answer to any of that ever comes my way. If your retailer sends you personal shopping lists and tips, specific nutrition and menu tips you are lucky, and I am not. But I doubt it because I have never met anyone who did get of shopping tips. Retailers like Amazon do give some shopping tips and online ads also appear when I browse on Internet, but as far as I am concerned, they tend to miss the mark about every time. Perhaps, my being a frugal person makes me one of those difficult individuals to influence and to get to buy stuff but I really think that shopping tips should be a lot more on target than they are. I also believe that to improve this situation, it would be much better to have a voluntary and active participation from the shoppers themselves by having them giving more inputs about their needs and wants, although this of course enters the slippery area of online privacy, but you aill have to admit that it is a lot easier to serve customers well when they are in a position of telling you what they are exactly looking for. And in these times of “Internet of Things” why not combine store information with producer information and process it in a virtual production information and shopping advice system where people can make choices based on their values, their needs and all relevant information they need to make their decision, in a totally transparent manner? With such a system, why not even include a virtual tour of farms and packing facilities and show people where their food comes from and how it is produced and by whom? It could be accessible at home, could make use of VR helmet and could be consulted at a convenient time, not in the stressful rush of the in-store shopping with others breathing in their necks, especially if shoppers do not wish to go inside the store again.

Yet, as I show in this picture below, data servers and supermarket aisles look surprisingly similar. Every purchase and consumption is a transaction that goes way beyond money and product. It is a transaction between data – and therefore lifestyle choice, personal choices and values – versus the price shoppers pay. Why not include it in the shipping experience, then? I believe the answer is in the area of business thinking. In spite of the many claims, it is still a primarily production-driven, volume-driven cost-obsessed model, and not enough of a service-minded customer-oriented value-obsessed model. Of course, there is no reason why this would not change and anyway, the former model I mention is pushing for some positive innovations, such as cashierless stores where you can come in buy and leave without going through the tedious checkout lines or the even so much more fun do-it-yourself checkout where half the people I see seem helplessly stuck unable to figure out which button to press.

With what I just described, one could easily wonder why to have large supermarkets anymore. Why should the corporation spend all that money in prime –therefore expensive- locations, with fancy stores with light and all sorts of amenities, while in the future, most of the shopping might actually be just a warehouse order filling activity. This is an even more relevant question for staple foods and undifferentiated commodities? Since commodities are really mostly about low cost, then retailers keep your costs down and focus on specialties and value for the store experience. I see several areas for which this would make sense. Non-perishables should be in the warehouse and not take much space in the shopping area real estate. But perishables are another game. First, they are perishable products and they have to receive special care to avoid loss and waste. Second, people like to use their senses to purchase perishables. They like to touch them, to see them and inspect them, and to smell them. Perishable shopping is still a highly sensory activity, and it quite personal. Some people like their meat lean and others prefer a marbled one. People like to take a look at the produce to make sure it is not damaged, bruised or blemished or that it is ripe. They like to make sure it is fresh. Some people like baked goods to be well-baked and others prefer when it is on the paler side. Color is an important factor. For all these reasons, leaving the choice to underpaid staff who do not know the customers and do not care overly for them is quite a bit risky in terms of customer satisfaction, and I am not even talking about cases of mistakes such as delivering bacon instead of the ordered pork tenderloin I heard of at the beginning of the pandemic and the early times of packing orders for curbside pick-up. No, perishables will require special attention and my guess is that personal service will be high on the list.

When it comes to produce, I expect another evolution. Produce is delicate and with too high waste along the supply chain and in the store. Local production may have its advantages in term of sustainability, in particular when it involves truck road transport, but it makes a lot of sense about freshness and waste reduction. Just like the fruit and veggies that I get from my garden, picking fresh ripe produce just on time makes a world of difference. Just ask my wife about how it tastes compared with what we used to buy from thousands of kilometers away. In such a quality approach of perishable retail, why not get them locally. Urbanisation push produce farmers further way and yet, there is an amazing acreage that can be used to grow produce in cities, and interestingly enough a lot of that acreage is on top of supermarket, malls and warehouses. So why not build greenhouses on top of the store and sell the produce superfresh downstairs?

If you have to point of sale, it is much easier than being an urban farmer looking for customers. The store is there, people come to buy all sorts of things, just add the produce from the roof farm. Actually that is what a number of retailers have already started. France’s Carrefour, again, is one of them, but Benelux’s Ahold Delhaize has been working on the same thing and I am sure other will come and offer freshly picked local (roof) lettuce, leafy greens and tomatoes and strawberries.

