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    The Politics of Agriculture and Pro Food - Personal Responsibility and Corporate Food Chains

    As we continue the discussions on the Agri-Supply chain and all that encompasses, and at the risk of just stating the obvious, political ideology places a significant role in the sometimes heated exchanges. On one side of the equation are the folks who are steadfast in their belief that it all starts with personal responsibility; generally speaking, these are the folks who are on the front lines supporting agriculture as great #agvocates should. On the other side of the SAME equation are the folks who believe that there are other factors in play within the system that need to be considered; these are predominantly part of the #ProFood movement. Now, I am always putting out reminders not to paint with a broad brush, so to be very clear, the above is not all inclusive. There are some, with no doubt, that do not fit this scenario. For the purposes of this entry, I will be using the above generalization to attempt to further our discussions and elicit feedback.


    So, in my view, we need to see if we can elucidate this equation. There isn't a simple algorithm for this. It is complex with many different variables and outside influences like geography, family history, cultural practices, and many more. Personally, I think we all should be ecstatic that there isn't one set answer. This is where innovation takes hold, we learn to work with a myriad of individuals, knowledge is gained, and progress is made. 


    It seems to me that, after removing the "noise" from the data, there seems to be a disconnect. For the most part, I really do not think that the individuals I have interacted with that are on the Pro Food (all, I REALLY wish you would think of another name...polarizing) "side" are trying to demonize the conventional farming operations. There are those that certainly do, and to those, I call you on the carpet. We are not going to progress agriculture without the full support and participation of multi-generational farmers. As Albert Einstein eloquently stated: The only source of knowledge is experience”. So enough is enough. What many of the Pro Food advocates are trying to do is break the hold large multi-national companies have on certain parts of our food supply chain. Actually, this is a laudable goal; however, it would do everyone on the Pro Food side to remember that honest, ethical, people work at these huge companies and DO NOT deserve the disdain they receive. They are working hard towards the exact same goal we all are. I have met them personally, and you don't know what you are missing. Another point in fact is this: The United States is a capitalistic society. The inevitable outcome /progression is that businesses grow; it's just what you do. Just look at Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Oracle, etc. Focusing efforts to prevent oligopolies from forming, or worst monopolies, is where efforts should be focused. Also, not all corporations providing food and inputs to the system are the devil incarnate. They do good things and will be a part of the solution to the looming crisis we are going to face. 


    To continue the disconnect from the other side of that coin; it is important to remember that one does not have to be deeply involved in an industry to ask questions and lay out constructive criticism. Isn't that what journalist like Edward R. Murrow did for the betterment of our country? As an aside, we need more journalist cut from the cloth of Mr. Murrow. For those of us working in #agriculture, we should, change that, need to listen to what the Pro Food "side" is stating. If we are to truly #agvocate for our profession, we need to take in and assimilate all data points, whether we like the data or not! This will ensure we distribute facts and have a real discussion. We are in unprecedented times given the lack of resources and expected booming population. How do we even approach such a precarious situation? Conventional?, Organic?, Permaculture?, Biodiversity? CSA's?, Local Food Economies? Yes, all of the above. There is room for everyone. 


    I would like to touch on personal responsibility. The position that it all starts with the individual is to simplistic. It negates the many facets of life that truly impact what happens in our lives. I just finished the book The Outliers by Malcom Gladwell. If you haven't read it, it is worth your time. He has a theory that there is no-one that is solely responsible for where they are. Each and every one of us has a cultural legacy that impacts us, and if we really think about, had help along the way, either through a lucky break, parents, right time/right place, and access. I tend to agree with Mr. Gladwell. This doesn't negate the brilliance of certain successful people. It just means that the opportunity was presented to these individuals that allowed them to use their smarts and work hard. I mention this so we can remember that not everyone who "doesn't make the right choice" is lazy. Sometimes, due to circumstances we are not aware of, it just is. This is painting with a very broad brush, and we all know what I think about that. Let's look at it this way:

    What happens when the fulcrum on the above see-saw is not centered? We all know basic physics so the answer is pretty obvious. If the answer starts with and is all about Personal Choice, then we are not paying attention to what the bad companies do. There is no mistaking that there are some bad people in our industry that give us all a bad name. Unfortunately, in our media environment, this is what makes for good news. 


    If we only focus on corporations and negate Personal Choice, we will stifle innovation and not allow people to fail, learn, and progress. By allowing people to fail and then succeed, they will possibly build a successful business that grows and then start the cycle all over again. What an awesome circle! Now this is VERY simplistic and only one idealogical piece of the puzzle, but it is a good example of how political persuasion plays a role in the food debate.


    There was a blog written by @ZacahryCohen earlier this week that was very provocative. It was about Obesity and how farmers should take some blame for this crisis in our country. Needless to say, it got the attention of a few folks, including myself. @JeffFowle and @AndyVance, two excellent #agvocates that I am proud to know and talk with via Twitter wrote responses in their blogs. Both are advocating that it is personal choice that starts it all. Referring back to the fulcrum diagram, would it not be prudent to realize that, yes personal choice is a key factor, but not the only reason? There are other factors that we need to be aware of. 


    One thing I can be sure of is that farmers are not to blame for obesity issues in our country


    It is a mix of people making bad choices, bad policy, and very effective marketing.


    So how do we go about balancing the equation that we started with? Truthfully, we may not be able to balance the equation. Ideology is ideology and philosophy is philosophy; however, I am, and will always be, an optimist. The funny thing is that the equation cannot reach balance and remain there! It will always try to reach equilibrium and then an unknown force will cause more disorder. The fun, interesting, and exciting part is taking part in the attempts to balance the equation. This is what I am passionate about and what motivates me; it is about the journey.

