Saturday, June 29, 2013

Sustainability Saturday - The Paper is Complete

FINALLY! After a lot of cutting (2000 words is not a lot), the paper is complete! Here are a few excepts.
Evaluation of Ag Sustainability
Global food production must double by 2050 to feed a population of 9 billion. Billions of research dollars are pouring into determining how to accomplish this incredible feat, but speculation exists whether it can be done sustainably. Amplifying the current production model is not realistic, because inputs like additional land are not available and synthetic fertilizer no longer yields equivalent return. (Exhibit 1). The UK Foresight Global Food and Farming Project, which studied the challenges for sustainable global agriculture, called for a “radical redesign of the global food system” and concluded cooperation across segments was going to be critical. The vulnerabilities associated with the current profit-guided, production system are staggering.
·         Overabundance of cheap, nutrient-void, high caloric foods
·         Wasted food accounts for 50% of U.S. production (Stuart, 2012)
·         2 billion hungry or “hidden hungry” people partially due to imbalanced trade and in ability to compete (Muir, 2011)
·         Industrial agriculture is the largest greenhouse gas emitter (N. Pelletier, 2008)
·         “Superbugs” resistant to commercial pesticides threaten crops
·         Increased topsoil[1] erosion, sedimentation and leaching[2] (Figure 1)
·         High nitrate levels (a known carcinogen) in processed meat, produce and groundwater (Sait, Nitrates and Your Health)
Issue analysis
How did we get here? The “Green Revolution”[3] brought about exponential agriculture production growth. As production increased in the 70’s, along with the temptation to skirt commonly accepted land conservation practices, the U.S. government dismantled farm land policies designed to promote responsible agriculture practices.  This marked the start of consistently low prices. In response, producers focused on increasing efficiency, mono-cropping[4] became common, and the land was slowly exhausted of nutrients, while the government incented overproduction, a practice the U.S. continues today despite strong farm returns.[5] Worldwide, producers pump as much as they can into their crop to compete, and after forty years, soil degradation has become a serious problem.[6] (Exhibit 2) The system cannot be sustained.
Figure 1: Algae bloom in the Lake Erie Western basin resulting from high levels of phosphorus leaching from agricultural land and urban sewer overflows. (Freeland, 2011) - See Textless Thursday below.
It’s easy to understand why agriculture is facing scrutiny. NGO rhetoric has commonly targeted animal welfare and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with emotional pleas to sway consumer opinion, and though largely discredited, they have definitely awakened consumers to consider food sources. More than ever, consumers are concerned with food safety and health, while animal welfare, GMO’s and the environment are also important. (Ipsos, 2012) The industry has been focused primarily on compliance or at best, managing the issues. But a growing group of producers are treating issues these as opportunities to improve their farm’s biological foundation. Regulations may never come to pass, but one only needs to look to animal welfare to see expectations have shifted. Consumers care about how their food was produced, in addition cost (out of scope but not to be ignored), safety and nutrition.
Critical to the ‘how’ is soil health. Generally, overuse of synthetic fertilizers has resulted in excess nitrates in the environment, while pesticides have stripped agricultural land of both bad and good organisms, which support plant-life. The result is poor or “dead” soil, unable to transfer many necessary nutrients, thus requiring constant fertilization, like an addiction. These conditions also lead to faster erosion and leaching, threatening sustainable producer and freshwater sources.
Producer awareness of soil degradation is increasing, and experts are challenging the sustainability of accepted practices. Some producers are strategically managing these issues, proving agriculture can still create true, triple bottom line[7] value. Indeed, if the food system is to be radically redesigned though, more farmers will need to consider their long-term impact and invest in improving soil health for healthier food in the future.
Opportunity analysis
Farmers are no strangers to sustainable agriculture. They have long prided themselves on being stewards of the land. In Ontario, 70% of farmers have completed an Environmental Farm Plan and with challenging climate conditions and fragile topsoil, prairie farmers are conservation tillage leaders. Producers appreciate the complexity of growing a crop and the importance of preserving resources. No soil, means no crop and no crop means not only no profit, but no food.
Producers have recognized the importance of bridging the food and farming gap, seeking opportunities to dialogue with and educate consumers, even coining the term “agvocate”. Inevitably, hard questions arise and producers should pay close attention to these questions.  Consumers, primarily concerned with food safety and health (Ipsos, 2012), have some underlying questions about conventional agriculture and its impact on these factors. The connection has been made between modern agriculture, food nitrate levels, and cancer. Some will claim its inconclusive, but organic market growth clearly signals consumers’ uncertainty. The industry has a predictable surprise (Exhibit 4) on its hands of dire proportions.
 In the early days we fed the soil, and now with the advent of fertilizer we have started feeding the plants directly.” Cornell University soil scientist, Harold Van Es clearly suggests returning focus to the soil. If soil is biologically healthy, it is able to transport nutrients, prevent disease and encourage root growth. Though organic production is one mean to improve soil health, there are many practices conventional producers can implement, which will significantly improve organic matter, balance soil nutrients, reduce erosion, thereby reducing negative human and environmental effects.
Organic agriculture does have the fastest, most dramatic impact on improving soils while maintaining yield potential with fewer resources. In fact, with proper intensification, organic agriculture could produce enough food to sustain the global population, without excess land or organic fertilizer as critics often suggest. (C Badgley, 2006) In the initial years, the largest producer cost is reduced yields as the fields are converted to organic production. For a producer managing soil health already, the cost will be less and over time, organic yields are nearly equivalent to conventional agriculture – as high as 90%. (N. Pelletier, 2008) In fact, some producers who are utilizing “biologically-sound” practices are able to avoid certification’s regulatory headache, because their yields are high enough to forego the organic premium. (Dybiec, 2013)
Nonetheless, producers do not need to make the leap to organic to begin improving triple bottom line. Soil management practices like reduced and no-tillage, incorporating ‘green manure[9]’ and legumes into crop rotations, and adding livestock manure can also have immediate, positive improvement. The financial payback on these practices is also easily quantified. For example, every acre rotated with a red clover cover crop nets a synthetic fertilizer savings of approximately $15-20. (Exhibit 5)
Though the genetics offered by seed companies are out of producers’ control, producers do exact some influence over varieties by what they purchase. For example, increased demand for cover crop varieties may encourage further evaluation of short growing season varieties, a gap which currently exists in the marketplace and should be considered by crop-chem. (Christie, 2013)  This will be critical for successful cover crop integration into more Canadian field rotations. For seed companies, there are also clear benefits to improving soil health; the variability of field trials required to bring new seeds to market makes for a long and costly process. Healthier soil conditions may in fact minimize variability and cost, creating more reliable data for new genetics.