Quality of products and quality of service will be the top demands and the old concept of small butcher, baker, greengrocer store will be the answer, although with a modern touch and with help of technology. I expect future supermarkets to be just that. They will be markets, like in the old days and they will be super, as they will wow their customers with prime shopping environment, prime products and prime personal service. A side advantage of this will also be that it reduces the use of packaging and has the potential to require no plastic whatsoever. After all, the purpose of plastic packaging has been to replace human labour by allowing self-service.

Copyright 2021 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Some lessons from an unusual year

Well, 2020 will probably remain in our memories as something rather different. Unlike most commentators, I would not refer to it as “unprecedented”. It is a great word, though. It makes one sound like an expert. Since nobody can know everything on any particular subject, I do not know what an expert is, really. Although there have been many inconveniences during this year, I believe that previous events such  the Black Death, the Spanish flu, both world wars and, any war really, have been much worse than this. So, there have been precedents. For all the crises and drama that has occurred, there is always something to learn from it. Here follow some of what struck me the most.

Since my primary focus is on food and agriculture, the first reaction I noticed was that even in countries of plenty, people felt food insecure as all the panic buying and hoarding showed. They were afraid of shortages, while there was absolutely no reason to think that way. At no point in time, was there any food shortage. Empty shelves in stores were the result of the hoarding that messed the normal smooth supply chain planning. Of course, these unexpected disruptions sent shock waves through the system and it needed some time to adjust, and it eventually did. The system adapted and the disaster scenarios did not happen, simply because they had no reason to occur.

Colorful 2020 - 3D rendering

Creator: carlotoffolo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The ability to adapt is another lesson from this year. Adapting is not new. It has been our way of life and an absolute necessity since the beginning. What I noticed is that many small businesses were much more agile and much faster to adapt than the heavier multi-layer organizations. In particular, food retailers have been lagging and still are. In particular, I think that it would only make sense for online sales, pick-up and home delivery to stay and grow further. They have some work to do in that area. They could reshape their activities in such better ways than today’s model but I think their problem is that they do not think like consumers, which is rather ironic for retailers. If businesses adapted rather quickly and in a rather disciplined manner, I cannot quite say the same about consumers who seemed to have a hard time to accept rather soft disruptions and making slight sacrifices. What I also found remarkable was the lack of structured strategy from about all levels of society. The main theme seems to have been knee-jerking, and that is for those who really had a strategy at all. My area of business also adapted. Conferences and speaking engagements moved to a virtual format. I thought that was gone but 2020 turned out in line with previous years in that area.

At the beginning of this post, I was mentioning experts. Everyone seems to have become a Covid expert. I have read and watched so many opinions about the future after Covid-19. It is amazing how quickly we get to have all sorts of extrapolations about something we know almost nothing. The future of work and the total reshuffle of food systems seem to have been rather popular. Yes, people have worked remotely and organizations have accommodated that because there was not much choice. But is that really a trend? What I see is that many organizations would like to have their staff come back to the office, with perhaps a mix of office presence and remote work, but claiming that remote working is the future is quite a step I will not make. What I see is that a lot of urban professionals would love to work remotely and live on the countryside, in theory. If executives from high-wage countries can perform their jobs remotely, what would be the reason not to move these jobs to people from lower-wage countries. There are many capable and very well-educated people in these countries who could do the work. If remote becomes the standard, those who dream of having the best of both worlds between urban life with high pay and the lifestyle of retirees might end up being just retired and unemployed. Be careful what you wish for. As for a total redesign of food supply chains, if there has been some talk about it, although that has faded as food producers made the proper adjustments, I do not see any significant action. There is some very locally, often for PR and marketing purposes but it does not go far. There is a simple reason for that: the farms and the farmers are just not there anymore near large consumption centres. The arable land has been paved and the land is too expensive. Dreaming is nice but we do not live in village scale anymore and we are talking about serious volumes that have to be produced. Further, about the topic of change, what clearly shows is that a lot of people just want to go back to where things were before the pandemic, with perhaps some minor adjustment, but priority number one seems to be leisure and breakaways with friends.

Crises always get the best and the worst out of people and the Covid-19 crisis is no exception. There has been lots of mutual support between individuals, but also some serious examples of selfishness. We have heard a lot about rights and freedom from the crowds, much less so on their duties and responsibilities. In my second book, I had a passage about humans looking at themselves more as legal entities than as biological entities. There have been many examples of this. Covid-19 is a biological event, and the legal decorum has no grip on any virus. The crowds were angry. Of course, there is always anger when there is change because when there is change, there is loss, but some really got over the top. For example here in British Columbia, there have been quite a few cases of customers insulting store staff and health care workers as well. People spat on store clerks because they were asked to put a mask on, or even assaulting and beating up staff for the same reason as it happened in a Wal-Mart store. Racial prejudice also came to the surface really quickly. Civilization is only skin-deep, and there are quite a few folks out there with a really thin skin. Of course, when some leaders enable this kind of moronic behavior, it should not be a surprise that followers follow.

