Food and agriculture – feeding the globe

In the beginning of June The Economist published an interesting article on the future of agriculture and how new technologies can help improve yields and reduce the required resources for food production. The growing world population requires more food and climate change may take its toll on agriculture. Among the examples for getting better harvests and increasing efficiency in food production were the use of GPS for more directed fertilizing, gene technology as a means to improve yields and make crops resistant to disease and big data analytics to analyze the effects of selected technologies on food production.

The article discussed how food production can be made more effective and efficient, but it also provoked thoughts in to the direction of equality and food consumption.

In the article was the below graphic from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showing the estimated global consumption of calories per capita and food source by 2050.

Source: The Economist Original source: FAO
Source: The Economist
Original source: FAO






What struck my eye was the estimate on food intake of about 3´000 kilocalories per person per day in 2050. Based on the same graphic, that is an increase of about 13% from the 2010 level of roughly 2’650 kilocalories and an increase of 25% from the level in 1970. Yet, we certainly are not more active on average, and a large portion of the population is doing office work, a trend unlikely to see an end any time soon as robots take over the more physical tasks.

The Economist cites a FAO report from 2009 that estimated the required increase in agricultural production to be 70% in order to meet the forecast demand induced by increases in global population and food intake per capita. The Western World is already battling with obesity and the developing economies are, unfortunately, catching up, so the required increases on food production could be more moderate, if we put more effort into keeping ourselves at a healthy weight and eating what we need instead of what we want. As the FAO estimates the world population to be 9.7 billion by 2050, just keeping the average caloric consumption at current levels would require an increase of 30-40% in the global food production based on the population growth of 2.4 billion from today’s 7.3 billion. This would require only half of the growth required to meet also the increases in expected average food consumption per capita.

Wasting food, saving time

The technological advances in farming technology, gene technologies, aquaculture and other related fields might be enough to increase food production as required by the increasing population and the growing average food consumption. But I think it would be irresponsible to use all that technological capacity regardless of whether we actually need it or not to feed the whole world adequately. If we make more and more food available, even with the same resources, we either end up eating more with stable or even reduced activity levels, inducing obesity, or we end up wasting more of the food if it won’t be eaten. The first option would be undesirable since all we end up with is more obese people who have to be treated. This would lead to increased costs in health care, and these costs are avoidable just by avoiding eating all that much.

The second option, more food being available and more going to waste is not necessarily a bad option. For example, if the availability of food reduces people’s time spent on doing grocery shopping and the time required “for finding food”, the benefits may overweigh the costs of the wasted food. If a high-skilled person can use this extra time to do productive work and the value of his output is higher than the value of the wasted food that is allocated to him, it is clearly beneficial to have an abundance of food and throw part of it away. The problem here is that such an analysis, especially on a global level is not trivial: How much time each person can spare? How will the person use this time? What is the value of the activities and their outputs that came out of this extra time? How can we even measure the value of these outputs coherently? Is it morally acceptable to use food for time optimization in some countries when others have their people starving?

The above questions are just some that we would have to answer, but I think that any economist worth his bread could give at least an indication how to approach the problem. Gaining global commitment and coordination for such endeavors is yet a further complication.

Food for the hungry, food for thought

Whether or not we will use new technology to improve our global productivity by making food more readily available to all, I think it is clear that famine, malnutrition and obesity are problems that have to be solved in any case.

Since we already have, on average, enough nutrition to feed the whole world, maybe we should use the technological advancements selectively to distribute the available food and nutrition more equally and efficiently. This can take place either locally by use of better farming methods or via centralized farming and global logistics, depending on which alternative if more effective and efficient.

In 2013 FAO estimated in its report on food and agriculture (see page 5 of the report) the global costs of undernutrition and micro-nutrient deficencies to be 2–3% of the global GDP of some USD 70–80 trillion, and the costs of non-communicable diseases, for which overweight and obesity are key risk factors, to be in aggregate about 2% of the global GDP in 2010 during the following two decades. Clearly, undernutrition is still the larger problem, by a factor of 20, yet the increasing obesity problem all over the world should be tackled now, before it becomes, well, bigger.

