Sunday, February 16, 2014

"What Price Cheap Food?"

What is it that we want our agriculture to do? 

Australia agriculture continues to put food on the tables three times a day.  It continues to innovate and contribute to the nation's prosperity.  It continues to eke out efficiencies in the production system. Though much is to be lauded, much needs to change.  

And it's more fundamental than support for drought ravaged businesses.

Modern agriculture is grounded on the belief that the primary objective of the industry is to produce as much food and fibre as possible for the least cost.

These twin goals have long shaped farming, and underpinned agricultural research.  But with evidence that food is wasted in developed countries, that food security is a now accepted as a major global issue,  and issues of environmental degradation and health problems such as obesity, we need to define what it is that we want contemporary agriculture to do.  Social media abound with comment, much ill-founded on food and food security issues. At the same time we see heightened interests in food and cooking, and in urban agriculture/vegetable growing.  There is a sense we are missing the big picture.  Then there is health - over consumption of energy rich food, imbalance diets and obesity.

Is modern agriculture about producing cheap food? What other values might apply to agriculture, such as preserving landscape and countryside? Can we change the profitability of the system? What should the drivers be for a new agriculture? What is prosperity in contemporary agriculture?

Engaging in public debate on these issues and acknowledging their complexity will help define the shape of future agricultural research and our farm and food systems.

I was reminded that none of this is new when I came across a recent paper by David Fraser, an animal welfare researcher at the University of British Columbia.  This paper reminded me of two earlier contributions of David’s:
  • Fraser D (1999) Animal ethics and animal welfare science: bridging the two cultures.  Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 65: 171-189, and
  • Fraser D (2001) The “New Perception” of animal agriculture: legless cows, featherless chickens and a need for genuine analysis.  Journal of Animal Science 79: 634-6411

The second title relates to an often cited quote in animal welfare literature about a (disputed) claim by an animal geneticist that his organisation was attempting to ‘breed animals without legs and chickens without feathers’.

The quote highlights, however, concern felt in some quarters over the direction of modern agriculture. While gene technology is poised to deliver many benefits to agriculture in the fight against disease, reduced environmental impact and enhanced food nutrition and quality, it could fancifully be argued that the technology might one day be equally capable of delivering a legless cow. Nowhere in modern agriculture is the polarisation of different viewpoints on the direction of animal agriculture more evident than in the fields of gene technology and animal welfare.

In these debates and others, such as the growing divide between production and sustainability science, a far better analysis is required of complex issues in order to answer the questions of what we want agriculture to do.

David Fraser describes the polarised views on modern agriculture in terms of the ‘new perception’ and the ‘neotraditional portrayal’. In the new perception, agriculture is regarded as detrimental to animal welfare, controlled by large corporations, motivated by profit, causing world hunger, producing unhealthy food and harmful to the environment.

At the other end of the spectrum, Fraser defines the neotraditional portrayal of the industry as beneficial to animal welfare, mainly controlled by families and individuals, motivated by traditional animal care values that lead to profit, augmenting world food supplies, producing safe and nutritious food and not harmful (often beneficial) to the environment.  Literature from both ends of the spectrum tends to provide information that supports one of these polarised viewpoints while often failing to acknowledge the complexity of the debate, or attempting to establish a middle-ground.

Research undertaken by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington indicates that the demand for animal protein will double within 20 years. This demand is been propelled by urbanisation and increased income, particularly in the developing world.

However, if we are going to increase livestock production, for example, to double protein production, major changes will be required in how we produce our product. If we increase per animal productivity two or three fold, then we would also have to reduce environmental impact by a similar amount.  While this may be technically possible within a reasonably short timeframe, is this what we want agriculture to do? How do we want to use the resource?

The agricultural production sector is often criticised for not meeting the triple bottom line (social, economic and environmental) yet by the same token we, in the developed world vote in the supermarkets for cheaper food.  This not only challenges the viability of farming, it also means that much of what we do as societies is at cross purposes.  There are many questions to be asked.

Will we accept that profitability of farm enterprises, and especially family businesses, is a legitimate aspiration?

Will consumers accept the harvesting of native species, such as the Red or Grey kangaroo in countries like Australia, as an ecologically sustainable source of meat? 

