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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Almost nine years of The Food Futurist and a new approach

March 26, 2018

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

June 8, 2017

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!

December 2, 2014

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.

Here is a presentation about new technologies I did recently at a Precision Agriculture Conference. If you invite me to a Seafood conference, I will be happy to talk about the future with your audience.

Copyright 2014 – the Happy Future Group Ltd.


Precision is the future of agriculture and our future

August 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2014 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Just for fun, a bit of science fiction

October 15, 2011

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

March 22, 2011

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.