[1] Topsoil is the top layer of the earth’s surface, approximately 6” deep, and required to sustain most plant life. Wind and precipitation naturally erode soil, but it is recreated at an equivalent rate. Agriculture, forestry and urban development increase the rate of erosion beyond the earth’s natural replenishment rate.
[2] Leaching (agriculture): the loss of water-soluble plant nutrients from the soil (Wikipedia, 2013)
[3] The Green Revolution occurred from 1940 to the late 1970’s when research and development poured into increasing worldwide agriculture production with new, high-yielding crop varieties, hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Norman Borlaug is considered the “Father of the Green Revolution”, and he is credited with saving millions from starvation, earning himself the first Nobel Peace Prize in agriculture.
[4] Monocropping is the practice of growing the same crop on a field year after year without rotating. It is a common farming practice with corn, wheat and soybeans.
[5] During the Nixon administration, spurred by the belief small, inefficient farmers caused U.S. grain to be expensive on the world market, farmers were encouraged to ‘get big or get out”. After the Great Russian Grain Robbery in 1971, when Russia secretly negotiated the purchase of 2/3 of U.S. grain stocks, domestic shortages caused food prices to spike, leading to a new era of farming as much as possible with all the resources possible.
[6] 12 million tonnes of topsoil erode annually, the equivalent which could produce 20 million tonnes of grain. (UN)
[7] Triple bottom line is the measurement of business success on profit, ecological and social factors, not only profit.
[8] Due to the volatility of commodity prices and the large, up-front investment required in production agriculture, producers will often use a variety of tools to manage their risk, including forward contracts, crop insurance and government support programs.
[9] Green manure is a crop planted between field rotations, often as a cover crop, then uprooted and left on the soil to break down, increasing organic matter, often fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere into a usable format in the soil.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Slippery Slope

This sustainability subject is a slippery slope (how's that for some alliteration?) The further I delve into what a triple bottom line means for Ontario agriculture, the further I find myself down the organic rabbit hole.

