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Agriculture of tomorrow: from silo to cooperation

The food system is at the confluence of different contexts: distribution, consumption, and production. The latter was once a direct function of three factors: the soil, animals, and humans. The whole has been made more productive thanks to mechanization and nitrates, i.e. hydrocarbons. We eat petrol!

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Can we maintain this productivity without oil?

If we think within the farm, one possible answer is low tech, i.e. a return to the practices that existed before mechanization. But the question of productivity quickly comes up, and with it the question of costs.

Another response is to increase technological intensity. But this still poses many problems: it is not easy to extract beet with a robot. And energy is still the main issue, even if we can imagine a shift to electricity.

On the other hand, if we broaden our thinking from the farm to the various contexts in which it is embedded, and in particular to the food system, other possibilities appear. We can optimize the organization, make sure that agriculture is better integrated into food chains and financing chains. There is a lot of potential here, because we are talking about a poorly organized, fragmented, and poorly modeled world, where many decisions are made in an uncooperative way.

How to improve cooperation

To optimize the organization, public policies are needed. The issue of food security has been an invisible problem in the public arena for several decades, but just because the problem has been solved does not mean that it will not arise again. Questions of food sovereignty will soon come up again, as climate change will put a strain on production systems.

However, it is certainly not a question of centralizing everything, in the manner of the Gosplan, the disastrous results of which are well known in agriculture. The challenge is rather to achieve better coordination between actors whose interests are not aligned today.

Gosplan, abbreviation of Gosudarstvennyy Planovyy Komitet (State Planning Committee), central board that supervised various aspects of the planned economy of the Soviet Union by translating into specific national plans the general economic objectives outlined by the Communist Party and the government (established in February 1921).

One of the horizons is therefore, within thirty years, a platform for European food, with the sharing of a certain amount of data between all the players. The platform will supply the major distributors and will also allow financiers to perform risk analyses. The platform allows the mathematization of agriculture. It is the key to a better organization. The challenge is to make the different chains (production, distribution, financing) more collaborative and to have new decision-making tools. To do this, it is important to model these chains from end to end, from the farm to distribution and investment funds, and to equip the decision-making processes at all geographical levels.

Blockchain is a shared, immutable ledger that facilitates the process of recording transactions and tracking assets in a business network. An asset can be tangible (a house, car, cash, land) or intangible (intellectual property, patents, copyrights, branding). Source: IBM
Unique features of blockchain: decentralised, trustless, transparent, immutability.

A return to the cooperatives that modernized European agriculture after 1945?

The cooperative model in Europe compensated for the fact that farms were too small by allowing, for example, the pooling of equipment: modernization and cooperation went hand in hand and a new level was reached. These cooperatives, some of which have become very powerful, were organized as buying and selling groups, with some advice.

But the virtuous side of this model was weakened by two phenomena: the first is that it belongs only to the farmers. The second is that European agriculture has been organized in silos, and that it has been organized within the framework of an agricultural production policy. Public policies have thus created a clear separation between production and food, which can still be seen today in the Green Deal.

Climate change and environmental degradation are an existential threat to Europe and the world. To overcome these challenges, the European Green Dealwill transform the EU into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy, ensuring: no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, economic growth decoupled from resource use, no person and no place left behind.

Platforming and modeling offer a way to manage collective decisions and to introduce more rationality into them.

Fragmentation of models on farms

Agricultural expertise is stored in thousands of small tools, spreadsheets, mini-simulators, small calculators, developed ad hoc by farmers, technical institutes, associations, agri-food industrialists, cooperatives or laboratories, without any consolidation. These tools are generally “outside the information system”, i.e. they are not fed by any recurrent data flow. They are also not very user-friendly, due to a lack of investment, and for the most part are not used. Last but not least, what they lack is a systemic approach.

On the technical side, plant and animal genetics are modeled, as well as fertilizer and phytosanitary product prescriptions. On the financial and farm accounting side, risk scores, performance indicators and business plans are modeled based on regulatory models. But agriculture has no systemic model at the farm level. Decision support tools generally model only one facet of life: the fight against this or that disease, the implementation of this or that practice, in short, a very small part of the overall system.

The food industry optimizes its logistics, industrial processes and forecasts its food sales through models. But nothing is coordinated.

Jérémie Wainstain, PhD in solid state physics

The food industry optimizes its logistics, industrial processes and forecasts its food sales through models. But nothing is coordinated.

As for the models used by public policies, they are obsolete and serve most of the time to distribute subsidies. They are models of economic flows and balances that look to the past and ignore the agronomic dimension. We are thus deprived of tools to steer the Green Deal, which explains why ideology takes precedence over reality: the figure of 30% less pesticides is thus a political figure, which is not supported by data.

The energy and environmental transition to move to new models?

The problems of poor coordination, fragmentation and separation between production and food explain to a large extent the malaise of European agriculture, a sector poorly financed by the private sector and supported by public funds, which questions its future and has difficulty investing.

Yet the real problems are ahead of us: food security, agro-ecology, decarbonization, soil restoration. Everything needs to be done, in a context marked by climate change, tensions on raw materials and probable turbulence on the world markets for agricultural and food products.

Agriculture, which had been simplified with the price of carbon and subsidies, has suddenly become what it was: a complex activity, because life is complex. And food is a very complicated subject. The sector must now face contradictory injunctions that place it on the threshold of a major upheaval.

From the new geopolitical situation to the rise in energy prices and therefore in input costs, all the elements are present for a crisis, with domino effects. Even a minor element such as environmental labeling contributes to destabilizing the system.

Conclusion

This major disruption opens up a field for the creation of new models, and the technology is there: without waiting for platformization, we are now able to create and run models that are sufficiently sophisticated and rich in data to allow for the mathematization of production, but also of consumer behavior and financing – the latter being a key issue for accelerating the transformation.

If we need to model, it is because we are collectively blind, and we are looking backwards while the challenges are ahead. The actors are aware of what awaits them. It is now a matter of organizing themselves so as not to be caught by the full force of the wave.