Generosity, as usual, has not always been the come from the wealthiest. Since I am talking about money, one has to agree that all of a sudden, there has been plenty of money made available, as if it actually grew on trees. I am not too sure where it came from, how we will repay it and if the proper amounts have been distributed to the proper recipients. Money that before this crisis was lacking, as many programs could not be funded or worse had been cancelled. It is tempting to conclude that the reason why poverty has not been eradicated is simply because we have not had the resolve to get it done. People have been generous, as usual. Yet, the so-called philanthropists (cute euphemism for the Scrooge McDucks) with their billions, not so much. It is surprising considering how much their net worth shot up this year thanks to the solid stock markets, another sign that this crisis has not been all that disastrous. Regarding the wealthy, generosity came mostly from show business and sports personalities. Another example of disturbing priorities is this large Canadian retailer which temporarily had paid their staff a bonus for working in the front line at the beginning of the Covid-19, but ended it as the summer came and restrictions were loosened. Well, they decided not to reinstate this bonus as the virus flared up again since the fall, but in almost the same sentence as they were announcing their refusal to reinstate the bonus, they were also announcing a dividend increase to the shareholders. Very moral. Not.

Technology has been on everybody’s mind as being the solution for all of our problems. Well, technology certainly has helped a great deal during this crisis. It has helped many businesses to survive by bringing in remote working and virtual interaction. Also, it is a great help in speeding up substantially the possibilities to find a vaccine. Just think of the same problem 20 years ago. Things would have been much more difficult by then. Technology is a big part of our future for a better world, but technology alone will not be enough. We also have to rethink our behaviour in many areas if we want to succeed. If we do not make this inner change, technology will not solve much. And there is a lot to think about our behaviour and attitude. Just think at how extreme polarization and division have become, about how the most twisted and idiotic conspiracy theories and alternate reality take root and gain ground. Supposedly, we are the intelligent species, but that means that we must keep this ability to reason and reject nonsense. Responsibility is the ability to respond. Here, I would make the same remark about some leader and the followers I already made above.

Speaking of this leadership, the world moved on and found new directions for the future around the special case of the US. In the agriculture sector, China reoriented its sourcing of commodities to Brazil and Argentina, US farmers needed to get compensated with billions to keep afloat (that’s kind of socialism to rescue people who overwhelmingly vote republican,  bit ironic). The Chinese are quite astute people. I am quite baffled by how this country is still looked down by some Western countries that do not seem to realize how much China has changed. It is the same attitude as with Japan in the 1960s and 70s, which saw having these same Western countries being outcompeted in markets, cars in particular, and had to end up learning quality systems from the Japanese. Asian countries and Australia and New Zealand finalize a trade agreement, which is a reworked version of the TPP that the US shot down (or better said, one single American did). These countries no longer consider getting the US, which has a long coast on the Pacific, as being an indispensable partner. The world is moving on, the boat is sailing. Too bad for those who missed it. A cherry on the cake of the poor display we had to witness of the last couple of months. For as much as I love the US, and I really do, I must admit that my head has been hurting lately.

Since, I did not want to write a book on the topic, I will end it here. We have seen human nature express itself perhaps more clearly this year. We have seen the best and the worst. It is nothing new, but adversity always makes the contrast appear more clearly. Even though, Covid-19 has been quite disruptive, for most of us it was manageable with discipline and modest sacrifices. As I wrote in my introduction, I do not see this crisis as “unprecedented”, but I am pretty sure that we will face much worse ones. In particular, if we do not decisively take action to curb the effects of climate change, 2020 will look like a year in heaven in comparison. For those who had a hard time to accept wearing mask or just keeping distance, I believe that they will lose it completely when the serious problems take place. Just look at 2020 as being a gentle signal from Mother Nature. It was just a dry run to see how prepared we were to face much tougher challenges. I guess it has been pretty obvious that we are not prepared one bit. In my second book (We Will Reap What We Sow) that I mentioned earlier, I also had a passage in which I warned that Nature does not do politics, does not do PR and does not care if we are part of it or not. The dinosaurs went extinct, but the universe did not freeze because of that. Actually it processed the dead reptiles into fossil fuels, which we use to possibly repeat history. Since the time I published the book, some new concepts have developed and I should add that Nature does not do conspiracy theories, does not function in an alternative physics, either. The choice of our future is ours. We can succeed or we can fail. It truly is a case of We Will Reap What We Sow.

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The futuristic and the future

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.