If you are not immediately familiar with the concept of triple bottom line (I admit I was not before last month), it's the idea that businesses should strive for and be measured not only on profit, but their societal and environmental contributions as well. In short, it's corporate social responsibility.

As business owners, we worry a lot about the profit on the bottom line, but how much do we consider the business' impact on the people and planet around us.

In many ways, farmers are already familiar with this concept. We pride ourselves on being stewards of the land. Participation in conservation programs like the Environmental Farm Plan is as high as 70% in Ontario and adoption of new technologies appears solid. Canadian farmers are proud to produce some of the safest food in the world. Yet, as I peel back the onion of issues, particularly around our field crop practices, my stoic confidence is wavering. There are so many layers, and I quickly regret not taking more science in undergrad. The science behind soil health and plant development should be so basic, no farmer should question what the right thing to do is on their operation.

Yet, in reality it is far more complex than this and maybe more so than necessary? Increasingly, I'm coming to believe social structure is as responsible for the current state of affairs in agriculture, as it is in any other aspect of our culture. If a paper ever evolves from the overwhelming amount of information I've absorbed in the past two weeks, it will still be ripe with questions. In what appears to be simple science, remains a host of speculation, uncertainty, fear and probably even a little distrust. In some ways, I feel compelled to dismiss those conventions I've come to accept, yet I struggle to abandon the steadfast belief there is a balance between technology (of all forms) and raw science. Without any technology we would revert back to pre-Green Revolution, which is also not practical because only 2% of the populations farms to put food on the table.

So, I will continue down the rabbit hole, unsure of what I will find next but certain there is going to be a paper in here somewhere.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Agriculture's Predictable Surprise(s)

I suppose a good way to narrow down a topic for this paper is to consider those issues which one might consider to be predictable surprises.

Predictable surprise: a situation or circumstance in which avoidable crises are marginalized in order to satisfy economic and social policies. (Wikipedia, 2013)

Max H Bazerman & Michael D Watkins reveal 6 characteristics which define a predictable surprise in their book Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming, and How to Prevent Them.

1) You knew a problem existed and it wouldn't solve itself
2) The problem is getting worse over time
3) Fixing the problem would incur significant costs in the present, while the benefits would actually be delayed
4) Addressing the problem requires incurring a certain cost, and the reward is avoiding an uncertain cost, though one which is expected to be much larger
5) Failure by stakeholders to prepare for the predictable surprise because tendency is towards status quo
6) Small, vocal minority benefits from inaction and is motivated to subvert the actions of leaders for their own personal gain

 In the context of the book and the discussions in my sustainability class, we examined events such as the sub-prime mortgage crash and resulting financial meltdown and the BP oil spill in the Gulf. When this lens is applied to current agri-food system, what comes to mind?

  • animal welfare - specifically sow and poultry housing, tie stall barns, feedlots
  • pesticide and fertilizer use
  • biotechnology - helpful or harmful (I know where I stand, but the camps are so polarized on this one)
  • food safety
  • human health, obesity, hunger
  • ag policy or lack thereof - help or hindrance, depending on industry & geography. Ie. US farm bill, supply management, ethanol policies, global trade agreements, etc. etc. 
Unfortunately, the list only gets longer as you consider all the areas in which agriculture impacts our society. If I were to chart the above issues on Simon Zadek's civil learning tool ("The Path to Corporate Responsibility", Harvard Business Review, December 2004), which measures the degree of organizational learning associated with an issue and its maturity stage, I find most of the issues are clustered where the green "opportunity zone" starts to merge with the "risky red zone".