    Living things have no inertia, and tend to no equilibrium. 
    Thomas Henry Huxley - English Biologist

    7 comments:

    1. AWESOME post Nate! I think that you explained your position very well and took some steps toward finding a common ground. As somewhat of an outsider looking in at the Ag & ProFood debate it took me a LONG time to figure out where the "battle lines" were drawn. In my mind, Ag IS ProFood! And really, WHO isn't profood?! I think that in this debate, both sides should be able to find some common ground and I applaud you for trying to facilitate that.

    1. "One thing I can be sure of is that farmers are not to blame for obesity issues in our country.
      It is a mix of people making bad choices, bad policy, and very effective marketing."

      Nate, great post. Farmers who grow things that go into the products that contribute to our nations obesity simply do bear some of the responsibility.

    1. Thanks Zach, I struggle to accept that position. A corn farmer cannot help that Kelloggs hired a Food Engineer that made a product that had corn in it. And how could you possibly know (at least for now) whose corn it was?

      How does the farmer bear responsibility for that? Are they supposed to reduce the production of one crop and replace it with another?

    1. Good post Nate. Thought provoking.

      I'm learning a lot by listening to the #ProFood group and challenging my own pre-conceptions since I obviously work on one side of the equation.

      I do believe there is a balance somewhere here to be achieved and if we keep having conversations and dialogue, then we will find it.

    1. Hey there Mica!

      Thanks for reading. I agree with you completely. It is damn hard though, and sometimes exasperating; however, if it were easy it would already be done! Here's to you and I to continue to be #agvocates. My best.

    1. Food/Ag/health/tech issues are very, very complex -- it helps to try to define the parameters of the argument, as this post does. On the tech side, add this to the mix: 100 years ago Haber and Bosch invented a way to make "bread out of air" and helped create our current food situation. Synthetic fertilizers make industrial ag possible.

    1. Nate - The thing that bothers me most...is you and other #agvocates seem to be accepting the premise of the industrial ag PR machine behind the multinationals (most larger than the economies of say California) that #profood people like myself and others.. are "anti-farmer."

      When someone repeats that meme I lose trust. Because I am not and have never been. I see family farmers as a victim of vertically integrated multinationals which purposefully build their supply chains so that at every juncture they get paid.

      There are all kinds of capitalism - this is not what the classic economist had in mind. They RAILED against corporations over running the civic space, and the power of a person to make a business, to prosper through brains and damn hard work. I am sole proprietor and have been most of my life. I got my first job at 14 and lied about my age to do it! I am not 'anti-business.' Most of #profood are sole proprietors.

      Capitalism isn't carved in stone surrounded by angels trumpeting. It's a system - a human system which needs a great deal of reform.

      We're not "anti-farmer" or "anti-business", and until that characterization is NOT the starting point I will come loaded for bear.


      #Profood is a lose association. Not a corporation. We speak for ourselves...to issues about food, the business of food (we're in it) processing, eating, diet and health because we care about it and MANY of us produce it.

      It's also irritating as hell that for some reason, those engaged in sustainable smaller farmers aren't real farmers for some folks. Why is that? That's garbage and it persists - from the PR hacks.

      I know there's plenty of good people all over the world...some of them are even at the very top. Good people agree the system is really harming people - including actual farmers. How many farmers have collapsed and sold under this system?

      These issues ARE complex. Every sector is facing the same question.

      Is what you do - sustainable?

      Sustainable does not mean hippy, green, woo woo, eco-friendly.... It means this... .can what you do continue? Or will you run off a cliff?

      It means will your business as you pursue it be possible as obvious limits are reached? Or will those limits expressed in -price of inputs - completely over run your business?

      Are you allowed and is it right to externalize the impacts both environmental and societal - OR should those costs be incorporated into your business and therefore addressed as part of running a sustainable business ( farm, cheese making operation, wool herd... chocolate shop?)

      These are business questions anyone running one has to ask.

      Will you survive.

      I am not attacking farmers to ask it. Every part of society is asking it.

      For me food is my focus. But design professionals are asking it in design, builders are asking it in constructions, HVAC people are asking it of their engineers, IT people are asking it of there networks and systems. Skateboard makers are asking it. Make up developers are asking it. Cell phone makers are asking it.

      Are the inputs and outputs of your operation sustainable?

      No "demonization' - just business.

      I am not demonizing you when I ask what happens to synthetic fertilizers and all the other petroleum dependent inputs industrial ag relies on when oil hits 140 a barrel and stays there?

      I don't see many in the world addressing it with any seriousness... Most are just interested in the same red/blue hostilities...which are very rabidly becoming totally irrelevant.

      Anyway...stumbled across this...
      Hopefully 2010 will bring a new level of conversation...the old lines are really tiresome. Hopefully we've moved forward since this post first appeared...

      Take care - and any heat you pick up here is just passion. I care about farms, food, farmers and the rest of us.

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    Agriculture passionado! I lead GeoVantage's Sales, Marketing, and Business Development activities. If you haven't explored the benefit of remote sensing for production agriculture, now is the time! Not one to rest, I am also a part of the Memes Associates team where we focus on assisting large companies in the agriculture space to "re-discover their inner entrepreneur" through the introduction of market disrupting technology(s) and services.  

    Have questions about agriculture and technology in agriculture? Ask away! 


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