Should we be paying more for food and consuming less? What is food?  Rather than seeing beef just as a staple in the food system, could our mindset change so that we also think of beef as producing zinc and iron that can be injected into diets at critical times in human development – for example, in early childhood for brain development and early teenage years to combat iron deficiency. (Zinc and iron deficiencies appear to be two major nutritional issues in both the developed and developing worlds.)  In doing so, we change the whole value proposition for meat, and better returns to producers, and enhanced benefits to consumers.

These are just a few examples of the challenging questions to be asked, questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” but must be debated vigorously by a range of stakeholders in the public arena.  An effective response will be systemic.

Consumer confidence in science has been shaken in recent times by issues relating to food safety and diseases, such as bird flu.  In order to avoid misrepresentation, scientists have at times been reluctant to acknowledge any potential risk to food safety for fear that such an admission will distort the debate. Yet, with uncertainty comes awareness and planning for any potential unforeseen consequences.

Risks can be managed effectively without raising public concern if potential risks to the food chain are acknowledged and a system of surveillance, monitoring and detection put in place that enable quick remedial action to address any problems that may arise.

Scientists should not be isolating ourselves from controversy because the technical complexity of issues we are dealing with in the community now is such that we need to participate in the public debate.  Nor should other members of the community ignore the requirement to engage openly and responsibly in that debate.

Undoubtedly, we need more simultaneous research at all levels – from sub-cellular to ecological – in order to develop a greater understanding of issues at the boundaries of science and social and community impacts.  

We need to public debate too.  An informed debate and based on genuine analysis. 

What is it that we want our agriculture to do?

Saturday, February 01, 2014

you miss 100% of the shots you don't take...idea should be a verb

In a previous posts I talked about ideas having power if you contribute them  for discussion and debate.  Inc. Magazine has a nice article entitled why "idea" should be a verb written by Jeff Haden.

Haden says: Every day, would-be entrepreneurs let hesitation and uncertainty stop them from acting on an idea. Fear of the unknown and fear of failure are what stopped me, and may be what stops you, too.To which I would add, it's not just the entrepreneurs.

The final sentence in the article says it all:  You certainly won’t get it right all the time, but if you let “idea” stay a noun, you will always get it wrong.

It reminds me of the Wayne Gretzky contribution:  you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

Haden's advice:  try trusting your analysis, your judgement, and even your instincts a little more.

Six characteristics of a leader

Leadership is a diverse topic, and there is an enormous literature that surrounds it.  Social media abounds with “insights”, to the extent that I have recently begun reflecting on what I have learnt about leading over the last 30 years in the work force. Not much seems to be new!!

 One dominant theme in the social media is an attempt to describe good leadership.  This is an older contribution from Schmertz and Novak on the topic that seems to cover much of what is advocated in more contemporary contributions.

A good leader
  • is always willing to do the dirty work.  He'll sweep out the store if that's what's required to make a project succeed.  If everyone on the team has to make a sacrifice, he'll set an example for others to follow.
  • isn't afraid to hire people who are smarter or more creative than himself.  He knows that if he goes to the usual mediocre sources, he's going to end up with the usual mediocre results.  A real leader can harness the energy of creative people in a way that will enhance the entire enterprise.  Since most people "per se" are mediocre, the true leader can be recognised because, somehow or other, his people consistently turn in superior performances.
  • is enthusiastic during tough times.  Leaders who constantly complain about a bad situation can rarely motivate the troops and help them to overcome adversity.  In a crisis, optimism and confidence are even more important than experience and intelligence.
  • has vision.  In our experience there are two kinds of leader - the "lets-not" and the "why-not".  When times are tough, the lets-not prefer to retreat, to stay with the familiar, to avoid taking risks.  The why-nots, on the other hand, are open to fresh ideas and bold possibilities.  If the old answers don't work, they're willing to experiment with new and unconventional solutions.
  • is tough - a quality that has less to do with personality than with character.  It's not that the tough leader is abrasive, or uncaring, or insensitive.  It's simply that he's willing and able to make the difficult and unpopular decisions - and live with their consequences.
  • holds a set of philosophical principles that guide him when it comes to specific issues.  Rather than making decisions on an ad hoc basis, he has formed some conclusions about the basic objectives of the organisation and about how those objectives should be reached.  By the same token, he knows that the long-term health and survival of the organisation must take precedence always over short-term gains.