In this quick, subjective assessment of each issue, I have assigned relative size of the issue also (represented by bubble size). Based on a recent Ipsos study with Farm & Food Care Ontario, we know food safety and health are top of mind for consumers, so they have the largest bubble. The extent to which our industry has indoctrinated the issue (industry learning on y axis) hovers around compliance to managerial in most cases. Whereas most of the issues were probably latent in the past, we have seen a definite shift right towards emerging, consolidation and even institutionalized concerns at a societal level as of late.

So, in all these issues, on what have I chosen to focus for this paper?

None other than the game of diminishing returns - the big N. Nitrogen, specifically in the form of fertilizer, and reducing production agriculture's dependence on it. Here is my game plan as of now. I'd welcome your feedback on it and please get in touch with me (Twitter @savvyfarmgirl) if you'd like to add your input.

My game plan:

1) Examine all stakeholders - producer, consumer, government, suppliers, and processors
  • Quantify nitrogen use & costs today - macro & micro (research papers, producer interviews, records)
  • Quantify potential savings through technology - theoretical and anecdotal evidence through producer interviews, what is macro impact
2) Examine alternatives management practices and their benefits / disadvantages - cover crops, organic, etc
3) Examine barriers to adoption - producer interviews, manufacturers
4) Identify potential means to overcome & gain wider acceptance

Studies to review:
- Foresight Report (UK 2010)
- Organic vs Convention Carbon Footprint study - Ontario
- Carbon footprint calculation - HBS/Ivey report
- Commercial Fertilizer Study, The Fertilizer Institute

Interviews needed:
- VRT users & non
- Research specialists, Agriculture Solutions, producers using alternative means of N management
- Fertilizer manufacturer

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Evolution of an agriculture sustainability paper

For two weeks, I've been pondering and literally lying awake at night trying to find some direction for my MBA sustainability paper. Now, with the pressure mounting - the paper is due in exactly 2 weeks and 26 hours - I finally feel like I'm getting closer to a topic.

You'll see, the problem was not that I didn't know what to write about, rather there was too much. I spent 30 hours immersed in discussion on the role of corporations to create sustainable value, and while only briefly touching the subject, I drew parrallels to the agri-food industry throughout the entire discussion. Our food system is So. Incredibly. Broken.

Where does one start when you want to examine the total value equation on food production? There are so many issues. In a Jerry Macguire-like moment I scribed a state of the union; only to find it made the task of enacting change seem even more insurmountable. If interested, I'll post this document. In truth, it reads more like a summary of "The End of Food" by Paul Roberts.

Since then, I've been on a rollar coaster of agri-food emotion. Too haunted by the Smithfield processing plant horror stories of Food Inc., I numbly stared at the "Only $5" sign hanging above the poultry section at the grocery store. I physically could not pick the chicken off the shelf. Nor could I venture to purchase the sausage or ground beef. My mind flickered back and forth between a conversation with a CFIA meat inspector (ironically re: our class discussion on Maple Leaf Foods), news stories of "pink slime" and my beef and pork farmer friends, working their hardest to make a good living raising quality meat for Canadians. At the same time, I was hard-pressed to have an open and candid conversation with my roommate over why she chooses organic without getting my back up and feeling a need to defend.

How can I be growingly wary of one aspect of the food system and yet embrace seed technology and believe whole-heartedly GMOs are part of the sustainable ag solution? This confusion is only a fraction of that which the general public must feel. I am beginning to understand why the issues become so emotionally charged. When you can't possibly know all the facts, you fill in the void with speculation and belief.

In two weeks, I've come across two young people, speaking out against GMO's.

Their quest is noble, but my resolve is made only stronger when I see the myths on which their arguments are built. The anti-GMO movement has latched onto them to propel their anti-corporate rhetoric, and I wonder, at the tender age of 11 & 13, are they already too far gone to be educated?

When I ventured to comment on an article "The Only Real Way to End GMO's" I was berated by readers who clearly weren't interested in a different perspective. It was deflating, and in retrospect, I should've paid closer attention because I wasn't going to win over any readers in this forum anyway.

So, that was a lesson the GMO vs organic debate is so hot, it probably can not be tackled in one 3000 word paper. So that leaves me to continue to try to narrow the many issues down to something manageable. At present, I'm looking at food waste reduction or the role of technlogy. Looking for reader feedback; if you have a moment to shoot me a comment!