Almost nine years of The Food Futurist and a new approach

Time flies by. It feels like I started this blog yesterday. Yet, next April, it will be nine years ago that I started to write some random thoughts without any much other purpose that put them in writing. I had not thought that what was coming next would be as successful as it has been. So let’s review quickly a bit what has happened in the past nine years and where it will head in the future.

First, it is good to remember that nine years ago the world was experiencing a major economic crisis and commodity prices were at their high. As a result many people were concerned that agriculture would not be able to adjust production to meet future demand. The topic of the future of food and agriculture was rather hot. For this reason, interest for my articles was growing as I was posting more of them. This led me to expand and compile my material. My first book, Future Harvests, was born and published. To my surprise, the book sales exceeding my expectations and my name started to circulate. Customers started to come to me. It is remarkable in a way that I never had to prospect for customers. The interest for the topic and for my work led me to publish my second book, We Will Reap What We Sow.

The rather modest blog has delivered. I did many presentations and participated to many conferences internationally. I have been interviewed many times by both mainstream media as specialized media from a number of countries. My articles and books seem to have found their ways in high schools and university in many countries, too. Customers came to me to have my views on what is coming and appreciated my approach. The outcome has been very positive. Personally, beyond the assignments, I am quite happy to see that my predictions have been accurate and that I could see future developments earlier than others. This is why and how I truly add value to my customers. This sense of anticipation is a complete part of who I am. It has always been. I have no idea where this intuition and sort of sixth sense comes from but it is there and quite real.

On the other side of these positives, I have to admit that I am a little disappointed, in a relative manner though. If I can be proud to be ahead of the pack and see things earlier than most people, it also means that they do not anticipate the changes and the opportunities to come as well as they should and could. I find this worrying especially in the case of large organizations, be it corporations, governments or NGOs, because considering the resources that they have, I should be irrelevant and the one to be left behind. On my FAQ page I give a couple of examples about the FAO, but I could make a much longer list of similar cases. Believe you me, if I had their resources, I would be a rocket launcher. Another source of disappointment, although not to common fortunately, has been those who clearly felt threatened by the knowledge I was sharing with their organizations. It was truly amazing to see that particular global corporate senior executive, in charge of group of almost 100 strategists from all over the world, monopolizing the microphone for an endless attempt to show he knew more than I did anyway. I don’t know if he did and I don’t care but it was an awkward situation and quite a few of his employees were exchange looks with me showing the same kind of awkwardness I was experiencing. There have been other occurrences of people who simply do not want to have an open mind because they have difficulties with disruptive change coming their way. They can cling to the present but they won’t last. Pity because all the predictions I presented them have now materialized. As I said, such negative experiences have been rare and I never quite understand why any organization would want to hire someone like me if all I could tell was stuff they already know. Where would be my added value then? They should have been happy that I was presenting them a new vision of the future and should welcome the opportunities that they offer.

Change happens everywhere and for everyone. That is true for me, too. This is why the time has come for me to rethink my role as The Food Futurist. For how accurate my predictions may have been, as time goes by, more and more people have become aware of things to come. I do not see the point for me to keep on telling the same stories over and over again. The added value fades over time and I do not like to be in the herd.

The first change that I want to implement is a shift from the likely future towards the desirable future. So far, I have been focusing more on the rational and factual aspects of the future and the changes happening. This more analytical approach is somehow easier in the sense that people are, believe it or not, rather predictable. History tends to repeat itself. By shifting to the desirable future, I will be able to bring more of my own vision and in particular pinpoint the absurdities of our current systems and why keeping on doing more of the same, although in a slightly different packaging, will result in the same results.

Bringing in my personal opinion instead of rationalizing the dynamics of change will also allow me to focus more on philosophical, and possibly, political aspects of the future. It is my strong conviction that when it comes to the future of food and agriculture, there is a strong imbalance between the technological aspects and the human aspects, the latter being gravely neglected and if we do not change our attitude about this, there will be negative consequences. The future of humankind is really about humans. Unfortunately, we do not think enough about the future in human terms. I will explore this further. Forecasting the future of technology is easy. What everyone talks about nowadays is what I have talked about years before. Only those who sleep haven’t read or heard about all the tech possibilities. Time for me to go beyond what everyone can find online easily. I won’t add value to you and to myself by settling in the herd and talking about same stuff as dozens others do. Anyone with half a brain can do a Google search and write a book about future technologies. There is all you can find. There is the realistic and the fantasy just as well. What does it matter, since the future is later? Technologies that will not deliver will be forgotten and for technologies that deliver results, it will be easy to say “told you so”.

My goal will be to develop a vision that is centered on human prosperity and happiness. It must be clear that I do not intend to neglect new technologies because future tech developments will affect our lives. Instead of looking at the future from a futuristic point of view, I will do that from a quality of life point of view and look at the practical consequences of change, even more so than I have done so far. I wish to engage in a reflection process more than simply play futurist/consultant because the latter too easy and the former hardly anyone really does. I like to be ahead and I like to be different.