See:  Schmertz H and Novak W (1986)  Goodbye to the low profile.  The art of creative confrontation.  London: Mercury Books


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Dynamics of Discovery

From Archimedes to Edison, attempts to improve quality of life have dictated a need for advances in science and technology. These advances are now widely understood as the key enablers of increasingly prosperous societies.

Despite this long history, the process of managing the expanding frontiers of new knowledge in a way that will benefit society is a work in progress. This is largely due to the unpredictable nature of scientific discovery most famously illustrated by Archimedes, when, upon stepping into the bath, he suddenly realised that the volume of water displaced was equal to the volume of the submerged portion of his body.

His discovery provided the solution to the previously intractable problem of measuring the volume of irregular objects and led to further advances in assessing the density and purity of precious metals among other things. In the modern world little has changed in how new knowledge is acquired. However, in an attempt to get the best value for their limited investments, governments have devised processes to manage its discovery.

Interestingly there has been a propensity to divide scientific research into a one-dimensional continuum starting with pure (sometimes known as blue-skies) research progressing through to applied research and on to technology transfer; the defining characteristic of pure research being that it seeks new knowledge with no view as to its application, while applied research seeks solutions to industrial problems.

Such a continuum has been the basis of R&D funding prioritisation in advanced economies around the world since it was promulgated by Vannevar Bush following World War II. In the past few years this mindset has been challenged as it does not accurately reflect the process of science and technology development.

The dynamic nature of the discovery of new knowledge and its commercial application can be observed in the remarkable career of French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, whose breakthroughs ranged from the first rabies and anthrax vaccines to paving the way for germ theory and pasteurisation. Pasteur was not driven by a quest for new knowledge for its own sake but was motivated by a desire to better understand and solve the problems of industry.

In his early career, he concentrated largely on uncovering new knowledge, but as he did so, came across other, previously unforeseen questions. While working as a chemist at the age of 22 he sought a theoretical understanding of why tartaric acid crystals derived from bio-mass rotated the plane of polarised light while the chemically synthesised form did not.

His experiments revealed that the naturally occurring compound is chiral, meaning its molecules exist in one of two possible crystal structures, each the mirror image of the other. In the process of uncovering this new knowledge, he laid the building blocks for the modern experimental science of crystallography, which is today used in one form or another in everything from gemstone cutting to DNA analysis.

Pasteur’s remarkable career uncovered whole new branches of science – such as microbiology – and, as he developed as a scientist, he began to seek to satisfy both theoretical and practical goals.

Of particular note is the fact that as the problems Pasteur chose to solve became increasingly applied in nature, the nature of his research became more fundamental. Pasteur’s research agenda was use-inspired. Understanding and exploiting the dichotomy between applied and theoretical goals is perhaps the reason behind the breadth of his contribution.

This philosophy is instructive for modern policymakers seeking to get the most from limited investment funds and move away from the outmoded, linear model. The effective management of applied research operations is much more complicated than simplistic models suggest.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed, ultimately, in its practice.



 The noted English architect Sir Christopher Wren once built a structure in London.  His employers claimed that a certain span Wren planned was too wide, that he would need another row of columns for support.  Sir Christopher, after some discussion, acquiesced.  He added the row of columns, but he left a space between the unnecessary columns and the beams above.  The worthies of London could not see this space from the ground.  To this day, the beam has not sagged.  The columns still stand firm, supporting nothing but Wren’s conviction.  Leadership is much more than an art, a belief, a condition of heart, than a set of things to do.  The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed, ultimately, in its practice.

From

De Pree M O (1989)  Leadership is an Art.   Melbourne: Australian Business Library, Information Australia pp. 135-136

Leadership: A grandfather reflects on walking the talk


I often reflect on this small piece of writing from Max De Pree when I am concerned about how I should be doing my job.  I hope you enjoy it too!
 