As I see it, undernutrition and obesity can be partially targeted with complementary methods. Undernutrition is caused by too little high quality food, while obesity is caused by too much food in relation to activity levels, and the food eaten might also be of inferior quality, lacking in nutrients. Therefore, the key would be to improve the general nutritional quality of consumed food all over the world. I am not going to start a lecture on sugary drinks and high-fructose corn-syrup, but they are admittedly in the center of the discussion, when it comes to low-quality food. The total cost aspect of nutritious food and increased activity levels leading to reduced health care costs is also an important point in this discussion.

As other areas of life, we might and should think food and physical activity as daily choices. Life goes on every moment and waiting for the right time to do things or start something is useless; it’s never the right time, so we should start now. Likewise, our daily food choices and activity are what keeps us healthy, not some miracle diets and fitness programs that are waiting to be started in the future.

What am I doing to help? Currently, just minding my daily choices. As Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” If you wish for more active people, be more active. If you wish people ate healthier, eat healthier.

Just thirty years ago in Europe

I spent the Easter holidays in Prague, one of the European cities best known for its colorful history, beautiful architecture and fine breweries.

During my visit I toured the usual tourist attractions: Charle’s Bridge, the Prague Castle etc. I also visited the Museum of Communism, which gave some food for thought and some perspective on the current crisis in Syria we are witnessing.

It’s roughly thirty years since the fall of communism in the then Tsechoslovakia. In the Museum of Communism I saw videoclips from that time, thousands of people in the streets marching for their freedom and independence, against the unjust government, being sometimes violently dispersed by the police. Just thirty years ago the citizens of a European country were standing up against their own government for their freedom and independence, while also making a stand against the Soviet Union for external independence. And a few years later the Yugoslavian Wars started, lasting for ten years.

Not more than thirty years ago, or in the case of Yugoslavia even more recently, major civil unrest, uprisings and even wars took place in the middle of Europe, throwing people to similar fate as many Syrian citizens are now facing: homes being demolished, families broken apart, futures burnt to dust. I am too young to have any recollection of the evens in Tsechoslovakia or the first phases of the Yugoslavian Wars, but I cannot help but wonder, if we have forgotten the lessons from those events. If we have forgotten, how bad it is, when governments turn against their citizens, or neighbors against each other.

Have we forgotten, how we should help those who are not strong enough to defend themselves? Are we brave enough to make a stand. I hope we have not forgotten. I hope we are brave enough. As C.S. Lewis put it: “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” And the whole world is watching. I am also trying to understand, why such events happen in the first place. Why do we want to hurt each other?

Since I am not helping directly at the crisis zone, I will do my small part by donating USD 300 (or a bit under 300 euros) to the UNHCR to help Syrian refugees.

Skill or luck – on outcomes, rewards and fairness 2/2

Who gets the prize?

In my previous post I showed how skill and luck play a role in most activities and why it is important to distinguish between the two and their impact on outcomes. I also argued that evaluating outcomes and awarding people only on that basis is not always right. Yet, we often evaluate outcomes, since they are often easy to grasp and measure. However, as already mentioned, if an individual’s or organization’s impact on a specific outcome is negligible in comparison to the impact that luck has, evaluation solely based on outcome is not fair. The individual should rather be evaluated based on his adhering to the agreed process used to reach the outcome, as previously discussed. Also, among top performers luck, paradoxically, plays a relatively larger role in deciding outcomes. Therefore, we should in evaluating performance and providing merit pay attention to the three following points:

  1. Level of personal influence
  2. The process used to reach the outcome
  3. Level of competition

If we have no or very little personal influence on our success or failure, we should not be overly rewarded for good outcomes, nor punished or left completely unrewarded when the outcomes are less favorable. As mentioned before, luck dominated events might be shoved towards the skill dominated end of the spectrum, but this requires honing our skills and executing the event so as to maximize our impact. In this case, even if luck still dominates the outcome, we will have done our best to tilt the scales to our benefit; had we not followed the optimal process, the outcome would have been even worse. This implies that the correct process of working towards a goal and becoming proficient in that process should be merited, although measuring this might be more complicated than simply observing the outcome.

Finally, we should always observe the level of competition. If a person finishes last in the hundred meter dash finals in the Olympics, he is not a failure in sports and hardly beaten by the casual sprinter. Since luck has a larger role in defining the exact outcome at the top level, especially here we should give rewards for effort and process, not for the outcome. Of course outcomes do matter and they should be given merit. After all, if an outcome gets no merit, why would anyone go through the process required to reach that outcome? We just have to pay attention to the division of merit: as the pressure of reaching good outcomes and the desire for the prize get too high, the correct process may not be adhered to anymore, making the achieved outcomes also questionable.

