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.


  1. Really interesting stuff. A couple of thoughts to share:
    1) At the Farm Management Canada AGM and Innovation Roundtable a couple weeks ago, there was a panel discussion on the *four* aspects of sustainability - environmental, financial, social, and personal. The last one relating, more or less, to ideas like work/life balance and personal/family goals. A quadruple bottom line?

    2) One of the most interesting courses I took in university was "Technology and Society." I learned that, strictly defined, "technology" is simply "an organized way of doing things." Domesticating animals is a technology. So is saving seed to plant the next season. "Without any technology" we would literally be back to gathering nuts and berries with our bare hands. If you really think about it, this whole notion that "organic" farming is "pre-Green-Revolution" is utterly ridiculous, as is the comparison of any farming practice with a previous era - everything advances together, and without a time machine or access to parallel universes, meaningful comparisons are impossible - there is literally no "reverting back".
    I remember a Dairy Farmers of Ontario leader years ago asking a conference room full of dairy farmers which technology yielded the greatest increase in milk production in the 20th century. No one guessed the answer - indoor plumbing. (The more water cows can drink, the more milk they make - obvious if you consider that milk is about 85% water!).
    My point is that there is a vast array of technologies available to farmers of all stripes, and using terms like "anti-technology" "anti-science" or making comparisons to previous eras does nothing to advance understanding or discussion.

    Best of luck with the paper - I look forward to following your journey down this rabbit hole!

  2. That is such an interesting perspective, and a great catch. We are quick to generalize the term "technology" when we are specifically referring to one type, like biotechnology. I'll be sure to keep this in mind, so as to try to not make the mistake of generalizing too much. It is a real challenge though when I am not an expert by any means.

    Adding the 4th aspect of personal certainly adds a new dynamic, because the burn-out is certainly real and we often ignore the HR quotients in agriculture. Living to farm and farming to live are no longer one and the same. Nor should they be, as the industry progresses, the ability to set personal, non-farm goals and enjoy quality, family life should be a right.

    Great comments and thanks for sharing!!

  3. I think you have touched on something with the triple bottom line (or quadruple!) that has been bothering me for awhile. Even the EFP encourages Best Management Practices on a cost-share basis, and once there is some level of adoption the cost share funding either declines or vanishes. The particular improvement is still flagged as something that should be done, but there is no more financial support.
    Now, I realize that as an industry evolves and technologies continually develop something that was new and innovative becomes a standard practice, but my feeling is that societal support vanishes prior to that point in the arc of development.

    This gets to my real point: in this industry (at least, it may be the same in others) society expects us as to do "what is right" and then after a relatively brief period of time they demand it. If it were up to Mr and Mrs Consumer that would all come from the farmer's pocket, and no additional expense incurred at the end of the value chain. Now, not to be rude about it, but at the beginning of the chain, at primary production we are being asked to provide IMMENSE social and environmental benefits, and foot the bill. Agriculture needs to evolve. We need to move past getting paid for just the goods we produce, and like most other industries in this day and age get paid for the goods and services we provide. Granted, it's difficult to quantify the value of many of the indirect benefits provided by the farming community, but they are real, and we are continually asked to provide for no pay out of a sense of right that has seemingly been abandoned by the greater part of the rest of the population.

    Boy this is turning into a rant.

    I suppose the question for me then is this: how do we fix the system to the point that farm operators are getting paid not just for what they produce, but for the knowledge and experience accumulated, and the ability to make far-reaching decisions that impact not only their business, but can have enormous environmental and social impacts as well? And how do we get the rest of society to buy in? Ultimately Mr and Mrs Consumer ARE going to foot the bill, the question is how?

    Hope I helped, and didn't just add to the confusion.

  4. Craig,

    You raise some very good points.
    1) Funding for development and implementation but none for maintenance once adopted.
    2) Cost-burden of sustainability.

    So, I whole-heartedly agree with you on #2 and I felt compelled to raise the same argument and even rant, numerous times. I think I drafted 4 emails to send the prof. But I never raised it and here is why. As class progressed, I realied it's very easy to say "we can't afford to do this." But then who will fix the issue? Those closest to it are in the best position to fix it, and do so in a way that is least cost. Because what if someone else does decide to fix it, but they don't understand your business and simply tell you how it's to be done so you now have no choice & you have to bear the cost.
    I hate to use them as an example, but that is Wal-mart, right? They decide to change a suppliers' standards, and they do not share the cost burden associated with the change, except in the rare case where they may be able to pass it onto the consumer ie. organic.

    We often think of sustainability as adding cost to be more enviro-friendly. The word is its own worst enemey because what it should really be about it creating value and finding ways to increase social & environmental value without sacrificing profits. If we can not, then we're only transferring value. This is why its SOOO super challenging.

    And this leads me back to #1. If it can not be afforded once the funding goes away, then is it really sustainable?

    Interestingly, a classmate in the auto industry raised the same issues. Can sustainability exist in a commoditized environment? I don't beleive it's easy, but I have to believe it's doable.

  5. I think you hit the nail on the head. So is the goal to actually raise the standards in our own province or country, or is it to rationalize the "riskier" elements of agricultural production to other areas of the globe? If the second is the case, then all we are doing is pretending we can't see the issues in other areas, and gladly purchasing their products and leaving them to clean up the mess. That isn't sustainable on a global scale either.

    If the first is the case then that is a conscious choice that society has to make, and there will be unavoidable costs incurred. In that instance, the voting public has decided, yes, this is important to us, and we will make it happen. This is where I take issue with there being little recognition of the burden placed upon any business in this situation. Maybe I'm too pro laissez-faire, but I would rather see minimal regulation, and then businesses can differentiate themselves based on their production practices, and quality of goods produced. That is creating value, and expecting an environmentally (or animal welfare) conscious public to pay for it. The shock will be in the adjustment experienced by the consumer when they switch from products in commodity-based production system to the value-based production system.

    I hope I'm not repeating myself. I can see it all in my mind, how it could work, and still leave Canadians with one of the most affordable food supplies in the world. It would take a tremendous buy-in from everyone involved in the agri-food industry to make it happen.