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

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