Monday, July 5, 2010

On cherries and paychecks - Part 1

Some of you may have watched some of the mini-lectures the Royal Society of Arts has published recently. They are particularly palatable to the modern attention span as they are short and are accompanied by an amusing animator, who draws or writes everything the narrator says as he speaks.

This incredibly entertaining narrated animation points out that incentives for non-menial tasks aren't as simple as economists have long assumed. I recommend you watch it, but if you don't have the 11 minutes to spare, I'll summarize it below:

While motivation for simple tasks follows a straightforward compensation-results pattern, it is impossible to motivate someone to do complex work - work that requires moderate to high levels of creative thinking - simply by adding 0's to their paychecks. In fact, once their financial needs are met, paying them more can result in worse results. If we want to see innovative and quality work from employees, they must have the freedom to pursue mastery in what seems to them a purposeful direction.

Now, you may wonder what this has to do with you; most of us aren't managers employing technically sophisticated, highly skilled employees.

Truth is, though, that we're all employers. Our employees? Among others, farmers.

"How's that? I don't write paychecks for any fruit pickers! I don't spray fertilizer or choose crops."

As a matter of fact, yes, you do.

Few industries have become as market driven in America as agriculture has. I've seen a farmer tear out a mature, productive avocado orchard simply because the market couldn't support his avocados anymore, since cheaper fruit was available from Mexico. I've seen the same happen citrus in Camarillo. To prunes in Woodland. Thousands of healthy fruit trees, orchards that took years of time and thousands of dollars of investment to establish, ripped out in their prime because the market, because we, demanded something else. Blueberries instead of avocados. Walnuts instead of prunes.

Plant hedgerows because consumers care for the environment.[1]

Tear them out again, because consumers are scared of Salmonella.[2]

Farmers are market driven and we, the consumers, control the market. Though we don't often give them a thought, we employ farmers. You. Me.

What we want from our farmers:
Many of you are already aware of how critical a part of our lives our food system is. Not only are we dependent on food for sustenance, but science is increasingly showing that, as the 3rd world development slogan has it, "good food is good medicine." Our bodies are affected not only by our food choices, but by the actual ingredients in our meals. Cultures that eat unprocessed foods that were grown organically have less cancer, fewer cavities, and better health.

Furthermore, agriculture is perhaps the most fundamental nexus of our communities with our environment. A full 40% of the earth's land area is devoted to crops or pasture. An unhealthy relationship with that land results in a sick planet. And a planet made sick under our stewardship is not only a travesty, but means giving up gifts we enjoy every day, like clean water, clean air, songbirds, and a ready food supply for us and our children.

Not only should the agricultural industry be important to you because of your health and the planet's, but because it is our farmers, and their ability to innovate, on which our ability to feed our growing global population in the coming decades hangs. Global food demands have tripled in the past 70 years. So far, we've more-or-less kept up with a growing population,[3] but we've had to cash in a lot of our fossil fuel supply and topsoil to do so. Sustainable food supply growth will require extraordinary drive and innovation from our farmers.

So here's a challenge: We employ men and women and expect them to guard our health, our children's food supply and our environment. We want, we need, we demand innovation, creativity, and responsibility. But what incentives do we offer?

Its not a hard question. When was the last time you talked to your farmers? Shoot, when was the last time you even thought about a farmer? I study food systems, and even I don't know more than a handful of farmers. The fact is, the only tool most of us use to communicate with farmers is our wallet in the grocery store. And the message we're sending isn't pretty.

Think back to the avocado farmer I mentioned earlier. Nobody told him "We recognize and value your mastery and experience. Your trees are healthy and you're using your land well." Nobody said "We like your farming philosophy." In fact, the only message he got was the one we sent by way of the market, and that one was loud and clear: "We won't buy your avocados - the ones coming from Mexico are cheaper. Produce something big and colorful and sell it for less than your neighbor or someone in China will, or cash in your family's land to a developer." And so this farmer did what he had to - he bulldozed his avocado trees and planted blueberries. In southern California. Not blueberry country, but at current market prices he might be able to float it.

By speaking only through the market, and by speaking only about price, size, and color, we are stripping farmers of not only the incentive, but even the freedom to pursue things they believe in, to innovate, to be creative.[4] We are stripping them of the ability to do the very things we expect of them - produce delicious, healthy food in sustainable, environmentally positive ways. Instead, we encourage them to grow nasty, plastic tomatoes and erode our topsoil, simply by refusing to give them the financial freedom to do anything else. The profit margins that farmers receive are so slim that spraying pesticides or using GMOs is no longer a choice the farmer gets to makes; if its economical, its a choice he has to make.

So how can we do things differently? How can you and I change our habits to better incentivise our employees?

The answers are not easy. So far, I have found them difficult to derive and even harder to implement. Most of them require paradigm-level changes, uncomfortable adjustments in how I view and interact with my food supply. I've thought about this subject a lot, and written up some of my ideas in a post for next week. But first, I'd love to hear what your thoughts are. What is your relationship with your food supply? Would you like to see changes in farming techniques in your local area and if so, how do you see yourself incentivising farmers to change?


[1] Hedgerows increase biodiversity, provide habitat for native fauna and beneficial insects, and reduce erosion, among other benefits.
[2] Hedgerows provide habitat for animals such as raccoons and coyotes, which can be potential carriers of Salmonella. The chance of actual contamination from such a source is minimal; as far as I know most of the recent scares have been anthropogenic, such as improper handling of harvest equipment. Nevertheless, buyers are leery and many farmers have had to reverse decades of environmental progress or risk losing an entire crop of spinach because of a single paw print in a drainage ditch next to their field.
[3] I say "more-or-less" because our food abundance has not been regionally homogeneous. 25,000 people a day still die from starvation or starvation-related diseases, but this number is partly due to political instability, poor market access, and poverty.
[4] Yes, the avocado-turned-blueberry farmer was creative. He innovated. But he innovated because he had to. In agricultural sociology, this is called the technology treadmill. The early innovators succeed, the late innovators fail, and as soon as everyone is on the treadmill the field is level again and everyone has to look for new innovations to get ahead. This form of competition eventually leads to fewer, larger farms and an inescapable servanthood to technology.

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