Esther, my wife, and I have a grand-daughter named Zoe, the Greek word for “life”.  She was born prematurely and weighed one pound, seven ounces, so small that my wedding ring could slide up her arm to her shoulders.  The neonatologist who first examined her told us that she had a 5 to 10 percent chance of living three days.  When Esther and I scrubbed up for our first visit and saw Zoe in her isolette in the neonatal intensive care unit, she had two IVs in her navel, one in her foot, a monitor on each side of her chest, and a respirator tube and a feeding tube in her mouth.

To complicate matters, Zoe’s biological father had jumped ship the month before Zoe was born.  Realising this, a wise and caring nurse named Ruth gave me my instructions.  “For the next several months, at least, you’re the surrogate father.  I want you to come to the hospital every day to visit Zoe, and when you come, I would like you to rub her body and her legs and arms with the tip of your finger.  While you’re caressing her, you should tell her over and over how much you love her, because she has to be able to connect your voice to your touch.”

Ruth was doing exactly the right thing on Zoe’s behalf (and, of course, on my behalf as well), and without realising it she was giving me one of the best possible descriptions of the work of a leader.  At the core of becoming a leader is the need always to connect one’s voice with one’s touch.

 
Foreword in  Max de Pree (1991) Leadership Jazz (my edition was published in 1991.  ISBN 1 86350 101 0)

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

A leader must break free of the wisdom of the herd, and strike out in bold new directions.



In 2002 Steve Sample, Tenth President of the University of Southern California penned the book, “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership”   I was reminded of this great little read during a discussion with a business colleague today. Not surprising, when I found my copy it was full of many long-forgotten marginal notes and post-it stickers (also covered with my characteristically unreadable scrawl).

The key take-away of the book is that most people are incapable of truly original or independent thought, but a leader must have that ability.  Sample draws heavily on classical works from Shakespeare to Machiavelli to Abraham Lincoln to support this proposition.  As an aside, his recommendations for a reading list are fun, and…well, contrarian.

A leader’s vision is important, but just as critical is this ability to “think free” and consider a range of ideas.  I’m digging deeper into the book as I’m finding it fascinating to revisit after 12 years during which my experiences give me a richer reference point (and will probably post some further comments.

My dictionary defines contrarian as “one who opposes or rejects popular opinion”.  That certainly sounds like free thinking.  Sample pulls together a few contrarian principles “which will help a leader break free of the wisdom of the herd, and strike out in bold new directions.”

1.    Think gray: try not to form firm opinions about ideas or people unless and until you have to.

2.    Think free: train yourself to move several steps beyond traditional brainstorming by considering really outrageous solutions and approaches.

3.    Listen first, talk later.  And when you listen, do so artfully.

4.    Experts can be helpful, but they’re no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.

5.    Beware of pseudoscience masquerading as incontrovertible fact or unassailable wisdom; it typically will do nothing to serve your interests or those of the organization you are leading.

6.    Dig for gold in the subtext while your competition stays mired down in trade publications and other ephemera.  You can depend on your lieutenants to give you any current news that really matters.

7.    Never make a decision yourself that can be reasonably delegated to a lieutenant and never make a decision today that can reasonably put off till tomorrow.

8.    Ignore sunk costs and yesterday’s mistakes.  The decisions you make as a leader can only affect the future not the past.

9.    Don't unnecessarily humiliate a defeated opponent.

10.   Know which hill you’re willing to die on, and realize that your choice may at some point require you to retreat from all the surrounding hills.

11.   Work for those who work for you; recruit the best lieutenants available, and then spend most of your time and energy helping them to succeed.

12.   Many people want to be leader, but few want to do leader.  If you are not in the latter group you should stay away from the leadership business altogether.

13.   You as a leader can't really run your organization; rather you can only lead individual followers, who then collectively give motion and substance to the organization of which you are the head.

14.   Don't delude yourself into thinking that people are intrinsically better or worse than they really are; instead work to bring the best in your followers (and yourself) while minimizing the worst.

15.   You can't copy your way to excellence; rather true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches.

Sample records that these principles are based in a belief that leadership is highly situational and contingent.  He rightly states that “every leader is locked in a moment-to-moment struggle with the context and circumstances of his own place and time”.   The leader must work hard to master the struggle.

Reference: S B Sample (2002) The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.  Jossey-Bass.  ISBN 0 7879 5587 6

Ends