In the future, I might talk less about food and agriculture specifically and more about big picture and connecting the dots between food and agriculture and all the other dimensions. My philosophy in life and in business is simple. Everything I do, I do not do for my personal glory. I could care less about that. What I do is for you, for my customers and help others expand their horizons and think more. The thinking part is becoming more and more of a necessity, especially in a world where everything seems to be aimed at distracting people from thinking too much (having a brain and using might be subversive you know) or simply inhibiting them from thinking thanks to political correctness which is no different in its purpose and functioning as a thought police and insidious form of dictatorship.

For the future of this blog and of my work, there will be more love and more tough love. I will be more direct and outspoken. I will challenge leaders, because they really need to be challenged. I won’t do this in an aggressive manner but I will pinpoint the weaknesses and demand higher standards. The “me here and now” leads only to disaster. I will bring more of “the others somewhere else and later as well”.

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

The Accordion, the Contrarian & the Robot

Although change happens all the time, in some areas human nature demonstrates great constancy. One of these areas is how Pavlovian we react to market fluctuations. Agriculture knows many cycles, most of which are as much the result of human nature as the mechanics of economics.

In the time of high commodity prices that preceded and followed the Great Recession of 2008, one of the main questions I was asked about the future of agriculture was to give predictions about prices and profitability of agriculture. This is a tricky exercise if there is any. So many factors can influence both supply and demand that it is unrealistic to believe someone could predict with certainty future prices. Price predictions would only be meaningful by predicting costs at the same time. Despite the difficulty, many economists venture in the exercise. The levels of accuracy are disappointing. Past research on economists’ and gurus’ predictions has shown accuracy levels of 47% on average. In other words, tossing a coin would statistically be more accurate by a margin of 3%.

When “predicting” the future, it is more useful to focus on patterns than trying to miraculously try to pull the right numbers. Human nature is rather predictable. When prices and profitability are good, suppliers want to produce more, because they expect the result to be even higher profits. It is intuitive, and it would work fine only if the competitors did not follow the same thinking. Unfortunately, they do and the result is an increase in supplies. As it takes two to have a supplier-customer relationship, the flip coin of the high price medal is that buyers are less warm to buy more of what increase their costs. I like to compare value chains to an accordion. There is only so much money that flows between the two ends of the entire chain, and all the links must share that money. One end is the consumer market and depending on prices, consumers switch foods when prices reach a pain threshold. Since the amount of money entering value chains actually come from the consumer end, consumer resistance limits the elasticity of the entire chain. Thus, depending on the relative supply and demand between the individual links of the chain, some see their profitability expand while others see it shrink. The FAO knows the conundrum. High food prices put the economically vulnerable into food insecurity, while low food prices put many small farmers in economic difficulties, and into food insecurity. There is nothing like a food shortage causing high prices to encourage farmers to produce more. Following high price years, they have done exactly that, and that is why prices have fallen, sometimes to the point that entire sectors suffer dramatic losses. Low prices will give an incentive to those who will survive to boost their production, and the cycle will continue.

The counter intuitive approach is to be a contrarian and to supply tomorrow products that have low price and low profitability today and reduce exposure to today’s attractive products. It is easier said than done, because natural conditions limit the choice of products a farm can produce and heavy investments for one kind of production can limit flexibility. Nonetheless, the contrarian approach is a good one from a planning and forecast perspective. Market swings happen because forecasts tend to be made with today’s prices in mind and assume that the system is static. It is not. Forecasts must take into account the big picture and project what all actors of the value chain will do, as well as in what shape other value chains are and will be. The tools have been here for a while. The exercise then comes down to technical analysis, which is a very common method used by traders. It uses historical data and the predictability of human behaviour to give an indication of which direction prices are most likely to go in the future. Unfortunately, too many actors in value chains do not use that tool for their forecasting and miss on the most likely picture of the future. Some help might be coming, though. The development of software, robotics and artificial intelligence will come to the rescue by eliminating the intuitive and preference of the present of human nature by more rational analysis and forecasting than is the case today. Price setting and negotiations will increasingly be automated and carried out by machines, squeezing out the human factor, especially for undifferentiated commodities. Wall Street is already working on this. Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs indicated that they were going to replace traders by software engineers to achieve this very change, and also to reduce their costs, as a software engineers cost them four times less than a trader.

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

Robots, sensors, drones and big data are coming to the sea, too – Fishermen and aquaculturists: be prepared!

