Unstick Food Arguments

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

Arguing about which type of agriculture is best is like the soft mud in a dirt road—it’s where we get stuck. Small farms and big farms each have logic and value for different people, crops and places. Good farmers of any type—organic or “conventional”—can learn from one another.

Innovation can germinate in the middle of many points of view. This is not a compromise space but rather a creative space: where food companies can renovate brands with commitments to place, where nonprofits can connect their public goals to market forces, and where farmers can benefit from the needs of companies for a reliable supply of products.

Innovations require letting go of old patterns of thought. Two recent newspaper articles illustrate a hopeful trend toward open-mindedness. New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, a champion of local food, went to the California fields of the Rominger farm to discover that canning tomatoes can be produced efficiently on a large scale and still taste good: “Not All Industrial Food Is Evil.”

In another recent article, Jane Black wrote in the Washington Post about Tony Thompson, Minnesota farmer of corn and soybeans, who not only farms on a very large scale and uses GMO seeds, but also stewards his land, pioneers conservation practices, and supports his local community in myriad ways.

Both Bittman and Black have created a way to talk about goals for agriculture without getting stuck in the traditional arguments about methods or scale. If we want good tasting tomatoes, workers who get paid decently, families who steward the land and contribute to their communities, soil that is conserved and improved, the farms we support could be small or large, organic or conventional.

One of the newest Sustainable Food Lab projects is our coordination of the U.S. Beef Stewardship Collaboration. The largest buyers and processors of beef in the U.S. have teamed up with both producers and NGOs to improve and demonstrate good farming practices. We were told that this wouldn’t be easy. Cattle ranchers and feedlot operators are traditionally among the most conservative of U.S. agriculture—anti-government, anti-subsidy, anti-regulation. One might assume that these cowboys with their wagons circled would be anti-environment too, but the opposite is true. All cattle, even those finished in feedlots, live most of their lives on grass, and healthy grasslands store carbon, sustain wildlife, protect hillsides, protect water sources and contribute to the natural beauty we all love. Ranchers love it too, and they protect it because healthy pastures are what their cows and calves eat.

The cowboys aren’t all running perfect operations. Not all grasslands are as well managed as they could be, and neither are the creeks that run through them. Feedlots became better managed when they were regulated, and in some parts of the country feedlots are dependent on irrigated corn where the water is disappearing from under the ground. So there are problems and challenges, but within this collaboration unlikely allies are haltingly learning to work together.

In the United States, demand for grass-fed, rather than grain-fed meat has caught on. Cows and sheep have a wonderful ability to transform grasses that people can’t eat into protein that we can, and grasses thrive on about 85 percent of the land used in North America to feed people. A lot of hillside pastures and rangeland would be ruined if we converted grasslands into fields of vegetables. Grass protects them. All cattle spend more than half their life eating grass, even those that end up on feedlots eating grain to finish growing for market. Some farmers keep their cattle on grass their whole lives, where the calves take longer to reach maturity but don’t need to consume much or any grain. There are advantages to grass-fed, but according to some Life Cycle Analysis models (LCA) the carbon footprint of grass-fed beef is usually higher because cattle digesting corn on feedlots grow faster and emit less methane per pound of beef.

Similarly, a lot of debates about agriculture focus on new technologies that solve some problems and create others. Sophisticated large-scale crop farmers now have precision tools that enable them to fine-tune fertilizer to the specific soil characteristics and needs in each part of their fields. The new tractors, combined with GPS systems and precision tracking, can avoid the compaction and over-tillage, the greatest source of soil damage.

These issues are not simple. Organic farming eschews many of the technological fixes and relies more on the intricate balance of pests and predators that exists in a prairie or forest. One of the dilemmas of organic standards, however, is that there are lists of ‘do’s and don’ts,’ materials and practices that are allowed or forbidden, rather than lists of goals. For example, organic farmers are forbidden to use herbicides. To control weeds organic farmers have to till the soil much more than many conventional farmers, and hence when the land is hilly, soil erosion can be greater than on conventional farms where tillage is minimized. Moisture availability in dry years is diminished by tillage, so there’s a trade-off between herbicide use and both erosion and yields.

Sustainability describes multiple paths to a future we are creating, but which we can’t clearly define yet. Anyone who is certain is probably only half right. The most effective leaders listen carefully to those who think differently. We all learn most rapidly when we frame ideas about solutions as hypotheses to be tested, avoid certainty and keep questioning assumptions.

On one Food Lab ‘learning journey’ in Brazil, we visited a few settlements of formerly landless farm workers. After Lula de Silva was elected president of Brazil, these people were given small plots where they could raise their own produce and market some in the local town. Since the Food Lab group was quite diverse, including business executives and NGO activists, we couldn’t agree on whether these settlements were a wonderful step toward entrepreneurial self-reliance or a new way of locking people into a situation of more-or-less permanent poverty.

When I start to push for one view at the exclusion of another, I have to remind myself that from all of my experience there’s no right answer to the important questions. I’ve found it is asking questions and embracing a continuous learning path that enables me to see more of the whole system and grapple with the complexities in a useful way. It is all too easy for any of us to just stay in our perceptual bubbles.

In developing countries, people debate the tradeoffs between growing food for local markets or export markets. One project Sustainable Food Lab staff helps coordinate is designed to improve the livelihoods of roughly 4,000 indigenous farmers in the highlands of Guatemala. Through the combined efforts of Sysco Corporation, Superior Foods, Oxfam Great Britain and a local NGO called ADAM, these farmers are improving their production ability, making volumes of compost for soil fertility, installing drip irrigation, supplying broccoli and other produce to both local and export markets, and multiplying their family incomes. The export market interest from Sysco and Superior provides leverage to attract public sector investment and create the local infrastructure for these small farmers.

We need more and more leaders who take focused and positive steps in the right direction while also embracing divergence and paradox. Peter Senge labels people “system leaders” if they provide this sort of servant leadership to not only their own organization but also the larger set of players within which their organization functions. These leaders are usually likeable and like others. They have analytic capacities and strategic skills, and they know how to engage others, no matter how different. They learn continuously and are comfortable with ambiguity. They have vision but are simultaneously pragmatic about getting things done and they help people learn by synthesizing lessons from many partial steps toward sustainability on a scale that matters.

Developing into a system leader is hard work. Many people in businesses with the job of developing sustainability programs struggle with the loneliness of vision beyond their own organization’s short-term imperatives. They all live in structures that reward immediate achievement, but they know that organizations will only prosper if they attend to the health of the larger system.

Leaders of farmer organizations know that they need to meet market demand, and they now understand that the big retailers need the credibility of NGO support. A few people in this innovation space are able to lead into the future. They are the people who are letting go of defensive arguments and learning to see the world through the eyes of others.

Hal Hamilton is Co-Director of the Sustainable Food Lab in Hartland, Vermont