Last week on the podcast we caught up with one of our favorite thinkers and question askers, Tim Hammerich. As we chatted about the future of fertilizer, from emerging technologies to entirely new distribution and business models, one thing that came up was the characterization of chemicals as bad and biology as good. Tim shared a reflection by Adam Litle of Sound Agriculture that really stood out to him:
"We as humans like shorthand, and I think we've shorthanded as a consumer society that chemicals are bad. And I think by and large, a lot of chemicals are bad. But very, very small amounts of chemicals can do very important things for the world. So that's kind of the distinction- it's much more about volume and impact than it is about this binary classification of chemistry versus biology."
The reversion to reductive narratives is one of the more frustrating occurrences in the world of food and ag innovation, and it goes well beyond fertilizer. GMO vs. non-GMO. Plant-based protein vs. meat. Over simplistic, black and white thinking is all too common.
We appreciate the temptation to oversimplify. And we can imagine marketing departments up and down the value chain cringing at the idea of embracing nuance. This is especially true when it comes to consumer-facing food packaging: presenting a simple, evil vs. good story to a consumer who’s making a snap judgment on a weeknight to get affordable food on the table makes a lot of sense.
Counter-positioning is damn effective. And there’s a fear that nuance won’t sell.
But the reality is that food and agriculture is far from simple. We’re dealing with natural systems. Complex, global value chains. Rapidly evolving technologies. And human psychology, from farmers adopting tech to consumers deciding what to buy and eat.
With all this complexity, it’s impossible to have black and white answers. And in trying, we push stakeholders into defensive positions, create polarization, and shut down innovation.
Not only do the impactful, scalable solutions lie in the nuance, black and white approaches also have consequences.
Reductive narratives can serve a purpose, but they also come with high costs that must be acknowledged.
In the worst cases, they can lead to ill-informed business and policy decisions with devastating impacts. For example, about two years ago, Sri Lanka banned synthetic fertilizers. It’s not clear exactly what the government was solving for, but the result was undoubtedly negative: massive drops in production and a threat to food security across the country.
Even in the best cases, reductive narratives slow progress. They are more about dividing the pie than growing it (i.e., actually solving problems). They leave no room for listening. This is the antithesis of collaboration– a much needed ingredient to solve complex problems. And, they miss the fact that, more often than not, we’re often trying to work toward the same goals. Farmers want to be able to farm for generations to come, just as consumers want products grown sustainably.
Only by embracing nuance can we find commercially viable solutions that unlock sustainable production at scale.
Fertilizer is a good example of where the big, world-changing answers lie in the nuance.
Chemistry is a complete toolset from an efficacy perspective, however, it’s becoming clear that broadscale applications are no longer viable (see fertilizer prices; plateauing yields; environmental pressures). Biologicals, on the other hand, are not a direct replacement as they require practice change throughout the value chain (e.g., shelf life, advice, formulation, etc.). There’s a temptation to pit them against each other, but the reality is that only by embracing nuance can we find solutions that unlock sustainable production at scale. This might look like autonomy-enabled precision applications of chemistry, or bundled digital + biological risk management tools.
Food and agriculture is complex and full of nuances. Our solutions - from policies to novel technologies - must embrace this fact if we truly want to make an impact.