Tough love: ag’s not perfect and neither are we

December 15, 2021

I firmly believe in and am passionate about the agriculture industry’s potential as a force for good. If I didn’t, I certainly wouldn’t have left the international development and social impact sector to work with the team at Tenacious Ventures and Agthentic. Agriculture not only feeds us and provides livelihoods, it can also offer solutions to the climate crisis. But, agriculture is not perfect. And realizing its potential to address climate change is not a foregone conclusion. To get there, we must be able to have honest conversations, even when they’re uncomfortable, without fear of “ruffling feathers.” Too often, though, it feels like we shy away from tough conversations to our own detriment.

Agriculture is an industry that prides itself on being tough as nails. Afterall, it does take an incredible amount of grit, determination, and resilience to run complex operations at the intersection of biological processes, competitive business conditions, and rapidly evolving science and technology, all while at the mercy of the natural elements. Yet, in reflecting on some recent experiences and what I’ve taken away from them, I’ve at times been surprised and frustrated at industry’s sensitivity when confronted with criticism and change. I don’t say this with the intention of throwing stones, but rather of providing a few examples of ‘tough love’ for an industry I care deeply about, and so that we can unlock the massive potential for climate solutions we so urgently need.

Facts can be uncomfortable, and that’s ok

Many years ago, my high school history teacher assigned the book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. The book claims that American textbooks present an overly sanitized version of our history, and it tries to set the record straight by presenting both the inspiring and unsavory elements of our past. To this day, the assignment stands out for the simple yet powerful message I took away from it: it’s okay, and even necessary, to have a complicated and nuanced opinion of my country. I can be proud of the good, critical of the bad, and ashamed of the ugly. In fact, it’s crucial to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes and shortcomings in pursuit of our betterment.

I was recently reminded of this lesson when working on an engagement with a corporate ag business. I received pushback for stating that ~30% of global greenhouse gas emissions arise from the food and ag system, and then suggesting that it is imperative we reduce our emissions intensity as a sector. I was told I was being “too critical” of the industry. I was also asked to re-frame the message in a “more positive” light, so as to not upset or “blame” farmers and agribusinesses. I was taken aback, and honestly, disappointed, by this response. I was stating facts and highlighting what is emerging as a universal regulatory, financial, and commercial imperative.

To future-proof the industry, we must be able to acknowledge facts without controversy. Sweeping them under the rug in fear of who they might upset will do more harm than good in the long-run. In fact, it is only through collecting the evidence and acknowledging that there is work yet to be done that we can maximize our potential.

Ignoring change is not a viable option

As the old saying goes, the only constant in life is change. And in the face of change, the only viable option to remaining competitive is to be responsive. The familiar story of Blockbuster and Netflix is often used to illustrate this point. While Blockbuster’s reluctance to respond to disruption ultimately contributed to its demise, Netflix’s agility in changing its offering and business model as the market evolved contributed to its on-going success.

The rapid pace of innovation in agrifood tech is also bringing about its fair share of change, with mixed responses from industry. One area of innovation that is often dismissed is cultured meat. In writing about both technological innovations and sustainability trends impacting the future of ag, I’ve been cautioned against pointing to cultured meat as a pathway to differentiated protein production. The hesitancy often stems from a fear of offending stakeholders within the conventional food and ag industry, or wading into topics that are “too political.” Acknowledging that cultured meat offers a new and different way of producing protein is not necessarily passing a value judgement that it is categorically “better” than animal agriculture. But, ignoring the changes taking place amounts to little more than digging our heads in the sand. And, more importantly, it risks leaving value on the table. If we don’t engage with change, even when it may feel difficult, we limit our ability to respond to it. By facing it head on, though, we can better understand and adapt to trends, explore new opportunities for differentiation, and unlock new partnerships that are vital to staying competitive.

The case for tough love

Whether in personal or professional relationships, the best partnerships are built on a foundation of trust and honest, open communication. The ability to constructively critique and hold one another accountable is essential to ensuring that all parties maximize their potential. Just like any good partner, I believe in the need for candor, and often tough love, with one another. It is precisely because we are on the same team that I think it’s crucial to face the facts, acknowledge our shortcomings, and do the work to figure out how to stay competitive. It might be hard and it might be scary, but there’s no other way to succeed apart from facing the truth.

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