There is not a day that goes by without articles about new technologies in agriculture. I enjoy seeing the excitement because I believe it is will revolutionize how farmers produce food. When I started The Food Futurist in 2009, I saw right away that this was coming. I have to say that I am even happier to see the interest for all the drones, robots, driverless tractors and sensors as when I was telling about it in my presentations until probably just 18 months ago, the audience would look amused. They would love to hear my “Star Trek” story. That is how my topic was referred to. It was entertaining. They liked the story but they reacted as if I had a bit too much of imagination. For sure I never come short of that but to me, it was no fantasy. It was going to happen. And I do not see why it would not happen at sea just as well.

The arrival of new technologies is interesting far beyond simply the technological aspect. The possibilities are many if we decide to use them to their full potential, by linking them with each other and with the management of farms and of the environment.

Just like in agriculture, so far mechanization had been mostly about adding muscle to the operators. It was about performing physical tasks faster with less manual labor. The new technologies are of a different nature. They are about creating a nervous system. With the new technologies, the ability to monitor, collect data, analyze, make decisions will not only be faster, it has the potential to be autonomous, but under supervision of the farmer. It will provide more precise information, reduce the possibility of errors and will fix mistakes mush faster when they happen.

Just like on the land, new devices will be available. Satellites, drones and sensors will be able to be the eyes and the senses of the operator. Data processing software and artificial intelligence will be able to monitor in real time and 24/7 any event on the fish farm and in its environment. It will be able to report and initiate relevant actions. Robots will carry tasks that used to be done by the farmers. Fish robots are being developed. Fish robot MITFor instance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has created a soft body fish robot. The development of such fish robots is aimed at carrying out research on fish schools in the oceans, but there is no reason why similar robots could not be made to swim between the fish on farms, to monitor them and to record and report information about proper feeding, fish growth and fish health. From a technical point of view, nothing stops us from adding biometrics software in the fish robot that could be used for ongoing sampling to estimate the size of the fish in production, and the size distribution as well. It would replace static cameras and the need to dive in the nets. The “vision” of robot fish would probably be better than the human eye. Of course, the information collected by the robot would be sent to the computer to continuously determine technical production results and readjust feeding and harvest schedules. Sensors inside and outside the nets would allow to monitor environmental conditions such as water quality, in particular oxygen content. Biosensors could monitor levels of plankton and risks of algae blooms as well as the presence or the level of pathogens. All that information would be linked to the computer and fed to the central nervous system assisting the farmer. Satellites and aerial drones can also help monitor events inside the pens and provide further production information to complement what originates from the fish robots. They also can give a bird’s eye view of the farm environment. This would work in two directions. One is the prevention of harmful events to enter the nets. The other is the monitoring of the environmental impact of farms to prevent any pollution or take corrective action at once. Sensors at the bottom of the ocean and aquatic drones could also take continuous sample of the environment around the farm to detect any potentially harmful component for the environment. This would help making fish farms more environmentally friendly. In such a design, the farm becomes part of the nervous system. It can be managed even from a distance. After all, some people have already built a number of houses that are connected in such a way these houses can send tweets to the owner to tell them of any event inside or outside, even if someone is at the door. It is also possible to think of linking the system to the nets and have the net size adjusting automatically to the production conditions inside and the need of the proper volume based on water quality data. The farms could also move –horizontally and/or vertically if needed, depending on water quality, but also to avoid harmful interaction with wild fish, which is always a contentious issue between fish farming and commercial fisheries. Such mobile cages already exist. With all these systems, the farmer could actually follow several sites, instead of one, at the same time on interactive screens and interact with the machine and the systems.

It gets even more interesting by looking from further away and higher up. By having robots and aquatic drones roaming the oceans, it will become easier to have a full monitoring of ocean ecology, environmental conditions, sources of pollution, stocks of the different seafood species and all other life forms present. It would make fisheries’ management easier and more effective. It would address sustainability issues both for fisheries and for aquaculture. It would not only help seafood producers, but it would provide fact-based support to make policies -locally and globally- and to manage an important part of food production in better harmony.

The use of new technologies does not stop at the farm or in the ocean, though. Seafood processing, like any other food production, is also going to use robots more and more. Quality will also be monitored through new technologies and reports will be produced automatically. Robotics and data collection will ensure production and quality system that can take corrective action automatically. By connecting all the data produced along the entire production chain, traceability and transparency will be improved further. If used well big data can help improve food quality, sustainability and cooperation between the different stakeholders. It will help manage more efficiently. It also will be a tool to increase trust in the way food is produced and allow a closer connection between producers and consumers.

Copyright 2014 – the Happy Future Group Ltd.

Precision is the future of agriculture and our future

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.

Just for fun, a bit of science fiction

One of the issues that I regularly raise during my presentations is the one of the farmers of the future. As about everywhere in the world, the average age of farmers is increasing, this brings the question of who will take over and what effect it will have on the future of agriculture and future production systems.