Bonus or layoff, either way deserved?

As a practical example on rewarding individuals in a group of top performers I raise the rank and yank used by some companies to encourage their employees for better performance. The purposefulness of this policy is easily evaluated with the skill-luck model.

With rank and yank I refer to the practice where employees are annually ranked into multiple categories with fixed percentage quotas, and their future career development and remuneration is category dependent. For example, 10% are evaluated as top performers and they are given above average bonuses and promoted to more demanding position, 80% are average and receive the average bonus while keeping their current job and 10% are below average and have to be fired. Here we have at least three problems: role of skill and luck in an outcome, paradox of skill and the correctness of the evaluation. I will disregard the correctness of evaluation from further discussion, since it is a separate topic, but it is obvious that if the results of an evaluation are not correct or are inconsistent with other evaluations, any decision based on that becomes questionable.

As mentioned before, if the outcome of an individual’s work is largely dominated by luck, firing that individual due to poor outcomes hardly seems justified, assuming that the individual has tried to maximize the potential outcome to the best of his abilities. Also, if the individual belongs to a group of talented individuals, luck is bound to have a larger effect on the exact individual performance inside the group, again making the following gratification and firing of employees questionable.

Companies are reviewing and changing their evaluation and reward systems to help their employees learn and improve their skills constantly. For example, General Electric is using an mobile application that enables the supervisor to encourage and give positive feedback for  positive actions while asking to consider changing less desired ones. Here we see how placing the work process under focus might be the way how personal performance is evaluated and remunerated in the future.

Ain’t I lucky being so skillful

As a final thought a few words on the division of well-being on the global level since, here again, it is a question of skill and luck.

Nobody can choose the family and society to which they are born, nor can a person choose the time to which he is born. Yet, based on family ties and structure of the society, the easily accessible life and career paths are limited. A society offering good healthcare, public education for all and a stable government is much more likely to bring about successful individuals than a society plagued with high child mortality, low level of education and turbulent politics. Against this background, it makes me think what is the obligation of the richer countries to assist the poorer ones to reach higher standards of living? What is our obligation as individuals living in the richer countries to help those living in the poorer ones?

If my success is mostly dictated by luck, by having been born in the right country at a good time to the right parents, how much of the ensuing well-being belongs to me and how much should I share with others? I might claim that my success in studies and at work are a result of my own efforts, but they are also based on both nature and nurture, on my education (broadly understood) and genes, both of which are outside factors, or luck. This notion contradicts the definition of skill in the beginning of part one of this post, where I defined DNA and level of proficiency attained through education and practice to be individual attributes. As it seems, drawing a line between personal attributes and external factors is not easy. This makes the final distinction between skill and luck less clear, giving all the more reason for us to think about it and try to reach a fair solution.

To build a better future – Trust and be bold

During the holidays I read couple of science fiction novels, including Olaf Stapledon‘s Last and First Men. Based on the first twenty pages and Star Maker, the previous novel from Stapledon I read, I expect philosophical text that will make me reflect on the current and near-future course of the human race.

During the first twenty pages of Last and First Men Stapleton describes the demise of the First Men, Homo Sapiens, and the events leading to it. Two underlying factors leading to the cascading events are fear and mistrust. Nations start fearing, among other things, that scarce natural resources will be used up by rivaling nations, while also mistrusting each other in striving for the common goals of global peace and well-being.

Although Stapledon wrote his lines already in 1930, to me they seem very current. With the multiple war zones in Middle East, refuge-seeking people leaving their homes and many European countries restricting freedom of movement and building fences, I cannot help feeling a bit fearful: Are we heading down the path Stapledon described over eighty years ago? Have we learnt nothing from the past?

The more we have to lose, the more we tend to fear losing the very things so precious to us. The more we mistrust each other, the more we tend to build barriers to protect us from the perceived threats.

Maybe we should help each other overcome our hardships before anyone has to run for their lives, leaving their home in the middle of a bombed down city. Maybe we should build together a good future instead of setting up fences each on our own and hoping to preserve the present. Maybe, with a bit more openness and sharing, we could trust and be bold instead of shivering in fear and mistrusting each other. Maybe, if we had less to lose as individuals, we would have all the more to gain as humanity.