One topic that generates interest from audiences is the possibility of having farming robots. Surprisingly, the same intrigued enthusiasm comes from audiences that have a bias against industrial large-scale agriculture. Yet, the prospect of robots roaming the fields does not seem to be a cause for concern.

Because of the lack of interest by the youth to take over farms, the Japanese are actively working on setting up farms that could be run by robots, instead of humans. In many other countries the aging farming population with the limited interest from younger people to become farmers, also linked to the rising price of agricultural land, raises the question of how big farms might become, and how to manage them.

Currently, the many developments in the field of robotics, of satellite applications, of field sensors and of computer programs make a futuristic picture of farming become more realistic.

With the expected rise of the cost of energy and of the price of all compounds made with massive use of fossil fuels, precision agriculture is the future. The name of the game will be zero-waste. Future economics will not allow for wasting energy, water or fertilizers or any other input. It will be imperative to get the most out of the least, not just simply producing more with less.

The use of satellites to map fields and indicate the variation of the content of fertilizing elements in the soil is already a reality. The use of GPS for harvest is now common with modern equipment. We are really only one step away from having computers processing all this data and operating fertilizer spreaders by automatically regulating the distribution of fertilizer on the field, based on the soil scan assessment. This will avoid overuse of fertilizer in zones that already contain enough nutrients. With the expected exhaustion of phosphate mines, and the large variation of phosphate contents in soil, it will pay off.

We are also only one step away from having tractors, harvesters and other agricultural equipment doing the fieldwork without drivers. A company in Iowa is already developing such a technology by linking the position of a tractor to the harvester via GPS. Such an approach makes the use of human operators less of a need than it used to be. This would allow farmers to manage much larger areas from one remote location. Their role would become more one of process controller, monitoring and steering the fieldwork by ways of cameras and remote control. This also would require less physical work, thus allowing aging farmers to manage at least as much production as they would have at a younger age. This would become even more of a possibility, as farming robots would be developed to replace humans for the physically more demanding activities.

Developments in the area of sensors also offer many possibilities in terms of farm and risk management. The ability of monitoring variations of temperature, humidity, plant growth, the presence of diseases, fungi and other pests in real-time would help make use of resources much more efficiently. Current developments of biosensors used in food packaging are amazing. Some of such sensors have the ability to turn fluorescent in presence of food pathogens. They can help prevent risks of food poising. Sensors help to detect undesirable “visitors”. Sensors also would help farmers detect potential threats at an earlier stage, even before they actually become visible by the human eye. This would allow starting treatment before problems could take proportions that would threaten production. This has the potential to help farmers produce more optimally, and to produce higher yields than they would otherwise. Linking such sensors to devices that can release the necessary amounts of water, nutrients, pesticides and possibly herbicides would help produce quite efficiently, and would reduce the use of inputs. This would help reduce waste, work towards more sustainable farming methods and reduce the use of chemicals, as they would be used only at the right time, at the right place and in the right quantities, instead of being applied systematically to the whole fields, including areas where they are not needed. The use of airplanes to spread chemicals could be eliminated, which would also reduce the use of fossil fuels. Instead of airplanes, it is possible to envision the use of drones that would have a “patrolling” function to detect anomalies or the extension of pests in the fields. By bringing the huge amount of data that these robots, sensors and drones would produce, fields would be monitored on a 24/7 basis and decision-making would be faster than today. Corrective action could be implemented automatically just as well.

By adding more monitoring functions and developing ecological modeling, this futuristic approach would be a way of managing the interaction between the crop itself, which is the purpose of food production, and the need to manage the ecosystem surrounding the fields, to ensure that production is carried out in an environmentally sustainable manner. Monitoring living organisms in and outside the fields would help optimizing production. The farmer would know the status of soil organisms, mostly worms, insects and microorganisms. He would be able to deal with pests in a targeted manner, almost in a similar way as the images of surgical strikes that we can see in the news. Mapping the extent of weeds through such devices would also allow their control in a targeted manner and with minimal use of potentially harmful compounds. The emphasis would be about control and management, not on killing out everything that seems a threat.

Further, monitoring fields as described above would support the environmental steward’s role of farmers, while making it easier to execute as well. Farmers would be informed timely about production effects on groundwater quality and possible residues in the soil and the crops.

Of course, all of the above sounds like a bit of science fiction, but considering the amazing innovations taking place in the all the areas mentioned, together with the constant miniaturization of devices and the increased processing abilities of computers, it might not be as far-fetched as it may sound today. Although many of these developments are not taking place in the agriculture sector as such, they are real and happening faster than one could imagine. Farming in 50 years from now will probably look different from it does today.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The math and the myth

No, this is not one of those “are in a boat” riddles. Those who have read my articles or my book know that I like to bring some perspective by crunching numbers and double checking statements that seem beyond any discussion.

During National Agriculture Week held last week in the US, one of such statements popped up in most of the social media dedicated to agriculture: In 2010, one US farmer provided on average for the needs of 155 people, while in 1960 this number was only 26!

Of course, if you follow social media, you know that, immediately, the partisans, mostly in the Midwest, spread the good news as fast and as much as they could. To them, this number of 155 is the best proof that large-scale industrial technology and mechanization driven agriculture is the best there is, and US farmers are the best in the world! So that the world knows it this time!

That is clear. Or is it really? Then let’s look at the numbers a little closer and do some math.

Knowing that China became the first export destination of US agricultural goods since only last month, finally passing Canada and its gigantic 35-million population, I had some doubts.

First, one statistic that is not mentioned in the 155 per farmer is the total number of farms. This number dropped from 4 million in 1960 to 2.2 million in the latest (of 2007) census mentioned on the USDA website. Going from 26 to 155 would have been very impressive if the number of farmers had been stable, but this is not the case.

In 1960, 4 mio x 26 = 104 million people fed.

In 2010, and by keeping the number of 2.2 million farms, the calculation is 2.2 mio x 155 = 341 million people fed.

Instead of increasing 6-fold (155/26) as the fans try to make believe, the actual improvement of US agricultural production has increased only 3.3 times. Over a period of 50 years, this represents an average year-on-year increase of people fed by US agriculture of only 2.4%. It is higher than the average year-on-year increase of the world population over the same period, but it is not stellar, either. As an indication for comparison, the world’s food production has increased by 3% year-on-year over the same period.

This becomes interesting when comparing with other parts of the world. I choose India, because, it is often presented, especially in the Anglo-Saxon press, as a country that does not tackle agriculture properly. According to those articles, India should be a lot more like the US, going big and industrial, instead of keeping their large rural population.

India has 1.2 billion inhabitants, and statistics indicate that 200 million people are malnourished. This implies that 1 billion people are fed reasonably. Now, let’s compare another number that rarely appears in analyses. The population density of India is 10 times higher than the American population density. This means that if the US had the same population density as India, there would be 3 billion Americans, and only 341 million of them would have food. In such conditions, they would not eat much meat, they would not suffer from obesity and they certainly would think twice before growing food to feed their cars. If India had the population density of the US, there would be only 120 million Indians. India would probably be the largest food exporter in the world.

Maybe this comparison is not the best to make. After all, the Indian diet is rather different from the American one, and India still needs imports to feed its people. Let’s try something that is closer to America in terms of eating situation: the EU.

There rarely passes a day by without some article from a US industrial agriculture supporter that criticizes Europeans to resist the American model, especially GMO crops. According to the biased pundits, Europe is losing ground because of this shortsighted stubbornness. There again, some math can help. Once again, the population density will provide us with insight. If the US had the population density of the EU, there would be 1.1 billion Americans. Once again, that is much higher than the 341 million that US farmers can feed. As far as the EU is concerned, the region is self-sufficient, and in most European countries, the yearly per capita consumption of meat is close to 100 kg. There is no food security problem in the EU. In this case, we are not comparing meat eaters and vegetarians. Just as it looked that India was doing not such a bad job at feeding its people, the EU actually delivers a nice and enviable performance.

The math shows us that the number of people fed by one farmer is not a good indicator of the actual performance of the national agriculture. I would compare it with bragging about the number of horsepower in one’s car engine without looking at how far that car can take you. Gas mileage is more important. In the case of the US, the 155 only indicates that there are very few farmers, and that they have to manage very large farms. It is not an indicator of yields. Bigger, more intensive or more technology do not necessarily mean more efficient. It has to be the right size, the optimal level of intensification and the proper use of the right type of technology.

A much more relevant number is the number of people that one hectare (or one acre) of land can feed. With this indicator, the performance of the US is average. The key is the yield. In the case of wheat, which is grown in most regions, the yield in the EU varies between 6 and 9 tons per hectare, depending on the country. In the US, the yield is of only 3 tons/hectare, which also happens to be the world average.

What the math really shows is that the world is very diverse. It is diverse from demographic, economic, sociocultural, climatic, agricultural points of view. Agriculture is not mechanics. It must consider all these parameters and be adapted to the specific environment to meet food demand optimally. There is no universal model, and there does not need to be any. We simply must focus on producing high yields in a sustainable manner, meaning that this performance can be repeated indefinitely for the generations to come. To grow food, we need good seeds, fertile soil , proper financial resources and skilled farmers!

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Since we cannot beat Nature…

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.